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Roadway plans, variances, expiration dates still need work

Monday, April 14, 2003 by

Agreement between the City of Austin and Travis County on subdivision regulations took another step toward completion last week as the Council approved the direction staff is currently taking toward compliance with HB 1445. The item was approved without discussion, but written documentation indicates that that city and county staff have agreed on how to resolve differences in regulations in four important areas: roadway plans, variances, preliminary plan expiration times and criteria for assessing natural and traditional character of land and waterways.

Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd said Austin and Travis County have fewer conflicts over plans for future roads as originally thought. The current agreement would have the Council and Commissioner’s Court review proposed changes, which would then be jointly proposed to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO). The governments have already created a single office, staffed by city and county employees, to review requests for all variances. The county has approval authority relating to drainage and transportation requirements. The city would also retain approval authority for all variances in three-year municipal annexation plan areas, annexation agreement areas and limited purpose areas, according to the documentation.

Areas of discord in the roadway plan include high-occupancy vehicle lanes on MoPac and the building of Frate Barker Lane over the Edwards Aquifer. Lloyd said the HOV lane question is less of a problem than previously perceived because most of the highway is within the city and the lanes would not require any additional right-of-way. So, the matter would not come up during subdivision permitting.

Both sides have agreed to a four-year time frame for expiration of preliminary plans in the Drinking Water Protection Zone. However in the Desired Development Zone, Travis County still wants a 10-year time period from filing, while city staff prefers seven years from date of approval, with the possibility for an administrative extension.

City staff has agreed to criteria proposed by the county for assessing the “natural and traditional character of land and waterways as it relates to drainage regulations.” The city proposes to amend its Drainage Criteria Manual to incorporate those criteria.

The Commissioners Court and City Council have already agreed on how to address sidewalks, fiscal policy, private streets, regional storm water program and maintenance of drainage infrastructures in the ETJ.

Lloyd said staff and stakeholders have set another meeting for today. The city and Travis County are scheduled to discuss the subdivision matters at a joint subcommittee on Friday. Although the city and county are working toward an agreement, passage of SB 544, proposed by Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), would void any agreement under the prior legislation and give subdivision authority wholly to the county outside of the city and its planned annexation areas. (See In Fact Daily Feb. 26, 2003, March 4, 2003. )

But panel awards Smart Growth points

The Design Commission decided to award Smart Growth points to The Pedernales last week, even though the commission still had unanswered questions about the project’s design.

Juan Cotera, who chaired the subcommittee that evaluated The Pedernales Live + Work Community, called it a “good project.” But the subcommittee wasn’t so sure about its civic art, the location of mechanical equipment on the roof, the quality of pedestrian traffic along 5th Street or the railroad right-of-way. The Pedernales is a mixed-use community in East Austin designed by Urban Digs LLC.

Architect Richard deVarga responded to the subcommittee’s concerns in a three-page letter dated Feb. 18. In the letter, deVarga expressed a commitment to colonnades and proper street shading, mechanical units that are screened by a rooftop parapet, a plaza open to the public and a commitment to 5th Street as a pedestrian walkway, which could include a bikeway and future light rail line.

Changes may be present in recent amended drawings presented to the city, but those drawings have not yet been submitted to the Design Commission. Commissioner Joan Hyde said many of the changes agreed to by the architect—such as pedestrian-scale lighting—need to be reflected in the drawings. Until those changes are in the drawings, Hyde is unwilling to offer added Smart Growth points.

“You need a drawing that shows it,” Hyde said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re hoping to do this . . .’ and, ‘We’re planning to do that . . .’ We can’t be giving them points based on an intent.”

Two motions were made on the project. Commissioner Eleanor McKinney, who sat on the subcommittee, proposed finalizing the points on the project. Hyde proposed a substitute motion, suggesting the commission give the project its points and allow it some latitude to present changes in drawings at the Design Commission in May. Commissioner Girard Kinney pointed out that the commission already implicitly offers architects the opportunity to return to the Design Commission for more points.

McKinney eventually agreed to Hyde’s motion, but added that she wanted to tighten up the process, setting a firm deadline for gaining points on the Smart Growth matrix. The commissioners approved the motion, with the exception of Chair John Patterson. Perry Lorenz, a partner in the project, was absent from the meeting.

