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Landowner plans both single-family and multi-family units

Friday, November 22, 2002 by

The City Council gave preliminary approval yesterday for a zoning change that will allow both single-family houses and multi-family units on a 13 acre tract on Riverside Drive once proposed to be a horse racing park. The Montopolis neighborhood opposed the horse racing plan and the city did a housing feasibility study of the area to determine whether it should purchase the tract for low-income housing. (See In Fact Daily Aug. 2, 2001, Aug. 12, 2002.)

At the time the area was also involved in the neighborhood planning process. Since the plan has been approved, the owners, T.C. and Robert Steiner, were required to seek an amendment to the plan as well as a zoning change. Even though the city decided not to pursue purchase of the property, the city’s Smart Housing office is supporting the landowner’s desire to put housing on the tract.

Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department Director Alice Glasco explained that that the Zoning and Platting Commission had recommended MF-3-CO with a limit of 1200 units. The recommendation would allow construction of both single-family and multi-family units, but no more than 720 apartments would be allowed. The neighborhood planning team would have preferred a scenario allow more home ownership opportunities in the area, according to staff comments.

Glasco said one problem previously facing the property owner was the CITGO pipeline through the land. However, Glasco said the company has officially abandoned the pipeline and is willing to release the easement. That information makes part of the property previously recommended for office uses suitable for housing. She asked the Council to approve the zoning with several conditions, including a 100-foot setback from the Austin Energy easement running through the property.

John Joseph, Jr., representing the property owner, said no scientific evidence had been presented for the setback. He said if Austin Energy needs an additional setback, then that should be negotiated with the property owner, not made part of the zoning. “It’s a precarious balance between the amount of space and number of units,” being built, he said, “especially since my client is planning on having so much single-family. . . Requiring (the setback) now would be unfair,” he said, and could “jeopardize the development. In all other aspects, we’re in absolute agreement with staff.”

Council Member Raul Alvarez said he would like to see the overall number of units reduced in order to make the property fit better into the neighborhood plan. He asked whether any “affordable” units were planned for the tract and Joseph answer ‘yes.’

Alvarez said, “I’m supportive of what we’ve talked about. I think you’ve worked well with PODER and the staff, but I would like to see that number coming down—from 1200 to 1,000.” Joseph said there would be some flexibility on the overall number. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said, “Before I came on this side of the dais, I was on the other side.” In her previous job as Assistant City Manager, Dunkerley said she had tried hard to move units around “to make the cash flow OK and…I know it’s hard to do up here, but we really do need to . . . make something that makes sense economically.”

Joseph said he agreed with her assessment, but added that the developer would probably not want to build as many multi-family units as requested.

Alvarez moved approval of the staff/ZAP recommendation on first reading, with a total number of units limited to 1,000 and multi-family units limited to 500. Dunkerley seconded the motion. The Council approved the motion 6-0 with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman out of town.

Council votes 5-1, with Wynn dissenting

Austin drivers may see some relief from the frequent street cuts by telecommunications companies installing new fiber-optic cable and telephone lines downtown. The City Council on Thursday approved changes to the city ordinance regulating the excavation of city streets by utilities, cable companies, telephone companies, and others.

The Council heard the initial proposal for changes to the rules in April, but complaints about the increase in the number of companies digging into Austin’s streets date back more than two years (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 29, 2000 ). While downtown drivers may be frustrated at the traffic delays caused by work crews, Mayor Gus Garcia said the city was simply moving to protect its investment. “We’re trying to coordinate the cuts appropriately, and make sure that when they’re made…do not decrease the life of the street,” he said. “We have a big investment in those streets, and when somebody cuts the street and doesn’t repair it properly, it reduces the life of the street. That means the taxpayers have to pay for those repairs.” Scheduling the installation of underground cables will allow the city to prevent streets from being repeatedly cut, in contrast to the current system under which competing companies installing cable in the same area each make their own excavations.

Under the new rules, which apply only to central Austin, street excavations of greater than 300 feet will require more advance planning. Companies will have to submit descriptions of their proposed projects, with deadlines set on January 1st and July 1st. “If a new customer asks for new facilities to be constructed on January 10th, we don’t have the ability to start building any facilities for that customer until after the review period has ended in late July,” argued attorney Brad Bayliff. Bayliff represents a coalition of telecommunication companies, known as Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLEC’s), including Time Warner, Qwest Communications, and XO Texas. “We don’t have the luxury of being able to forecast what our customer demand will be,” Bayliff said. “If we can’t build to meet customer demand, we can’t compete. This restricts customer choice by keeping new competitive providers out of the market, and it also delays the provision of service to customers.”

City staff told Council members that the delays, if any, would be minimal and would affect a small number of projects. Bill Gardner, division manager for the Construction Inspection Division in the Public Works Department, said it takes about 90 days to get a routine excavation scheduled. Projects over 300 feet, he said, can take between four and five months. He estimated that less than one percent of projects initiated by private companies run longer than 300 feet. In addition, Assistant City Attorney Sonny Hood told Council members the ordinance allowed for companies to appeal to the Director of Public Works and the City Manager if they need an emergency waiver from the requirements. “We believe there are sufficient fail-safes in this ordinance to allow telecommunication and cable providers to continue the timely service they’ve been requested to do.”

