Friday, January 31, 2003 by

Changes to noise ordinance also approved

The Austin Music Network got an extended lease on life Thursday night as Council members approved $506,250 in funding to keep the network on the air for the rest of the fiscal year. But even those Council members who supported the network warned that funding in next year’s budget would be difficult, if not impossible, to find.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman led the charge to keep the network alive, describing it as a valuable asset to the city. “You could say that AMN is a diamond in the rough . . . we’ve held onto it all these years, knowing that it could be better than it is, with the resources that any network needs to come out with quality broadcasting,” Goodman said. “As long as we have held this in trust . . . why would we now give that up when we’re in the middle of an economic development initiative relative to the very same creativity that we’re talking about showcasing and marketing on this channel?”

But Council Member Will Wynn argued that the funding for the network should be stopped immediately, since the city was unable to determine the economic impact of the channel or even the number of people watching. In addition, Wynn pointed to the citywide budget crunch as a reason to divert the funds to other projects. “If we’re not going to fund it in eight months, good government tells me not to fund it today,” Wynn said. “The budget discussions this spring and summer are going to be painful. Basic services at best will be the only things surviving this budget discussion.” Wynn moved to deny the measure to fund the network, but his motion died for lack of a second. Goodman moved approval of the funding, which passed 6-1. The Council also included several provisions recommended by the Austin Music Commission, most importantly the directive that the network conduct a viewer survey by May 1st.

Even those Council members supporting the network sounded a warning about continuing the funding through next year’s budget cycle. “I think Council Member Wynn is right . . . we’re not going to be able to find any money to fund operations next year,” Goodman said. Instead of city funding, Council members would like AMN to develop its own, private funding sources similar to public radio or television stations.

AMN President Woody Roberts said he was happy with the Council’s decision. “This is another very positive move,” he said. “The Council realizes the importance of the Austin Music Network to the music community . . . we are an economic development program . . . and if there’s one thing we need right now, it’s economic development.”

Council members launched the City Manager’s office on an effort to strengthen the city’s ordinance on smoking in public places. Mayor Gus Garcia expects the revisions to be ready for a Council vote by mid-April. The Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition is already mobilizing to support new smoking restrictions. “The purpose of the ordinance is to protect public health, and our current policy falls far short of that goal,” Dr. Jim Pfluger told Council members.

The new noise ordinance passed on all three readings Thursday night after months of negotiations between the city, downtown residents, nightclub owners and musicians. The parties began working on changes to the ordinance last summer, but the initial proposals proved unsatisfactory to all sides. They worked for months to craft the document presented to the Council last night. It will reduce the allowable level of noise in residential areas to 75 decibels instead of 85 and will allow police officers to measure sound anywhere along the property line of a music venue instead of only the front door.

The key provisions of the ordinance remain unchanged from the form in which a task force presented them last month. There were four proposed amendments, of which the Council adopted three. For purposes of enforcement, the SXSW music festival will be exempted from the provisions of the ordinance. During the annual music festival, outdoor music venues will be allowed to operate until 2:00am for the entire week. Other amendments to the ordinance adopted by the Council include one allowing outdoor music venues to apply for a variance from some of the general provisions of the ordinance, and one changing the language defining a residential area. The ordinance also defines two areas downtown in which nightclubs will be allowed to operate amplified sound until 2am seven days a week. Business owners outside of those two areas, including some along Red River, objected to being omitted, saying that the earlier cut-off times imposed on them would be detrimental to business. The Council considered, but ultimately rejected, a proposal to allow those businesses to file for a variance from that portion of the rule.

Finally, despite protests from the residents of Webberville, Council members voted unanimously to take in more than 1600 acres near the area that is up for an incorporation vote tomorrow. The city owns land in the area, and didn’t want that land to wind up in the Village of Webberville’s ETJ if the residents do vote to form their own municipality. Hector Gonzalez, who’s running unopposed for Mayor of Webberville, asked the Council to delay their vote until after the February 1st election. “They’ve owned that property for 20 years, they could have done this at any time in the past 20 years . . . but they chose to wait until the middle of our election . . . after early voting, after votes have been cast with the expectation of having an ETJ,” Gonzalez said. He asked Council members to wait two weeks, and take over the territory should Webberville’s incorporation bid fail.

Mayor Gus Garcia offered condolences as the Council approved the action during the consent agenda, noting that it was city policy to keep the land it owns under its control. City Manager Toby Futrell pointed out that the city could have taken in 15 acres that some Webberville residents hope will be in their new village, but chose not to do so in deference to those residents.

