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New regulation governs building near pipelines, insurance

Friday, April 11, 2003 by

The City Council Thursday gave final approval to an ordinance that includes regulations on how close new developments with mobility-impaired persons can be to hazardous liquid pipelines, while also toughening up the language of when the ordinance takes effect and who it affects. The ordinance also includes new requirements for at least $90 million in liability insurance for the pipeline companies, a factor which could lead the city back to federal court. The Texas Oil and Gas Association has reportedly written to the city warning that such a suit would be forthcoming if the insurance provisions were not removed.

The ordinance puts limits on distances between the pipelines and new developments, but the only question remaining before Thursday’s vote was how close to allow uses for those with mobility impairments—a broad definition that included hospital patients, school children, inmates and convalescent home residents, among others.

Environmentalists and others concerned about the safety of pipelines lobbied for a minimum distance of 500 feet, while developers and city staff said a range of 200 to 500 feet could be acceptable if the developments met several criteria related to location, building materials and accessibility for evacuation and medical assistance. Those specifications would require a special permit from the Fire Department and approval with a City Council resolution.

Council Member Daryl Slusher’s motion—approved unanimously—also took out a grandfather clause that would exempt plans for new construction if developers acquired a building permit within 120 days after passage of the ordinance. The approved ordinance says developers must have a building permit to be exempted. Additionally, the motion struck out a provision enacting the ordinance 60 days after passage, opting instead for a 10-day period before it becomes law.

Slusher said questions on whether AISD was satisfied with the limits of the ordinance had been answered sufficiently to allow passage.

Plans for a large new church in South Austin inched forward Thursday evening over the protests of nearby neighbors. Agape Christian Ministries, which wants to build a new complex at 7809 Peaceful Hill Lane—off South Congress Avenue near Dittmar Road—won initial approval from the City Council to rezone the land.

But questions on how big the church will be and how its 2,000 member-families will access it still remain undecided.

The Council unanimously approved the first reading of the zoning request, which would change two parcels owned by Agape Christian Ministries from Development Reserve (DR) to Neighborhood Office-Conditional Overlay (NO-CO). Conditions would include limiting the development to a narrow band of services that includes education, religious assembly, day care and recreation. Another reading will likely be voted on in four weeks.

Several Council members lauded the prospect of having a church on the tract, since residents in the area already have several other commercial uses nearby that are not as attractive, including an auto salvage yard, self-storage units and several other industrial-oriented businesses.

Council Member Danny Thomas called the church “something that would contribute to the community, other than junked vehicles.” Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Daryl Slusher chimed in to note that most churches have positive impacts on their neighbors, although traffic issues are still important and need to be addressed.

The Council approved a staff recommendation that includes a 55-percent impervious cover limit and restricts the building’s area to 34,561 square feet. That size pales in comparison to the 93,000 square feet sought by the congregation, which would provide room for 900 seats and parking to accommodate the Sunday services. However, city staff based its recommendation for size limits on how many cars—and therefore worshipers—Peaceful Hill Lane could accommodate along with existing traffic counts.

The Council’s initial vote also backed a March 11 recommendation from the Zoning and Platting Commission, although with minor differences.

An increase in roadway size or a completely different access point to the church could boost the allowable square footage. Sarah Crocker of Crocker Consultants, working for the church, told Council members she expected to have a new plan for the development worked out by the next Council reading. That plan could put a new access drive from the tract to Dittmar Road, if engineering can be worked out for a bridge over South Boggy Creek.

For neighbors of the proposed development, traffic and the availability of parking is the key worry. “We, the neighbors, do not want to become a parking lot on Sundays,” said Tim Green, a St. Edward’s University professor who lives at 7704 Peaceful Hill Lane. Green spearheaded a successful drive for a valid petition from neighbors against the zoning request, which means a super majority of six Council members will be needed to approve the change. “In many ways we’d be encouraged if a church chose the property . . . What has troubled us is the size of the church’s congregation and the implications of that,” he said. Several other neighbors echoed his concerns.

Crocker vowed to keep working with neighbors, explaining that the access issue could make the difference in appeasing them.

Agape Minister Bernard Wong said he bought the tract to donate to the church as a gift in return for everything the congregation has added to his life. He said the Byrd family, which had resided on the 11 acres in a single-family home, gave its blessing to the new church.

Wong said the family told him that it was “Mrs. Byrd’s dying wish that that property be used to build a church.” Wong also said the church grounds, including play areas for children and green space, would be accessible for neighbors.

Thomas said the church had done an outstanding job at attracting new members and would continue to do so if it found a new home on Peaceful Hill Lane.

Bar owners, bingo hall operators show up in force to oppose ordinance

Both sides of the debate over Austin’s proposed “no smoking” ordinance brought statistics and anecdotal evidence to Thursday night’s public hearing in their attempt to influence the outcome of the eventual vote on the plan to ban smoking in most public places.

