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Development rule questions could go to arbitration

Thursday, October 30, 2003 by

Stakeholders wanted consolidated decision-making

The word “arbitration” has crossed the lips of more than one person this week when discussing the future of the City of Austin and Travis County’s common subdivision regulations.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty used the word after a public hearing on House Bill 1445 at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting. And Harry Savio of the homebuilders association agreed yesterday the stakeholders and governments are “far apart” on the ordinance—far enough apart to eventually require arbitration.

This compliance with state law—both House Bill 1445 and Senate Bill 1204—has taken months of arduous compromise between the city and county on road designation, water quality and environmental regulations in the extra-territorial jurisdiction. But while the two sides were negotiating the finer points, the real problem blindsided them: the discrepancies between “consolidated code” and “consolidated government.”

As it’s set up now, the city and county would have a consolidated code, with site plans reviewed at a common one-stop shop. Any variances, however, go to the relevant governmental body for approval, which stakeholders consider to be a real problem.

To Savio, the intention of House Bill 1445 and Senate Bill 1204 has always been consolidated, streamlined decision-making. Savio envisions something that might resemble the county-wide appraisal district, an independent body that implements the common code and handles any owner appeals to that code. Elected officials disagree.

That’s a tremendous impasse, one noted by Daugherty at this week’s Commissioners Court meeting. It was so significant that Daugherty asked Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman to lay out an explanation of arbitration. State law will force the county and city into arbitration if they fail to certify a common code by Jan. 1.

“I am not very optimistic, looking at what we see has happened and what continues to happen,” Daugherty said. “The stakeholders say, ‘This thing really isn’t working for us.’ That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to come down somewhere, but let’s face it. (HB) 1445 and (SB) 1204 were specifically done for the satisfaction of the building industry. If we’ve got these folks continuing to come to us, saying ‘It’s really not beneficial to us,’ then we need to hear it loud and clearly.”

Gieselman told Daugherty the city and county are “sticking to our schedule.” The common ordinance continues to make its way through the city’s boards and commissions. Recommendations are being compiled for approval by the two governmental bodies.

County commissioners have set Nov. 13 for a work session on the ordinance. The City Council may take up the issue the following week. Travis County will have to reach similar agreements with the remaining cities in the county by January 2006.

Arbitration is something stakeholders might welcome. Mediation involves two sides coming to a compromise with the help of a facilitator. Arbitration is an outside party reviewing the decision of the two bodies; and stakeholders like Savio are convinced an outside party would favor the building industry’s interpretation of one-stop approval.

Two other logistical issues also remain unresolved: the review of any duplication of fees and who will conduct on-site inspections.

At this week’s Commissioners Court meeting, County Judge Sam Biscoe said he intended to put the audit of duplicative fees back on the county’s agenda next week. The county has set aside $100,000 toward an audit. The city, given its financial circumstances, has declined to participate, although City Manager Toby Futrell offered manpower to complete an audit.

Commissioners were disinclined to use in-house resources for any part of their portion of the audit. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner noted that stakeholders had insisted they wanted to be sure the audit was independent. County commissioners will hear from Auditor Susan Spataro next week on how far the $100,000 will go toward completing an audit..

Council likely to weaken no smoking ordinance today

Anti-smoking groups demonstrate at City Hall

The Austin City Council today will re-visit the ban on smoking in most public places. The ordinance passed by the Council this summer, and scheduled to go into effect in January, could undergo significant revisions designed to remove some of the provisions found most objectionable by bar and nightclub owners.

Mayor Will Wynn, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Brewster McCracken are sponsoring the ordinance revisions, which were drafted after input from business representatives. They would allow bar and nightclub owners to pay for a permit from the city to allow smoking in their establishments, provided they met certain conditions.

That proposed loosening of the rules to allow smoking in those venues is being met with objections from anti-smoking groups. They organized a demonstration on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday to voice their displeasure. “This ordinance comes as a surprise to us,” said Marshall Cothron with the Travis County Medical Society. “It goes beyond reasonable compromise, such as exempting stand-alone bars, and it effectively guts the protections that were put into place in the ordinance that was passed by the City Council on June 5. It takes us back to a virtually non-regulated environment for public places…which we had since 1994. We fear that political compromise, in this proposal, will in fact compromise the public health of the patrons and workers in restaurants and other public places in the city of Austin.”

The latest version of the proposed changes posted on the city’s web site would allow smoking only in venues that receive at least 51 percent of their revenue from the sale of alcohol. In addition, those businesses would have to prohibit customers under the age of 18 from entering and would have to provide sings outside notifying patrons about the possibility of smoking inside. Another proposal would provide exemptions for restaurants with a separate enclosed bar with separate ventilation. Those provisions, designed to protect children from the effects of second-hand smoke while still allowing some venues to offer smoking for their adult customers, aren’t satisfactory to some members of the anti-smoking brigade.

