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Judge rejects Republicans’

Wednesday, November 13, 2002 by

Arguments against ordinance

But Nowlin suggests redrafting of parts of ordinance

It was apparent from the beginning that attorneys for the Travis County Republican Party would have no easy task convincing Judge James Nowlin to extend a temporary restraining order against enforcement of the City of Austin’s sign ordinance. At the end of the hearing, the judge said he would issue his written ruling in a few days, indicating that he would no longer enjoin the city from enforcing the ordinance. However, Nowlin said that the city’s lawyers need to rewrite certain sections of the regulations. Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd said, “We’re pleased with the way the hearing went, and it looks as if in a day or two we'll be able to get back to removing signs from the right-of-way.” He said the city would take the judge’s comments into account.

The Republicans were granted a TRO in October to prevent the city’s “Sign-Off” day—which would have meant that thousands of political signs would be removed from both the right-of-way and private property. The concern at the time was with those signs on private property, said Jennifer Riggs, attorney for the plaintiffs. She said she had agreed with attorneys for the city that yesterday’s injunction hearing would cover only the question of whether the city can remove signs that violate the ordinance but are on private property.

Riggs said the ordinance disallows signs to be positioned between 30 inches and 9 feet above the ground within 12 feet of the right-of-way. Nowlin asked Pete Kennedy, attorney for the city, whether there is a procedure by which a property owner could get a variance from the regulation and Kennedy said there is.

Nowlin said, “If I were king of the world, regardless of the law, I would do away with all signs. But I am concerned” about the city’s right to regulate individual homeowners’ rights to place signs in their yards.

The city should “do a little work to clean up this ordinance,” Nowlin told the lawyers. He suggested providing an exception to the general rules about signs that would apply during election season and extending for a few weeks thereafter. Later in the hearing, the judge addressed the sign-off directly. “I’d be very surprised if other cities scheduled their (sign clean-ups) 30 days before the election. To schedule it when it was scheduled was very suspicious. It was a big error. You’re just asking for trouble. It’s the kind of policy that engenders litigation.”

Bill Aleshire, also representing the plaintiffs, told In Fact Daily, “Of course we’re disappointed that the restraining order was not extended, but not shocked by it . . . The judge expressed our sentiments in his admonition to the City of Austin that they really need to consider revising that ordinance . . . This ordinance is far broader an intrusion on private property expression of free speech than what came out in this hearing today.” Riggs said, “The case isn’t over, and we are mostly concerned that this is not a reasonable time-place restriction as applied to private property . . . I think there’s still a lot of room to talk to the city and I think the city recognizes there are a lot of problems with the ordinance.”

Neighbors' valid petition against office zoning carries the day

Consultant Jim Bennett tried to convince the City Council to overlook a valid petition from neighbors of a North Austin spa and swimming pool supply store, but failed and ended last week’s Council meeting in zoning purgatory. Bennett said his client had purchased the property after being assured there was plenty of parking, and which a cursory glance appeared to confirm. However, the parking lot at 1703 Palo Duro Road was in fact zoned MF-3, not appropriate for parking. Bennett argued that the property had been used as a parking lot for the last 30 years and it would work a hardship on his client to deny him the requested GO (general office) zoning. Staff recommended NO (neighborhood office).

Neighbors were concerned that any additional commercial zoning would threaten the neighborhood, which is only one block from busy Koenig Lane. The Zoning and Platting Commission recommended that the property be designated NO-MU-CO. The commission recommended that the conditional overlay restrict the use of the property to accessory parking and civic uses, and asked that there be a 10-foot vegetative buffer along the edge of the property adjoining neighbors’ residences. In addition, the ZAP said any residential use should be limited to a single house.

Alice Glasco, director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department noted that there was a valid petition with 22 percent of the surrounding neighbors signing.

Bennett told the Council, “We don’t have any problems with the Zoning and Platting Commission recommendation. We just want to use the parking lot.”

Richard Brock, president of the Brentwood Neighborhood Association, said, “We just don’t want additional commercial zoning on that street, Palo Duro . . . We just don’t want it. We have MF-3 zoning now and we’re really hesitant to give that up.”

Neighbor Don Leighton Burwell said, “I am really sad that this is having to be considered. It seems like we have a wound in our neighborhood: the CS zoning.” He said the conditional overlay would be like “trying to put a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid on a Band-Aid.”

Mona Sanchez, who lives with her family on Palo Duro Road, agreed. “We feel like taking away the MF-3 would deteriorate the residential buffer . . . I am not opposed to the new owner using the parking lot if the MF-3 remained.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said the case illustrated a need for staff and the Planning Commission to look once again at the question of why parking for businesses on adjacent sites is required to have office zoning, especially since a change of owners or tenants could then mean a “real office” might be constructed. She asked Glasco to talk to the appropriate Planning Commission committee about finding “innovative and creative” ways to deal with such accessory parking problems in the City Code. “It’s come up often enough and there’s never an answer about what we could do. So in terms of Neighborhood Planning, I think this will be an important issue as well—not just in this one instance.”

