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Wentworth/Baxter bill on Senate calendar today

Tuesday, May 27, 2003 by

Two bills that make it a little harder for cities to change their land use regulations are likely to move successfully through the Legislature this session, despite opposition by cities to some provisions and by some development interests and elected officials to other portions.

House Bill 2130, which is on its way to the Governor’s desk, is intended to “close some loopholes” in House Bill 1704 legislation, said author Rep. Edward Kuempel (R-Seguin). The bill nullifies some of the exceptions that cities have used to deny building permits, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas.

Kuempel said the bill applies state-wide and is not intended to target Austin, but he did criticize city governments that use exceptions such as the “eminent danger of flooding” to apply to any piece of land they don’t want to see developed. Cities ultimately “hold the gun” when it comes to controlling land development, and that’s the release of the original permit.

“I have a problem with issuing a permit and then going back and changing it mid-stream,” Kuempel said. “We didn’t intend to attack an individual city. We’re just interested in closing the loopholes.”

HB 2130 was on the list of those being opposed by the City of Austin . When the bill was being considered in the Senate committee, several cities, including New Braunfels, stood up to say it was a bad idea. Charlie Zach, representing the city of New Braunfels, argued that his city—sometimes referred to as “the flash flood capital of the world”—need to maintain its authority to regulate in flood-prone areas. He cited concerns with language in the bill that addresses only FEMA-designated flood plains but not floodways.

Zach argued that it is difficult to stop developers when new regulations are filed. The city often sees a “rush to the planning counter to get permits” when new regulations are under consideration. He said it’s hard to stop those permits when the city requires three readings of the ordinance before it’s properly approved. (See In Fact Daily May 16, 2003.)

House Bill 1204, authored by Rep. Todd Baxter (R-Austin) could head to the Senate floor as early as this morning. The bill is the successor to last session’s House Bill 1445. Baxter also describes his bill as “closing a loophole” by putting consequences on the table for cities and counties that fail to come up with common subdivision platting regulations. Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) is the Senate sponsor of the bill and the author of HB 1445.

“It’s important that we prevent dual conflicting regulations in the ETJ of cities and counties,” Baxter said. “This will streamline government and make it more efficient.” If HB 1204 does pass the Senate, those cities and counties that fail to come to a single set of subdivision regulations by Dec. 31 will be sent to binding arbitration. County officials were hopeful lawmakers would exclude smaller cities. Instead, amendments to the bill now allow another two years for counties to negotiate an agreement with smaller cities. The bill can be accessed via this link: http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlo/78r/billtext/HB01204S.HTM

More importantly for Sunset Valley, the bill would give Lowe’s Home Improvement Corp. the right to build under county subdivision regulations. The bill did not originally contain that language but was amended in the Senate committee to include the language which helps Lowe’s. Senators could decide to remove those amendments, or approve it as is. If it is approved in a substantially different form than what was approved by the House, it will have to return to the House for concurrence on the changes. If the House does not concur, the bill would be sent to conference committee. If the version approved by the Senate is the same as the House version, it would go to the Governor for his signature.

City has disproportionately small share of power in decisions

Austin has still not signed off on an expansion of membership in the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) Policy Advisory Committee . Last week Mayor Gus Garcia recommended giving the City Manager authority to sign an amended joint powers agreement on the condition that the city be given more representation on the committee. Currently, the committee consists of 21 members, but only four are from the City of Austin. The group has voted to add three seats, which will further dilute the city’s voting power on the advisory panel. However, Council Member Daryl Slusher had a number of questions about the makeup of the committee and made a motion, which Garcia seconded, to postpone the item until June 5. There is no Council meeting this week, but the PAC will meet to discuss the matter on June 9.

Garcia argued that since 56 percent of those living in the region live within the City of Austin, the city should have a greater say in the area’s transportation decisions. The Mayor tried to get the other signatories to the CAMPO agreement— Travis, Williamson and Hays Counties, Capital Metro and the State of Texas—to allow Austin to have weighted voting, giving city representatives 40 percent of the vote. But he was rebuffed.

So the city’s next step should be to ask for an additional slot for a City Council member, Garcia said. By population, he said, Travis County should have 15 representatives but only has 14. That includes four Council members, three commissioners, six legislators, and the Capital Metro representative. Williamson County, which proportionally should have 4.53, has five. The same is true of Hays, which has two representatives. That new member should be from the City Council, he said, adding that he has already discussed the matter with some other PAC members who seemed amenable.

Austan Librach, director of the Transportation Planning & Sustainability Department, told In Fact Daily that the Peer Review Panel had recommended eliminating some positions held by state elected officials. Every state representative from Travis and Williamson Counties and two senators have seats on the PAC for a total of nine seats. However, Librach added that such a change is unlikely since “they’re not going to vote themselves off.”

CAMPO PAC members are also considering giving Bastrop and Caldwell Counties non-voting affiliate membership. But in a year or so those counties would be coming back to ask for full participation. “You’ve got a very large CAMPO board now . . as the boundary expands (it adds) to the diminution of the vote that the City of Austin has,” he said.

Garcia noted that the Regional Mobility Authority has also requested to join the CAMPO PAC. He said the Capitol Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) has also expressed interest. Slusher said perhaps a member from the commuter rail district, which would link Austin and San Antonio, should join. But all these members make for an even more unwieldy policy committee and no group is asking to have its influence diminished.

