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County approves first new

Wednesday, August 1, 2001 by

Subdivision fee waivers

Waivers for affordable project equal $16,000

Briarcreek, a joint effort of landowner Dick Rathgeber and Terry Mitchell of Milburn Homes, will be the first subdivision to benefit from Travis County’ s new policy to waive some fees on affordable housing.

Commissioner Ron Davis led the push to waive the county’s subdivision fees on housing for low- and moderate-income families. For Briarcreek, that amounts to approximately $16,000. Commissioners agreed it was a policy they wanted to extend to other subdivisions as well. County staff has spent the last three weeks crafting a procedure to make that happen, albeit with some room for discussion among commissioners.

The bulk of the talk yesterday was on just how the developer would be credited for the subdivision fees. The original intention was to have the developer pay the fees and later be reimbursed after the owner of the house was verified to be of low- or moderate-income. Rathgeber, however, suggested a bond be added as an acceptable form of collateral to avoid additional outlay of funds.

“You’ll have the same level of protection,” said Rathgeber, describing the option to commissioners. “What it does is cut down on the money I’ve got to put up front.”

The biggest hazard on any new development, Rathgeber told commissioners, is the outlay of cash. Rathgeber suggested developers put up a bond—like many contractors do on road projects—and that bond be held until the houses are sold to verified low- and moderate-income families. If the developer failed to meet the promised number of affordable housing units, the county could draw down in the bond. Verification would happen as the houses were sold. If the quality and the buyer of the housing were verified, the county’s Housing Finance Corp would reimburse the subdivision fees.

Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols revised the policy between the morning and afternoon sessions, and commissioners approved Rathgeber’s suggestion as part of the new policy. Under an arrangement that Nuckol’s described as a “three-way contract” the developer would submit plans for affordable housing. The county’s Transportation and Natural Resources (TNR) Department would verify that the housing was acceptable and that the buyer of the house qualified as low- or moderate-income. Twice a year, the county Housing Finance Corp. would issue checks to reimburse verified affordable housing.

As Commissioner Karen Sonleitner described it, “Let the big dog carry the risk and let the little dog pay for it.” Sonleitner’s concern was that the Housing Finance Corp. did not have the staff to verify the housing or follow the bonds. Any counsel used by the HFC board—comprised of members of Travis County Commissioners Court—would have to be outside counsel.

Joe Gieselman, chief of TNR, did have other procedural questions for commissioners. The department head wanted to closely inspect the quality of the affordable housing. Others suggested a builder’s affidavit. As a compromise, Gieselman suggested a random audit of construction, which would force builders to maintain sufficient standards on the construction of those homes.

Commissioners expressed some concerns about that policy. Sonleitner said the move to inspect affordable housing, but not other pricier subdivisions, would be “arbitrary and capricious.” Gieselman told County Judge Sam Biscoe that it would cost $300 to $500 per home for the random inspections. That would be roughly equivalent to the subdivision fees on the home.

Commissioners agreed on two forms of verification to ensure the homes would meet high standards: the affidavit of the builder that the home construction met international residential code and a copy of the documentation required to secure VHA or FHA loans. Commissioners considered those standards to be as thorough as any inspection the county could complete.

Rathgeber said the homes in the proposed Briarcreek subdivision would be $70,000 to $95,000. Milburn Homes cuts front-end costs, Rathgeber said, by paying for lots as they are sold rather than by providing front-end land costs. As soon as a road can be built out to the subdivision lots, the developers will be taking lot reservations. Rathgeber told Davis that he did not expect marketing on the subdivision to be a problem, describing the pre-reservation of lots as “taking tickets at Baskin Robbins.”

Planning Commission asks Parks

Board for help on LIC building height

Goodman asks commission to postpone decision

On a vote of 6-3, the Planning Commission last night decided to send the question of approving a 180-foot height for one of the Lumbermen’s (LIC) buildings on Town Lake to the Parks and Recreation Board for a recommendation. One major factor weighing in favor of the vote was the appearance of Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who read a letter from longtime activist Shudde Fath requesting the postponement so the parks board could comment on the issue.

The project already has basic approvals from the city, since it—and the adjoining Sand Beach Reserve parkland—were the subject of 17 years of litigation and controversy. The litigation was finally settled in January when the City Council reached a settlement agreement with LIC. Mary Arnold and Roberta Crenshaw, two park lovers who have been battling over the Sand Beach Reserve since the mid-1980s, sat in the audience. Arnold spoke, but Crenshaw, who is now confined to a wheelchair, did not.

Jay Hailey, attorney for Lumbermen’s, explained that LIC already has the DMU (downtown mixed-use) zoning it needs for three buildings just east of the Lamar Bridge on East Cesar Chavez. The CURE overlay sought by LIC, Hailey said, “will permit the buildings to be stair-stepped down toward the lake. It will make it more suitable for the parkland it’s adjacent to. At the Design Commission, we had three public hearings and at the end of that process we were able to get their permission,” for the 180-foot height and the design by architect Madison Smith of Overland Partners.

