Friday, April 20, 2001 by

Northeast neighbors win Planning

Commission approval for overlay

Former Council Member Gus Garcia and neighbors ask for help

On Tuesday, residents from a northeast Austin neighborhood returned to the Planning Commission to ask for the panel’s help in preventing any more alcoholic beverages from being sold in their area. Last October they asked for a rollback of the zoning at 7316 Cameron Road from LR(local retail) to GO (general office), hoping to change the zoning in time to prohibit alcohol sales from the site. At that time, city staffers said they were unaware of an approved site plan for the property. Later, they found that a site plan for a service station with food sales had been approved. Alcoholic beverages may be sold as part of food sales.

On April 10, the Planning Commission held a hearing on the matter, during which neighbors asked for a recommendation that the City Council act on the rollback. However, Annick Beaudet of the Zoning and Planning Department, said she could not recommend GO zoning because LR was more appropriate for the site. The commission recessed the hearing and asked staff to do more research on how to prevent alcohol sales without changing the zoning classification.

This week, former Council Member Gus Garcia joined others in requesting that the commission find a solution to the rather complex problem. Garcia, who said he lives close to the proposed service station, told the commission, “The neighborhood agrees that if you don’t want to do anything about the zoning, that’s fine. Our problem is that we have way too many establishments in our neighborhood that sell alcoholic beverages and we have a lot of problems with crime. And it is directly attributed to alcohol use. So, what we’re proposing is that some mechanism be developed to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages at that facility. There’s too many already. When I was on the Council, we prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages at the corner of Coronado Hills and 290—at the Exxon station. But we have so many others . . .”

Garcia noted that there is a high school nearby and that there will soon be an elementary school too. Perhaps even more important, he said, is the fact that a halfway house for substance abusers is currently located next door to the subject property. There is also a special education facility only a block away, he said. In addition, many apartments and an Austin Housing Authority project make this “a fragile neighborhood,” Garcia said. In response to a question from Commissioner Robin Cravey, the former Council Member said the supply (of alcohol) is “more than adequate,” evoking laughter.

Terrell Hunter, vice president of the Coronado Hills Neighborhood Association, asked them to “vote for whatever mechanism” would prevent further sales of alcoholic beverages in the neighborhood.

Chair Betty Baker asked Beaudet whether she had contacted the property owner since the previous hearing. Beaudet said she had sent a letter, but received no response. She said she had also searched unsuccessfully for a phone number for the owner in Schulenburg. (Beaudet also said the site plan does not expire until 2003, but that the building permit expired last November.”

Baker said, “ Commissioner Robertson pointed out the appropriateness of the LR zoning. The GO zoning is probably not appropriate at this location.” So Baker suggested that if the commission wished to prohibit the sale of alcohol on the site, the correct motion would be to leave the zoning LR, but add a conditional overlay prohibiting food sales.

Commissioner Ben Heimsath readily made that motion, which was seconded by Commissioner Lydia Ortiz. The vote for approval was 8-1, with Robertson opposed.

Since the site plan has been approved, all the absentee owner would have to do to negate the planned zoning change is get a new building permit from the city, a routine matter. If the City Council approves the conditional overlay on all three readings before the permit is issued, the zoning will include a prohibition on food sales, including alcoholic beverages.

City Council clarifies

Billboard regulations

Tree-trimming contract approved

In a rather low-key session, the City Council approved changes to the billboard ordinance and gave the nod to a one-year agreement with two companies to provide tree trimming for utility line clearance.

Voting 6-0, with Council Member Danny Thomas abstaining, the Council approved an ordinance which will amend the city’s existing sign ordinance in an effort to alleviate confusion over its implementation.

The ordinance amends the city’s existing sign code, approved in February 1999. The existing ordinance stipulates replacement signs must be 25 percent smaller than the original sign. The confusion came up because it was not clear if the smaller sign size was required only for damaged signs needing replacement or for signs being replaced for other reasons as well. The amended ordinance clarifies this distinction.

The new ordinance also requires a sign damaged by accident, natural catastrophe or vandalism to be removed if the cost of repairing it exceeds 60 percent of the cost of a new sign of the same type and in the same location. The sign owner or landowner will have to apply for a repair permit within 30 days of the date of the damage, and will have 90 days to complete the repairs. The sign owner or landowner will not be allowed to replace or relocate the non-conforming sign before a permit is obtained.

On March 27, the Planning Commission voted to work on an amendment that would prohibit replacement of any signs that come down.

Girard Kinney, representing Scenic Austin, a group seeking to remove billboards altogether, told the Council that some signs are being replaced without complying with the city ordinance. He urged the city to be a better “watchdog” in monitoring sign replacement. Council Member Beverly Griffith requested Kinney to work with the Planning Commission toward that end.

