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Council grants appeal of Sign Review

Friday, October 5, 2001 by

Board decision, upholding city staff

Reagan loses repair permit on sign it had removed

The City Council Thursday handed Reagan National Advertising a sound defeat in its battle to keep competitors from taking over sign locations around the city. On a vote of 5-0-1, with Council Member Danny Thomas abstaining and Mayor Kirk Watson absent, the Council granted the appeal of the Vanderhoof Family Trust, the landowner, and the Acme Sign Company. That means Acme can now erect a billboard on the Vanderhoof property at Cole Street and I-35, and Reagan may have to reconsider its strategy for keeping landowners from contracting with competing sign companies.

The landowner appealed a decision by the city’s Sign Review Board, which had overturned a decision by Mike Heitz, director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department. Heitz had denied Reagan’s request for a repair permit for a billboard on the Cole Street property. On the day the repair permit application was filed, the department received a request to replace Reagan’s sign with the Acme sign. Randy Merritt, the landowners’ representative, accompanied the Acme representative, Curtis Ford, when Ford filed his application for the replacement permit. (See In Fact Daily, August 14, 2001.)

Although both sides had hired consultants to present their points of view, the most compelling arguments came from Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry and another Reagan competitor, Norman Furley of Capital Outdoors. Furley talked about how difficult it is to compete with Reagan, the oldest and largest billboard company in the city.

Furley said, “Reagan also filed for repair permits for my (sign) locations on Ben White. They had already taken the signs down. I did not appeal, because I knew I would not be able to advertise for two months and would lose my contract.” He pointed out that in his case, as in the Vanderhoof case, Reagan did nothing with the repair permits. They were filed, he said, “for no other reason than to impede the competition. Every time I apply for a permit . . . we end up here, after a 10-month delay. Please do not grant Reagan National Advertising a right to repair a billboard on property they have no right to.”

Sarah Crocker, representing the Vanderhoof family, told the Council, that in spite of the lengthy and convoluted arguments from Reagan’s representative, John Joseph, Jr., the issue simply boiled down to “who can pull the permit for a sign.” The city does not require those seeking permits to prove that they have permission from the owner. Heitz said city staff members are reconsidering that peculiarity of the system.

“For a billboard, if I decide that I want to do business with a new tenant . . . I have to file for a replacement permit. What this does is sets up a footrace situation. If I call in the old tenant,” as happened in this case, “I have to get down to the city and file the (request for a) permit. In this case, after the Reagan representative met with the Vanderhoof representative, the Reagan representative went to the city—hours before the landowners’ representative arrived.

John Joseph of Minter, Joseph & Thornhill represented Reagan. He told the Council that the Vanderhoof family still had a lease with his client and could not agree to lease to Acme. Joseph based his argument on the fact that Vanderhoof representative Randy Merritt had written a letter to Reagan on April 11, a few weeks before Reagan’s lease expired, saying the lease should become month to month. However, the Council had a hard time with that argument since Merritt had also written to Reagan on May 1—the day after the lease expired and two days after Reagan had removed its sign—saying that the lease was terminated.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said the system “feels a little Byzantine.” She concluded, after hearing from attorney Terry that the issues surrounding the lease were not relevant to the appeal.

Terry was asked to explain what happened when Reagan sued the City of Austin over the city’s granting of a replacement sign permit to Acme. She said the federal suit was dismissed and Reagan did not appeal the case, making the decision final. Judge James Nowlin said, “It is the property owners who are choosing not to renew leases . . . Reagan has not alleged, nor can it allege, any property interest in the property.” She said, “The court found that the leases had expired or were about to expire and that was the basis of the court’s order.”

Council Member Will Wynn made the motion to grant the appeal and Council Member Beverly Griffith seconded the motion.

After the vote, Crocker said she was happy that the landowners’ rights and the city’s regulations were upheld. Joseph said, “We’re sad,” adding, “There was not enough time to explain the subject in detail.”

Council approves contract

Saving Mueller control tower

Vote on Hyde Park, Dawson zoning postponed

The City Council spent much of Thursday morning voting to postpone items. But they did pass an ordinance authorizing a contract to demolish the old Robert Mueller Airport terminal while saving the 60s-era control tower. Council Member Will Wynn championed saving the tower for posterity.

