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Pipeline, no smoking, zoning cases could make for long night

Thursday, April 10, 2003 by

Today’s City Council agenda is full of items that could spark controversy amongst the seven elected officials who make those decisions and numerous groups of citizens within the Capitol City. Those include third reading of the hazardous liquid pipeline ordinance, amendments to the Neighborhood Plan Amendment Process ordinance, the super-duplex ordinance, the anti-smoking ordinance, the rezoning of land for the Agape Christian Ministries in South Austin, rezoning of land on North Lamar for liquor sales and whether to allow liquor sales at a store near Fulmore Middle School on South Congress.

The ordinance governing neighborhood plan amendments—designed to prevent constant rezoning in areas governed by neighborhood plans—was approved by the Council a few weeks back after a series of lengthy motions and amendments. The ordinance provides that once the Council approves a neighborhood plan, it cannot be amended for one year, with exceptions for hardships and certified Smart Housing projects with at least 40 percent of the project reasonably priced. Also, the ordinance provides that the city may accept zoning applications “submitted by a neighborhood plan contact team or the neighborhood planning team at any time.”

After a year has passed, the city will accept applications for rezoning only once a year—either in July or February—depending on where the neighborhood is located in the city.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who was on the losing end of some motions relating to the ordinance, said “Let’s say you were to get your plan approved in September of ’04 . . . if you were living in the wrong part of town, you could not even submit an application for a zoning change until July of ‘06. And sometimes it takes a year to get an application through . . . so that’s anywhere from two to three years to get an application to the Council . . . I think that’s too long.”

But Dunkerley said that is not her biggest objection. The ordinance also stipulates that the applicant for a zoning change must convince six members of the City Council—what is known as a super-majority—to vote for the change unless the applicant has received the written approval of the neighborhood plan contact team or the neighborhood planning team. “To accept a neighborhood plan, it takes four votes of the City Council,” she points out. “A neighborhood planning team is not appointed by the Council or elected . . . I think we need to make it easier,” to change the zoning. A zoning change that is opposed by 20 percent or more of the neighbors within 200 feet of a property must be approved by a super-majority. That will not change, regardless of what the ordinance says.

Another section of the ordinance allows a zoning change request for a project that provides superior environmental protection than allowed under current zoning or one that would promote “the recruitment or retention of an employment center with 100 or more employees,” if the neighborhood planning team approves submission of the application or if the applicant obtains the signatures of three City Council members.

Council Member Daryl Slusher is not fond of that provision, which he called “an eternal lobby fest.” He said he was also concerned about the section for getting neighborhood planning team approval, which he said “could be subject to abuse.” However, he said he agrees with the ordinance’s overall goal of reducing the amount of time neighborhood members have to spend defending their plan.

Don't come to Austin to smoke, says Mayor

A crowd is expected for tonight’s public hearing on the proposed no smoking ordinance, with both sides being allotted one hour to make their case. But it won’t be the only opportunity for health advocates or bar and restaurant owners to offer their opinions. Mayor Gus Garcia told a rally held by the Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition last night that the Council might hear additional speakers at a subsequent meeting. First reading of the ordinance will likely be on May 8, after the May 3 city elections. If it passes, the third reading could be held May 22 and the ordinance could take effect the first week of June. While Garcia said he didn’t know what the final decision of the Council would be, he indicated he was ready to vote. He shared his response to a letter he had received opposing the smoking ban on the grounds that it would drive away business. “If you’re thinking that coming here to give us business benefits us . . . and you’re going to smoke here . . . we don’t want you here,” the Mayor said. “That’s not the kind of business we want to attract to the city.” Supporters of the ban plan to present plenty of data from other cities that have adopted similar measures to bolster their argument that the ban does not hurt business at restaurants or nightclubs.

Travis County commissioners have sent House Transportation Committee Chair Mike Krusee ( R-Round Rock) five amendments to the Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) legislation, attempting to have some input into Krusee’s effort to craft a new chapter on RMAs in the Transportation Code.

Travis and Williamson Counties were well on their way to setting up the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority when Krusee filed House Bill 2459. The proposal is a distinct departure from what Travis County officials expected this session. When the Legislature convened, county leaders were under the impression Krusee would simply add bonding and condemnation authority to RMAs.

