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Panel puts many conditions on recommendation

Tuesday, June 18, 2002 by

By Doug McLeod

It took the Environmental Board only three minutes last night to vote to rescind its previous decision opposing the proposed settlement between the City of Austin and Stratus Properties for Circle C, but took more than two hours of discussion before the Board voted, 5-2, to recommend approval of the settlement agreement. Secretary Karin Ascot and Board Member Mary Gay Maxwell voted against the recommendation. Vice Chair Tim Jones and Board Member Susana Almanza were absent.

Ascot was the lone dissenter in the vote to rescind the Board’s May 1 decision to oppose the agreement. Having made the original motion to oppose the proposed settlement, she said not enough changes had been made to warrant rescinding the decision.

Board Chair Lee Leffingwell, who made the motion to recommend approval of the development agreement, with a list of 14 conditions attached, was on the subcommittee that voted to recommend rescinding the earlier decision. (See In Fact Daily, June 12, 2002.) He said the subcommittee met three times and even made field trips to the proposed development site.

“We spent a lot of time on this. I can say that I’ve spent more time on this than I have on anything else since I’ve been on the Board,” he noted.

Arguments over value of certainty

“This has been a difficult process for all of us,” Leffingwell said, referring not just to members of the Board but to all the stakeholders participating in the negotiations. He stated that the Board’s job is to make recommendations to the City Council, “so I want to try to make a decision.” He said he thinks the proposed agreement is better than whatever alternative might arise in the future; plus, it’s better than strict SOS (ordinance) compliance.

“This agreement provides certainty. It provides SOS compliance and perks,” he said, noting that he believes taking the route of uncertainty would be worse. “The real world is: it’s this agreement or what the courts and lawyers give us down the road,” he said.’

In addition, Leffingwell said the City hired outside legal counsel for advice, and the attorney said Stratus has substantial legal claims under Chapter 245. “That’s why I finally came around to this point of view,” he said, to choose “certainty over uncertainty.”

Ascot attacks attorney

Ascot said, “It provides certainty of bad things—development over the aquifer, and we’re going to pay $15 million for it” in incentives. She said the enforceability “seems a little vague.” And the water quality mitigation measures are not pinned down, she noted. “Just as Stratus doesn’t want to agree to anything open-ended, I don’t want to agree to anything open-ended.”

The Green Building standards offered as perks in the deal are great, she said, but they don’t address pollution in the aquifer. Ascot slammed Casey Dobson, the City’s outside legal counsel, saying she thought “it sounded like he was Stratus’ lawyer,” rather than one who was working for the taxpayers.

She said it was wrong for the City to still be making deals with developers proposing more growth in the Barton Springs recharge zone. And then, when an agreement is met, having citizens say, “it’s better than it could be . . . But the trend is, pollution in the aquifer. The salamander is dying.” She said this trend is against the taxpayers “for the sake of anonymous shareholders.”

Leffingwell said he thought pollution in the aquifer was more due to developments that came in before the SOS ordinance. He cited Barton Creek Square Mall and the Travis Country subdivision as examples. If they were SOS compliant, “maybe the salamander wouldn’t be dying,” he said.

Challenging Ascot’s statement, Board Member Matt Watson said he thought Dobson had done a commendable job representing the City in negotiations. “I think that real progress has been made,” he said.

Board Member Ramon Alvarez said he thought clustering the development, as called for in the settlement agreement, would not have a detrimental effect on the aquifer. “I don’t think it makes that big of a difference.”

“Not just the spirit of SOS, but the letter of SOS is being met by this agreement,” Alvarez said.

Board Member Connie Seibert said it was a choice between “The devil we know and the devil we don’t know,” apologizing to Stratus attorney Steve Drenner for the metaphor and urging her fellow Board members to make a decision.

Breunig stands up for deal

Robert Breunig, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which is adjacent to the proposed development site, said clustered development in the area is just as good as strict SOS compliance would be. A hyrdrogeologist who consulted the center told him the clustering would have a neutral effect on water quality, he said.

Leffingwell said he thought the clustering would be at least as good as strict SOS compliance, or better because with this agreement, it prompted Stratus to throw in perks that otherwise would not have come into the negotiations.

One of those perks is an agreement to use native landscaping, which Breunig said reduces the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Others include no “big box” development, like a Wal-Mart or Home Depot store, and a high level of building standards. “They agreed to a whole list of things . . . and that discussion is still in progress,” he said, and going very well.