Smith said, “When we began our work we were given quite a bit of latitude for our recommendation . . . we looked into the objectives for downtown Austin and came back with a recommendation for a mixed-use project that contains office, retail and residential components.”

The plan includes a parking garage in the center of the property, with two other buildings “saddle-bagged over it so the garage is unnoticeable,” Smith said. With DMU zoning, LIC can already build to 120 feet. Smith told the commission, “The 120 ft height limit if spread evenly over the site, put simply, would be ugly.”

When Goodman got up to speak, she did not initially introduce herself, compelling Chair Betty Baker to ask her to do so. “I’m Jackie Goodman,” she said. Goodman then read Fath’s letter, which said, “The project adjoins dedicated parkland and the Town Lake Corridor that is supposed to be ‘a place of quiet beauty, dignity and pleasure’ within the central city. For that reason, the parks board should be consulted on visual impact to parkland users of a 180-foot office tower on the Sand Beach property.” Fath, who serves on the Electric Utility Commission, wrote, “By looking at Austin Energy’ s tallest 100-foot transmission tower on this property, one can comprehend how intrusive an office tower about twice that high would be when located so close to city parkland. In my opinion, this land beside Lamar Bridge and near Town Lake is no place for an office tower that is taller than the smokestacks on the adjoining historic Seaholm power plant.”

Goodman said, “The reason I’m here is I served on the Town Lake Task Force and the Town Lake Advisory Board. I never have thought that residential apartment use was the best use of this area.” Goodman noted that her predecessor, Louise Epstein, “decided that commission didn’t have enough to do,” and the parks board could take over those duties. Since the parks board has not weighed in on the height issue, Goodman said, the Planning Commission should wait for that recommendation.

Chris Riley of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and Charles Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance urged the commission to vote in favor of the project. Both of those organizations support the idea of more residential zoning downtown.

Commissioner Sterling Lands asked Goodman, “By your being here, are you representing any discussions the City Council is having at this time?”

“No,” Goodman replied, “I’m representing myself.”

Lands said the commission could not fail to notice that she was a Council Member. Goodman answered, “That’s why I didn’t introduce myself as a Council Member.” Chair Betty Baker drew a laugh when she said, “I didn’t recognize you.” Goodman appointed Baker to the commission.

Commissioners Jim Robertson, Lydia Ortiz and Silver Garza voted against the motion, which would bring the item back to the commission on either August 21 or August 28. Garza asked a number of questions about how long the project would be postponed from the City Council agenda. The Council is scheduled to hear the case on August 23, but it would probably be put off until October if it misses that date. The Council approved the settlement agreement with LIC in January. Under that agreement, if the project were not approved, the city would lose $1.25 million that LIC has agreed to contribute for parking and landscaping of the area.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Former mayoral aide named partner . . . Don Martin Public Affairs yesterday announced that Trey Salinas, former chief of staff to Mayor Bruce Todd, has become a partner with the company. Salinas joined the firm as a vice president in 1997. The company will now be known as Martin & Salinas Public Affairs. Salinas sits on a number of boards and is Chair-elect of the Austin Area Urban League. The company provides advice to a variety of companies doing business in Austin, with an emphasis on government relations, media and communications strategies . . . Another star by Austin’s name . . . The U.S. Department of Energy has designated Austin, a recognized leader in renewable energy programs and energy-efficiency, as a Community of the Future. As such, DOE and the State of Texas will help fund the hiring of an “Energy Champion,” to assist in looking at the city’s commitment to clean energy alternatives . . . Planning and Zoning commission appointees. . . Darwin McKee, chair of the Water & Wastewater Commission, applied for the Planning Commission last September, when he was a county employee. Now he is working for Brown McCarroll and the Planning Commission is being split into two boards—Zoning and Platting and Planning. McKee said Tuesday that he is “99 percent sure” that he will withdraw his name from consideration for those boards. Dusty McCormick, a former member of the Planning Commission who attended last night’s meeting, said he is unsure whether he wants to sign up for an additional term, but he has not filed an application. City Council assistants have been meeting to discuss potential commissioners. The Planning Commission’s last scheduled meeting is August 28. After that, duties of the two commissions are supposed to be split. No word yet on what day of the week each will meet . . . Late night with the Planning Commission . . . The Planning Commission decided last night to delay consideration of the Rosewood Neighborhood Plan until August 21. As the commission meeting neared the midnight hour, Chair Betty Baker asked for any volunteers to postpone their cases. Since the parties for most of the remaining cases had been waiting more than five hours, many wanted to be heard Tuesday night. However, a few volunteers stepped forward after Baker re-phrased her question. “Would you like to postpone,” she asked. “Or would you like to us to tell you at about 12:30 that we’re postponing it?” Forty-five minutes later, a few more cases were postponed. The commission adjourned a few minutes after 1 a.m. today. More on the commission tomorrow.

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