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The City Council last night approved on second reading an ordinance allowing for amending neighborhood plans, but many questions remain on what the final draft will say.

Friday, December 13, 2002 by

Before the item came up for discussion on second and third reading, three versions were circulating: the agenda back-up, the latest version of the back-up and the proposal with recommendations from the Real Estate Council of Austin.

One of the areas of controversy involves the timing of amendments to neighborhood plans. Attorney Jeff Howard, who represents a number of developers, said the last proposal he had seen would have “a chilling effect on economic development.” Currently, a developer who wants a zoning change that is not in accord with a neighborhood plan can request the change and go through the normal Planning Commission and City Council process. The developer may also be required to prepare an amendment to the neighborhood plan. Several changes have already been approved, although others have been waiting for the city to come up with a process for dealing with such requests.

The ordinance would only allow for amendments to be done at certain times. City staff had proposed twice a year. RECA and other stakeholders had agreed to quarterly amendments, Howard said. He said if neighborhood plan amendments are done too infrequently, the plan “will collapse under its own weight.” He compared it to the outdated method of filing for zoning changes in cycles.

In addition to the quarterly amendment process, the ordinance would allow for certain amendments at any time. The director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department may accept an application for a change if she determines that not taking the application would cause an undue hardship on the applicant or prevent the applicant from addressing a health or safety issue. That part is fairly clear, but the Council also added some provisions to allow amendment if a project would provide significant employment opportunities or promote environmental protection. There is disagreement over how to word a provision relating to amendments that would provide significant transportation benefits.

Paul Hilgers, who is in charge of neighborhood housing for the city, wants to make sure that developers of Smart Growth projects can request a zoning change at any time. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman would like members of the neighborhood planning team to be able to initiate zoning changes at any time also.

Ricardo Solis of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department suggested that staff could make corrections and changes and meet with stakeholders in time to bring the item back for third reading on January 9. Council Member Daryl Slusher said he would prefer to postpone the matter to January 16.

Mayor Gus Garcia will make an announcement next Wednesday on whether he will run for a full term as the head of the seven-member City Council. Garcia’s chief aide, Paul Saldaña, says his boss has been meeting with business and community leaders to elicit their opinions about a race. He reports widespread support for the Mayor to continue in his position.

Garcia seems to enjoy the title and many of the duties of his office. On the other hand, the Mayor will turn 69 next month and has served the city for more than a decade with only a year off between his ‘retirement’ from the Council and his return as Mayor. Saldaña describes his boss as ‘on the fence,’ but the grass looks greener where the action is. If the answer is yes, Council Member Will Wynn will have to decide if he wants to take on a popular leader at a particularly bad time in the city’s economy or wait another three years. Other possible contenders will have to look at the same question.

Other matters: contracts, judges and noise

As expected, the Council picked Hensel Phelps Construction to serve as the construction manager-at-risk for the new City Hall project. That firm received the staff’s recommendation. If the city and the company are unable to reach an agreement, the city would be free to begin negotiations with second-ranked White Construction Company.

The Council bypassed the staff’s recommendation to choose TRC Environmental Corporation to perform environmental remediation, soil monitoring, and other tasks associated with cleaning up a former landfill at Mabel Davis Park. “These are always uncomfortable situations,” Council Member Will Wynn said, noting that TRC’s score on the evaluation matrix was less than five-tenths of a point higher than the second-ranked firm. “We read this qualification matrix a lot and we know the situation here.” Wynn moved to grant the contract to the second-ranked firm, URS Corporation. Mayor Gus Garcia provided a second and the Council approved the deal on a vote of 6-1, with

Council Member Daryl Slusher opposed. The unspoken factor in this case—as it usually is when Council passes over staff’s first choice—was minority participation. A mayoral assistant pointed out that URS was offering 30 percent minority participation, while TRC was offering half that. Participation of women sub-contractors was almost identical, according to written documentation.

With the departure of Judge Elizabeth Earle for the bench of County Criminal Court #7, the Austin Community Court was in need of a new judge. The City Council yesterday approved the selection of Judge Michael Coffey to take over full-time. He has been serving as a regular alternate judge for the Community Court. He’s licensed as both a CPA and an attorney. Judge Coffey received his law degree from Texas Tech University, and also holds degrees from UT and Southwest Texas State University .

Austinites on both sides of the proposed new noise ordinance expressed their concerns to council members Thursday night in a public hearing that included a demonstration by Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman of exactly how loud 85 decibels sounds. Members of the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association both spoke in favor of the new ordinance. Some music-industry figures expressed concerns over enforcement of the new rules, while owners of clubs along Red River pointed out that the ordinance would place restrictions on them but not on their competitors on 6th Street. Some residents called for tougher restrictions on noise that doesn’t come from a commercial establishment. The Council is expected take up the measure for a vote in January. The latest draft of the proposed ordinance can be found at http://www.cityofaustin.org/news/02/downloads/noise7.pdf

Council accepts part, rejects Part of ABIA

First 30 minutes should be free, Council says

Council Members squelched a plan to eliminate free parking at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for visitors who stay less than 30 minutes. The idea was part of a series of proposals to help the airport make up for sagging revenues due to a decline in passenger traffic since September of 2001.

