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Council gives final approval To settlement with Stratus

Friday, August 2, 2002 by

Development approved twelve years after rejection of Freeport McMoran

Stratus Properties’ settlement won final approval last night, despite the protests of about 75 supporters of the Save Our Springs Alliance who urged the City Council to postpone or reject the agreement. With Council Member Raul Alvarez dissenting—as he has on two prior occasions—six members of the Council voted in favor of the agreement which included a new provision for pipeline safety and other smaller changes.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman had representatives of the developer on edge Thursday afternoon. She had approved the plan to protect retail customers and future residents in apartments along the Longhorn Pipeline, but she was still undecided about the provisions on what would happen if the city chose to downzone any of the property addressed by the agreement. (See Whispers for more on the pipeline.)

But when the Stratus discussion finally started, Goodman made it clear that she thought the deal was the best choice for the city. A fourth-term Council member whose environmental résumé goes back more than 20 years, Goodman insisted on protection from the possible fire hazards for buildings near the pipeline. The standard, or something similar, may come back to the City Council as an ordinance to be applied citywide, according to Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon.

Casey Dobson, an attorney who has done a considerable amount of work for the city, told In Fact Daily, “What we’re trying to do is put the focus on safety and put the onus on Stratus to convince the most knowledgeable people in the city—the Fire Department—that the buildings they put near the Longhorn Pipeline are going to meet fire department requirements.”

So the agreement was amended to read, “Any building that Stratus is going to put within 400 feet of the pipeline… . . . when they submit a site plan, one of the requirements of the process is going to be submitting an engineer’s report to the fire chief verifying that the building has what the fire department calls . . . a one-hour fire standard . . . That means after radiant heat hits the wall, it won't burn down in less than an hour. People in the building will have an hour to get out. The engineer shall take into account the presence of the pipeline. It’s a safety-based standard.”

Goodman told the protesters: “I don’t know of any Council member who wants and supports development over the aquifer. And some of us have pretty good credentials to prove that. We also don’t have all the power that a lot of folks think we have. For me, there’s just a real simplistic thing here. If we had the power to either say ‘no development’ and that would happen . . . or if we had the money or anything else to trade to try to keep this from being developed . . . we would do it in a flash. But somebody may have noticed that we were $71 million in the hole this year."

Council Member Daryl Slusher, who has increasingly been the Council lightning rod for the anti-Stratus crowd, talked over and around frequent interruptions from the impatient SOS Alliance. “We’ve got a lot of people in this crowd who have called for a regional plan first. Let me ask you this: Do you think people around this region . . . want us to take this show on the road? Do you think they’re just dying to have people come down and holler at them from the audience? Is that the way we’re going to save the aquifer? I’m determined that we’re going to have a regional plan, and we’re going to get some of this land through a community purchase.” At that point, a member of the audience came up to Slusher and gave him a dollar bill. He said, “You need to give one of these every day. Three hundred and sixty-five dollars a year from every one of y’all for a couple of years—and a bunch of other people in this city. We’ll get this land and we’ll go beyond that and buy some more . . . and that’s what we need to do, to take it in our own hands.”

Alvarez took a conciliatory tone toward his colleagues, urging the crowd not to be so hard on Slusher and Goodman. “I certainly don’t question their integrity about protecting the environment,” he said. Alvarez said he’d been looking at the issues and the emotion surrounding Barton Springs. “I’ve been weighing the risks and different legal ways of viewing these issues and the risks associated with protecting water quality and Barton Springs—and I think that is what everybody here is trying to achieve.” He said the decision was based less on the details of the deal than on a philosophical difference of opinion with his colleagues. He reiterated his opposition to providing incentives for building over the aquifer and his concerns about area traffic.

Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong said, “I can do nothing but offer praise to the Council for standing up for doing the right thing in the face of a lot of opposition. It’s an emotional issue. It involves a very delicate resource in Austin and we believe that we’re doing the right thing . . . but it is a very, very difficult issue for them.”

Under an agreement between Stratus and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the company would be allowed to build a total of 1.8 million square feet of office space; 310,000 square feet of retail; 1,200 multi-family units; and 1,100 single-family residences. It is important to note that the city approved significantly more than this in 1984. However, since FWS is attempting to enforce provisions of the Endangered Species Act over the aquifer, the older agreements would probably not be approved by a court.

The agreement cuts the office space to 750,000 square feet and retail to 150,000 square feet. There could be 900 apartments and 830 houses under the agreement. The city’s agreement with Stratus allows an overall impervious cover (about 17 percent) that is slightly below what the SOS ordinance prescribes. However, because some tracts are left untouched and more impervious cover is allowed on other tracts, developers will be clustering construction.

Opponents weighing political, legal ramifications

While opponents thought a last minute change –of heart from at least one Council member was still a possibility, the final 6-1 vote didn’t take them by surprise. “We held an outside hope that Council Member Goodman might not like the takings language,” said John Larkin with the Cherry Creek on Brodie Lane Neighborhood Association. “We thought that maybe they would postpone it another week, but realistically it had to come to this just so we can move forward to the next stage.”

Exactly what that next stage will entail is still being determined. Opponents have discussed the possibility of attempting to gather enough signatures to trigger a public vote on the ordinances associated with the deal, but that would be extremely difficult given the short time frame. “We’ll have to see what’s viable,” Larkin said. “Do we have to get 50,000 signatures for a referendum? If we’ve only got 14 days to make that happen, it’s probably not feasible.” The ordinances associated with the zoning changes are set to take effect August 15th.