Fearing that introduction of grass carp into the waters of Lake Austin will eliminate native sport fish, a group of bass fishermen filed suit yesterday to prevent the City of Austin from releasing 1600 hydrilla-eating carp as early as this weekend. The Matagorda Bay Foundation, an environmental group that works to protect coastal waters, joined the fishermen, known as Sensible Management of Aquatic Resources Team (SMART), in the suit. The city had planned the release as part of a plan to rid the lake of hydrilla, which has plagued Lake Austin property owners, boaters and swimmers. The plaintiffs also sued the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and Mike Heitz, director of the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department (WPDR). Heitz was sued because he is the head of the department and the state issued a permit to him to release 6400 sterile grass carp into the lake.

Richard Lowerre, attorney for the fishermen, said a state district judge would make a decision on whether to issue a temporary restraining order after a hearing scheduled for 9:30am today. Lynne Lightsey, spokesperson for WPDR, said the city’s lawyers would be in court this morning to defend the hydrilla reduction plan. Although the carp are enroute to Austin, the department has contingency plans in case the fish cannot be released upon arrival, according to Lightsey.

In their petition, the fishermen and environmentalists claim that TPWD should not have issued the permit to the city allowing introduction of the carp into the lake. They complain that the department violated procedural requirements and that the permit “is not based on a valid lake management plan as required by TPWD or is contrary to any such plan that applies to Lake Austin.”

The fishermen are especially worried that Lake Austin will lose its bass as the carp destroy their habitat. The Matagorda Bay Foundation is described as “a non-profit member organization made up of individuals who use the Matagorda Bay system for recreation and scientific studies, including fishing, boating and bird watching.” They are worried that the fish will escape and make their way down the Colorado River to Matagorda Bay, where they could damage that ecosystem. (See In Fact Daily, January 28, 2003. )

According to Earl Chilton, an aquatic plant control specialist for TPWD, “Grass carp do not seem to impact native (North American) fish species directly, through predation or competition. However, their influence may be strongly felt in that vegetation removal can affect a wide variety of species by destroying feeding and nursery habitat. As a result, grass carp should not be stocked in areas where a decline in plant-associated fish species is of concern.” http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish/infish/forms/gcarp.htm

But city scientist Mary Gilroy notes that TPWD issued the permit to stock the grass carp after extensive consultation. The plan has been approved by all the agencies concerned, she said. “The idea that (the grass carp) would get rid of vegetation and all the other fish is misinformation.” While Lake Conroe is an example of what not to do with grass carp, she said, the fish have been successfully introduced into lakes in Texas as well as many other states without damaging the native fish populations. She said TPWD had provided information to the city indicating that Lake Pinkston, near Center in Shelby County, had 60 percent coverage of hydrilla before grass carp were stocked in 1997. The fish were released at 6.5 fish per acre and three years later the hydrilla had decreased by 20 percent. In Cypress Springs Lake, in Franklin County, she said, carp were stocked at five fish per acre and the hydrilla coverage declined from 14 percent to four percent.

The number of fish that would be introduced into Lake Austin is much smaller than the number put into Lake Conroe, according to Gilroy. “Lake Conroe has been used many times as the wrong thing to do with grass carp,” Gilroy said. More than 270,000—30 fish per acre—were initially released into Lake Conroe. By contrast, Gilroy said the city intends to insert only about five fish per acre of hydrilla—1600 grass carp—during the initial stocking.

“Florida has used grass carp for many years, as have other states,” she said. “Lake Conway (was) stocked at 50 fish per acre,” 10 times the number the city plans to put into Lake Austin, and “they have been able to maintain a very low biomass of hydrilla over 15 years with no impact on other species.”

She explained that under the city’s plan, fish would be added now while the lake is lowered. After it returns to a normal level sometime in February, the city would evaluate the amount of hydrilla and do mechanical harvesting of plants on the surface for three months.

John Wedig, senior aquatic biologist for LCRA, described the problem with using the mechanical hydrilla harvester. “Each fragment more than an inch long stands an 80 percent chance of becoming a new plant.” Lake Austin currently has about 300 acres of hydrilla, but approximately 1200 acres are free of the noxious weed. If extensive cutting is done, he said, the problem could become much worse.

Lowerre has argued that the city should wait until it has the results of two other management techniques before releasing the fish. The lake has been lowered and hydrilla flies were added to the natural population in October. Wedig explained that the flies lay eggs in the hydrilla and when they hatch the larvae kill the top 18-24 inches of the weed.

Gilroy said the city, the LCRA and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department had agreed on an integrated plan to reduce the hydrilla and none of the agencies are interested in waiting to see the other techniques pan out.

The LCRA decided to get serious about hydrilla after last summer’s floods. Wedig said a large chunk of hydrilla piled up against the floodgates, acting as a baffle during the heavy rains. At the time, LCRA had opened four floodgates, and homes along Lake Austin were flooded. During the 1991, he said, “We had five floodgates open and no homes were flooded.” So the agency blames the recent flooding on the hydrilla. In addition, he said the hydrilla caused a shutdown of LCRA’s hydrogenation units at Tom Miller Dam for about three weeks last year.

