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Market-driven conservation

Monday, May 21, 2001 by

Attracts national attention

Conservancy's goal is to set aside 50,000 acres

What do the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Save our Springs Alliance have in common? Not too long ago, it was lawsuits, but now they are working together and sharing the resulting benefits, according to George Cofer, executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy.

Speaking at RECA’s monthly meeting Thursday, Cofer led the luncheon crowd at the Omni Hotel through a PowerPoint presentation on market-driven land conservation in the Hill Country. Noting the success of the young organization, Cofer said the program is garnering national attention. “It is really unique across the nation,” he said.

He said that members of various groups across the country keep telling him the same thing: “It’s amazing what you’ve been able to do to bring these groups together.”

As a testament to the success of the organization, founded in January 2000, several RECA members are on the Conservancy Board of Directors. One of them, Jerry Winetroub, introduced Cofer by quoting Bob Dylan, both to emphasize the Conservancy’s role as an innovator in progressive land-management techniques/programs, and to commemorate the singer’s sixtieth birthday this week. “The times they are a changin’,” he said.

Winetroub told the real estate group that Cofer had been involved in slowing development, so RECA decided to join forces with him to see what mutual benefits could be gained. Cofer said several years ago he would not have believed he might be addressing RECA, but with a chuckle, he agreed, “the times they are a changin’.”

Cofer said the Conservancy’s goal is to put at least 50,000 acres of the Edwards Aquifer recharge area into conservation easements. “It’s a very aggressive goal but I think we can do it.” There are 250,000 acres in the aquifer recharge zone and contributing area, he said, and most of the focus is on Barton Springs. The Conservancy intends to expand the focus and get the word out on how important it is to protect the area at large, he said.

Benefits of conservation easements are numerous and varied, Cofer said. The Conservancy works with willing landowners to provide experienced stewardship and management of land, to conserve scenic views and wildlife habitat, to protect water quality and quantity, and provide public access when appropriate. The organization helps landowners with estate planning and other financial matters, such as leveraging private money with public funding to achieve conservation goals.

As a nonprofit landtrust, the agency works between landowners and the multitude of local, state and federal organizations involved to mitigate problems and craft a mutually beneficial agreement. For instance, buyers are sometimes able to purchase land at prices below market value if they agree to certain conservation stipulations, Cofer said. Moreover, it’s possible to save up to 30 percent on federal taxes because the IRS recognizes conservation easements as a charitable contribution, he noted.

One incentive for developers would be an increase in land value due to large, open natural areas near developments, Cofer said. When asked about public access to land under conservation easements, he said, “it’s really up to the landowner.” It depends on the situation, he explained, some tracts allow public access on a limited basis, perhaps by reservation or appointment. “Our policy is to have 50 percent of the land we get to be available to the public,” he added.

City Council Members Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher, who attended the luncheon, said they were pleased with the organization’s progressive, creative means of preserving the environment. Griffith said it was important for people to hear about the options available through the Conservancy’s program. “Conservation easements are the coming thing. When families realize that they can preserve and protect their land from now on, and keep it . . . they want to know more,” she said. Interested parties will certainly want to learn how to take advantage of tax planning opportunities, she added.

Slusher said a critical element still lacking was how to increase the amount of state and federal funding coming into the program. Cofer said funding comes from a variety of sources, including grants, donations, landowners, federal, state and local governments, among them the City of Austin and Texas Parks and Wildlife. He said creative funding played an important role in procuring conservation easements, giving examples of small business owners in Colorado donating a percentage of profits to land trusts. One state even contributes a percentage of Lotto earnings to conservation easements, he said. “I’m a shameless fundraiser. Yes, we take donations.”

Noting how times really have changed, Winetroub said that in the old days if people wanted to put their land into some kind of public trust or have it classified as a conservation easement, there was no compensation. Nowadays, people are compensated, he said. One of his key interests is public access; he said he was committed to establishing more public access for lands that are set aside as conservation easements.