Other provisions of the ordinance include a clause allowing the city to fine companies for the loss of street use and reduction in street life and a requirement that companies provide a damage mitigation plan. All these restrictions, said Bayliff, would make it more difficult for new companies to install cable downtown and thereby provide a competitive advantage to companies that have already installed cable or fiber-optic lines. “We believe this makes it a potential violation of the federal telecommunications act and state law as a barrier for CLEC’s to enter the market,” he said. He was joined in that objection by Henry Flores with Sprint Communications. “What this ordinance provides are artificial barriers to entry to competitors who are trying to provide state-of-the-art services to consumers,” he said.

Hood assured Council members the ordinance would comply with state and federal law. He also rebuffed charges from the telecommunications representatives that they had been excluded from the process of drafting the new regulations. “We had asked each of the providers to give us information about what is the average length of excavation that’s required to provide service to typical customers,” he said. “When that was not forthcoming, we went back into our own archives.”

Council Member Will Wynn, along with the Downtown Austin Alliance, took exception to the provision in the ordinance that required the extra coordination by telecommunications companies downtown. Other parts of the city which don’t face the same requirements, they argued, would then gain an advantage in the effort to lure new companies. “Timely access to competitive telecommunications networks is a critical component in downtown’s ability to compete with other locations,” said Thomas Butler of the DAA. “It’s important that downtown development not be impeded by unreasonable regulation, nor should downtown be singled out for regulation.”

The Council vote on the new rules for street case was 5-1, with Wynn opposed and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman absent. Garcia said the Council will review the ordinance in six months to determine how it’s working and if any changes are needed.

Commission hopes redrafting can help existing homeowners

It took two-and-a-half hours, but after a long public hearing and discussion, the Planning Commission voted unanimously (8-0) Wednesday night to recommend the city’s proposed pipeline ordinance with conditions. Commissioners said they liked the language of the Environmental Board’s recommendation from last week so much they adopted it along with a couple of provisions of their own. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 14, 2002 .)

Commissioner Rhonda Pratt made a motion to accept the Environmental Board’s recommendation as written, and Commissioners Maggie Armstrong and Michael Casias added friendly amendments to tack on new conditions. Armstrong sought to include a provision for rebates to homeowners who live within the proposed restricted area of a pipeline. Since many of those property owners voiced strong objection to the proposed ordinance, claiming new restrictions would devalue their property and make additions or remodeling costs prohibitive, Armstrong and other commissioners thought financial assistance from the city could help mitigate the injustice.

But Assistant City Attorney Mitzi Cotton said there would be problems with a rebate program. “That’s a really tricky area,” she said. So the first condition became a request for the City Council to consider a fee-waiver program for homeowners subject to restrictions of the ordinance.

The commission also recommended adding a public review process to decisions on insurance matters related to hazardous liquid pipelines. As the ordinance is currently written, the Director of Financial and Administrative Services has final authority on decisions relating to insurance.

The ordinance would require new construction to meet strict standards based on a minimum one-hour evacuation time in the event of a leak or fire associated with the pipeline. No new construction would be allowed within 200 feet of a pipeline without meeting certain standards for early detection and warning of a leak or fire. The language governing construction applies to additions and renovations as well as new construction.

Commissioner Chris Riley said he liked the Environmental Board’s recommendation because it seems to be “meeting the intent of the ordinance with less of a burden.” As applied to existing housing, he said, the ordinance is too broad and it would be too much of a burden on homeowners. “What you really need is a case by case review of particular projects,” he said, otherwise “we’re creating more of a problem than it’s worth.”

Casias was in agreement. “Repairing their home is something that should be completely exempted,” he said.

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

City to join Cap Metro in corridor plan . . . Mayor Gus Garcia said yesterday that he will put a resolution on the Council’s Dec. 5th agenda for the city to join Capital Metro in support of planning and redevelopment efforts in the East 4th and 5th Street corridor . . . Kyle to have rehearing on water use . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District’s Board of Directors voted unanimously last night to grant the city of Kyle a rehearing on the fine imposed for overpumping its permit. After conferring with attorney Bill Dugat in executive session, the board agreed on a hearing date of Jan. 16. Board Member Craig Smith said the district received a letter from Kyle City Manager Tom Mattis outlining the city’s water problems. Mattis’ letter indicated that Kyle—which was fined $129,000—made more than $97,000 on the water pumped in excess of its permit . . . Gale to run for Congress . . . Austin’s perennial candidate Jennifer Gale told In Fact Daily that she intends to run for the seat being vacated next summer by Congressman Larry Combest (R-Lubbock). Gale said she would be commuting between West Texas and Austin as she simultaneously runs for Congress and Mayor of Austin. Gale said she would work on oil and gas issues, as well as “improving the agricultural climate in West Texas and in Congress.” Combest is chair of the House Agriculture Committee. No word yet on when that election will be . . . More zoning . . . The City Council approved SF-4A zoning for about 19 acres of land in the 1700-1800 blocks of Dittmar Road. Attorney Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown & Davis was able to win approval on consent after the neighborhood withdrew opposition to the zoning change in return for concessions from the property owner. Suttle promised that developer Stephen Glasgow would design the subdivision so as to prevent cut-through traffic in nearby neighborhoods.

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

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