SOSA Executive Director Bill Bunch said the group would be keeping its options open. “I think that they have legal problems with this agreement, and there’s a good chance we’ll amend our current lawsuit to add some new clams,” Bunch said. “We’ll keep organizing. There’s no demand for the big office space, and I think if we do our job most of this will never be built. We’ve won in the court of public opinion and I think we’ll win in a court of law as well.”

Larkin predicted political ramifications from the Stratus deal, pointing to next year’s municipal election in which four of the places on the Council would be up for re-election. “There will be some new candidates in the field as a direct result of this,” he said. “It’s opened a lot of folk’s eyes who were used to sitting on the couch and watching this from home. It’s generated a lot of interest and will keep us involved for a long time.”

Studying options for district

Vote on creation of health care district possible this year

The first draft of proposed health care district legislation was presented this week to the newly created Council subcommittee on health care. The subcommittee was created recently to address whether the city needs a hospital district as well as other health-related topics.

A 23-member citizen steering committee, appointed by County Judge Sam Biscoe and Mayor Gus Garcia, is on course for a possible referendum on a health care district in November, 2003. The move will circumvent an effort by Judge Guy Herman to put the issue of a hospital district on the ballot this fall. Herman’s call for a referendum was to create a county-wide hospital district.

But the city is concerned the services of a county health district would be too ambiguous, fail to include the city in its governance and provide for no clear disposition of Brackenridge Hospital. The possible legislation, which would be presented to local lawmakers this November, is intended to offer an option for Austin, one of the few—if not the only—cities in the state to own its own hospital and clinics. The legislation would be written in a way that it would apply only to such cities.

Outside counsel John Boehm outlined some of the early understanding of the legislation. The point, said Boehm, is not to try to describe how the district would look, but “to get some power to do something after the session the way we want to do it.”

Under the first draft, voters would have the final say on creation of the district, which would be managed by a board of elected officials from the city and any counties that chose to join the district. That board would appoint a board of managers. Counties would have the option to opt in or out, but there is a precedent for charging counties that do not choose to join.

Taxes, under the law, can’t be duplicated by different entities, so the cost of current health care services would have to be culled from the city and county budgets. That’s difficult because much of the funding for health care services is labeled as general revenue. The legislation could also set a transition date. Some of the specifics for the transfer of facilities and contracts could also be specified under legislation.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley said it is important to clarify expectations on the health care district. The health care district would provide no panacea for health care services. Every provider in the community that supplements current health care services will still be needed.

“Just by replacing some of the same services with a hospital district isn’t going to diminish our need for them to contribute to that safety net,” Dunkerley said.

The health care district is going to be only one of the topics tackled by the health care subcommittee. Other topics will include the hospital-within-a-hospital concept, which is now known as the New City Hospital. An urgent care clinic to relieve the pressure on Brackenridge’s emergency room will also be a regular topic of discussion.

In addition to Dunkerley, Council Members Raul Alvarez, Danny Thomas and Jackie Goodman are serving on the subcommittee. The committee is scheduled to meet the fourth Tuesday of each month with additional meetings scheduled as needed.

Longhorn appeal . . . Before the Stratus vote, Mayor Gus Garcia announced that the Council had discussed in executive session whether to appeal Judge Sam Sparks' ruling that Longhorn Pipeline could not be required to provide an Environmental Impact Statement. The Council then voted unanimously to appeal.Longhorn won a motion to dismiss the city’s suit two weeks ago . . . Alcohol OK for Juan . . . The City Council last night approved sale of alcoholic beverages at Juan in a Million on East Cesar Chavez in spite of protests from some area residents. The vote granted a waiver from the minimum distance requirement from a church. Council Member Betty Dunkerley made the motion and Council Member Danny Thomas dissented . . . Commission appointments . . . The City Council appointed Jean Mather and David West to the Historic Landmark Commission and Melissa Whaley to the Zoning and Platting Commission yesterday. Connie Seibert was reappointed to the Environmental Board and Rob Carruthers was appointed to the Robert Mueller Advisory Commission . . . More appointments . . . The Council reappointed the following to their respective commissions: Paul Moore to the Resource Management Commission, Gerard Acuna to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, Gerardo Garza to the Mechanical, Plumbing and Solar Board, and Linda Shaw to the Electric Utility Commission. Nicholas Tran is a new appointee to the Commission on Immigrant Affairs. Toya Haley and Courtney Johnson are new members of Arts Center Stage. Anthony Nelson was reappointed to the Urban Renewal Board and Deborah Russell was appointed to the Urban Forestry Commission. Heidi Dues is a new appointee to that same board . . . Legal fees protested . . . Cox & Smith of San Antonio will reap $201,000 from the City of Austin for legal services on the Stratus Properties agreement. In addition, Scott Douglass & McConnico, the firm of attorney Casey Dobson, will receive a total contract limit of $242,000. An opponent of the deal told the City Council they should not be spending money on such services before they approved the payments on consent . . . Contract approved . . . The Council awarded a contract of $166,400 to Shell Solar Industries for purchase of solar photovoltaic modules from Austin Energy’s budget. The modules will be placed at the Palmer Events Center parking garage and will supply electricity to both the center and the garage . . . TNRCC to hold seminars for citizens . . . The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which has not been known for listening to citizens’ environmental complaints, will be holding two sessions this month to educate Central Texans on how to collect evidence of violations. Under a law which took effect this year, individuals can become involved in gathering of environmental evidence for both hearings on trials. The first session is next Wednesday at 6:30pm at the Hornsby Bend biosolid plant, 2210 South FM 973. The second will be Aug. 14 at the Waller Creek Center, 625 E. 10th Street. For more information, call 239-5003.

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

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