Neighbors worry about fire, EMS access, construction noise

The Zoning and Platting Commission last week approved the site plan for the first stage of the Mexican American Cultural Center, despite some complaints and requests for changes from residents of the nearby Rainey Street neighborhood. In addition to specific issues on fencing, parking, lighting, and the construction schedule, those residents who attended the meeting told commissioners that they had not been given sufficient information about the project by city staff.

While Commission Chair Betty Baker advised citizens that the commission could not instruct staff to make presentations to neighborhood groups, she did see some ways the process could be improved. “Of the neighborhood associations notified, there is a very obvious omission and that’s Rainey Street. It’s obvious,” she said. “It should not have happened.” Commissioner Joseph Martinez said the city had run into the same problem frequently faced by private developers. “I don’t think I’m hearing anything different today that I haven’t heard from the last two years from the Rainey Street Neighborhood,” he said. “What I’m most concerned with is that I don’t hear a mechanism for involving them in any way other than them coming before us or before City Council.”

Originally, the city had attempted to arrange for a non-profit group to serve as a conduit between the neighborhood and the city. Since that agreement did not work out, Paul Medrano with the Public Works Department said city staff had attempted to bridge the gap. “We go out to speak to anyone whenever we can,” he said. “We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re trying to make this a community center for the entire city of Austin.”

Neighbors indicated they liked the idea of having a cultural center next door, but stressed that they wanted to minimize the possible negative effects. One specific complaint was possibility of access problems by fire and EMS crews to the Villas on Town Lake after the MACC is built. “We’re not against having a cultural center next door,” said Villas resident Janet Gillis. “It’s much better than a gravel yard, which is what we had…we’re concerned that the Mexican American Cultural Center is blocking off one of the two fire truck accesses.” While Commissioner Clarke Hammond voiced concern for the safety of the residents of the Villas, Baker pointed out that the problems with fire access to the Villas pre-dated the Mexican American Cultural Center. And Medrano provided a memo from the Fire Marshal’s office about access to the property. “As the Fire Marshal says in a memo from last July…the issue can be dealt with in the confines of the Villas,” Medrano said.

Neighbors also had issues with the construction process itself. “As a resident of the Villas, I would love to have the MACC go in,” said Karin Richeson . “I have a concern about construction hours. There’s been no control over the people putting in the utilities. They’ve been working at 1:30 in the morning running concrete pumps.”

While commissioners indicated they sympathized with many of the concerns voiced by residents, they were not sufficient reason to deny the site plan. It was approved on a vote of 8-0, with Commissioner Janis Pinnelli absent.

New aquifer board member . . . The board of directors of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has appointed Dr. Bob Larsen to take the seat of Bill Welch. Colonel Welch is on active duty with the Air Force serving in Oman and cannot attend meetings. Larsen is a professor of geography at Southwest Texas State University. Board Member Craig Smith said Larsen “has extraordinary ability and experience in exactly the areas that we need. Wendy Braniff, the only other applicant considered, also has excellent credentials, Smith said . . . SOS PAC endorsement . . . The Save Our Springs Political Action Committee has decided to endorse Margot Clarke for City Council Place 5. Early voting continues today. June 7 is Election Day for this position . . . Already voted . . . As of Friday night, 3586 Austin voters had cast ballots in the Place 5 runoff. That figure includes 631 voters at Northcross Mall and 432 at the Randall’s on Research. The Travis County Courthouse was third most popular place to vote, with 382 persons voting. The HEB on South Congress came in fourth, with 282 votes. Turnout is still less than one-tenth of one percent of the city’s 401,873 registered voters . . . Science fiction fans fear Wentworth bills . . . An anonymous writer sent In Fact Daily a press release reminiscent of the “Back to the Future” movies. Those who remember the time travel series know that returning to the past to alter a future outcome is frowned upon because of a perceived danger to the space/time continuum. The release says, “a new, somewhat shadowy group of Texans claims that the Texas State Legislature is perilously close to altering the space/time continuum and potentially wiping out life as we know it.” Wentworth is the sponsor of three bills that make development over the aquifer easier for specific developers. The Lowe’s Home Improvement Corp., which has been battling both Sunset Valley and Austin for the right to build in a particular spot over the aquifer, would be able to do so under county subdivision regulations if HB 1204 is approved. HB 1197 retroactively legalizes contracts between Dripping Springs and Cypress Real Estate and MAK Foster Ranch LP allowing them to move forward with housing construction. That bill won final legislative approval yesterday. It remains to be seen what will happen in lawsuits filed against Drippin’ and the two real estate companies . . . Early reprisal . . . Rep. Ron Wilson (D-Houston) earned the wrath of a number of fellow Democrats during the recent House Democratic walkout. He did not support fellow Democrats and was one of Speaker Tom Craddick’s earliest Democratic supporters. He has made a point of bashing Austin and trying to reopen the closed Robert Mueller Airport, but without any notable successes. Now he has drawn the particular wrath of Alfred Stanley, organizer and Democratic fundraiser. Stanley sent out an email this weekend seeking funds for his new organization. “AustinUnited.org will support any credible Democrat willing to challenge Wilson in the March, 2004 Democratic Primary and any Democrats challenging the most vulnerable Republicans in the Texas House during the November general election.”

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

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