Instead, after some discussion with state leaders, Krusee filed a new chapter to the Transportation Code on RMAs last month. The chapter would give RMAs the same power as most toll road governing bodies, such as the North Texas Tollroad Authority.

That concept of an RMA is different from the interpretation of last session’s legislation. When Travis and Williamson County officials began the work of creating the RMA more than a year ago, they thought the counties would hold the ultimate responsibility for the Central Texas RMA. They came together, held a work session at the Capitol and hammered out a charter between the counties, which was presented to the Texas Department of Transportation last year.

But as Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman explained to commissioners at the time, the Central Texas RMA would not function as its own agency. And, after some discussion, county commissioners agreed that the best they could do was to suggest some changes to the legislation “before the train left the station,” as Commissioner Margaret Gomez described it to her colleagues.

Gieselman and Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols, plus County Commissioners Ron Davis and Gerald Daugherty, met with Krusee last week. The amendments the court agreed to draft that might be amenable to Krusee included:

• Making sure transportation projects are constructed only if they are consistent with the transportation plan adopted by the Metropolitan Planning Organization;

• Suggesting a four-year, rather than six-year, term for appointments to the RMA board. This was a clear compromise after the majority of the court could not support six-year terms, or the two-year terms suggested by County Judge Sam Biscoe;

• Adding a phrase to the section on the creation of airports that suggests that location “does not conflict with the location requirements of HB 2522, 78th Legislature, Regular Session.” which is intended to support the conditional authority already granted to Travis County;

• Supporting the reconstruction of highways or county roads when the transit authority finds it necessary to change the location of a portion of highway. This addressed Commissioner Karen Sonleitner’s concern that the reconstructed roads be replaced in the same general location and condition as they were before the RMA project; and

• Adding a section that says an RMA can be created “only if the county adopts a resolution consenting to the authority’s creation. The authority shall comply with any conditions in the resolution regarding the types of transportation projects to be owned, constructed, funded or operated by the authority in the county.”

The last addition also grandfathers existing authorities under their created legislation; hence, the Central Texas RMA would continue to operate as it was created. That would only change if Travis and Williamson Counties agreed to amend the existing charter, Gieselman said.

Davis said he is still worried that the RMAs would have no accountability to the counties and Travis County would “lose control over what we created.” Two specific points brought up were contracts and appointments: Gieselman said the county would be unlikely to enter an agreement with the Central Texas RMA, now or in the future, without some contract on the table that stipulated terms on each side. And Biscoe said he doubted any of the commissioners currently appointed to the RMA board would remain if the Commissioners Court expressed a lack of confidence.

Commissioners, especially Gomez and Sonleitner, appeared to believe that some input into the RMA bill would be the best the county could hope to get as the bill moves through the legislative process. House Bill 2459 is pending in the House Transportation Committee. Krusee was not available for comment.

Group asks for ombudsman for small businesses

The Mayor’s Task Force on the Economy turned in its recommendations to the City Council on Wednesday after months of work. Their 82-page report points to several areas in which city government can influence the local economy and offers guidelines for future incentives for businesses.

The task force, lead by Council Members Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley, recommends that the city put an increased focus on helping small businesses. But the group also pointed out that more traditional recruitment efforts for major employers should not be abandoned. Instead, they should be refined to make sure that companies that receive the incentives are able to deliver the jobs and tax base the city expects. “We think it’s a very good idea for the city to enter into specific agreements with the right companies for performance-based inducements,” said economist John Hockenyos, leader of the task force subcommittee on traditional industries. “That means the city will make a shared investment with the company. If the company meets specific, agreed-to performance measures, the city will return some of the public-sector revenue that accrues because the company is here.” That would be a change from the “up front” model of incentives, in which a company receives fee waivers or other discounts during the early stages of the development process.

The task force also recommends that the city establish a criteria matrix for deciding what types of companies to recruit. Those criteria could include the company’s fit with the local economy and local values, along with the overall health of its industry and the availability of local suppliers.

For its study of the needs of small businesses, the task force surveyed 237 business owners. Of those, 76 percent rated doing business with the city somewhere between complex and difficult, with a primary complaint being the city’s code and permitting process. “The first thing that came up was that when small businesses went to the city, there wasn’t really anybody there who historically saw small business as their primary customer,” said subcommittee chair Margo Weisz. “They often felt that they got conflicting information, and people weren’t very sensitive to their particular needs. The small businesses didn’t have enough money to hire somebody to help them through the process.” To alleviate that problem, the subcommittee is recommending a small business review team. Other recommendations include automating the permitting process to allow some permits to be filed online, increasing efforts to provide information about codes and permits to small business owners, and the creation of an ombudsman program to assist small businesses to break through the “log jam” of the permitting process.

