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Opponents of project vow to continue fighting

Thursday, May 2, 2002 by

The Zoning and Platting Commission upheld a decision by city staff to allow a balance of tract waiver for land adjacent to the King Fisher project at 4601 St. Elmo Road in Southeast Austin. Neighbors, who have opposed the planned affordable-housing development on the grounds that it is poorly designed and harmful to the environment (see In Fact Daily, April 17, 2001 and March 4, 2002), went to the ZAP to appeal the administrative decision in favor of King Fisher Creek, LTD.

The balance of tract waiver is allowed in certain cases where following the city’s normal rules for platting land would create an unreasonable hardship. Under the city’s Land Development Code, owners of unplatted property are encouraged to request platting for all of a specific tract, instead of breaking it into pieces. However, exceptions can be made in certain cases if the rules would impose an unreasonable hardship, hinder the future development of the land, or impair planning of roads and utilities. The tract in question had been broken up when part of the land was sold in December of 2000, leading to the current request to have the remaining balance of the tract properly registered.

Members of the Kensington Park Homeowners Association and the Southeast Corner Alliance of Neighborhoods (SCAN) asked commissioners to overturn the staff decision for a variety of reasons. “The waiver deviates from the intent of the code and ignores obvious problems such as access to the land on this and adjacent tracts,” said Jack Howison. “Consistent land use planning is necessary to protect the environmental features and the documented rural nature of this area.” Resident Donna Lee said the neighborhood’s objection was not related to the project’s status as “affordable housing,” but instead focused on the design and environmental impact. “As planned, King Fisher will have 35 units and a potential 150 residents on the proposed site,” she said. “A large wetland area traverses this tract and a spring-fed creek runs across the front of the site.” She also pointed out that development on the balance of the tract would be difficult because part of it lies within the 100-year flood plain.

Attorney Bill McLean with the law firm of Minter Joseph & Thornhill, representing King Fisher, argued that city staff had made the appropriate decision based on the merits of the case. “I don’t think that I’ve seen anything in the appellants’ presentation to say that this does not allow for the orderly planning of streets, utilities or draining in the area,” McLean said. “This is not about neighborhood plans, this not about the density of a particular tract, this is not about environmental issues . . . none of those appear in the criteria.”

ZAP Commissioners voted 4-2 to deny the appeal, thereby allowing the balance of tract waiver. However, not all commissioners were enthusiastic about the position they took. Chair Betty Baker, who voted with the majority, bitterly criticized the developer of the King Fisher project. “I don’t know of a balance of tract waiver that I have ever seen that I would like more to vote against than this one,” she said. Baker also addressed the agent of the developer, engineer Carl Conley, who attended the meeting. “You have heard the opposition of the neighborhood. I’m disappointed that you did not work to find resolution with the neighborhood so this would not be so painful. This is very disturbing to me.”

Commissioner Keith Jackson said that the commission’s ruling would have to be based strictly on the merits of the case. “There’s obviously a lot of baggage associated with this case,” he said. “However, in looking at it without bringing all the history into it, it’s just clear . . . the applicants didn’t make a case here.” Commissioners Jackson, Vincent Aldridge, Diana Castañeda and Baker voted to uphold the balance of tract waiver, while Commissioners Niyanta Spelman and Jean Mather voted in favor of the neighborhood’s appeal. Commissioners Angular Adams and Joseph Martinez were absent, and Commissioner Michael Casias recused herself because of a possible conflict of interest. In order to overturn the staff decision, neighbors would have had to obtain five votes in their favor.

Neighbors said the commission’s ruling disappointed them. “The project as it currently stands is simply, totally unacceptable,” said Lee Sloan. “It’s hampering our efforts to maintain the low-density, established rural character of the area.” He also said they would not be dropping their efforts to convince the developer to change or abandon the project. “There are public monies involved here,” he said, noting that the project had been approved for more than $200,000 of funding from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. “We’ll continue to work to see that it’s money well spent.”

Too much money being spent on nearly fruitless effort to boost vote

City Clerk Shirley Brown is not optimistic about the prospects for a healthy voter turnout in Saturday’s election. Even though 2,180 voters showed up on Tuesday to register their choices for three City Council elections, eight Charter Amendments and an assortment of Austin Community College and Austin ISD board races, the total early vote is still lower than it was two years ago.

