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Rejecting plan,

Friday, May 3, 2002 by

majority says they were not involved in meetings

By Doug McLeod

After a public hearing that lasted more than three hours, the Environmental Board voted Wednesday night against approval of a term sheet outlining a settlement agreement between the City of Austin and Stratus Properties Inc. allowing residential and commercial development to proceed at Circle C.

When the public hearing closed, Board Member Matt Watson said it would be imprudent for the Board to pass a motion on the term sheet, since attorneys are still hashing out the final agreement. “The devil is in the details,” he said, so it would be counterproductive to make a recommendation on an incomplete document.

But Secretary Karin Ascot was adamant about the Board making a statement on the term sheet. She said she didn’t need any more details to know the deal sets a bad precedent by having the city offer incentives to encourage development exactly where she doesn’t want it. Moreover, she said, it provides financial incentives for quicker development.

“In my view, we should not be doing this deal, we should not be providing incentives,” she said, asking rhetorically how many more times the city could allow “one more deal . . . We certainly don’t get a cleaner Barton Springs out of it.”

“My motion is to say we don’t support this deal in its current form at this time,” she said. Vice chair Tim Jones followed with a second.

“We don’t have an actual plan for protecting the aquifer,” Ascot said, noting that increased development in the area will require increased roadway infrastructure, and “adding more roads is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” which leads to even more development and certain degradation of the aquifer.

Watson made a substitute motion to postpone a decision until May 15, but it failed.

The vote was 5-3, with Chair Lee Leffingwell, Board Members Ramon Alvarez and Watson abstaining. Board Member Connie Seibert left the meeting before the vote.

Jones said the agreement would promote rapid development in the Barton Springs watershed because of $15 million in financial incentives, based on 2002 dollars, which would lose value over time. “I want to see something that offers me encouragement that we’re not [killing off] the (Barton Springs) salamander,” he said.

He asked fellow Board members how they could recommend a deal that does not include off-site water quality mitigation measures, a repeated sticking point for Jones in such deliberations. He reminded Board members of a motion they passed in January recommending such measures, which include water quality controls for roadways leading to new developments.

Casey Dobson, outside legal counsel for the city, outlined highlights of the term sheet before the Board. “I can’t tell you how many hours and days have gone into this.” He said both sides had done a lot of difficult negotiating and “the terms are hard.”

The proposed agreement between the city and Circle C Land Corp. (CCLC) is to settle existing Chapter 245 claims covering all 1,235 acres owned by CCLC, a subsidiary of Stratus Properties. Dobson said the SOS ordinance allows 18.1 percent of impervious cover overall among all of the tracts in Circle C. This agreement, he said, also allows a total of 18.1 percent impervious cover. But the agreement calls for all of the tracts to be considered together and development to be clustered, thereby shifting impervious cover “credits” from tract to tract to accommodate Stratus’ development plans.

Dobson said the agreement allows for impervious cover of up to 30 percent and 45 percent on some tracts, by way of giving up development entirely on other tracts. In addition, some tracts will be donated to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (tracts 111, 112, 113, comprising 104.69 acres) while others will be given outright to the City (tracts 104, 105 comprising 23.85 acres). The donated tracts would be designated for perpetual open space.

The density determinations in the proposed agreement call for limits of 750,000 square feet of office space and 250,000 square feet of retail. Residential units are capped at 1,730, of which no more than 900 may be multi-family. Each tract will be zoned according to usage and terms of the settlement, providing the City Council approves, Dobson said.

The development densities designated in the agreement will be banked, allowing development in any tract CCLC deems appropriate, as long as it falls under terms of the agreement and existing codes and restrictions.

Impervious cover designations will also be banked, thereby allowing CCLC to allocate impervious cover as it deems appropriate, albeit with the restrictions stipulated in the agreement. The term sheet states the rules of this banking will be similar to the city’s agreement on Steiner Ranch.

City incentive package

Dobson said the agreement gives Stratus a “credit bank” valued at $15 million. This bank of credit, which Stratus could use to pay development fees and other costs, is to compensate Stratus for what Stratus determined is a loss of land value totaling $25 million due to the concessions made to the city. Dobson said the city made its own appraisal of the land value and the numbers were in line with the evaluation by Stratus.

Stratus could use the credit, which would maintain a value pegged to the 2002 economy, for a variety of potential expenditures, including: Capital Recovery Fees, Tap Fees, Stormwater Detention Fees, Parkland Fees, Subdivision Application Fees, Site Plan Fees, Development Inspection Fees or even the cost to design and construct a “chiller” for office air conditioning.

