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Krusee amends plan, but fate of current RMA still uncertain

Wednesday, April 16, 2003 by

Travis County Commissioners got five out of the six amendments they wanted in House Transportation Chair Mike Krusee’ s omnibus Regional Mobility Authority legislation, Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols told the court yesterday.

Nuckols reviewed the substitute for House Bill 2459 on Monday with the Round Rock Republican’s staff. Many of the issues raised by Commissioners Court last week were included in the substitute: a four-year term for board members; maintaining interrupted county roads; limitation on the siting of a potential airport; and the restriction of RMA projects to those in the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range plan.

However, the most important amendment was left out. Commissioners feared the new legislation would scrap the existing Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which Travis and Williamson counties rushed to create late last year. County officials have interpreted the bill as diminishing the role of counties in the RMA, and fear they would be pushed out of the picture.

The substitute does allow some compromise on the role of counties, although it may not go as far as commissioners would have liked. Krusee put a provision back in stating that the Texas Transportation Commission cannot create an RMA unless one or more counties request it, Nuckols said. As Travis County has already gone through the process, that provision is moot locally, he added.

As Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out, what county commissioners feared most was that Travis and Williamson counties would have to start over altogether. She asked whether any language embedded in the chapter would allow the state to “roll over” the already-created Central Texas RMA. Nuckols said he did not consider it to be a major issue, and that if the work was lost, Travis County could easily return to the Texas Transportation Commission for an order that would, once more, recognize the RMA.

Krusee has rejected claims that his RMA bill has reduced the power of counties in the process. County officials are the ones who decide that an RMA should be created, who apply to the Texas Department of Transportation to create one and who name the board of directors, Krusee said. Most already have a rule in the local Metropolitan Planning Organization, which will define the transportation plan for the RMA.

“Counties are with the RMA every step of the way, through the planning of projects, through the implementation of projects,” Krusee told In Fact Daily. “They are an integral part of the process.”

Krusee sees RMAs as a very different animal from the North Texas Toll Road Authority or the Harris County Toll Road Authority. Those agencies are independent entities. RMAs, on the other hand, are created by the Texas Department of Transportation and dependent on TxDOT for equity to fulfill its charter, Krusee said. The authorities are dependent on one another for their success.

TxDOT is not outsourcing its job through the RMAs, as some have suggested, Krusee said. Instead, the newly created RMA empowers the local region to develop and implement its own transportation solutions. Nowhere has the need been greater than in the Austin area, Krusee said.

“Austin is in an emergency situation,” Krusee said. “We have lost thousands and thousands of jobs due to a lack of adequate transportation infrastructure. We had not adequately provided for ourselves over the last 30 years of growth, and we haven’t had the tools available to other areas of the state to address that.”

Krusee’s long-term desire is to see the various regions of the state voluntarily consolidate their transportation authorities. That would mean geographically and operationally consolidating entities such as the Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail District and Capital Metro into the Central Texas RMA. Such a plan for the Dallas-Fort Worth area, proposed by Rep. Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) and Sen. Kim Brimer (R-Arlington) this session, was met with universal disdain during recent hearings at the Capitol.

Krusee stressed that his view of consolidation is different. Nothing would happen without voluntary concurrence from all the transportation agencies in the region.

“RMAs would have the ability at a permissive, voluntary level to consolidate the functions,” Krusee said. “The RMAs are not an attempt, from the state or anyone else, to force that type of consolidation on anyone. It simply provides that opportunity to a region.”

Krusee’s bill also allows RMAs to finance transportation projects in counties adjacent to their boundaries. For instance, if the Central Texas RMA saw a project in Caldwell County that would provide support to regional transportation goals, the RMA could agree to fund it.

That provision was added to allow the Central Texas RMA to build a freight line alongside State Highway 130 out to Seguin, Krusee said. Such a decision would require funding a project that would pass through Comal, Hays and Guadalupe counties. The RMA could fund that freight line completely, or develop agreements with the outlying counties to pay a portion of the cost.

Ordinance sets distance requirements but won't touch current waste sites

County Commissioners could have marked yesterday’s posting of a solid waste facilities siting ordinance as “everything else regulations” because the ordinance covers everything but the county’s alleged “worst offenders.”

That doesn’t mean a lot of work didn’t go into this waste siting ordinance. It has been the result of long months of negotiation between neighbors and landfill operators, and county officials understand the compromise is not likely to make anyone completely happy.

The ordinance quantifies a required distance from airports, health care facilities, places of worship, day care centers and neighborhoods. It speaks of “major” solid waste processing and disposal facilities and “minor” facilities such as transfer or recycling stations. It mentions proper notification. The only thing lacking is regulation of landfills.