ZAP rejected CS-1 request after hearing complaints from neighbors

After lining up Tuesday night to complain to the Zoning and Platting Commission about drinking, prostitution and loud noise surrounding the La Costa restaurant at 9120 I-35, neighbors saw police swoop in on the building Wednesday and seize 40 pounds of marijuana and make two arrests.

The owner of the property where the restaurant operated had gone to the ZAP to request a zoning change from CS to CS-1. That change, said agent Jim Bennett, would allow the restaurant greater flexibility in the ratio of alcohol to food sold. Because of the low price of food at the restaurant, Bennett argued on Tuesday, it was necessary to have CS-1 to avoid accidentally going over the ratio laid out in the city’s zoning code.

But neighbors were adamantly opposed to increasing the sale of beer or liquor at the establishment, which they described as causing problems for surrounding residents and businesses. Peter Patel, owner of the Austin Village Motor Inn, told commissioners the La Costa was the source of constant complaints from his customers since the restaurant had installed an outdoor volleyball court and large-screen tv. “We have a problem with loud noise and screaming,” Patel said. “People drink outside in the parking lot . . . some of the cans come onto my property.” Neighbor Jeff Morrison was more direct. “I come home every night and see prostitutes at the corner and people selling drugs. It’s just not a very safe place to be right now,” Morrison said. “The restaurant really doesn’t bring in a high class of people at all. They’re trying to play to the lowest common denominator . . . the person who wants a really cheap beer. If they’re going to start selling a lot more liquor and a lot less food, that really just brings one type of person to your establishment. I really think the beer drinkers and hell raisers should go somewhere else.”

Commissioner John-Michael Cortez defended the business, saying it should not be penalized for the condition of the surrounding neighborhood or for offering affordable entrees. But commission Chair Betty Baker argued against the zoning change. The current CS zoning, she said, was a fair and reasonable use. The commission sided with Baker in a motion to reject the zoning change 5-1, with Commissioner Cortez opposed.

Many of those same neighbors who had opposed the zoning change gathered outside the restaurant on Wednesday as police arrested Armando Jaimes and Jesus Mendoza. “Officers received a tip that the people who were running the restaurant could be involved in smuggling some marijuana,” said APD Lt. Manuel Pena. “They were basically conducting the activity right out here in the back of the restaurant. They were trying to put about 40 pounds of marijuana in some old stoves back there.” The two men, whom police believe to be the owner and an employee of the restaurant, apparently didn’t bother to conceal their activity. “Back in the back, they’re basically in a public place,” Lt. Pena said. “The officer just walked up, observed what they were doing, and placed them under arrest. If they were trying to be smart about it, they wouldn’t be doing it in the back of the restaurant where anyone could see them.” The two men were charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, which is a felony. The 40 pounds of marijuana could have a street value of up to $20,000.

Neighbor Jeff Morrison was relieved to see police taking action in the area, which has been a target of the department’s efforts because of the prevalence of prostitution and drug dealing. “The property they’re on is frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes night and day, day and night. They said they don’t have anything to do with it . . . they don’t condone drugs and drug sales . . . less than 24-hours later, there they are,” Morrison said. “I’m glad to see this getting taken care of and I’m glad to see the police doing their job.”

Bennett said he withdrew the zoning change request early Wednesday morning since it had received such a resounding defeat at the ZAP.

Funding priorities more important than every, says business group

Funding the state’s initiative to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air mandate is a top priority for the key eight Chambers of Commerce in the state.

The coalition of chambers— Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio—represent the business interests of 60 percent of Texans. At a news conference at the Capitol this week, the leaders outlined four key priorities for the session. Along with the $376 million in funding for air quality over the coming biennium, the chambers also support continued funding for specific goals in transportation, job training and education.

Bill Thornton, president of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the Metro 8, had to face some pointed questions from reporters, who asked how the chambers could demand so much in a year with such serious revenue shortfalls. Thornton replied that now, even more than during the state’s flush economic years, is the time to prioritize funding needs.

“It’s incumbent upon us, given the challenges that we face this session, to meet the challenges head on and to continue to fund those things that guarantee a prosperous future for a state facing a shortfall,” Thornton said after the press conference.

Sen. Chris Harris (R-Arlington) intends to spearhead the clean air funding efforts this session. Funding for air quality, at $188 million a year, will cover both monitoring of air pollution and ozone depletion. It also offers incentives for businesses replacing old equipment with more fuel-efficient vehicles and equipment. To meet the plan’s demands, funding will have to continue through fiscal year 2008.

