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Smoking panel gives Council conflicting recommendations

Friday, October 10, 2003 by

Neither side changed position on smoke in bars

After meeting on a weekly basis for most of the summer, the city’s Air Quality Task Force on Thursday submitted two conflicting sets of recommendations for changes to the smoking ordinance. The business and nightclub owners wrote one report and supporters of the Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition drafted a separate report with completely opposite suggestions. The dueling recommendations may be of some assistance to the Council, but they will still have to make the final decision, which likely will be done on a 4-3 vote, just like the vote to approve the new ordinance before Will Wynn became Mayor and Brewster McCracken joined the Council. This time, however, it seems likely there will be four votes to allow smoking to continue in bars.

The ordinance banning smoking in most public places in Austin, including bars and nightclubs, is scheduled to go into effect Jan 2, 2004. The task force was formed to study air quality after the ordinance was passed, but members quickly focused their attention on the smoking ordinance. The stakeholders coalition, made up of bars, nightclubs, restaurants and the Building Owners and Managers Association, recommended changes to the ordinance that would allow businesses to choose to be “smoking friendly.” Under the proposal from the business group, bars and nightclubs could continue to allow smoking as long as they posted signs notifying potential customers at all entrances. In addition, the proposal calls for prohibiting customers under the age of 18 from entering rooms in which smoking is allowed. “We want to allow people to make a decision when they get to an entrance,” said Bob Woody of the East Sixth Street Community Association. “But if you’re under 18, your decision has been made for you . . . because we think you’re too young for that decision. You can’t buy cigarettes, anyhow.”

The Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition is recommending improved definitions in the ordinance for smoking, bars, attached bars, and restaurants but endorses the overall spirit of the current language. The group wants the no-smoking provisions to take effect on Jan. 2nd except for freestanding bars. Under their proposal, those establishments would be allowed a nine-month transition period and would be required to comply by Sept. 1, 2004. “We felt it was a time in which bars could adapt to a new situation, and educational programs could be begun to make things a little bit smoother,” said Coalition Chair Ken Pfluger. “It’s also a time when kids are coming back to school and football season starts, and we thought it would be a good time to do it.”

The dueling recommendations reflect the significant philosophical divisions between the public health advocates and nightclub owners. The Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition’s report to the Council runs slightly less than two pages, with an additional four pages of footnotes referring to scientific studies about the health effects of cigarette smoke. The Stakeholders Coalition is also two pages, but includes an additional ten pages outlining the group’s position on various issues in a compare-and-contrast format. The issues are divided between “Pro-Ban and their theories” and “Pro-Choice and our realities”. The bottom line for the business group remains the desire to serve their customers who wish to smoke. “Informed consent is where it’s at,” said Bob Woody. “Let people know what’s going on and make a decision.” For The Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition, the priority is still on protecting the health of those workers in smoke-intensive environments. “Our basic premise is that an ordinance should protect all workers in all public places, because public health is the issue,” said Pfluger.

With the deadline of Jan. 2 looming for the new smoking ordinance to take effect, Mayor Wynn promised a speedy review of the recommendations. “I would suggest that this Council take action, one way or the other, on October 30th. That way, there’s 60 days notice…on any potential changes to the ordinance,” said Wynn. “I will work with a colleague or two and bring forward an item from Council based on where I think the community discussion has been.” Wynn and McCracken both told downtown bar owners they did not support the ordinance approved in June when Gus Garcia was Mayor. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who sponsored the task force, and Council Member Raul Alvarez both opposed the ordinance in the form approved last summer. .

Council puts off Starbucks decision

The City Council wants to make sure local coffee shops have another chance to take over the spot at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport that’s currently a business center. They’ve postponed until October 30 a vote on allowing the current operator of the business center to transfer the lease to a company that plans to install a Starbucks coffee franchise.

Staff of Mozart’s Coffee Roasters used the coffee controversy as an opportunity to give away samples of pastries outside Thursday’s Council meeting, encouraging visitors to “just say no to Starbucks at the airport.” Inside, Jack Ranstrom of Mozart’s told Council members the coffee shop on the shore of Lake Austin would definitely be interested in pursuing an airport location. “We just got wind of the proposition for the airport concession, and we’re excited as a local business at the opportunity,” he said. “We’re local, we’re a ten-year success story, we have a huge returning customer base from UT. Last year we did over $1 million in sales and we feel that we can definitely succeed in this endeavor.” Ranstrom said they had not previously submitted a proposal because they were unaware the location would be available. “We were not contacted by anybody,” he said. “I found out from a woman who is a vendor of ours.”