Commissioner Ron Davis, who drew harsh criticism from County Judge Sam Biscoe last week for trying to bring a landfill-siting ordinance to the court before an odor study of the Northeast landfills was completed, said he knew the court had differences on the creation of an ordinance but was pleased with the part of the plan that could come forward for consideration by the county.

“It doesn’t include Type I, II, III or IV landfills, but it is applicable to everything else, and landfills can be added later,” Davis told his colleagues, praising their contribution to the effort. “Of course, I’m going to continue to strive in that direction. I want the neighborhoods to know—don’t give up the effort . . . We are trying to do what we need to do.”

Commissioners agreed to post the ordinance for a 30-day comment period. They are looking for comments on issues within the ordinance, such as the setback from minor or major facilities. The current setback for minor facilities is 350 feet from sensitive land uses and 1,500 feet for major facilities. Major facilities, under the ordinance, would be located one mile from residential neighborhoods.

Under the ordinance, the Executive Manager of Transportation and Natural Resources would be given the authority to grant variances if an operator can prove the facility complies “with all necessary conditions and employ all necessary measures to protect public health, safety and welfare by mitigating any adverse impacts on adjacent property, natural resources, and persons who reside, work or recreate adjacent to the facility.”

However, other points for comment not addressed in the ordinance were topics of discussion for commissioners at yesterday’s court meeting. Specifically, commissioners want to consider whether the minor and major facility siting should meet the city’s water quality standards.

Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Margaret Gomez favored the use of the city’s water quality standards, at least to create a map and definitions onto which the county could overlay its own provisions. Protecting water quality made sense to the two commissioners. Pat Murphy, who was on hand for discussion of reconciliation of the subdivision platting ordinance under House Bill 1445, said that water quality standards were intended to alleviate the impact of development in critical water zones, and that development included the establishment of waste facilities.

Commissioners are also ready to consider whether the county should consider a specific setback of facilities outside the county’s 100-year flood plain. Biscoe said that it might require an amendment to the county’s flood plain ordinance. If so, Biscoe’s preference would be to consider the two ordinances separately and concurrently as they move through the approval process.

After so many months of discussion, comments from the public were brief at yesterday’s meeting. Joyce Best of the Northeast Action Group wanted more specifics on the public notification process. Melanie McAfee, owner of the Barr Mansion, wanted to see a focus on long-term reduction of refuse in the ordinance.

Biscoe said he did not see the landfill-siting ordinance as the place to address recycling efforts, but Gomez asked for some of the research McAfee had collected on the topic. Biscoe said the work of the Capital Area Planning Council could serve as a good starting point for the county’s effort, and that the reuse and recycling effort would likely require a separate initiative.

County commissioners need to focus on the big picture of what to do about trash, Gomez told her colleagues. She pointed out that development means more solid waste and that solid waste needs to be put somewhere, Gomez said. She said it might be time to consider maintaining landfills in the county as “Travis County-only” to extend the life of the facilities.

Hyde Park neighbors elated over vote

The Board of Adjustment sided with residents of Hyde Park on Monday night and overruled a city staff decision allowing the construction of a so-called “super-duplex” at 3207 Hampton Road. Neighbors had requested a reconsideration of the board’s earlier ruling that the Director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department and the building official with the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department had acted correctly when they allowed the necessary permits for the structure. (See In Fact Daily, March 11, 2003. ) While that earlier vote upheld the staff’s rulings, the board on Monday voted 4-1 to overrule them.

The decision was greeted with a boisterous round of applause from Hyde Park residents, many of whom were wearing fluorescent-colored buttons reading “Save SF-3.” Neighbors, lead by Ara Merjanian and attorney David Mattax, had submitted a ten-point letter requesting the reconsideration. Merjanian argued that the board could decide there were two types of duplexes, and that the super-duplex did not meet basic neighborhood compatibility standards. “The Land Development Code establishes two classes of duplexes,” Merjanian said. “A smaller duplex that is like a single-family residence, that is allowed in SF-3 . . . and a duplex that has six or more bedrooms and is not characteristic of single-family neighborhoods. We would argue that the intent of the law was to create a distinction between those two.” The larger structures, Merjanian said, were subject to landscaping and parking standards normally applied to multi-family development. “Those requirements don’t exist for single-family residences and small duplexes.”

But city staff pointed to the code to support the decision to allow the structure. “There are not two classes of duplexes,” said Zoning Case Manager Luci Gallahan with the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department. “There’s one class of duplex, and it’s under the SF-3 zoning requirements. The only additional requirement is that six bedrooms triggers additional parking and landscaping. This plan meets all of the requirements.”

