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City lobbyists hail legislative

Thursday, May 31, 2001 by

Session as one of the best

City Council praised for addressing issues early

City lobbyists are hailing this legislative session as one of the most successful in the last decade, primarily for what didn’t happen rather than what did.

Angelo Zottarelli of Adams and Zottarelli has lobbied on behalf of Austin for the better part of two decades and says this session was most notable for its lack of Austin-bashing from other delegations. Too often, developers and builders have rushed to the Capitol, rather than City Hall, to resolve their differences. He gives credit to the Austin City Council for addressing issues before they hit the statehouse radar.

“They weren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and go into the proverbial lion’s den. City Hall took care of its business so that we could take care of our business at the Capitol,” Zottarelli said. “If it had been different, then we would have been under siege from day one. Instead, they went ahead and dealt with their citizens and their citizens-to-be.”

Thus, there were no big de-annexation blowups for Austin this session, à la Kingwood’ s battle against Houston two years ago, Zottarelli said. Plans to strip Capitol Metro of its powers barely had a pulse. And bills that would have stripped Austin of its powers in the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) were defanged before they made it out of committee.

City officials are giving the session a superlative .950 batting average in terms of bills scored and bills stopped. John Hrncir, the city’s chief lobbyist, ticked off some important bills the city liked:

• HB 2807, which gave the city the ability to extend Medicaid to more indigent residents and gain more federal funding. • SB 638 from Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin), which requires the DNA testing of all indicted sex offenders. • HB 2544 from Rep. Elliot Naishtat (D-Austin), which allows school districts to transfer surplus land to the city for affordable housing. • SB 510, which allows cities to use design-build construction contracts.

But Hrncir and the city’s lobbyists are just as pleased by the bills that were defeated: • SB 1398, which would have prohibited cities from downzoning property without compensation to landowners. • HB 1445, the compromises on which eventually dropped binding arbitration from the negotiation between cities and counties over subdivision plats in the ETJ. • SB 819, which would have allowed concealed weapons on city and county property. • HB 377, which would have required cities to pay for both land and mineral rights when private property is claimed.

“What I think was accomplished this session was that we were able to thwart those bills that would have adversely affected Austin in its ETJ and in its power of annexation,” said Graham Keever, a spokesman for Barrientos. “You might say it was a lot of defense.” Keever described the bill on downzoning as one of the most potentially destructive to the city. The bill, if passed, would have made the redevelopment of 11th and 12th streets in East Austin virtually impossible. Barrientos was also pleased to see Rep. Ron Wilson’s bill to provide a second general aviation airport in Central Texas redirected to exclude the former Mueller Airport property. “It would have been a big blow if it had gone through, even though we never thought the bill was realistic,” Keever said.

Austin’s success is much the same success as that of most cities across the state. Monte Akers, director of legal services at the Texas Municipal League, described this session as busy but far less contentious than the session of 1999, when cities had to negotiate such broad topics as annexation, electric deregulation and telecommunication infrastructure.

“The broad picture is that when the smoke cleared away, there were no bills passed that did serious damage to city authority,” Akers said. “This session had a lot of non-city supportive proposals that were either aimed at reducing city authority or elevating the rights of property owners above city land development authority, but most of them failed.”

Zottarelli said he had particular concerns that tensions could flare up between Austin and its fast-growing neighbor Hays County, but problems never materialized on either side. Zottarelli credits the Legislature’s recognition of Austin’s strategy to negotiate truces and compromises away from the statehouse instead of rushing to the Capitol with issues.

“In my opinion, that’s one of the most important things we accomplished,” Zottarelli said. “We’ve been given back the ability to work amongst ourselves on how we’re going to handle the growth and planning of this region.”

Hays County Judge Jim Powers agrees that new efforts are being made to negotiate regional policy on many issues that impact both city and county.

“I think there was definitely an effort by the City of Austin to work with Hays County, and I think that Hays County made a strong effort, too. This wasn’t one-sided,” Powers said. “We’re going to the city and saying, ‘We’ve got issues here to deal with,’ and I think there was a real mutual give-and-take on both sides. We may have philosophical differences, but that’s okay. We can still sit down and drink coffee together and then walk away having decided to agree to disagree.”

Still, there were disappointments this session. The Texas Municipal League considers the death of Senate Bill 1783 in conference committee to be a big blow. The bill was intended to outline how broadband services would be rolled out in rural towns and counties. Barrientos’ office was disappointed by a last-minute maneuver by Rep. Sefronia Thompson (D-Houston) that killed the creation of another civil court in Travis County. And Hrncir mourns the loss of the city’s ability to set up cameras at traffic lights and the bills that failed that would have given counties more authorities over subdivision development.

