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North Lamar area neighbors object to change

Thursday, February 27, 2003 by

The Planning Commission on Wednesday rejected a request for CS-1 zoning for 7600 N. Lamar after hearing from neighbors opposed to the opening of a liquor store. City staff had supported the request, citing the surrounding CS zoning and the site’s location at a major intersection.

Property owner Sayed Nicholas told commissioners he had sold a business he owned in the area to buy the lot at Lamar and Morrow Street south of US 183, along with some surrounding lots, with the hope of revitalizing the area. “This corner has become an eyesore,” he said, describing the empty building on the lot and surrounding vacant tracts. “If I can change the zoning to CS-1, it would enable me to open a liquor store. I would like to also build a car wash on the vacant lot next to it.”

That proposal didn’t sit well with neighbors, who decried the additional traffic the businesses would bring. “A major issue is one of accessibility . . . there’s a lack of access for any business on the west side of Lamar from Morrow to Anderson Lane,” said Chip Harris of the Crestview Neighborhood Association. “Crestview is in the middle of its neighborhood planning process. Given the accessibility problems of this site and the high accident rate at this intersection, it is unlikely that the completed plan will recommend CS-1 for this parcel,” he said. Harris asked commissioners to wait until the plan was completed. “During that time, the liquor needs of the neighborhood will not go unmet. There are three other liquor stores within a stone’s throw of this location.”

Other neighborhood residents lined up to support Harris, explaining that the property’s lack of direct access from Lamar would cause more traffic to travel past their homes. “The legal access to this site is so poor that I can’t imagine anybody wanting to put a retail center there and having it be successful,” said homeowner Stephanie Phillips. “If you have to get a volume of cars for a retail business, getting those cars in there legally will be difficult and getting them out will only feed them through the neighborhood.”

Commissioner Dave Sullivan agreed with neighbors and moved to deny the zoning change. “The neighborhood is about to do a plan, and there’s a lot of under-utilized property in the area. There may be a lot of rezoning,” he said. “We should wait until the neighborhood goes ahead with its planning process.” Other commissioners went along with Sullivan, although without much enthusiasm. “I think a series of meetings could have resolved this,” said Commissioner Michael Casias. “For developers in Austin, you really need to involve the neighborhood.” Although Casias voted against the zoning request, he also had a warning for neighbors. “With the existing CS zoning, you could get a much larger car wash on the site which would attract much more traffic.”

The vote to deny the change from CS to CS-1 was 6-1, with Commissioner Matthew Moore opposed. Commissioners Niyanta Spelman and Rhonda Pratt were absent.

Study shows average penalty cut in half in five years

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin Dist. 51) hopes Texas’ revenue shortfall will be the best thing that could happen to the state’s enforcement of environmental laws.

The Alliance for a Clean Texas, a statewide coalition of 21 environmental, religious and public interest groups, released a report Wednesday that alleges the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has failed to enforce state environmental laws, costing the state millions in potential revenue. Even though administrative orders increased between 1996 and 2001, the average penalty assessed fell from $15,000 per order in 1996 to $7,500 in 2001, according to an analysis by Mary Kelly, senior attorney for Environmental Defense and the author of the critical report.

That potentially represents another $6 million per year for the state’s general revenue fund. Such revenue is going to be especially tantalizing during a budget cycle in which so many programs are at risk. The total is almost enough to underwrite the County Indigent Health Care program.

“We’re going to be looking at this much more closely during appropriations,” Rodriguez said. “I think they are realizing that you can only cut so far, and realizing some of these programs to be cut are a lot more than complicated than they appear to be.”

Rodriguez has filed House Bill 877, which would require the TCEQ to recover the economic benefit of polluting. Rodriguez called the bill “simply a matter of fairness.”

In other words, state lawmakers either cut programs or increase revenues. And enforcing standing penalties could be one area of additional revenue that would be painless for the state. Kelly said statistics show that only a third of inspections resulted in Notices of Violation. According to Kelly’s analysis, the number of inspections is declining each year. Deferrals and offsets are cutting into TCEQ fines.