As with the case heard by the board in March, Board Member Frank Fuentes was vocal in his support for the neighborhood’s position. “This is an abnormal duplex. It really, truly is. It doesn’t look like a true duplex. I don’t think it is,” Fuentes said. “When the code for duplexes was designed or implemented, truly the spirit of that code wasn’t to have individuals living in a building like that. I just don’t think that that is a duplex and they ought not to build it.”

Board Chair Herman Thun countered that the board was obligated to follow the code as written. “This is not exceeding the rules,” he said. “There’s no variance here.”

Fuentes moved to support the neighborhood, and Board Member Betty Edgemond provided the second. Board Member Barbara Ayba r voted as she did during the last hearing, siding with the neighborhood. Thun was the lone vote opposed. Board Member Laurie Virkstis, who had previously voted to support the staff decision, changed her vote to side with the neighborhood and their appeal. But the board’s new decision is also open to appeal. “This isn’t going away yet,” Thun predicted. The only appeal from the board’s decision would be to state district court. Any appeal from the BOA decision would be in the form of a lawsuit filed in state district court.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Appropriations first . . . Discussion of the Central Texas hospital district legislation, which was scheduled for a House committee hearing today, is likely to be delayed. House members are committed to completing HB1, with its 500 amendments, by the end of the week. In the meantime, no new legislation will be heard by House committees . . . Barton Springs report on the way . . . Yesterday, Council Member Daryl Slusher was putting the finishing touches on the second part of his three-part report on the state of Barton Springs, Barton Creek and the surrounding area. His report, like those of state and federal pollution experts, will dispute allegations by the American-Statesman concerning pollution levels in and around Barton Creek. State Health Department officials are also working overtime this week to try to finish their report before Friday, so that City Manager Toby Futrell can open the pool on or before Saturday—the 90th day after it was closed . . . Early voting starts today . . . For a list of locations, visit the city’s web site, http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/election . . . Nofziger picks the phrase . . . The Max Nofziger campaign put out a press release yesterday to point out that the Austin American Statesman had this weekend called his transportation plan “well-developed.” He failed to quote the whole sentence, however, which appeared toward the end of an editorial endorsing Will Wynn for Mayor. The sentence reads, “Nofziger has some interesting ideas and a well-developed transportation plan, but he lacks the gravitas needed for the job at this time.” The Statesman, unsurprisingly, also endorsed Council Member Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas for re-election and Brewster McCracken for Place 5 . . . Watson weighs in . . . Former Mayor Kirk Watson yesterday endorsed McCracken for the seat Wynn is vacating. Watson said, Watson said he was endorsing McCracken for Place 5 “because I believe he has the skills and the vision necessary to provide leadership in these challenging times for our city”. . . Tax group praises Meltzer . . . Americans for Tax Reform has commended mayoral candidate Brad Meltzer for his opposition to new taxes. Last week, Meltzer declared his opposition to a proposed property tax increase by the Austin Community College . . . Politics and religion . . . The Austin Women’s Political Caucus will hold a forum tonight at the Travis County Commissioners Courtroom beginning at 6pm. Ron Dusek, spokesman for the Meltzer campaign, said Meltzer, would not be attending because Passover begins tonight and he would be involved in a family gathering. Dusek also said that candidates Will Wynn and Max Nofziger and Marc Katz would not attend out of respect for Meltzer and the Jewish holiday. Wynn’s spokesman, Mark Nathan, said the mayoral portion of the forum runs from 6 to 7pm, before sundown, and therefore before the beginning of Passover. Nathan said he had spoken with the organizers of AWPC to see if they would reschedule, but was told the problem had only arisen this week. The Nofziger Campaign spokesman said their candidate would attend. Nathan said if the other mayoral candidates decided not to attend out of respect for Meltzer’s wishes, then Wynn also would not attend. . . Stratus subdivision approved . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission last night approved Lantana Southwest Phase 1 subdivision, along with five other unrelated subdivisions on a consent motion without comment . . . Montgomery claims awards . . . Political consultants at Montgomery and Associates were pleased to announce this week that they had been honored with two international Communicator Awards for print pieces they produced last year. The firm received a Crystal Award, the organization's highest honor, for a brochure for the Watts & Heard law firm. It also won an Honorable Mention for a political mail piece produced for Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Houston . . . They’re supposed to go home . . . Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report noted yesterday, “At 1:00 a.m., Austin Access television cut off the House floor debate over HB 1 in order to rebroadcast a 2-week old planning commission meeting. Local Capitol denizens are irate.” See http://www.quorumreport.com

© 2003

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