City Manager Toby Futrell noted that some of those efforts to improve the permitting process were already underway. “There are a lot of things in this report that are getting us to think about how we’re structured,” she said. And Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman cautioned against the unintended consequences of making radical changes in the development process. “This is another place where the information has not filtered through,” said Goodman. “People are overwhelmed by a code requirement because they have no idea why it’s required. Sometimes it’s a real simple explanation and a logical one, and one that you would be perfectly fine with if you knew why it was there. It’s very much a policy issue, and we don’t want to . . . in our zeal to start growing our own economic initiative . . . also create another conflict relative to the needs of a neighborhood around a small business.”

The task force report should be posted on the city’s web site by tomorrow with a form for public feedback. The city will also schedule a series of three public forums to discuss the recommendations, with public comments included in a report to the full City Council for action at the end of May.

Early voting for City Council races . . . Early voting for Austin City Council races begins next Wednesday, April 16. Anyone who would like to test the new eSlate voting system that will be used for election may do so at two locations on Saturday from 11am-3pm at the South Austin Recreation Center, 1100 Cumberland or from 10am-3pm at the Givens Recreation Center, 3811 E. 12th Street. Election Day is May 3 . . . Taped candidate forum . . . The League of Women Voters is sponsoring a candidate forum beginning at 6pm Sunday in Room 325 of One Texas Center. Channel 6 will be taping the forum to allow voters several opportunities to see the candidates. The public is invited . . . For what it’s worth . . . Here are the latest austinmayor.com poll results: Will Wynn: 34.86 percent (4,402 votes); Max Nofziger : 25.39 percent; (3,207 votes); Marc Katz: 23.04 percent (2,910) Brad Meltzer: 14.47 percent (1,827) Jennifer Gale 1.83 percent (231 votes); Leslie Cochran: 0.41percent (52 votes); Total voters on the site:12,629. The site does not provide any assurances that the poll is scientific, and it should not be assumed. Wynn’s campaign has done some polling, but has not shared the results . . . Watching Baghdad and Washington . . . While the City Council was listening to reports on how to revitalize Austin’s economy, much of the rest of the nation was watching statues of Saddam Hussein toppling in Iraq. There remains a real question of how many citizens will wake up on May 3 unaware that there is an election going on here. Aside from Meltzer, arguably the least-known name in the race, there has been little advertising. In Fact Daily asked Wynn when we might see his TV commercials; he replied that he hadn’t decided whether to run one or not . . . Aquifer district board meeting . . . The board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District will meet at 6pm at the district office. The agenda reveals no apparent hot topics, except perhaps a review of pending legislation . . . No new ACC taxes, says Meltzer . . . Mayoral candidate Brad Meltzer repeated his “no new taxes” pledge on Wednesday while turning his attention to Austin Community College. Meltzer criticized ACC trustees for placing a proposed 5-cent property tax increase on the May 3rd ballot for a decision by voters. “We have asked ACC board of trustees to abandon this preposterous idea of a tax increase,” Meltzer said. “It’s the wrong thing at the wrong time. What are they thinking? Our country is at war, the economy is faltering, our city is losing jobs, businesses are moving out of the city . . . Austin already has the highest cost of living of any city in Texas, and ACC wants to raise our taxes so they can build fancy new campuses?” Meltzer, who would not have any control over ACC if elected Mayor, said the proposed tax increase did not go along with his plans to make Austin more business friendly. “ACC is a great institution,” he added, “but now is the wrong time for any government institution to be asking taxpayers for more money.” Meltzer also volunteered to fund an advertising campaign for any ACC board member willing to publicly support the measure. “But the commercial has to be honest,” he said. “I challenge any member of the ACC board of directors to look Austin residents in the eye and say, ‘you’re jobless . . . but please, give us more money for new buildings.’ I will pay for the production and airing on Austin’s TV stations.” Meltzer also said he would oppose the purchase of the Rio Grande campus by ACC.

© 2003 In Fact News,

Inc. All rights reserved.

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