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City, Stratus over settlement plans

Tuesday, June 25, 2002 by

Save Barton Creek Association votes to join lawsuit

The Save Our Springs Alliance filed suit Monday against Stratus Properties, its subsidiary the Circle C Land Corp. and the City of Austin, asking that the current development process for Stratus’ Circle C property be stopped and for a declaration that the SOS ordinance trumps Chapter 245 grandfathering claims. The Circle C Neighborhood Association—not the Circle C Homeowners Association —joined SOSA as plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs are seeking a declaration from a state district judge that the state law, approved as HB 1704, does not apply to the SOS ordinance because the law provides an exemption for “regulations to prevent imminent destruction of property or injury to persons.” Pollution of Barton Springs continues, with mounting evidence that human activities—construction, automobiles, use of pesticides and fertilizers—are the major cause of the degradation. (See In Fact Daily, September 19, 2000

, June 7, 2000. ) Bill Bunch, executive director of SOSA, told members of the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) last night that the suit is “not just about Stratus. We’re looking at the city approving site plans throughout the watershed.” After a lengthy discussion, SBCA voted to join the lawsuit.

The City Council is set to consider the Stratus agreement, which would settle the company’s claims under Ch. 245, and the zoning for more than 1,250 acres on first reading this week. For a review of the zoning proposed by the Zoning and Platting Commission, see In Fact Daily June 20, 2002. For more information on the city’s position, visit: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/news/02/2002stratus.htm

The city has sought an agreement in order to reduce density from what could be built if Stratus were successful in a lawsuit over its Ch. 245 claims. In addition, Stratus has argued that it does not have to abide by the SOS ordinance—only the water quality regulations that were in place in the mid-1980s when the development was first approved.

SOSA has long held the position that the ordinance should not be subject to Ch. 245 claims. They have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the city to adopt the same position. Bunch said he’s still hoping that the city—a named defendant—will switch sides now. In making the agreement with Stratus, he said, “The city was confessing judgment on this issue. If we didn’t stand and fight now, it would be too late. We have nothing to lose.”

Former city attorney Andy Martin, currently city attorney for San Antonio, said “Texas cities, as political subdivisions, have no constitutional protections against actions of the state. A city doesn’t have any constitutional protection, except for specific protections written into the constitution . . . As long as they do it in a fashion that doesn’t violate some other constitutional prohibition, their powers can be modified and abolished by the State Legislature .”

In addition to the arguments over HB 1704/Ch. 245, the plaintiffs also argue that Circle C’s original developers entered into binding agreements with the City of Austin to allow creation of Municipal Utility Districts . Those agreements state, “All development within the district . . . shall comply with the applicable special watershed ordinances, as amended from time to time. (emphasis added)” Bunch and his co-counsel, David Brooks and Amy Johnson, argue that nothing has altered the rights or duties of the city or the Circle C homeowners, who are successors to the original developers.

SOSA favors strict compliance with the SOS ordinance, while the Stratus agreement offers compliance on certain tracts, no development on some and increased development on others. Bunch criticized the “bucket” approach in a lengthy memo sent to the city and other interested parties earlier this month. In general, he said the tract-by-tract method is better because it provides more reliable water quality protection and cuts pollution, flooding and stream bank erosion. The bucket method, he wrote, “increases the rate of development, thus increasing pollutant load faster and making preserve acquisition more difficult.”

The plaintiffs are asking for “appropriate mandamus and injunctive relief barring the City from approving site plans, building permits, plats . . . and from granting any other kinds of development approvals inconsistent with such declarations.” The lawsuit will not prevent the city with proceeding through the current process. Attorneys for the city and Stratus could not be reached for comment.

Board of Directors

wants to demolish building

The historic zoning last night of Raymond House, which has served as the home of the Mexic-Arte Museum for the last 14 years, pitted the museum’s board of directors against the Austin Heritage Society .

The Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) passed on zoning the property at 419 Congress historic in 1986. Mexic-Arte’s board of directors, hoping to expand the museum, wanted that decision to stand. But as Commissioner Julia Bunton told the board last night, the HLC knows a lot more about the property than it did 16 years ago when a petition for historic zoning was last filed.

Raymond House, as it was officially known, was constructed as the US Army Headquarters in Texas immediately following the Civil War. The only older building on Congress Avenue is the Sampson-Henricks Building at 620 Congress, built in 1859.

Raymond House has been modified over time. It served as one of two premier hotels in Austin at the turn of the century, before the Driskill Hotel was built. The building also served as a dry goods store, carriage store, tire store and furniture store, Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin said. Tiles at the front entrance still remain that announce the building as home to the Karotkin Furniture Company.