The organization’s website states: “We are devoted to the long-term conservation of the flora, fauna, water quality and rural heritage of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer lands and watersheds and other significant open spaces in the Blanco, Hays and Travis Counties. Our single most important strategy is to conserve in perpetuity as many acres as possible of dedicated open space, as soon as possible.” http://www.hillcountryconservancy.org

Cofer thanked members of RECA and the other non-environmental groups involved for their partnership. “We used to sit around suing each other, now we sit around holding hands and singing Kum-bah-ya,” he joked. Winetroub agreed, saying they were“sworn enemies in the past,” but now they are working together to do something good and constructive for the City of Austin.

Council Okays Champion sisters'

Zoning change on 1st reading only

Goodman tries to craft compromise

The Champion sisters are not finished trying to rezone their land on FM 2222 at Loop 360, despite victories over angry neighbors allowing a developer to put both multi-family housing and two office buildings there.

Zoning the Champion tract has been a four-year tug of war between the Champion family and the adjoining neighborhood associations. The family won the latest tussle last week—a fight to rezone a 10-acre strip along the eastern property boundary that abuts the Jester neighborhood. The zoning decision took two of three proposed tracts and rezoned them from Development Reserve (DR) to Single Family-2. The decision still faces a second and third vote before the City Council.

Neighbors who addressed the Council last Thursday argued that the zoning request was a bait-and-switch tactic by the family to invalidate the previous petition opposing new zoning. Two years ago, the neighborhood presented a valid petition to fight multi-family zoning. The Champion family then dropped the request to zone the 200-foot strip on the eastern boundary of the property, leaving it DR.

Neighbors say that the reserve was promised as a permanent buffer. Jenifer Floyd, who lives on Winterberry Drive abutting the tract, told the Council the Champion family promised as early as 1997 that single-family development would not occur on the eastern boundary because it wasn’t economically feasible. Similar promises followed in 1998 and 1999.

In his presentation to the Council, Champion family attorney Michael Whellan of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody doubted these assertions. “I have not personally had a more contentious zoning matter than this one, so I find it hard to believe that there was ever any kind of agreement on this case,” Whellan told Council members.

A subdivision plan presented on the property has already placed at least three houses on the top of the hilly property, houses that Whellan alluded to as being the homes of the Champion sisters. But even when he was asked directly by Council members, Whellan would not be pinned down on the number of houses to be built on the tracts, saying it would be “no more than 10.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Beverly Griffith both said they wanted to protect the neighborhood’s interest, but the two Council members ended up on opposite sides of the issue. For her part, Goodman proposed a compromise that took two of the three tracts and zoned them SF-2 with RR site development regulations and 50-foot lot width. Council Member Daryl Slusher proposed a friendly amendment to add a 25-foot setback behind the house. That, combined with the 40-foot front yard setback, Whellan pointed out, would turn 65 of the 200 feet into buffer.

Whellan asked that a cap of 6,500 trips per day through a third tract be lifted to address future development possibilities, including an assisted living facility, but the Council declined.

The final vote was 5-1-1, with Griffith opposing and Council Member Danny Thomas deciding to abstain. Griffith argued that the vote allowed developers to sidestep a valid petition. A petition was filed initially to oppose zoning changes and the Champions created the 200-foot buffer to invalidate it. Now the landowners were back to rezone that same piece of property, Griffith pointed out. Every property owner along the property buffer had voted to oppose the zoning change.

Goodman, who thought that everyone had agreed with her compromise, argued, “There’s no law that says an applicant cannot return again and again with DR.” A DR designation puts a piece of property in limbo, allowing the developer to return later seeking a zoning change. Her proposal, Goodman said, was the “closest thing to a win-win situation” that addressed both the rights of the property owner and the concerns of the neighborhood.

Mayor Kirk Watson pointed out the petition did not stop the Council from supporting a zoning change. It simply meant that the City Council must have a 6-vote majority to approve the zoning change on final reading.