Even without the extra points, The Pedernales was sitting at 37 points on the Smart Growth matrix, which included 10 discretionary points. The Design Commission intends to send the developers a letter asking that any drawings that could be considered for additional points be submitted by the middle of next week. The commission will consider any amendment to the point total at its regular meeting in May.

The commission was also scheduled to hear from Nathan Schneider on the design of City Hall. Schneider, however, did not show up at the meeting. This was the second time the Design Commission had invited Schneider. Commissioners agreed to go meet with Schneider personally on the project.

Commissioners also outlined a number of topics they want to put on the table for discussion next month and at future meetings. Those topics include the reports for Mexican-American Cultural Center and 626 Lamar, as well as staff reports on the progress of the Austin Revitalization Authority’s recent projects on 11th and 12th Streets, the Convention Center Garage and the commission’s role in the Saltillo District planning project. The board also wants to review project submission and evaluation processes.

Freshman a good match for the 'Birkenstock belt'

In a session where being a conservative is a virtue, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is the most liberal of the freshman class, and he knows some of his views are so progressive they put him below the radar of most of the seasoned lawmakers in the House.

Rodriguez didn’t mind standing almost alone in opposition to the war. He prepared a large-scale presentation, with press release and graphs, to consider the introduction of an income tax. He didn’t mind picking on the big industrial giants, questioning whether we were fining them enough for their pollution. And he even filed a bill this session to bring affirmative action back to higher education. He sounds like the Austin native he is.

It’s hard to doubt Rodriguez’s earnestness. This freshman lawmaker is, in the best way, a policy wonk in the sausage factory of Texas partisanship, an elected official who has a tremendous idealistic faith in the legislative process, even after six years at the Capitol on Glen Maxey’s staff and a stint as the chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party. Rodriguez is not jaded. And if he’s not on the radar of House leadership and lobbyists so far this session, that’s fine with him.

“I think it’s really easy for a lot of the lobbyists to ignore freshmen, and especially freshmen Democrats this session,” says Rodriguez, listening to Beck and the Flaming Lips on his desktop computer as he outlines his bills. “I’m not bitter about it. This is the reality of what we have seen this session, and what we have seen is more partisanship.”

Rodriguez kept a staff of eight this session, including three interns. Like most Austin lawmakers, he has no local office. His staff works in the bigger office in his suite. He uses the aide’s office. To Rodriguez, it just makes sense to put practicality ahead of pomp, just as Maxey did before him.

Partisanship this session means that Republicans are getting most of the attention. To Rodriguez, the House was far more cooperative last session. This session, it all belongs to the Republicans, Rodriguez said. Everything is in their hands, and the lobbyists know it.

“I think the lobbyists know they just have to focus on a handful of people this session,” Rodriguez said. “They can afford to ignore a whole lot of folks.”

That’s not going to stop Rodriguez from putting more staunchly Democratic ideas out there this session. To Rodriguez, filing HB 3437 and HJR 96 to discuss the tax issue was not political suicide. It was the chance to open up the discussion of the state’s tax system. Rodriguez can’t see any reason not to do it, despite the warnings he has received from people on both sides of the aisle.

“The reaction I’ve gotten has varied from person to person,” Rodriguez said. “For most people, they say, ‘Let’s ignore it.’ But I still have people come to me in private to say, ‘This is the way we need to go.’ We need the income tax in the mix to make sure we can fund our educational system.”

Rodriguez sits in District 51, a swath of Austin that includes the former hippies of Bouldin Creek and the Latino activists of East Austin. The Austin Chronicle calls it Austin’s “Birkenstock Belt.” While Maxey focused on public health and human services, Rodriguez is more concerned with affordable housing and the state’s tax structure. Maxey, who is lobbying at the Legislature this session, says he is most proud of Rodriguez for being himself, setting his own agendas.

“For somebody as active as I was, both he and I had some concern that he would be in my shadow, but I’m really proud that he’s been his own person this session,” Maxey said. “He’s put some very proactive legislation out there, and it’s not something he does on a lark. He really believes an income tax is a rational funding mechanism and that we need to go through the process of discussing it.”

Rodriguez has had one victory this session. His efforts to abolish the fingerprint-imaging program for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which could save the state $1.5 million this year, was well received by Republicans. Rodriguez dislikes the dehumanization of people seeking subsidized help. Conservatives liked the cost-cutting aspects of the bill.