“Having violated the law, only a third of the violators have a chance of getting caught in this state. That’s not that high,” Kelly said. “We don’t get to catch them in the act.”

Kelly does not think penalties should be returned to the TCEQ. While it could be an incentive to the agency, it also provides a conflict of interest. But Kelly does support violators paying their full assessment. A system where an administrative decision can be made to cut penalties is “a system that doesn’t have much credibility,” Kelly said.

TCEQ and the Alliance for A Clean Texas (AACT) agree on the numbers. TCEQ, however, has a different interpretation of what the numbers mean. Ann McGinley, director of enforcement, said penalty amounts are down because the agency has moved more swiftly to assess penalties. Where the agency previously made enforcement measures in the eighth month, it now makes enforcements in the fourth month, McGinley said.

“I think we’ve gotten better. We’re much more responsive,” McGinley said. “We’re also much more aggressive on penalties, which shortens the time before the corrective action.”

AACT has criticized deferrals and offsets offered by the agency. McGinley said those deferrals and offsets have often underwritten environmental projects in the community. Those offsets could include projects such as household collections and wastewater systems.

McGinley added that penalties are sometimes deferred for companies deemed too financially strapped to pay them, but that is based on a contingency that the violator remain in compliance. If the violator falls out of compliance, TCEQ charges the remaining penalty to the violator.

AACT also announced support for the Rodriguez bill. Rodriguez said he still waiting for a sponsor on the Senate side, although a couple of Senators have expressed interest in the legislation.

AACT made a number of enforcement policy recommendations. Among them:

• Penalty policies should be consistent with the authorizing statute, with the consideration that penalties should be stiff enough to deter further violations.

• Texas law and TCEQ penalty policy should be revised to require that administrative penalties recover, to the extent feasible, the quantifiable economic benefit of non-compliance.

• Demonstrated health effects should not be a requirement to declare a nuisance under TCEQ policy. Citizen affidavits should be sufficient to at least issue a Notice of Violation.

• TCEQ should repeal the verbal notification policy and, instead, require that all violations during an inspection be documented in a written Notice of Violation.

• The annual enforcement report should include, by program, information sufficient to determine the percentage of inspections that result in Notices of Violation.

Author says cities and counties should approve each project

A proposal by State Rep. Anna Mowery (R-Fort Worth) to require cities or counties to approve low-income housing projects before they are built met with some support from representatives of the housing industry on Wednesday, but did not set well with governmental officials charged with that housing.

House Bill 398 is Mowery’s response to the Fort Worth Housing Authority’s purchase of the upscale Stonegate Villas Apartments. About 10 percent of the 600 units in Stonegate Villas were set aside for low-income families. Neighbors were furious when they learned that families from the soon-to-be-demolished Ripley Arnold housing project in downtown Fort Worth would be relocated to Stonegate Villas. Both the mayor and the council member of the district where the project was located pled ignorance on the housing authority’s intention to buy the apartment property.

The House Urban Affairs Committee held a brief hearing on the bill Wednesday afternoon, but took no action on the matter.

Mike Dunn of Austin-based Capital Consultants said the committee had the issue fairly pegged as a “Not-In-My-Back-Yard” issue, but instead of opposing Mowery’s bill, he favored it. Every resident should have right to either protest or support a housing project, Dunn said.

“The community needs to have involvement, and if you try to shut the community out in the guise of fair housing, they feel cheated, slighted,” Dunn said. Capital Consultants specializes in the development of mixed-income properties. “The developers need to work with the community to understand their wants and needs.”

Without that community approval, a project can’t succeed, Dunn said. The developer has difficulty filling market-rate units and the community’s worst fear is realized when that developer is forced to fill unfilled units with Section 8 clients. Dunn remarked that developers who fail to work with the community and win neighborhood approval for mixed-use housing set the whole industry back two paces for every step an honest developer puts forward in the low-income housing market.

