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Commission task force to begin meeting next week

Thursday, May 23, 2002 by

The Zoning and Platting Commission worked late into the evening on Tuesday to hear from Southwest Travis County homeowners and environmentalists opposed to a set of requested zoning changes for land owned by Stratus Properties.

Chair Betty Baker appointed a task force, composed of the entire Zoning and Platting Commission and representatives from the Save Our Springs Alliance as well as a number of Circle C area neighborhood and homeowner associations. Casey Dobson of Scott Douglass & McConnico is representing the city in negotiations with Stratus. He said, “The city looks forward to cooperating with the Chair and the subcommittee she’s appointed to go through the task force process.” Baker said the first meeting would be from 5:30 to 8pm Tuesday. Baker said the public is welcome to attend but would not be particpating in the task force discussions.

Stratus is seeking to change the zoning on 14 tracts to new classifications in line with a proposed settlement with the City of Austin on development rights on the land. That settlement has been in the works for several months, but has not been finally approved by either party. Details are available on the city’s web site at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/news/02/2002stratus.htm. The commission is scheduled to take a vote on the controversial cases at its June 18th meeting.

At the previous ZAP Commission meeting, some homeowners near the tracts in question complained that they had not been invited to be a part of the negotiating process. (See In Fact Daily, May 9, 2002) Since then, there has been a concerted effort to bring additional parties into the discussions. Attorney Steve Drenner, representing Stratus Properties, defended the company’s efforts to involve the public. “We’ve been dealing with this issue for over two years, “ Drenner said. “We’ve gotten a lot of publicity.” The process, Drenner admitted, was not perfect. “We understood at the beginning that no matter what group of stakeholders that we talked to, someone would say they were left out. Some would be offended by others’ presence at the table. Some people have felt left out, others have dropped out.”

Among those who complained about being omitted from the process was Bob Bolger, president of the Fox Run Ridge neighborhood near Slaughter Lane and FM 1826. “Somehow, when the stakeholders were put together, nobody bothered to go across the street and knock on the door,” Bolger said. Bolger’s group will meet with city staff and Stratus representatives the first week in June, and a neighborhood representative will also be serving on the task force set up by Baker.

Drenner said the company would be also negotiating with individual homeowners whose property directly adjoins Stratus’ land during the next three weeks. He expects the conversations to center on such topics as setback and vegetative buffers. However, he said he does not expect to be discussing any major changes to the plan, such as land use, density of development or impervious cover.

Some property owners in the area who have been involved in the discussions spoke out against the proposed settlement and re-zonings. Jim O’Reilly, Ken Rigsbee and Susan Hoover with the Circle C Homeowners Association spoke in opposition, specifically citing concerns over the Bear Lake PUD. They were joined by environmentalists, who are worried about the additional traffic that new development would bring to the area inside the Barton Springs watershed.

“I believe that I’m a stakeholder whether you consider me one or not,” environmental activist Roger Baker said, “because I drink the water that comes off this thing.” Alan Marlow focused on the impact that future development could have on the endangered Barton Springs Salamander. He brought two five-gallon buckets filled with water to the meeting to help make his point. “A lot of people move here from out of state, they don’t understand what they’re sitting on top of,” he said. “Stop building on the recharge zones!”

Environmental leaders are pleased that they’ve been able to form an alliance with residents of the traditionally conservative Circle C area. “One of the failures we’ve had is we’ve not been able to get information out there so people knew how special the area was,” said SOSA Executive Director Bill Bunch. “Most of the homeowners bought their homes not knowing where the recharge zone was . . . but then once they learn about it, they’re interested and concerned. It’s nice to see that coalition emerging at this time and it’s something that should be nurtured.”

The Zoning and Platting Commission has set June 18 as the date it will vote on the controversial cases. Stratus attorney Drenner said he thought one reason why more area homeowners did not attend last night’s meeting was the prospect of “more process” occurring between now and the Zoning and Platting Commission vote. “I would admit to you, we’re pretty weary at this point,” Drenner said. “But we remain committed to the concept and we remain hopeful, if a little weary.” The City Council could take action on the plan at its June 27 meeting, or could postpone the matter. The Council has scheduled two meetings for July and four in August.

Even with higher taxes, $22 million shortfall projected

Austin City Council members formalized their direction to the City Manager on a series of cost-saving and revenue-boosting proposals on Wednesday in an attempt to whittle down a projected $72 million deficit in next year’s city budget. The items the Council agreed to seriously consider would narrow the gap between revenues and expenses next year down to $29 million, leaving the city manager’s office to search for additional spending cuts over the next two months before presenting the Draft Policy Budget by July 31st. A property tax increase could reduce the gap to $22 million.