Wynn, who has long been involved in preserving historic buildings, said there was “widespread support from the neighborhood” for saving the tower. “The image of this is so iconic,” he said. “Years, decades, from now there will be this obvious reminder that there was an airport there,” he added. “From miles away people will see this reminder.”

He noted it’s only been two-and-half years since the airport closed, but since that time 50,000 people have moved to Austin. “People have already asked why the street is called Airport Boulevard,” he said. “I just think this is a very cost-effective way . . . to keep a reminder.”

The contract approved by unanimous vote, with Mayor Kirk Watson absent, calls for ICE Contractors Inc. of Dallas to remove only the old terminal building at a cost of $481,000. The company’s bid to demolish both the terminal building and the tower was $496,000.

Mayor Pro tem Jackie Goodman said, “I think the tower is worth keeping.” Council Member Daryl Slusher added, “I think it’s appropriate.”

The Council also voted to postpone, on second and third reading, consideration of a couple of zoning changes and review on third reading of the Dawson Neighborhood Plan.

Slusher made a motion to postpone the Dawson plan for a week because of a valid petition against it. “The petition that has been turned in hasn’t been processed,” he said. He noted that a vote of six Council members would be required to pass the plan with the valid petition against it and he thought it would be better to take up the matter with a full Council on the dais.

Before he put the subject to rest, however, Slusher felt obliged to speak out on the dialogue between stakeholders. “I want to say something about the tenor of what’s been going around about this neighborhood plan,” he said, specifically mentioning a flyer that has been circulating. “Just about everything in this flyer is untrue,” he noted, citing examples. The flyer states that increased runoff from implementing the plan will cause homes to be flooded, he said, and streets will be reduced in size and become so narrow as to impede access by emergency vehicles. “The City Council isn’t going to pass a plan to increase flooding and flood people’s homes,” he said. “I hate to see discourse like this,” he added. “I don’t want people to think this is going to cause people’s homes to flood or prevent ambulances from getting through.”

The Council also voted to postpone for one week the second and third readings of an ordinance to adopt zoning changes to implement the Neighborhood Plan for Hyde Park. Members of the Neighborhood Planning Team are still trying to understand changes that were made to the zoning when it was translated from Standard English into legalese. Team members and representatives of the Hyde Park Baptist Church have continued to meet to reach some resolution of their disagreement, but changes have only been incremental, both sides report. The church has a valid petition against the changes.

Additionally, the Council postponed for three weeks consideration of an ordinance to rezone property at 8600 Guadalupe Street. Iglesia Evangelica Latina Inc. has requested changing the zoning from Family Residence (SF-3) to Townhouse and Condominium Residence (SF-6). Alice Glasgow, director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, said the neighborhood does not want the zoning change and residents have filed a valid petition against it. “With a 42 percent valid petition—that’s pretty loud—I think we should wait until we have a full Council,” she said.

Goodman agreed. She also suggested further meetings between stakeholders and city officials. “Everybody needs to have the facts,” she said. “This would be really good for me as a Council member to get some fresh information.”

The Council also voted to postpone consideration of an ordinance amending Section 25-1-46 of the City Code. This ordinance would reduce the jurisdiction of the Zoning and Platting Commission while increasing the duties of Planning Commission over land development applications in areas under consideration for a neighborhood plan. The Planning Commission recommended the change, but staff did not bring the ordinance before the ZAP. ZAP Chair Betty Baker is extremely upset about the possible loss of so many cases to the other commission. She has already stated that she has better things to do with her Tuesday nights. ZAP was supposed to operate for four or five years, disappearing when the whole city had neighborhood plans. The ordinance would indicate that the process had been accelerated, Baker said.

Goodman, who suggested the postponement—and appointed Baker to the commission—believes that the ordinance would correctly divide the duties between the two boards. A hearing and consideration of the ordinance was postponed for one week. Goodman also asked the staff to make a few changes to the ordinance and add a section to set up a joint committee of the two commissions so that both will know what areas are covered by neighborhood plans.