Five of the eight cities represented by the Metro 8 currently cannot meet federal air quality standards, according to the group. If the problem is not addressed this session, it could mean the end of both highway funding and mobility improvements to the state, Thornton said. One economic study puts the eventual loss of both highway funds and industrial development at somewhere between $24 and $35 billion over the next decade.

For Wes Jury, president of the Arlington chamber, the issue is economic development and job training. High sales tax revenues through the ‘80s masked a stagnant property base, Jury said. The city has lost almost half of the companies claiming triple Freeport exemptions, down to 190 companies this year from a high of 400 in 1995.

The only way to address the issue is to boost the city’s tax base and infrastructure. That means more money for transportation and greater efforts at job training. And, says Jury, it needs to be smart job training. Training offered by the Texas Department of Economic Development’s Smart Jobs program has been hamstrung by inflexibility. Federal block grants for job training need to be replaced with employee-driven incentives, Jury said.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is focused on education. Despite being the home of the University of Texas, the Austin chamber has been focused on boosting the performance of high school students, says public policy director Sandy Hentges. The Greater Austin chamber has sent more than 200 speakers into Austin schools, encouraging students to complete the more rigorous academic programs offered by the state.

Only by providing a wider variety of more demanding academic programs can the city help create a workforce that can be more flexible in the face of employer needs. Potential employees cannot only offer to be trained, they must also be ready to be retrained in a changing economy. The business cycles in technology are now no more than 18 months, demanding new flexibility from companies.

The Metro 8 supports both research and funding for clean air initiatives. Other goals include funding of the voter-approved Texas Mobility Fund ; supporting a strong lead economic development agency with sufficient funding to attract new capital to the state; offering more flexibility in economic incentives; and continued support of access to higher education through the Texas Grants Program.

Thursday, Friday.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Candidates emerge . . . Carl Tepper, a member of the Urban Transportation Commission, and Margot Clarke, former executive director of the League of Conservation Voters of Texas, have filed documents indicating a desire to run for Place 5 on the City Council. Steven R. Swanson also designated himself as campaign treasurer, but did not indicate the office he would be seeking. Activist Robert Singleton is also running for Place 5. Brewster McCracken, who has more name identification than all the other candidates combined from his run against Beverly Griffith and Betty Dunkerley last year, is also seeking the Place 5 seat. Cross-dresser Leslie Cochran joined Council Member Will Wynn, Max Nofziger, Marc Katz, Jennifer Gale, Brad Meltzer and Dale Reed as candidates for Mayor . . . MACC appointments . . . Yesterday the City Council made eight new appointments to the Mexican-American Cultural Center Advisory Board . All the following were appointed by consensus: Martha Cotera, Lola Flores, Frances Jones, Mary Margaret Navar, Stephen Parks, Donato Rodriguez, Clemencia Zapata and Manuel Zuniga . . . Other appointments . . . The Council also reappointed a number of commissioners, including Phillip Reed and Richard Weiss to the Design Commission, Barry Sarma to the Electric Utility Commission, Michelle Brinkman and Michael Dahmus to the Urban Transportation Commission. Brinkman was also reappointed as the UTC’s member of the Downtown Commission. Matthew Hersh and Bobbie Johnson were reappointed to the Community Development Commission and James Hill was reappointed to the Human Rights Commission . . . Voting machinery use approved . . . The City Council yesterday approved a motion to contract with the county to handle future elections through the electronic voting machines used during early voting for the November elections. Council Member Daryl Slusher raised questions about loss of information and the integrity of the voting process, which and City Clerk Shirley Brown answered. Slusher wanted to know if there would be any kind of paper trail generated by the machines. DeBeauvoir explained that each voter gets a receipt after voting showing each of his or her choices. In addition, she said, the machine copies the face of each ballot and it can be printed out in the event of a recount. She also described the stringent requirements that the State of Texas puts on any would be vendor of voting equipment. The city and the county will be negotiating a contract over use of the equipment and county administration of city elections . . . Speak to the government . . . A Sunday ‘Rally for our Rights’ with a long list of Democratic speakers will give folks a chance to listen to music also. The speakers include: Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, Mayor Gus Garcia, Liz Carpenter, former mayor Kirk Watson, Molly Ivins, Ray Marshall, Nelson Linder, Dr. Robert Jensen, Rev. Joe Parker, and Akwasi Evans . Entertainment will be provided by Guy Forsyth, Albert & Gage, Los Lonely Boys, Ruthie Foster, Patrice Pike and the South Austin Jug Band. The rally begins at 2pm at Tony Burger Center . . . Maxey to address Unitarians . . . Former Representative Glen Maxey will be the guest speaker at the Public Affairs Forum held in Howson Hall at the First Unitarian Universalist Church at 11:30am Sunday. The title of his address is Right Turn at the Capitol.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights

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