Brown said 9,337 Austinites voted during 13 days of early voting in 2000. During this year’s 12 early voting days, only 7,469 people cast ballots. The clerk wishes the system could be less costly. If Texas legislators had to conduct early voting in such complex cities as Austin, she said, perhaps they would change the system. “I wish they had to conduct it and I wish they had to pay the bill,” she says. “Obviously, the voters don’t think it’s worth it. If voters were breaking down the doors to vote,” Brown said, she would be very happy to provide the service. But as it is, she is paying three people to sit in 26 different locations for 12 hours per day, to make sure the vote is being conducted according to law. The three are paid a total of $29 per hour.

But the biggest problem is that Austinites use 20 different ballots because of the various representatives on school district boards, and the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board. Each polling place is required to have every one of those ballots, in case a voter from Northwest Hills, for example, decides to vote in Oak Hill. Brown said distributing the 20 different ballots to each of the 26 locations took 45 people eight hours.

According to city figures, 7 percent of registered voters voted in May, 2000 and only 4 percent voted in the runoff a month later. Council Member Raul Alvarez won election by only 201 votes over opponent Rafael Quintanilla on June 3, 2000.

When Council Member Daryl Slusher, then an Austin Chronicle writer, ran against incumbent Mayor Bruce Todd on May 7, 1994, more than 85,000 Austinites cast ballots. At that time, the number of registered voters was recorded at 326,996, with 26 percent participating in the election. One month later, only 16 percent, or 52, 414 returned Todd to office with 1,339 more votes than Slusher. Brown would be happy with such a turnout these days.

Mayor Gus Garcia is hosting a press conference at 11:15am today. He has invited other City Council members and members of the ACC and AISD boards to join him, along with all the candidates and business and community leaders, in encouraging Austinites to vote in Saturday’s election. The press conference will be on the front steps of City Hall.

Friday .

Political action committees . . . The Austin Police Association’s PAC reported spending $6,550 for design, printing and mailing of its endorsement piece for Council Members Jackie Goodman and Daryl Slusher and candidates Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken. Thomas (no longer “Hollywood”) Henderson is sort of a small political action committee all by himself. He reports spending a total of $2,700 for political ads in the Nokia and Villager Newspapers and the Austin Chronicle. His expenditures were on behalf of Dunkerley. Bruce Todd’s Citizens for Voter Choice reported collecting about $2,000 and spending about $1,525 during the most recent reporting period . . . First real day on the job . . . City Manager Toby Futrell used her first day in her new position to announce a reorganization of the city's executive management team. Joe Canales, who served as Chief of Staff for City Manager Jesus Garza, will take over as Deputy City Manager. He'll oversee Public Works, the Small and Minority Business Resources Department, and the Water / Wastewater Utility. New Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman will oversee the Community Court, EMS, OEM, and the police and fire departments. Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon will supervise the services related to development, the environment, and transportation. John Stephens will continue as Acting Assistant City Manager over the Aviation Department, Convention Center, and Solid Waste Services. And Assistant Police Chief Michael McDonald will continue pulling double-duty. Futrell named him as Acting Chief of Staff, and he will continue some management duties at APD . . . Dunkerley continues attack emails . . . One of Dunkerley’s media advisors at Map, Inc. sent us the following message: 26,000 ‘Austinites’ Say “Beverly Griffith can’t bring us together, because we don’t live in Austin.” It’s a parody of Griffith’s mailer, with a twist. Even though she has plenty of supporters, it was easier to use canned art. “Sadly, the photo doesn’t include actual Austinites and can be found as stock image number AA001449 at www.gettyone.com,” reports the email’s author. We checked it out and found him to be correct. There’s no denying it. Griffith’s television ad is definitely original, one-of-a-kind stuff, however. Dunkerley has her own ad and she seems to be moving up on the incumbent, pointing to the possibility of a runoff. Thirty days ago it seemed like the younger opponent Brewster McCracken might have the edge, but that has changed. Everyone’s talking about Dunkerley now (except for local news shows, which have focused on the unfortunate details of a young football player’s private life.) . . . It’s a lovely Thursday . . . to not go to a City Council meeting. Take a long lunch, walk around the lake, enjoy your freedom . . . Late news . . . The city’s Environmental Board voted 5-0-3 late Wednesday against recommending the current term sheet for development of Stratus Properties at Circle C. We will have a full report on this Friday.

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

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