The executive director of the Austin Heritage Society argued that the building was historically significant to Austin, and it would be a severe blow to the continuity of Congress Avenue to allow the Museum to demolish the building. Julie Morgan Hooper said the loss of the building, with its 1930s art deco façade, would be a serious loss to Congress Avenue. This, despite an assessment in the National Register of Historic Places referring to the building as “not architecturally outstanding,” but “historically significant.”

The City of Austin not long ago gave $740,000 to the Mexic-Arte Museum. Hooper said it would set a bad precedent to support a move that would use that money to demolish a historic structure. The building, Hooper said, can be rehabilitated and reused by either Mexic-Arte or by another non-profit in the community if Mexic-Arte did not find the building large enough to meet its needs.

A series of speakers, including the chairman of the board of the museum, argued against the historic designation. Frank Rodriguez said the $740,000 was for a service contract and could only be used for the acquisition of art, not renovating the building. He also added that preservation of Raymond House was never discussed as part of the deal between the city and the museum board—despite claims to the contrary. Instead, the board only committed to bring the building up to code.

Architect John Nyfeler, who assessed the building back in 1985, said only 15 percent of the original 1869 structure still remains. Structural engineer Terry Ortiz, who sits on the Mexic-Arte board, argued it would cost up to $1.75 million to keep the façade—both to shore up the current walls and to work around that structure during an expansion.

The Mexic-Arte is eager to expand because of a negotiated agreement with the Mexican government. That agreement, architects estimate, will require 43,400 square feet of gallery and support space, or seven floors of construction on a building that is now only three stories tall.

Commissioners approved a recommendation to maintain the current walls of the museum, up to the parapet. That would allow Mexic-Arte to gut the building inside for changes. The recommendation would also allow the museum to add floors to the building, with a setback of only 40 feet. That is more permissive than current city regulations allow and would match the new high-rise next door.

Commissioner Teresa Rabago, who considered the building unsafe, voted against the recommendation. Commissioner Jane Manaster, unconvinced the space was really the right fit for the expanding museum, abstained from the final vote.

New group hopes to

Keep Austin "liveable"

Spelman, Shea, Rather, Yznaga join forces

A new coalition devoted to protecting the quality of life in Austin is set to make its debut today with the results of a survey about community concerns. The group, called “Liveable City,” commissioned a unique survey of 428 Austin residents between June 3rd and June 12th. The results will be released at a news conference today.

Political consultant Mark Yznaga, the group’s executive director, says they developed a graphically oriented survey technique allowing people to prioritize the items they felt were essential for maintaining quality of life. Survey-takers went door –to door in each section of the city to gather their data. “Instead of a list of questions, people were shown a deck of cards,” Yznaga said, “each representing a community value like quality public schools or parks and recreation.” Respondents were then asked to rank their top five priorities, and were also asked to select five additional cards without ranking them.

Former City Council Member Bill Spelman is serving as the chairman of the group, which includes some of the top names in Austin’s environmental politics. Former Council Member Brigid Shea and former Save Our Springs Alliance Chair Robin Rather are members of the board, as are Zoning and Platting Commissioner Niyanta Spelman and Planning Commissioner Lydia Ortiz. The group is offering its survey on-line at http://www.liveablecity.org .

Hyde Park Baptist Church tries again . . . Federal Judge James Nowlin dismissed their federal suit, telling the Baptists they should ask for relief in state court first. So they are restating their claims against the City of Austin, which has refused to allow the church to build a new parking garage. The church alleges violation of the Texas Constitution, state law and city ordinances. City staff approved a site development permit for the garage in December 2000. The following year, the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association appealed issuance of the permit to the City Council, which granted the appeal. The permit has been in limbo ever since. (See In Fact Daily, March 9, 2001 ; March 2,2001 ; Feb. 26, 2001 .) . . . Live from downtown . . . Sonidos del Barrio, a cable series on the Austin Music Network will be having a live performance beginning at 7pm tonight at Miguel’s, 415 Colorado. Ruben & Alfonso Ramos and the Texas Revolution will start off the evening, followed by Manuel Donley Y Las Estrellas, the Nash Hernandez Orchestra, La Tribu and Grupo Fantasma. Nopal Negro closes out the evening from 10pm. Nuevo Leon will provide the food. All proceeds benefit the Austin Latino Music Association . . . Design guidelines . . . Planner Katie Larsen has given the staff presentation on the Downtown Design Guidelines so many times she probably could do it in her sleep. She will be presenting the proposals—which have drawn opposition in some quarters—to the Zoning and Platting Commission tonight. Attorney Glenn Weichert will be asking the ZAP to recommend a change in zoning for the northwest corner of Slaughter Lane and Texas Oaks Drive from DR (development reserve) to GR-CO. The staff is recommending against the change . . . Returning to ZAP . . . The Pleasant Valley Villas, which was continued from last week, will be looking for some variances to aid in building a new affordable subdivision..

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

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