“I never thought I would ever have the support of the conservative coalition in my entire career in the House, and yet here they were ready to support the bill,” said Rodriguez, adding that some lawmakers opposed the contract because it was for a subsidiary of a French company that helped Iraq during the last Gulf War. “If that’s what’s swaying them to kill this program—not because of sound government or better government but because this was a company that helped Iraq—then that’s fine by me.”

Waste company planning expansion

A group of northeast Austin residents is complaining about the actions of Waste Management Inc. and inaction by City of Austin staff. WMI, according to members of the Northeast Action Group (NAG), is requesting permits and variances from the city while their neighborhood continues to suffer from the foul odor coming from the company’s landfill.

“We have discovered that Waste Management and the City of Austin have been working together since November of 2002 to approve subdivision and zoning plans for a new expansion, which will significantly impact several neighborhoods,” said NAG spokesperson Joyce Thoresen. The group provided city documents obtained through an open records request to support that claim. Those documents include letters from the engineering firm of Turner Collie & Braden for a subdivision application for three lots, one of which would be used as a municipal solid waste site. “Travis County has enough garbage capacity for many decades,” complained Thoresen. “Other counties need to stop dumping their trash in an area eight miles from the State Capitol in Austin’s largest watershed.”

NAG members were also upset that city staff had failed to advise them of the company’s subdivision request. “We are never privy to the perfection of their application,” said Trek English. “They have been applying for or working on expansion while we are working on their landfill problems, such as leachate…stinking in our neighborhoods, their methane exceedances, and so many other problems. This is an outrage. The city should have notified us that Waste Management was subdividing an additional property.”

However, under the city’s subdivision rules, a notification about the expansion request would not have been required. “I think their obligation is to notify the registered neighborhoods that there is a plan for subdivision, since this is all that’s being permitted,” English said. “But at the same time, since they know there’s such a serious problem in the area, the least they could do is let us know that an expansion from the landfill is also being proposed.”

Neighborhood plan amendments . . . The Council decided shortly before midnight Thursday to postpone making changes to the ordinance which sets forth how Neighborhood Plans may be amended in the future. Council Member Betty Dunkerley came close to getting a vote on her request that the super-majority portion of the ordinance be eliminated, but Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman put in a substitute motion, which spawned lengthy discussion. Mayor Gus Garcia suggested that the matter be postponed in order to ponder her suggestions. Council Member Daryl Slusher moved to postpone the matter to May 8. There is no Council meeting this week and Garcia said he would not be available for the April 24 meeting. The May 1 meeting is also cancelled. Election Day is May 3 . . . Convenience store granted waiver to sell beer, wine . . . The City Council voted 5-2 to allow the owner of property near the Fulmore Middle School on S. Congress to sell beer and wine when the convenience store on the property is reopened. The store sits next to another shop that also sells alcohol. The school and its PTA did not object to the waiver, but various members of the neighborhood did. Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas voted no. Nikelle Meade, representing the property owner, said area police were much more concerned about the property in its current condition—vacant and thus a magnet for vagrants. Council Member Daryl Slusher noted that the neighborhood opposition—which focused on the evils of drinking—showed a surprising “neo-temperance” trend. Those Council members supporting the waiver said it would be more difficult for junior high school students to pass for 21 than it is for high school students. They also said the vacant storefront would be worse for the neighborhood than the addition of another store . . . Tonight’s meetings of interest . . . The CAMPO Policy Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet at 6pm tonight at the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center. The group will discuss changes to various roadway plans and changes to the composition of the Policy Advisory Committee. Austin has withheld its blessing of new Hays County members in hopes of gaining agreement for more power on the board. (See In Fact Daily, April 8, 2003.) The Sign Review Board/ Board of Adjustment is also scheduled to meet at 5:30pm at One Texas Center . . . Entrepreneur Training Program announced . . . The Capital City African-American Chamber of Commerce has announced a Youth Entrepreneur Program for middle-school students beginning this week. The apprenticeship program “is an effort to educate young people in the right and wrong ways to spend money, to teach them how to budget, save and invest, and to help them take step today for a better future tomorrow,” according to Cheryse Phillips, CEO of the chamber. For more information, contact Phillips at 459-1181 or . . . Got a story? . . . The UT Humanities Institute is inviting the public to contribute to Austin history by entering a 1-3 page story in the citywide community partnership project, “Writing Austin's Lives.” Look for entry forms at any branch library and visit the website or call 471-2654 for entry instructions.

© 2003

In Fact News,

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