Joe Bishop, also of Capital Consultants, said he prefers not to have surprises. One affordable housing project Bishop was aware of died Tuesday night because of last-minute politics at a city council meeting. This happened despite the fact that the developer had blended the project into the community. Developers need to know early whether they can win support from all parties involved, instead of waiting for a last-minute decision that could torpedo a valid project, Bishop said.

Under Mowery’s bill, no housing authority could build or purchase an existing property until a public meeting is held. If a permit must be pulled from the city or county, that city or county must send a representative to the meeting and report back the findings to the full council or court. Then the city or county must vote to sign off on the affordable housing project.

Paul Hilgers, director of Austin’s Office of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, told In Fact Daily, “Many of the projects we fund and support require a great many public hearings. Our reality is that it’s people’s perception of a housing authority building that’s going to make it more difficult to locate it in neighborhoods where they need to be.” He said he was not familiar with the legislation, but added, “The question should be how well is it managed and maintained and not who lives there and where do they get their money.”

Mowery pointed out she had six affordable housing projects in her district. Five of those projects sold themselves effectively to the community before moving in and faced no serious opposition, she said. She added that the decision by a housing authority to purchase land or an apartment complex is often out of the public purview because real estate transactions fall under the executive session exception to the Open Meetings Act.

Melvin Braziel, president and CEO of the San Antonio Housing Authority, said the bill puts an onerous burden on those housing authorities that are already doing a good job of reaching the public. It would slow down the transaction process in bigger cities, putting housing authorities at a disadvantage with private developers.

Braziel considered Mowery’s issue to be with how a local housing authority is performing, rather than a need to change the law for everyone. Many housing authorities already provide sufficient notice and political support for their transactions before purchases are made

“We make sure we meet with the city council member in the district where the project is located,” Braziel said. “If we don’t get that person’s approval, we’re not going to go any further. That’s just common sense. This seems to penalize everyone.”

“This is a question of making a city council or county commissioners court say ‘Yes, this is what we need to do,’” Mowery said. “They’re accountable because they are elected.”

Slusher follow-up on regional summit . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher says he and Hays County Judge Jim Powers agree that Envision Central Texas consultants should add aquifer area planning to their contract. The LCRA is also willing to make significant contributions toward such a study, Slusher says. Slusher is now asking those who participated in last December’s summit to make suggestions on what they would like to see in an aquifer area plan and how to hold meetings that would yield the most public input. He is hoping to have meetings on the subject in March . . . Duplex moratorium on today’s agenda . . . The Council plans to enact a 90-day moratorium on permits for building or remodeling high residency duplexes in single-family residential areas. High residency is defined as taller than two-story, having more than 45 percent impervious cover, having more than 40 percent building coverage, or having a front yard with more than 40 percent impervious cover. The proposed ordinance has waiver provisions. Staff is expected to come back to the Council with recommendations for changes in development regulations before the moratorium expires . . . Bikeway . . . The concerns expressed by members of the Urban Transportation Commission about the Lance Armstrong Bikeway are apparently not widely shared in the biking community—at least by those who have contacted City Council members this week. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 24, 2003.) The big concern from the email brigade is that the bike path be routed on 4th Street rather than 3rd Street. The item was still on today’s agenda late yesterday . . . Today is Josie Zavala Appreciation Day in Travis County… Zavala is retiring this week after 30 years with the county. Former County Judges Bill Aleshire and Mike Renfro were on hand to bid Zavala farewell at yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting. Zavala spent most of her county career in the County Judge’s office. County Judge Sam Biscoe estimated that Zavala had prepared well over 34,000 agenda items. The county will host a reception for Zavala today . . . Holly protests . . . Six eastside activists have signed up on today’s City Council agenda to complain about the Holly Power Plant . . . Crisis in Portland . . . Austin has been compared to Portland, Oregon on numerous occasions, although there is a contingent of Austinites who reject any such comparisons. Here is a dubious likeness—problems with school funding. Things are so bad in Oregon that parents plan to stand with homemade signs on seven Portland bridges during morning rush hour on Friday. But in Portland, the city council and county officials are responsible for school funding decisions.

©

2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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