Austin’s current no smoking ordinance, in place since the mid-1990’s, contains 18 exemptions—including exemptions for bars and nightclubs. The proposal before the City Council would lower that number to five, and would apply the smoking ban equally to bars, restaurants, nightclubs, billiard halls and bingo parlors. “This is an important public health issue, and what we’re focusing on is reducing exposure to second-hand smoke and ultimately the negative health effects of those exposures,” said David Lurie, director of the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

While supporters of the no smoking rule lined up to remind Council members of the negative effects of second-hand smoke, bar and nightclub owners pleaded with the Council to consider their business needs. Joe Gordon, manager of the Ritz on 6th Street, told Council members that smokers make up an overwhelming majority of the club’s customers. “Ninety percent of our customers smoke,” he said. “The other ten percent don’t care about second-hand smoke. If you pass this ordinance, you’ll be responsible for killing an industry that primarily caters to smokers and those who don’t care about second-hand smoke.”

Several bars and clubs have organized to oppose the ban under the name Keep Austin Free. Mike Persinger, leader of the group and owner of the Yellow Rose, said customers should be free to smoke in certain establishments and business owners should be free to offer that type of environment. “The bar business and the restaurant business in this town is not good. Most places are down twenty to thirty percent. My business is not going to go up when they initially pass this ordinance,” he predicted. In addition, he complained that business interests had not had a hand in drafting the proposed ordinance. “We’ve had very little input into this, and what we would like to see is the Council consider the economics on this,” he said. “We’re basically asking the Council to turn around and set up a task force on this. I mean, we set up a task force on everything. Let’s really do it right.”

Businesses other than bars and nightclubs also lined up to oppose the smoking ban. Bingo hall operators claimed they would be hit hard, as would the charities they support. “If we lose our smoking section, we’ll lose it all. Our smoking section is 70 percent of our bingo hall,” said Steve Matamoros. And attorney Jerry Harris, representing billiard parlors, said his clients should be allowed to attract customers who smoke. “They want the smokers there, they cater to smokers there,” he said. “They’ve invested in their businesses; they think they know what they’re doing to be successful. They believe they should be able to continue catering to that pool of customers. My clients know that this is going to hurt them economically from many standpoints.”

Supporters of the no smoking ordinance dismissed those economic concerns. “Second-hand smoke is a serious health issue,” said Ken Pfluger with the Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition. “But for many of us in Austin, it’s also a civil liberty to eat, drink, socialize or listen to music in a public place and not have to breathe second-hand smoke and suffer the health consequences.” Pfluger, along with representatives from a number of other organizations, pointed also to the health effects on the employees of bars and nightclubs repeatedly subjected to second-hand smoke. Supporters of the measure cite New York City and the state of California as examples of jurisdictions that have successfully implemented a smoking ban, as have Dallas, El Paso and Round Rock here in Texas.

The measure will come back to the Council for a vote on first reading on May 8. The Council will allow some additional comment at that time, with a limit of 30 minutes per side.

Super-duplex ordinance postponed . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she had recently received a number of examples of ordinances and court cases that she would need to study before making final recommendations for changing the zoning ordinance governing multi-bedroom duplexes. The matter was postponed until April 24. A proposal for allowing various infill and redevelopment options related to Neighborhood Planning Combining Districts was also postponed for two weeks. There will not be a Council meeting next Thursday in observance of the Easter holiday . . . Lone appointment . . . The City Council appointed Bradford Hughes to the Airport Advisory Commission by consensus yesterday . . . Alcohol OK’d for N. Lamar site . . . The City Council voted 6-1 yesterday, with Council Member Raul Alvarez dissenting, to grant CS-1 zoning for property at 7600 N. Lamar. Property-owner Sayed Nicholas agreed to restrictions that will allow him to open a liquor store, but not a cocktail lounge or other adult-oriented business. A number of neighbors argued against the rezoning at a hearing earlier this month, but Nicholas had support from several other neighbors. Council Member Daryl Slusher said the property was already zoned to allow a convenience store, which would sell beer and wine. Alice Glasco, director of the Neighborhood Planning & Zoning Department, under questioning from Slusher, told the Council that a convenience store would generate more than three times as many trips per day—operating on a 24-hour basis—than a liquor store, which is required to close at 9pm under state law . . . Just for fun . . . The Austin Youth Poetry Slam Team 2003 is scheduled for 7-9pm Saturday, April 19 at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore, 2246 Guadalupe. Members of the team, who will be doing their final performance before heading to the National Poetry Slam in Chicago, include Shannon Leigh, Alicee Wilson, Zana Gardner, Catherine Cousar, Tyler Hambrook and Nicole Lopez. The performance is free but a percentage of proceeds from purchases made during the performance will benefit the Austin Youth Slam. The Austin Poetry Slam-Off, the competition for deciding which adults will represent Austin at the national contest, will be Wednesday, April 16, at Ruta Maya Coffee House, 3601 S. Congress, (Congress & Alpine, underneath the Pennfield water tower, just north of Ben White Blvd.) . . . LCRA receives safety award . . . The American Public Power Association, which represents publicly-owned electric utilities nationwide, has named the LCRA first in safety among its peers in the industry for 2002. Utilities competing for the award are grouped by the number of worker-hours reported annually. In 2002, the LCRA reported nearly 4.2 million worker-hours and 39 safety incidents, only two of which resulted in days away from work under federal reporting guidelines.

© 2003 In Fact News,

Inc. All rights reserved.

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