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Bill left pending in Transportation Committee

Wednesday, March 12, 2003 by

State Representative Ron Wilson (D-Houston) made his case to the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday for reopening Robert Mueller Airport for general aviation. The Texas Department of Transportation has contracted with a private company to search for a suitable location in Central Texas for an airport servicing smaller, private planes, but in accordance with a law passed during the last session of the Legislature the Mueller site is not being considered. Although Wilson authored that measure and agreed in 2001 to allow the redevelopment of Mueller to proceed, he now says the site should be put back on the list.

Wilson told members of the House Transportation Committee—chaired by Rep. Mike Krusee ( R-Round Rock)—that he was not confident Mueller would ever be converted into a neighborhood of homes, apartments, office buildings and shops. “It was a sham, I think, sold to the people in that area. I’m just uncomfortable,” he said. “Not that I don't trust the City of Austin . . . I just trust the State a whole lot more.” Ken Koock of the Texas Aviation Association and Jerry Hooper of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association joined Rep. Wilson to remind lawmakers of the need for a general aviation airport, along with its potential economic benefits. In contrast, Wilson portrayed the proposed development of residential and commercial space as unnecessary. “You’ve got foreclosures up in Austin to an alarming rate, but they want to build four thousand residential units out there? They talk about office space . . . My God! You go downtown, you’ve got buildings there they can’t even finish . . . and they want to put five million square feet of office space? I just can’t get that from here,” he said.

Supporters of the project touted its economic benefits and the broad range of community interest in seeing Mueller redeveloped. “It’s not just an opportunity for us. It’s an opportunity for the entire city,” said Elizabeth Mueller of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition. “This development will bring desperately needed affordable housing to the area . . . it will do a lot of different things we haven’t done here yet.” MNC President Jim Walker told legislators the 15,000 residents around the old airport site had worked hard to get the city to relocate the facility, and were excited about the possibility of new development. “The neighborhoods have nothing against general aviation,” he said. “We just think there’s a lot more opportunity for jobs and tax base coming back to the city by redeveloping that entire property.”

Some members of the committee expressed doubts about the city’s ability to pull off such a large-scale project. But Greg Weaver of Catellus Development, which has an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city on the Mueller project, told legislators it had experience with similar situations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver. He tried to reassure committee members that the project was proceeding on schedule. “It takes a long time for the paperwork . . . doing the drawings and getting the permits,” he said. “There is a lot happening, an enormous amount of work; it’s just paperwork right now.” The city has also done demolition work on a runway and the terminal at the site.

After an hour of testimony, Krusee announced that HB 483 would be left pending in committee. That allows time for changes that could potentially protect Mueller before it’s sent on to the House for consideration, otherwise the bill could be left pending in committee and eventually allowed to expire. Mueller Neighborhood Coalition members took some comfort in knowing that the bill was not sent on to the full House. “We’re just trying to stress the huge opportunity that we have here for jobs and economic development in East Austin,” said Walker.

Biscoe schedules subdivision meeting for next week

Travis County and the City of Austin have discussed the realignment of their subdivision codes for long enough to see their true areas of disagreement. There are enough that at the end of a discussion on the matter yesterday County Judge Sam Biscoe scheduled a county work session for Thursday, March 20.

County commissioners were scheduled to sign off on the points of agreement with the city yesterday. The City Council had approved a similar resolution last Thursday, at Biscoe’s request. Unfortunately, Tuesday’s discussion among commissioners only led to more questions about where the county is comfortable reconciling itself with the city. Chief among the concerns was agreeing to replace the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization road plan with the Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan.

Both Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Gerald Daugherty had reasons not to adopt the Austin road plan. Daugherty said the road plan “is in direct contrast to some of the things that need to happen in Southwest Travis County,” adding that he saw a definite impasse between his position and that of the City of Austin.

For Sonleitner, on the other hand, it was an issue of principle. Travis County is committed to a regional view of road planning, and regional planning needs to go through CAMPO. The CAMPO road plan should stand as the road plan of choice.

“We look at it as to what is good for the region,” Sonleitner said. “Sometimes we’re on the losing end, but that’s the way the process works as to looking to it as a regional issue.”

Biscoe wants the city and the county to work out a compromise at next week’s work session. He wants county commissioners to work out a compromise and report back to the City Council. Mayor Gus Garcia and Council Member Daryl Slusher will work on that compromise for the city.

The AMATP and the CAMPO road plans have six differences, five of which have yet to be resolved, said Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon. Both Gordon and Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman believe that the two groups were far closer to an agreement on those items than it might appear to commissioners. The three areas of initial agreement that are still in question are the adoption of the transportation plan, the process for variances and the preliminary plat expiration date.