ZAP grants variances

For Lake Travis home

Property owners did not know about annexation

The Zoning and Planning Commission this week granted four variances for construction of a home and swimming pool on a lot in Comanche Pass despite recommendations against three of those variances from the Environmental Board. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 10, 2001.) The landowner had begun work in accordance with Travis County building standards before being notified that the lot was actually within the City of Austin’s limited-purpose jurisdiction and city standards would have to be met. Although the property owner had obtained permission from Travis County and had arranged for electric and water service, construction was red-tagged by the city and work was halted. The owner was then obligated to go through the boards and commissions process, seeking approval for work already done as well as permission to finish the project.

“No one realized this lot was in the limited-purpose jurisdiction,” said Nikelle Meade of Brown McCarroll, representing applicant Robert Theirot. “I think everybody in this neighborhood has been surprised that they’re subject to the city regulations.” Theirot currently owns the lot. He had sold the land to a woman who attempted to build the home, then bought the property back from her when the problems were discovered and construction stopped.

Neighbors who had opposed variances from the zoning requirements when the matter was before the Environmental Board told the ZAP Commission they now approved the variances to allow the home to be finished. Former Travis County Commissioner Bob Honts, lives in the neighborhood and expressed his reluctant support. “The lot has a structure built within three feet of my lot line, and in my opinion, it’s far too big a house and has far too much impervious cover,” Honts said. But he argued that leaving up the half-completed structure now on the lot would be a nuisance and detract from the neighborhood. “There’s one thing worse than finding out the horse has gotten out of the barn, and that’s finding out the horse is dead and is rotting under your window.”

The four variances approved by the commission cover density, minimum lot size for on-site sewage, construction slopes and water quality. City staff had recommended granting a variance to allow the home to be built on a lot less than two acres, and also to allow construction of a septic system on a lot less than one acre. Both the staff and the Environmental board recommended against a variance to allow construction on a slope greater than 15 degrees. Staff and board members had also given a negative response to the fourth variance relating to water-quality standards.

Despite the reservations expressed by staff and Environmental Board, members of the ZAP Commission indicated they believed it would be less harmful to continue with construction than to attempt to demolish the structure already in place. “This is the first time I’ve voted against the Environmental Board’s recommendation,” said Commissioner Jean Mather. “But it seems to me that it really is better to go forward now than to leave this house there. It’s too late to change.”

There will be a conservation easement on nearby land as recommended by the Environmental Board. That easement will cover 2.32 acres. If that land is considered with the lot containing the home under construction, overall impervious cover for the combined acreage would be less than nine percent. Several of the newer members of the commission voiced concerns about the notification process, but Chair Betty Baker pointed out the city had followed all required procedures for posting notice about the limited-purpose annexation.

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2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Day off for us . . . In Fact Daily will take Monday off to celebrate Columbus Day. Banks and post offices will also be closed for this federal holiday . . . Campaign news . . . The Austin Asian-American Chamber of Commerce (AAACC) and the Network of Asian American Organizations (NAAO) is hosting a fundraiser for Mayoral Candidate Gus Garcia today at 6pm at the Ramada Inn, 1212 W. Ben White . . . Piña bound for New York CURE conference . . . When the CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) world conference begins in New York Saturday, Austinite Rolando Piña will be there representing the state of Texas. Texas has a reputation among prison reform groups such as CURE and Amnesty International as the state that “incarcerates more people per capita than any nation in the world” . . . Busy weekend for Austin . . . The 5k Race Against Stigma begins at 8am Saturday in Waterloo Park, and will close parts of 12th and Red River streets from 7:30 to 11:30am. The Austin Travis County Mental Health Retardation Center sponsors the race . . . The Zilker Botanical Garden, 2220 Barton Springs Road, will host a variety of activities during the Austin HerbFest . . . America’s Walk for Diabetes starts from Centennial Park at 15th and Trinity streets at 8am on Sunday . . . Auditorium shores will host the B.B. King Blues Festival Sunday afternoon and evening. One lane of Riverside Drive will be closed from noon to 11pm . . . Where were they? . . . The Design Commission’s complaints about the “ugly” Long Center Parking Garage struck some city staff members as disingenuous. They pointed out that more than 300 people attended design charettes while the garage was being designed. During those meetings, participants rejected a typical box-shaped garage, which may not have blocked the view of Town Lake, one of the objections expressed by Design Commissioners.

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