The Council approved a 12-month agreement with two tree trimming companies “for utility line clearance, tree pruning and right of way maintenance in a combined amount not to exceed $9 million.” Griffith said arborists have told her that the tree canopy in Austin is “very heavy.” Big, heavy tree limbs are susceptible to breakage and splitting during storms, she said, which justifies the need for pruning and regular maintenance. “Our canopy, our urban forest, is our ticket, it’s our selling point,” she said. This is the time of year when her office receives lots of citizen complaints about tree trimming, she added.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman asked Chuck Manning, general manager of Austin Energy, how the city was progressing with putting new utility lines underground. He said 50 percent of new lines go underground, but to put existing lines underground would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Thus, he said, the current strategy is to spend a few million dollars a year installing underground lines along with new construction and roadwork.

Billboard opponent hopes

Legislature will help cause

Girard Kinney says billboard lobby is strong

The City Council billboard decision comes while the first bills aimed at limiting billboards along Texas roadways are pending at the State Legislature. Architect Girard Kinney, president of Scenic Austin, says the effort to remove Austin’s billboards failed “because they realized any action they take is going to land them in court.” To make such a commitment, Kinney says, takes a certain political resolve that comes from the support of the citizenry.

Kinney says the key issue is confusion over what can be allowed for on-premises versus off-premises signs. But a new proposal won’t work without a strong legal foundation, he said. Other cities and states, he said, have passed billboard regulations that have worked.

To make a strong law that will stand, the Council needs to (seek) outside counsel,” Kinney said. We need to learn from those places where it works.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman made a motion to require notice be given for new signs, but Mayor Kirk Watson argued against the measure. Such a move, he said, would land the city in court.

Meanwhile, two companion bills, House Bill 2512 and Senate Bill 1128, are moving through the Legislature. The bills are intended to limit billboards along Texas roadways, but the bills’ strongest measure—the limitation of billboards on new highways and certain existing scenic roadways like the Bluebonnet Trail—was recently weakened.

Winifred Kelsey, executive director of Scenic Texas, said the bills have pro-active measures, such as the blessing of public/private partnerships to beautify roadways. A measure to require that 1 percent of road construction costs be set aside for highway beautification was replaced with a commitment of $10 million annually from existing funding to increase planting native flora along Texas highways.

Beyond those measures, the bills have now been whittled down to prohibiting billboards on new roadways.

“We’re not saying we need to take billboards down. We’re just saying we’ve had enough,” said Kelsey. “Already, 121 cities across the state have said they want to stop the construction of new billboards along their roadways. They’ve realized it can be done, that small businesses won’t be shuttered because of it.”

This is the first organized lobbying effort to limit billboards. Texas has never allocated money for quality-of-life issues along Texas roadways in the form of landscaping and billboard limitations. The billboard lobby, Kinney said, is the best organized and best supported lobby in the state for an industry its size. It has been their fine-tuned efforts each session, he says, that has turned Lady Bird Johnson’ s 1966 Highway Beautification Act into the “Billboard Preservation Act.”

SB 1128 is currently pending in the Senate Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. HB 2512 has been referred to the House Transportation Committee.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Oops, sorry, our mistake . . . City Attorney Andy Martin said the city had already paid $40,000 to Cox & Smith, the outside counsel retained by the city to assist in reaching a final agreement with the developers of Steiner Ranch. Martin said he brought the item to the City Council for approval of $40,000 more, based on an estimate given to him by one of the firm’s attorneys. Any contract amount over $42,000 must have Council approval, he said . . . Housing contract approved . . . Acting in its role as the board of the Austin Housing Finance Corp., the City Council Thursday approved a Community Housing Development Organization (CHDO) Program loan for $100,000 to the Blackland Community Development Corporation to assist in the rehabilitation of rental housing in East Austin . . . More money for lawyers . . . Earlier this week, the LCRA Board of Directors approved for the third quarter of FY 2001 a total of $226,029 in fees and expenses for outside counsel. The total for the fiscal year so far is $849,858. The following firms have each already earned more than $50,000 so far this year, according to LCRA records: Jackson Walker ($180,132.), Bickerstaff Heath Smiley et.al. ($152,491.), Ronald J. Freeman ($149,619.), McElroy Sullivan Ryan & Miller ($100,163.), Armbrust Brown & Davis($60,274.), Matthews & Freeland ($58,862.), Winstead Sechrest & Minick ($52,932), Brown McCarroll ($50,351.) and McDermott Will & Emery ($24,419.). Several other firms earned sums below $10,000. . . Mueller neighbors meeting . . . The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition will meet next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Asbury United Methodist Church, 1600 block of E. 38 1/2 St. The group will hear about proposed state legislation as well as an update on the search for a master developer for the former airport.

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