Council Member Raul Alvarez said he had met with the applicant and was sympathetic to his problem. However, he said the previous zoning law which allowed for parking for a bridge club would not have accommodated commercial parking either. He then indicated that he could not support the zoning change. Goodman suggested an indefinite postponement of the matter, indicating that she could not vote for the zoning change. Bennett seemed on the verge of rejecting the offer when Mayor Gus Garcia told him, “You don’t have six votes. It doesn’t mean it won’t come back.” The Mayor said there could be a code amendment to address the issue, or “you have a choice, you can withdraw it.”

Bennett finally said he would accept the indefinite postponement.

Environmental, economic concerns top list of questions

TxDOT's Turnpike Authority Division will hold the first of two design charettes tonight to discuss the aesthetic qualities of the State Highway 130 toll project.

County commissioners will not offer any recommendations until next week, but the first charette is scheduled for 6pm tonight at Del Valle High School, 5201 Ross Road. A second is scheduled at 6pm on Nov. 19 at Hutto High School, 101 FM 685.

The goal of the charettes is to review and analyze aesthetic considerations associated with the toll project, according to Elaine Wray of Travis County’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department. The turnpike authority has set aside $5 million, with an additional $10 million for enhancements. CAMPO funding could also leverage potential projects.

Early recommendations from county staff include the addition of bicycle/pedestrian lanes from Northeast Metro Park to Old Settlers Trail in Round Rock, Wray said. The county estimates it would cost $750,000 for a granite path and $1.8 million for a concrete path.

The county is not offering to fund the project by suggesting a cost, Wray said. The cost estimates simply are intended to give the state an estimate. But she added that the state would favor projects that connect to existing projects where governments already have committed funding, such as the Northeast Metro Park.

Travis County staff also recommended three pedestrian bridges under the vehicular crossings of Onion Creek, the Colorado River and Gilleland Creek. These pedestrian bridges would be similar to the pedestrian bridge under MoPac at Town Lake, Wray said.

The county also recommended the elimination or reduction of highway-related lighting along SH 130 between the Colorado River and State Highway 71, below the vista of Travis County’s Southeast Metro Park. The county will also suggest a small boat ramp at the Colorado River, possibly funded in conjunction with the Lower Colorado River Authority. The county estimates the ramp could cost about $540,000.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner suggested the term should not be aesthetics but “best practices in urban design planning.” Trails and bridges should be part of the overall master plan and vision of the project, she said.

Rep. Mike Krussee (R-Round Rock) suggested banning billboards along SH 130 altogether, Sonleitner said. The strategy makes sense, she said, adding that it’s easier to ban billboards early than “to have to buy them out after the fact.”

Sonleitner was also concerned that TxDOT intends to place a maintenance facility somewhere in Travis County. That maintenance facility should be placed somewhere where “it’s not a blight on the landscape or somebody else’s landscape,” she said.

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis added that the design of SH 130 should be as resident-friendly as possible. Community concerns need to be addressed, Davis said.

County Judge Sam Biscoe suggested, and commissioners agreed, that a list of recommendations drafted by TNR staff should be presented to the full court next week for approval. He suggested that the approved recommendations should be shared with Williamson County and presented to CAMPO.

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

Chamber chooses new leader . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce announced yesterday that Michael W. Rollins will take over as President and CEO of the chamber on Dec. 16. Rollins is former president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and is credited with increasing that group’s operating revenues from $3.5 million to more than $18 million in 12 years. He will replace Mark Hazelwood, who is stepping down . . . Austin open to clean energy industry . . . A report from the Austin Clean Energy Initiative and the University of Texas’ IC2 Institute shows that the educated workforce and high quality of life in Central Texas could help position the region as a leader in the growing field of clean energy. “No state can claim that they are the future center for this industry cluster, and shame on us if we don’t try,” said Council Member Will Wynn. “The City of Austin will do our part to be a partner in this effort.” Austin already has a national reputation for its support of energy from renewable sources, thanks in part to Austin Energy’s Green Choice Program . . . Name change possible . . . Council members want to change the name and expand the focus of the MBE/WBE Council Subcommittee. Chair Raul Alvarez, with the support of members Danny Thomas and Betty Dunkerley, wants to rename it the Small Business and Community Development Subcommittee. The group would focus on small business and community development programs, as well as the issue of gentrification. Representatives from the Austin Black Contractors Association, however, did not welcome the proposal. Carol Hadnot said the move would shift the focus of the committee away from minority businesses . . . Brown Santa starts drive . . . Travis County will kick off its Brown Santa program on Monday at the new Brown Santa Warehouse. The warehouse is located at 6110 Trade Center Drive, Suite 100. The warehouse will open at 6:30pm . . . Jail work recognized . . . Travis County Commissioners Court recognized Wilson Andrews for his years of leadership as the chairman of the Community Justice Center Advisory Committee. Andrews’ work focused on the rehabilitation of Travis County jail inmates . . . Barshop named to rail board . . . The San Antonio City Council unanimously approved the creation of the Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail District late last week. The council has appointed former Corridor Council Chairman Sam Barshop to the commuter rail board, along with Council Member Carroll Schubert. The City of Austin appointed oil industry executive Sid Covington to the board on the same day last week . . . Freight line study approved . . . The Texas Turnpike Authority reached an agreement last week with its contractors to study the feasibility of putting a new freight line into the right-of-way of the proposed State Highway 130 project. That’s good news to Travis County Commissioners Court, which lobbied for the study as a way to take freight traffic off inner-city roads. Preliminary feasibility reports are due in January, with a final report in April.

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

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