Thirty minutes of free parking was put into place at Mueller Airport to give visitors an alternative to curbside parking when lingering in that area was prohibited as a security measure. Eliminating the freebie, staff estimated, would generate $434,000 per year. But Council Member Daryl Slusher was quick to object. “I think this is going to cause more trouble than it would be worth to get the funds,” said Slusher. “I think we’ll have people parking at the curb or just circling. One of the things I didn’t like about the old airport was the constant recording telling people ‘Don’t park at the curb, don’t smoke while you’re in Austin’. I didn’t think it was a very friendly welcome to the city. I appreciate that the staff is trying to find ways to get funds . . . I just don’t want to go down this route to do it.”

The Council did approve the other two staff recommendations for generating new parking revenue. Implementing a flat daily rate in all surface parking lots is expected to yield an additional $154,000 per year. And changing the formula for rates in the airport parking garage will yield an extra $190,000. “Instead of charging a dollar for each half-hour, you charge two dollars for each full hour,” said Aviation Department Executive Director Jim Smith. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman noted that the proposal would effectively round up the fee for anyone parking more than one hour. “If you were there for one-and-a-half hours, you’d pay two dollars . . . You wouldn’t split it up,” she said. After getting confirmation from Smith, Goodman replied with a succinct “I don’t like that either.”

The two changes to the airport parking fee structure were approved on a vote of 6-1, with Goodman opposed. The total amount of additional revenue expected from both changes is $344,000 per year. The money will go to help pay for security improvements at the airport.

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

Sales tax gloom continues . . . Sales tax revenues for the month of October were down 3.1 percent, or about $480,000, compared to the same month last year, according to acting Assistant City Manager John Stephens. The city has projected a two percent overall growth in sales tax funds for the entire fiscal year. Stephens said the city would continue to keep track of the sales tax, but would not be changing yearly projections based on only one month of data. An increase in other months could offset the loss from October, he noted . . . Our error . . . Randy Erben has not been the city’s lobbyist in the past—but not for lack of trying. The city had asked Erben to assist in promoting its views, but other obligations prevented that. As for future conflicts of interest, John Hrncir, governmental relations officer for the city, said they will be handled on a case by case basis . . . Appointments . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission now has nine members. Yesterday, the Council appointed John-Michael Cortez on the recommendation of Council Member Raul Alvarez and Clarke Hammond on the recommendation of Council Member Daryl Slusher .The Council also appointed Cathy Olive to the Animal Advisory Commission and reappointed Valerie Malone to the Commission for Women. Felipe Camacho was appointed by consensus to the Community Development Commission. . . . Dailey heads for Houston . . . Linda Dailey, Council Member Danny Thomas’ executive assistant, said good-bye to Council colleagues and received the customary plaque and good wishes of her co-workers as she begins a new adventure. She will return to nursing and assist her church, which has a branch in the town of Alvin, she said. Dailey thanked all the Council members, their assistants, members of the media and former Council Member Eric Mitchell, who served as her mentor when she was very new to politics . . . Now, they tell us . . . Top-level city officials John Stephens and Jan Hilton never let reporters in on their secret romance. But now that she’s retiring, the secret is out. Jan Hilton Stephens is retiring from the city after 23 years. She has worked for eight different city departments, including her current position in Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services. Mayor Gus Garcia and Council Member Betty Dunkerley presented her with a Distinguished Service Award Thursday night. “I started out as an intern and thought it would only be a couple of months,” Hilton Stephens said. “Here it is 23 years later. I never seemed to tire of the opportunities that the city has to provide and the wonderful, talented people you get to work with. It’s going to be difficult to find an employer like the City of Austin” . . . Please take it off our hands . . . The full City Council approved a resolution endorsing the site of the unfinished Intel building as the preferred location for a new federal courthouse. “They have been very good about public input and doing something about it,” Mayor Garcia said of the General Services Administration, which is in charge of finding a site for a new courthouse. Garcia also said placing the courthouse at the intersection of Fifth and San Antonio would have multiple benefits. “For Austin, it removes an eyesore . . . for Intel, it removes an embarrassment.” The Intel site is one of three being considered. Federal officials plan to make a decision by March of 2003 . . . Apartment complex for low-income residents opens . . . The Austin Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) will be celebrating the opening of Riverside Meadows, a bond-financed, apartment complex for moderate and low-income Austin residents at 1301 Montopolis Drive at 10am today. The complex offers 240 units developed under Smart Housing guidelines . . . Cave preserve signing . . . Officials from Williamson County will join members of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department at 9:30am Saturday to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that sets up a conservation bank and karst preserve system for three endangered cave critters—the Bone Cave Harvestman Spider, the Coffin Cave Mold Beetle and The Tooth Cave Ground Beetle. And no, we did not make up these names. The preliminary protected area is 70 to 100 acres. The total area to be protected will be determined under FWS guidelines. The signing will take place at the Southwest Regional Park in Williamson County. For a map and directions, see www.wilcokarst.org .

© 2002 In Fact

News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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