“The incentives are a bank,” Dobson said. “When we get to $15 million, we stop.” Beyond that, the cost goes to the developer, he noted.

All HB 1704 claims would be waived by this deal. Pat Murphy, with Watershed Protection Development and Review Department (WPDR), said under HB 1704, 42 percent impervious cover would be allowed. Under this agreement, the 835 acres in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone would be allowed 15 percent impervious cover, and the 4,400 acres in the Contributing Zone would be allowed 25 percent impervious cover. Combined, that works out to be an overall impervious cover of 18 percent, he said. “Overall, it would be the same amount, or less, that we would see with SOS,” he noted.

Some Board members expressed skepticism about the methods of the impervious cover bank. Dobson sought to assuage them and clarify the situation. “No impervious cover was created to be banked where it otherwise couldn’t be used,” he said.

Jones asked about potential water quality degradation due to the clustering of development. Less Tull, with WPDR, said by using a detention irrigation system rather than a sedimentation system, adequate water quality could be achieved, even with the higher impervious cover of cluster development.

Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch blasted the proposed agreement. “Our $15 million incentive package is being justified by about 800,000 square feet of commercial and 400 square feet of residential development,” he said. “We’re paying them to build commercial, high-density development right over the aquifer.”

“This is a precedent for paying people to develop in the (Barton Springs) watershed,” he said. “That’s a nightmarish precedent.”

“Nobody is saying this is great for the watershed, it’s just better than what they say they can do,” he said, adding that “it’s a bullying threat,” and it amounts to “buying protection.”

Bunch said a key problem resulting from this agreement would be the increase in roadways and traffic. This settlement would open the door to the complete extension and build out of MoPac and SH 45, which in turn would spawn much, much more development. He said approval of this proposal would absolutely necessitate building those highways to accommodate the new residents.

“We’re approving a deal that bolsters the case that we build out MoPac,” he said, “to the tune of $10 million, to probably over $100 million . . . This is very short sighted. We either need to buy this land or condemn it.”

Bunch also blasted the process, saying it went against state law because the public hearings that are required by law had not been held. “Tell the city to stop papering the deal” by spending money on lawyers and negotiations until public hearings have been held. Bunch was personally involved in the meetings until he dropped out, a few days before his board voted to oppose the proposal.

He also said the city has some very strong legal claims that would allow it to zone the land as it wants, but it’s not using them because it’s afraid of further battles with the state legislature. Bunch said if you read Chapter 245 carefully, it’s evident that Stratus’ legal claims are deficient. Moreover, he said, municipalities are starting to gain the edge in battles with the legislature concerning sovereignty. “We have no choice but to fight for the Springs, they’re already too far gone.”

George Cofer, executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, disputed Bunch’s allegations that the process has not been public. He said he has been meeting with a group of stakeholders for months. “We’ve been working hard for six months on this,” he said. “These meetings have certainly not been exclusive.”

Board Member Susana Almanza asked Cofer if his group of 11 people participating in the meetings supports the term sheet.

“We’re in agreement with continuing to work with the process,” he said. “There are some major outstanding issues we haven’t even worked on yet,” he said, adding that it was premature to take a position.

Watson asked Leffingwell if he had received notice of stakeholder meetings. “No, I did not,” he responded, “and to the best of my knowledge, no one on the Board did.”

Steve Drenner, an attorney representing Stratus, said the meetings have been public. “It’s been an ongoing process, fairly well publicized, for almost two years,” he said. He also noted that Stratus is paying most of the city’s legal costs related to the deal, and that Stratus was not threatening the city as Bunch had suggested. “We’re talking about $15 million in soft dollars, no cash involved,” he said.

After the Board voted, Drenner told In Fact Daily that some of the Board members will not be interested in the details of the deal—and may not support any deal—but other members might be more comfortable hearing more details. “We’re not discouraged and not terribly surprised” by the vote, he said.

“We will offer to, in some way, keep the Environmental Board informed as we go through the remainder of the process,” he added. “The more that people understand the deal, my hope and belief is, there will be a consensus that it will be a good deal for the city.”

Dobson said the issue will go before Zoning and Platting Commission next week. The item is scheduled for City Council consideration on May 23, for first reading, and June 27 for a final public hearing and second and third readings.