The Council discussed most of the options last week, including increasing fees for a variety of city services, continuing a partial hiring freeze and delaying raises for city workers. Saving the most politically sensitive item until the end of the day, the Council also reluctantly voted to consider raising property taxes to generate more revenue. By adding 1.38 cents to the current rate of 45.97 cents per $100 of property value, the city would be able to generate an additional $7 million in revenue.

“We can say to the City Manager . . . after you scrub as much as you can, and if you’re still short, we would consider going to the $7 million,” Mayor Gus Garcia said. “If we’re going to scrub $29 million, we’re going to cut more than just the fat, and that doesn’t paint a real pretty picture for the city.” Council Member Daryl Slusher reluctantly agreed that the property tax increase, while a last resort, should be an item the Council considers when it came time to approve the budget this fall. “I certainly think we can’t rule out a tax increase,” Slusher said. “I think it’s appropriate to look everywhere else first, but it certainly wouldn’t be realistic to . . . shut the door on that.” Because of rising property values, the 1.38 cent increase would be the largest allowed under the complicated rules governing how much the city can raise the tax rate in one year. Exceeding a total of 47.35 cents per $100 of property value would be legal, but would also be subject to a public election to roll back the tax rate.

The Council also agreed to further study the impact of eliminating some of the city positions that have been kept vacant as part of a hiring freeze. Currently, 75 percent of the city’s vacancies are frozen, and department heads have discretion in which positions they will fill. “The proposal is of that 75 percent that’s frozen at the beginning of the year, we would eliminate 50 percent,” said City Manager Toby Futrell. “That would get you $6 million.” But that likely won’t be an across-the-board freeze, the Council decided, because that would adversely affect two departments. “There’s a disproportionate number of positions frozen in two areas that we know are sorely lacking right now,” Futrell said, “one being parks and another being libraries. So another part of this is evaluating where that 50 percent falls. You may put back more in parks and less in another department.”

With the Council focusing on avoiding layoffs, raises for city employees under the “pay for performance” plan will likely be scuttled next year. “If the economy were to turn around and we had more funds, this would be one of the first things to be reinstated,” said Slusher. “But I think we do have to put this into the package as an option.” The move, if adopted as part of the budget, would save $3.7 million. Garcia said it would be preferable to slashing the workforce, as some citizens have suggested. “With a gap this size, our primary goal is not to lay off people,” he said. “If the tradeoff is a one-year suspension of a pay raise, I believe most city employees would rather do that than have others lose their jobs.” Futrell said one option being considered in lieu of pay raises was an additional personal holiday for city workers to use at their discretion. “That way employees would basically cover for one another,” Futrell said. “There may be other ideas out there.”

Wednesday’s meeting set out priorities for the City Manager to consider, giving her two and a half months to finish preparing the Draft Policy Budget. Council members will have just over a month to examine, discuss and suggest changes to that budget before voting on it in September. The city’s fiscal year begins October 1st.

here for Monday ,,

Friday.

LCRA announces new park . . . The Board of Directors of the LCRA yesterday unanimously approved plans to develop a 1,600-acre park and environmental center in Matagorda County near the mouth of the Colorado River. The agency plans to build an 85-room lodge, hiking trails and beaches. The area is recognized as one of the best in the country for bird watching. The board authorized a contract to build and operate the lodge with Matagorda Coastal Partners, whose principals are John Sanford, Danny Roth and John Rosato of Austin . . . Neighborhood Plans being considered . . . The City Council will consider the plans and associated rezonings for both the North Loop and Bouldin Creek neighborhoods today. Both are being considered for final approval. The Council agenda also calls for consideration of a revised ordinance governing minority and women-owned business participation in city contracts. There are also the usual number of contracts, one or more of which could always become contentious. The ordinance against parking in the front yeard is up for second and third readings . . . Resolutions. . . Council Members Daryl Slusher, Raul Alvarez and Jackie Goodman are sponsoring a resolution to identify the top polluters of Barton Springs. Council Member Will Wynn and Slusher are sponsoring a resolution to begin doing energy audits for live music venues in the downtown area . . . On another Stratus front . . . The Environmental Board’s subcommittee yesterday began meeting with city staff and representatives of Stratus Properties to decide whether the board should rescind its prior recommendation against the deal. In response to questions, city staff said they did not believe that this proposal would set a precedent in terms of using an overall approach to impervious cover. Both the Forum PUD and the Bradley agreement considered overall impervious cover, rather than limiting each tract to what would be allowed under the SOS ordinance, said city Environmental Officer Pat Murphy . . . Mayor to travel to Germany . . . Mayor Gus Garcia will lead a Sister City Delegation to Koblenz, Germany, leaving on June 18 and returning on June 26. Austin business people may join the delegation, which includes John Breier and Earl Maxwell of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, on a visit to Mainz. For more information, contact Renata Anderson at 892-0351.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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