Commissioners wanted a postponement. Gieselman noted that the goal was to phase in an agreement by starting off on common ground and then address the tougher issues. Agreeing to an initial set of points could give the county some closure and a chance to move on. Another nine issues remain on the table for the city and county to reconcile in ordinance.

The homebuilder community, major stakeholders in the process, had two additional concerns they expressed to commissioners. Alan Haywood and Harry Savio of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin told commissioners they, too, had issues with the adoption of the Austin road plan. Haywood also had questions about the City Code requirement for maintaining the “natural and traditional” character of a lot. Haywood said the requirement is a land use, rather than subdivision, regulation.

The city’s ordinance, which requires a developer to “maintain the natural and traditional character to the greatest extent possible”, is enforced under the city’s Water Quality Code, Haywood said. The builders said the City of Austin abuses the ordinance, often citing it to enforce the tree ordinance, even when those trees are outside the city limits and in the extra-territorial jurisdiction where such guidelines should not apply.

On variances and waivers, the city would prefer the county handle drainage and road issues, with the city picking up water quality enforcement. Sonleitner raised concerns about when, and under what circumstances, water quality concerns could “trump” drainage decisions. Gordon said the common subdivision plat office would jointly review decisions on variances.

City officials want preliminary plat expirations to be four years in the Drinking Water Protection Zone and seven years in the Desired Development Zone. The county’s position has been five years on the DDPZ and 12 years on the DDZ. Gordon said the city was willing to compromise with the county.

Hearing tomorrow . . . The City of Austin will face off in court with lawyers for mayoral candidate Marc Katz over the $100 limit on campaign contributions that is part of the City Charter. A federal judge will consider the matter and the plaintiff is hoping for a speedy decision on a temporary injunction request. If granted, the limit would not be in effect for the May election . . . News from ABIA . . . Mexicana Airlines is now offering direct flights between Austin and Cancun and Mexico City twice a week. Great Plains Airlines has announced that it will begin offering flights between Austin and Albuquerque and between Austin and Tulsa, OK on March 25. The airline also plans to offer service to Colorado Springs in the future . . . Austin team takes the prize . . . ABIA’s CA One Services, Inc. team, which operates food and retail services at the airport, has been named Unit of the Year for 2002, recognizing it as the best of 30 such airport operations across the country. The concessionaire operates the various local restaurants at the airport, including Schlotzsky’s, the Salt Lick barbecue and the Hill Country Bar. The company offers live music at the Highland Lakes and Hill Country bars and will expand its live music to Lefty’s beginning today. The group is also being honored for its support to the Del Valle ISD. CA One employs many of the high school’s students and has donated more than $7,000 of kitchen equipment to the district . . . Rathgeber to receive award . . . Meals on Wheels and More, one of Austin’s oldest charitable organizations, will present the 2003 Austin Community Keepsake Award to Austin businessman Dick Rathgeber at a Gala Dinner-Dance in his honor at the Renaissance Hotel March 30. For information about the event or to purchase tickets call Meals on Wheels and More at (512) 476-6325 . . . Filed . . . Carl Tepper and Margot Clarke, both of whom had previously indicated they would run for Place 5 on the City Council filed applications for a place on the ballot yesterday. Brad Meltzer also applied for the mayoral position . . . Filing deadline parties . . . Brewster McCracken, the apparent frontrunner in the Place 5 race, will have a campaign kickoff event at noon next Wednesday, March 19 at Nuevo Leon. His office opening party is scheduled to begin at 5pm that evening. Council Member Raul Alvarez, who has yet to draw an opponent for the Place 2 seat, is holding a filing deadline rally at Jalisco Restaurant and Bar, 414 Barton Springs Road, from 5:30 to 7:30pm next Wednesday also . . . KEYE wins award for county coverage . . . Austin’s local CBS affiliate, KEYE, has been chosen winner of the Journalistic Excellence Award from the Scripps-Howard Foundation . Reporter Nanci Griffith and photojournalist Kyle Duran won the award . . . Planning Commission hearing tonight. . . The Planning Commission will conduct a public hearing on proposed amendments to the city’s Land Development Code relating to “single-family, duplex, two-family and secondary apartment residential uses.” But most of those who show up to testify can be expected to discuss the “superduplex” phenomenon that convinced the City Council to enact a 90-day moratorium on granting duplex permits. The meeting begins at 6pm at One Texas Center. There is no City Council meeting this week . . . In Fact Daily taking Thursday and Friday off . . . Spring break beckons. We will return on Monday.

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

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