“I’m angered and discouraged,” bartender Ryan Hunter said outside of City Hall on Wednesday. “How do four walls protect my health? How do age restrictions protect my health?” Restricting smoking in certain rooms of a business, he added, would protect some patrons but still leave workers exposed. “It’s worse,” he said. “Now workers will be in separate rooms where smoke is concentrated, not eliminated.” Other smoking opponents point to difficulties in enforcing the separate ventilation requirement, and say that most systems are not 100 percent effective in keeping tobacco smoke from entering restricted areas.

While the particulars of the proposal to allow smoking in bars and restaurants may not pass muster with members of the Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition, they could be the focus of the debate at today’s City Council Meeting. In June, when the original smoking ban was passed, there was discussion of allowing an exemption for bars. But that attempt failed, in part because of disagreements among Council Members about which establishments should qualify as bars. Council Member Raul Alvarez proposed defining a bar as an establishment that made more than 75 percent of its revenues from the sale of alcohol, instead of 51 percent. But then-Mayor Gus Garcia, who sponsored the ordinance, rejected Alvarez’ proposal as contrary to the spirit of the ban. Earlier this month, the staff in the Austin-Travis County Health Department prepared an analysis of rules exempting stand-alone bars, which were defined as obtaining 70 percent or more of their revenues from alcohol sales. The staff letter to Council notes that while that would address concerns of the business community about preserving options for their customers, it would not address the concerns of hospitality industry employees.

Mayor challenges community to help with Dickinson house

Mayor Will Wynn accepted a deed to the home of Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson yesterday and challenged the community to help come up with approximately $600,000 needed to completely restore the 1869 stone house. FaulknerUSA CEO Greg Eden signed over the deed to the city and Shannon Sedwick, chairperson of the Old Pecan Street Association, was on hand to present a check for $20,000 from the group to the Friends of the O. Henry Museum.

The O. Henry group, reluctantly at first, allowed the house to be moved onto Brush Square, where it will share a place with the museum. The O. Henry group, a charitable organization, is the fiscal agent for the restoration effort. Recently the group won a $42,000 grant from the Historic Landmark Commission for preservation of the house. Those funds are were generated by the hotel-motel tax.

Dickinson went to the Alamo with her husband, Almaron Dickinson, and their baby, Angelina. Almaron was killed at the Alamo, but Susanna and Angelina were spared. Santa Anna sent Dickinson to General Sam Houston to tell him about Santa Anna’s victory at the Alamo and she is regarded as a heroine. Dickinson later married Joseph Hannig and moved to Austin with him in 1858. They lived in the house from 1869 to 1874. Hannig owned a successful cabinet shop and dry goods store. He was Susanna’s fifth and last husband.

Austin-based FaulknerUSA is currently building the new 800-room Hilton Austin and the adjoining Fifth Street Tower luxury residences. The house was completely enshrouded by the Pit Bar-B-Q, where the hotel and tower are now being erected. The company picked up the tab for relocation of the Susanna Dickinson House to its permanent home at the northeast corner of Brush Square—across the street from the Hilton. FaulknerUSA spent about $650,000 to move and stabilize the house, which is now suspended above its new foundation and held together with wood and steel underpinning.

Wynn said he expects the complete restoration to cost another $600,000.”Obviously it’s a challenge, but I can’t tell you how optimistic I am about the likelihood of us pulling this off.” He said he expects help to come through the Texas Historic Commission as well as from individuals and private groups.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Facing a lengthy agenda . . . In addition to the smoking ordinance, the Council faces a plethora of controversies today, beginning with whether Starbucks should be able to open at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Jim Smith, director of aviation, also added an agenda item asking the Council to set a policy on the percentage of local to chain concessionaires that may operate in the airport. Richard Suttle will be back on second and third reading for zoning of a home for Wal-Mart at I-35 and Slaughter. Three property owners are hoping their houses will be zoned historic and two others are fighting the historic designation. The Council is also scheduled to conduct a public hearing on a site plan for the Austin Convention Center Parking Garage. Earlier in the day, they will consider whether to amend a contract with Barnes Architects, Goetting & Associates, Jaster-Quintanilla for an additional $365,000 for a full-time project representative for the garage . . . Trail repair volunteers sought. . . The Parks and Recreation Department and REI are hoping to sign up 150 volunteers to do trail maintenance, repair, and clean-up at the Onion Creek Greenway. Work will be from 9am to 2pm Saturday. For more information, call REI customer service at 343-5550 . . . New biz announcement . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce will make a “significant announcement” today about a business locating in the Central Texas area. The news conference will begin at 9:30am at the Chamber, 210 Barton Springs Road, Suite 400.

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