Prop 1 opponent says Lewis can't claim the high ground

Austin Mayor Gus Garcia joined a host of local political candidates in a City Hall news conference Thursday in an attempt to boost voter turnout tomorrow. Although 14 percent of registered voters took part in the election that put Garcia into office last fall, voter turnout in the previous two City Council elections has been under ten percent ( http://malford.ci.austin.tx.us/election/search.cfm).

“I’m asking the people of Austin to get out and vote,” Garcia said. “That’s how we keep democracy strong, and Austin prides itself on being a very democratic city.” Garcia also urged people to participate in elections for the Austin Community College and Austin Independent School District boards. Former Mayor Bruce Todd joined him and said that the city’s declining rate of citizen participation was discouraging. “Thirty years ago, in the mayoral race, the turnout was in excess of 50 percent. Ten years ago, turnout was about 27 percent. In the last mayoral race before Gus was elected, it was less than 10 percent,” Todd said. “I don’t see how we go back to our homes, to our children, to our schools and say we believe in democracy if we don’t participate in democracy by voting.”

Several candidates for City Council also attended the event, managing to work in some last minute campaigning along with reminding people to do their civic duty. Supporters filed into the conference room carrying campaign signs, some stacked one on top of another to show support for more than one candidate.

Intel serves as strange backdrop for Clean Campaigns complaint

Supporters of Proposition 1 held a news conference at the foot of the half-finished Intel building Thursday to decry the campaign tactics of their opponents, who have launched a high-profile media campaign in an attempt to convince voters that giving public money to candidates for City Council is a bad idea. The group, organized as “Citizens for Responsible Use of Tax Dollars,” is using billboards, newspaper ads, radio ads and a direct-mail campaign to spread its message of “Vote ‘No’ on Proposition 1.”

Fred Lewis with “Campaigns for People” says the opponents dodged the campaign-finance reporting rules by waiting until nine days before the election to file their designation of a campaign treasurer with the City Clerk’s office. By waiting until that point, Lewis says, the group will not have to report its contributions until July. “Tens of thousands of secret contributions are behind the disinformation campaign and hysteria to defeat Proposition 1,” Lewis said. “Are they getting their money from Gary Bradley? From real estate lawyers? You won’t know until months after the election.” In radio ads airing on a variety of stations, the sponsors are listed as the Austin Board of Realtors and the Texas Association of Realtors Issues Mobilization Political Action Committee. The small print on billboards reads, “Political Ad paid for by Citizens Committee for Proper Expenditure of Local Taxes.”

Although Proposition 1 opponents appear to have followed the letter of the law, Lewis says their tactics are unethical. “It’s a sleazy practice that has been used for many years . . . where at best, they’re manipulating the process so they can hide their contributors,” Lewis said. “At worst, they’re violating the campaign laws of the State of Texas for failing to file your campaign treasurer timely.”

Lewis says he’s suspicious of the speed at which the group was able to raise funds and organize its campaign. “We have serious doubts that they woke up on the ninth day before the election and had an epiphany and decided they would start raising money,” Lewis said, “and that it took them a day to raise all the money necessary for billboards and have them up in less than 48 hours. It’s clear under the laws of the state of Texas that it’s not just whether you receive a contribution, it’s also pledges that have to be reported. Common sense would tell you that they talked to people before the ninth day to get the money.” Citizens for Responsible Use of Tax Dollars held a news conference ten days before the election on April 24th to announce their intent. (See In Fact Daily, April 25, 2002 )

Lewis’ characterization of Proposition 1 opponents as “sleazy” raised the ire of Chuck McDonald, the head of the public-relations firm hired to organize the opposition campaign. “The charges by Fred Lewis underscore everything that is wrong with politics in Austin, and it doesn’t have anything to do with finance laws,” McDonald said. “We’ve got a group of narrow-minded people who are of the opinion that anyone who dares oppose them on a political issue are, by definition, sleazy . . . and I resent that from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes.” McDonald said the group had been open about its supporters, which include the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “We got a bunch of groups together at the last minute because we thought Proposition 1 was a bad idea,” he said. “We stood up in front of the media and introduced ourselves and said we oppose this because it’s a bad idea . . . and I resent any implications that anybody is hiding when we stood up there and identified ourselves.”

On April Fools’ Day, the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) officially fell under the purview of the Water and Wastewater Utility (WWW), leaving the oversight of the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD). Wastewater treatment and endangered species have a lot of money in common; and despite the timing, it’s no joke.