Zottarelli says the pendulum, however, is swinging back from private property rights to maintaining city jurisdiction. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, developer challenges at the Capitol and in court chipped away at Austin’s authority. Developers took aim at the city for setting high building code and water quality standards.

The courts, however, overturned those challenges, and legal opinions are now forcing lawmakers to draw up regulations that apply statewide, rather than singling out Austin. Those challenges have left Austin in a better position to maintain its authority than it has enjoyed in quite a few sessions, Zottarelli said.

Buda city council mulls

Over Austin ETJ proposal

Bradley warns against trusting Austin

Members of the Buda City Council held a work session last night to discuss a meeting they had with Austin Mayor Kirk Watson last week regarding the transfer of land from Austin’s extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ) to Buda.

According to Buda Mayor Billy Gray, one idea put forth in that meeting by Austin representatives involved a deal to transfer 5465 acres of the ETJ to Buda, provided certain conditions regarding annexation were met (see In Fact Daily, April 19, 2001). Some Buda residents have pushed for even more land to be released by Austin, for a total of 8,000 acres. “I was in favor of going after all the ETJ, all the way to the county line,” Gray said, but he indicated he is now open to considering the 5465-acre proposal.

Gray raised the possibility of reaching an agreement with Austin on the 5465 acres, then going to binding arbitration for a decision over the remaining land in Hays County. But Buda City Council members who attended last week’s meeting strongly recommended against that procedure, saying it would destroy the rapport between the two sides. “If we offer binding arbitration at this point, it would completely obliterate the position we’re at now, and we could stand to forfeit the total amount,” said Council Member Bobby Lane. Council Member Byron Warren agreed, saying “I do think we have a good working relationship with Mayor Watson . . . I don’t think arbitration will work at this time, I think that negotiation would fail and we will get nothing.”

Several landowners attending the council workshop meeting urged a speedy resolution to the conflict, including developer Gary Bradley. “I want to stay out of the political fight, I’ve had all those I want,” Bradley said. “But I can’t serve two masters. I either have to develop my project under Austin rules, or I can do it with Buda—but I can’t do both.”

Bradley also urged caution in any agreement with the city of Austin, and urged the Council to consider offering binding arbitration on the remaining acres once it reaches a deal on the first tract. “I damn sure don’t trust Austin,” Bradley said. “I’m telling you, if you’re going to make a deal with those folks, you do it up front and get it in writing.”

That comment drew some disapproval from Lane, who stressed the progress made in the negotiations up to this point. “If we proposed that to Austin right now,” Lane said, “they’d just call the whole deal off and say ‘go fly a kite’, and we wouldn’t have anything.”

No vote was taken on the proposal to move forward with an agreement on the 5465 acres, nor was any direction given on whether Buda should even bring up the possibility of binding arbitration once a deal is reached. One Buda Council member indicated he had heard that the item might appear on the Austin City Council agenda in June.

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

SOSA loses lawyer to federal government . . . Grant Godfrey, staff attorney for the Save Our Springs Alliance, is leaving Austin on Monday, bound for the Ivory Coast. Godfrey has joined the Peace Corps and could well end up working in the Mayor’s office of an unnamed city in that equatorial country. Godfrey served as lead counsel on a recent case against the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect Barton Springs and the Barton Springs salamander from pollution caused by construction. The federal agencies agreed to consult on what is called the construction general permit. The formal consultation process should begin next week, when the EPA is expected to give USFWS the information necessary to produce a draft biological opinion on the effects of not having tighter controls over construction within the Barton Springs watershed. Bill Bunch, executive director of SOSA, said Godfrey also kept tabs on grandfathering issues and worked with a sister organization to help protect the San Marcos River . . . Name that bridge . . . Anyone wishing to submit a name for the new Lamar bicycle & pedestrian bridge should submit it by Friday via e-mail to peter.rieck@ci.austin.tx.us . . . Still working . . . The stalwart souls on the city’s Gentrification Committee are continuing to meet to try to update last year’s staff report on the subject. The committee has been happy to have a study of gentrification hot off the press from the Brookings Institute, says Stuart Hersh of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development. Hersh says the committee found the new study to be “a very powerful analytical tool,” which the committee decided to use as a framework for its discussions. The committee hopes to have a draft report ready a week before the City Council’s June 14 deadline.

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