Planning Commission puts

Off Manor Road decision

Neighborhood opposes zoning for auto parts store

Neighborhood opposition helped convince members of the Planning Commission to delay a decision on a requested zoning change from SF-3 (single-family) to GR (community commercial) for property at 6705 Manor Road last week night. In December, the commission recommended the zoning change, as well as elimination of a restrictive covenant on the vacant lot. No one came to protest changing the zoning at that time and the item passed on consent.

When the case arrived at the City Council, it was postponed by the applicant twice, on January 18 and February 1. On February 15, the neighborhood requested a postponement. The landowner requested yet another delay on March 8. In the meantime, the neighborhood filed a valid petition against the zoning change and the applicant pulled the item from the April 26 Council agenda. The case was returned to the commission after the applicant increased the size of the area to be rezoned. As a result of the increased area, the neighborhood’s petition was invalidated.

The property owner, represented by Amelia Lopez-Phelps of Lopez-Phelps, Vaughn & Associates, wanted approval for the commercial zoning in order to build an O’Reilly Auto Parts store. The national chain currently has a store in a shopping center at Manor Road and Ed Bluestein Blvd., which would move to the Manor Road site if the zoning change were approved. Neighbors, including Edgar Whitfield of the University Hills Neighborhood Association, said they were concerned about the traffic the business would bring and pointed out that the adjacent tract was also zoned SF-3.

Jobeth Worden, who lives close to the proposed auto parts store, told the commission that the neighborhood did not attend the December meeting because of a miscommunication. She said the property would be “wonderful for single-family homes or townhomes.” But Lopez-Phelps said no one has offered to develop the property as housing.

Commissioner Ben Heimsath found himself in the position of pointing out the potential upside for commercial zoning for the site. “I would love nothing better to say this would be an ideal scenario for an SF-3 development, and yet this property really doesn’t fit the bill. I’m just concerned that we’re taking a short look at things when in fact, on the face of it, this is not necessarily a bad deal all the way around,” Heimsath said. He encouraged the property owner to work with the neighborhood to determine an acceptable use.

Commissioner Sterling Lands sided with the neighborhood association in moving to deny the zoning change request. That motion failed on a tie vote of 4-4, with Commissioners Lands, Jean Mather, Ray Vrudhula and Chair Betty Baker voting to deny. Potential tiebreaker Robin Cravey was absent.

Heimsath suggested a three-week postponement, which was approved by vote of 7-0.

Before taking any of those votes, however, commissioners first had to determine whether they were hearing a new case or simply re-visiting an old one. Heimsath expressed concern that if the group were to vote against the requested zoning change, which had initially been approved by the Commission in December of 2000 and sent on to the City Council, commissioners would require another vote to rescind their previous action. But legal counsel advised commissioners that would not be necessary.

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

Rylander speech likely closes one door for Watson. . . Comptroller Carol Keeton Rylander announced Sunday that she’s definitely running for re-election in ’02. That probably puts an end to the rumor that Mayor Kirk Watson will run for that seat. Democrat Watson could decide to challenge Rylander, but that looks like an uphill battle the mayor need not fight. As reported in Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum report (www.quorumreport.com), Rylander told the press that she does not want politics in the Lt. Governor’s race to appear to be affecting her revenue projections. And then there’s the fact that she sits on the Legislative Redistricting Board. Kronberg says both Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff and Land Commissioner David Dewhurst are expected to announce for Lt. Governor within days of the Legislature’s adjournment. Even though he protests vigorously every time we write that he’s looking for a bigger race, Watson has not definitively stated that he won’t seek higher office next year. So, if Dewhurst does make the leap and Attorney General John Cornyn runs for re-election as expected, the most logical upward step for Watson remains the Land Office . . . Warrant roundup today . . . Law enforcement agencies, including the Austin Municipal court, will participate in a warrant roundup in Williamson County. They’re holding at news conference at 9 a.m. in the Georgetown Council Chambers to announce the details..

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