The sum total of the city’s BCP holdings—13,035 acres of prime Texas Hill Country patched together in Northwestern Austin—has been transferred from PARD to WWW for the purpose of economy and efficiency. With increasing city budget constraints, the City Manager last fall directed staff to come up with a plan to cut costs related to the BCP and look into combining the forces of different city departments. The result is a transfer of all BCP assets and staff to the WWW.

Ten full-time staff positions are included in the transfer. The transition is scheduled to be complete in five years, according to a resolution approved by the City Council on March 21.

The transition will result in $160,000 annual savings to the General Fund and $512,420 in drainage fee revenue for the Watershed Protection Development and Review Department (WPDR).

WWW Environmental Conservation Program Manager Willy Conrad is the acting Environmental Coordinator for the transition. He said the reason for the transfer is “to capture efficiencies.”

WWW and PARD already had overlapping functions related to the management of BCP, Conrad said, so it was natural to reduce redundancies to ensure greater efficiency.

Even though BCP is now a part of WWW, it remains a separate program, Conrad told the Environmental Board last week. He outlined the plan and asked the Board to appoint an advisor to the transition team. Board Chair Lee Leffingwell responded by appointing himself and Board Member Mary Gay Maxwell as an alternate.

Other members of the BCP Transition Advisory Team include Mary Ruth Holder from the Parks Board, Darwin McKee of the Water and Wastewater Commission (WWC), Don Koehler of the BCP staff, Jody Hamilton of WPDR and Joanna Hahm of Water Quality Protection Lands. The City Manager’s Office also is planning to name a representative. Laurie Lentz of WWW said Thursday she expects the group to hold its first meeting in mid-May.

As of last summer, the preserve totaled 26,385 acres. The endangered species habitat has two managing partners, the City of Austin and Travis County, though other organizations also own sections of the preserve. The goal is for the BCP to eventually acquire and manage at least 30,428 acres. According to the BCP website, Travis County’s BCP holding total 2,164 acres.

The BCP is a multi-agency conservation effort operating under a regional 10(a) permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW). The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP) is a document that accompanies the permit, and it specifies eight endangered species to be protected by the plan: two migratory songbirds—the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo—and six karst invertebrates.

Saturday night parties . . . Council Members Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman are having an Election night party at Threadgill’s World HQ on Barton Springs Road. It’s not close to the Millennium Center in East Austin, where the votes will be counted, but it is close to their hearts, since they’ve spent a lot of hours there this spring. Slusher’s Place 1 rival Kirk Mitchell will be hosting a party at Los Comales Mexican Restaurant, 2136 E. 7th Street, beginning at 7:30pm. Council Member Beverly Griffith’ s party will be at Scholz Garden, 17th and San Jacinto. Griffith opponent Betty Dunkerley says her election/retirement party will be at 100 Congress, second floor lobby starting at 8:00pm. Brewster McCracken and his friends will be partying at Juan In a Million, 2300 E. Cesar Chavez, beginning at 7pm . . . Rather joins Henderson . . . Robin Rather, former chair of the SOS Alliance, has joined the small club of Austinites who can be their own political action committee. In Thursday’s Austin Chronicle, Rather and a number of other noted Austin environmentalists urged voters to re-elect incumbent Daryl Slusher . Rather paid for the ad . . . Move it upstairs, people . . . The news conference to encourage voter turnout Thursday was originally scheduled for the steps of City Hall. But a public service announcement was being shot at the intersection of 8th and Colorado, prompting a move upstairs to the third-floor conference room . . . Other Props getting trampled . . . It’s been difficult for any of the other propositions on the ballot to get much attention because of the debate over Proposition 1. But there are supporters of Proposition 3 who are campaigning to pass the single-member district plan. They gathered at the east-side home of Lori Renteria last night to assemble yard signs. They used recycled stakes from signs placed in medians or city right-of-way areas for the March party primary election. You can expect to see the simple, black and white signs reading, “Please Remember, Single Member” across southwest and northwest neighborhoods beginning today . . . Daryl Slusher replies to Mitchell campaign piece . . . Kirk Mitchell has accused Daryl Slusher of ruining the city’s economy almost single-handledly by voting for incentives to move CSC and Intel from the sensitive Barton Springs recharge zone to downtown Austin. Yesterday, Slusher sent out his rejoinder, which begins “Kirk Mitchell says he will spend ‘whatever it takes’ to win. Apparently, he’ll also say whatever it takes, true or not. In Fact Daily received 12 pieces of campaign literature Wednesday and four more yesterday. Fortunately, the campaign is almost over (we hope).

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

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