“I think all of us would prefer it if there was no more development over the aquifer,” he said, but if there is development, at least the stakeholders can agree to what kind and build environmental features into the overall scope of the development.

After the vote, Drenner told In Fact Daily he was pleased with the outcome. “The subcommittee put in an enormous amount of time. I think the subcommittee process really worked here.”

ZAP task force holds

Final meeting on Stratus

Commission scheduled to vote on zoning proposal tonight

Members of the Zoning and Platting Commission’s Stratus Task Force spent their final meeting Monday night going over the last details of what they will be recommending to the full Commission tonight. Commissioners worked on the final language for their report, incorporating staff recommendations on the 14 tracts along with neighborhood input. Much of the discussion focused on setbacks, buffers, building heights and conditional overlays for the various tracts.

The final report will likely suggest leaving several of those tracts zoned RR (rural residential) as suggested by staff. Those are tracts 104, 105, 111,112 and 113 (see http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/news/02/downloads/circlec.pdf for locations of the various tracts). Task Force members seemed agreeable to neighborhood requests to zone tracts 103 and 104 P (public district), but that will probably not be included in the final report because voting on that zoning could trigger a requirement for renotifying surrounding property owners. Limits on development for those tracts can be preserved with the RR zoning, and the city could come back at a later date and request another zoning change to P following proper notification procedures.

Commission Chair Betty Baker voiced concern about the possible density on tract 103, which is proposed to be zoned LR-MU-CO (retail). The MU (mixed use) component of that zoning would allow for multi-family development at a density level comparable to MF-4. Baker suggested limiting the density to that associated with MF-3 because of the proximity of single-family homes, and company representatives did not indicate any opposition to that proposal. Under the terms of the proposed settlement between the city and Stratus, the company would be allowed to build a maxim of 900 multi-family units in the entire area covered by the agreement. Only a portion of those could be built on any one tract.

After voting on the 14 individual zoning cases tonight, the ZAP Commission will also make a recommendation to the full City Council on the proposed settlement agreement. That settlement, which runs approximately 50 pages, has been evolving due to continuing negotiations between the city and the company. The city now has a final version of the proposed settlement, which includes the latest revisions made Monday evening, on its web site at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/news/02/2002stratus.htm.

Thursday,.

Texans for Public Justice attacks electric deregulation . . . Lobby Watch, an arm of Texans for Public Justice, says Texans are suffering at the hands of big energy companies, which hold 12 of 25 seats on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). “Rumor has it that the ERCOT Board heads that rolled (Chair John Hawks of PG&E and Vice Chair Milton Lee of San Antonio’s City Public Service Co.) succumbed to an axe wielded directly or indirectly by Texas Rep. Steve Wolens,” the chief House sponsor of the 1999 deregulation bill. For more on this issue, see http://www.tpj.org/Lobby_Watch/ercot.html . . . Urban mobility numbers coming . . . The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M is poised to release this year’s report on urban mobility in the US. TTI promises to rank and explain trends in transportation use for 75 American urban areas. The institute, which studies traffic congestion, will be providing data in new areas of research, according to a press release which promises that the report will be out on Thursday . . . SOSA calls its membership for tonight’s hearing . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance has sent an e-mail to its membership asking everyone who can to appear at tonight’s Zoning and Platting Commission meeting for the hearing on Stratus Properties’ zoning request. SOSA has opposed the development proposal at every commission meeting the city has held, but attendance has been sparse lately. SOSA is also urging supporters to come to the June 27 City Council hearing with “a picnic dinner (and) a sleeping bag.” They are hoping for the same kind of mass turnout the Council saw on June 7, 1990, when the Freeport McMoran proposal was defeated . . . Slow day for the county . . . Travis County Commissioners will take up the model agreement for the waste siting ordinance this morning, but with two of their members gone, they’re unlikely to take action. Last week, commissioners agreed on many of the finer aspects of the ordinance, such as distance requirements for minor, major and landfill sites, as defined by the ordinance . . . Baby needs a pool . . . If your Juneteenth dance card isn’t already full, some South Austinites are throwing a party to raise funds to keep the baby pool open at Stacy Park when the new (AISD) school year begins. Entertainment includes a concert by Michael Fracasso at Little Stacy Playground from 6-8pm on Wednesday. Home Depot’ s matching grant program will furnish new equipment for the park. The party will be at the northernmost part of the park at East Side Drive & Sunset in Travis Heights . . . One commissioner short . . . ZAP Commissioner Angular Adams will likely be out of town this evening due to a death in the family.

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

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