Council Members voted to delay consideration of amending the contract with the Austin Airport Business Center Group to allow other locally owned coffeehouses to put together proposals. The operator of the business center is not contractually obligated to bring forth a locally owned firm as its replacement, either for a coffee house or any other business venture that might go into the location. “There are no requirements on the assignment that the assignment be done in a competitive fashion,” explained City Manager Toby Futrell. “The leaseholder has the lease, and what the Council’s action will be is to approve or to reject any assignment of that lease.”

Although they cannot obligate the business center group to offer the contract to a local company, several Council Members made it clear they would not be inclined to allow Starbucks into the airport without proof that local companies had at least been given an opportunity to compete. “I want to make sure that everybody gets a fair shake,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher, “and that the contractor gets as fair a deal as possible.

The city has some options along those lines, according to Futrell, and staff will be studying them in the next two weeks. The item is scheduled to come back before the Council on October 30th. There is no Council meeting next week and at least one member will be out of town during the October 23 meeting.

Zoning change allows immigrant to have liquor store

Immigrant Milenkos Zekic took a big step toward achieving his small part of the American dream yesterday when the City Council unanimously approved his request for a zoning change that will allow him to open a liquor store at 8610 N. Lamar. Director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department Alice Glasco told the Council Zekic’s plan had the blessing of city staff since it does not conflict with the neighborhood plan. In addition, the store will be in an existing shopping center, surrounded by other commercial uses. The Planning Commission also blessed the proposal and no one spoke against it.

Consultant Amelia Lopez-Phelps represents Zekic. She explained that the her client picked the area for his store based on the surrounding population—about 5,000 of whom are, like Zekic, immigrants from the country once known as Yugoslavia. She said, “They want to serve that community. They felt this gives them the opportunity to have the American dream. He is working three jobs to get the money to do this” and every day of delay costs him money.

Council Member Daryl Slusher moved approval of the change on all three readings. That motion passed unanimously. Then Lopez-Phelps requested that the Council waive the 10-day rule, which delays the actual change for that length of time. However, Mayor Will Wynn pointed out that the rule could only be waived in case of emergency, and this did not constitute an emergency.

Lopez-Phelps also won a zoning change yesterday for developer Mario Chapa, who plans to build condominiums in the 1400 block of Parker Lane. A number of neighbors objected to the proposal when the case was approved on first reading, saying they preferred that the property remain single-family. Thursday, however, Lopez-Phelps produced documents signed by the developer and four neighbors, as well as letters from the neighbors saying they no longer opposed the rezoning request. Without the objections of those neighbors, there was no longer a valid petition representing 20 percent of surrounding property owners.

The developer agreed to some additional setbacks from surrounding property, some additional trees that will grow to at least 30 feet and a 10-foot bamboo buffer zone from one property, as well as reduced density. In addition, balconies will be limited to the second level of three-story buildings.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Garcia, Davis to intervene in redistricting lawsuit . . . Former Mayor Gus Garcia and Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis are holding a press conference on the south steps of the Capitol at 11am today. Both are longtime residents of East Austin, which would be removed from Austin’s 10th Congressional district under a plan currently under consideration in the Legislature. The two officials plan to announce that they will intervene in a lawsuit to challenge the redistricting plan that would put their homes in a district centered in the Rio Grande Valley. That plan could be approved by the Legislature today or tomorrow. Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, Anna Correa, public policy director for LULAC, and Alfred Stanley, treasurer for, will join them . . . Barrientos fundraiser. . . Rabbit’s Lounge, 1816 E. 6th Street, will be hosting a fundraiser from 5-8pm tonight for Senator Gonzalo Barrientos. Tickets are $5 per plate and can be purchased at the event or by calling 797-7926 for delivery of five or more . . . Naishtat fundraiser . . . Rep. Elliott Naishtat is having a fundraiser at Scholz's, 1607 San Jacinto, Monday from 5- 7:30pm. For more information, contact Paula at 454-1392 or . . . Please pardon our error . . . Commissioner John Donisi of the Zoning and Platting Commission voted no on a motion to rescind the indefinite postponement of consideration of a zoning change for a sliver of land at I-35 and Ben White. The vote, which will allow the commission to make a recommendation at next week’s meeting, involves land which Wal-Mart intends to develop for another supercenter. The commission voted 6-3 for rescission, not 7-2 as reported early yesterday. Members of South River City Citizens object to allowing big-box retail on the site . . . TreeFolks wins Texas Forest Service award . . . The Texas Urban Forestry Council and the forest service recently awarded TreeFolks of Austin the Outstanding Civic Organization Project Award in recognition of their outstanding 2003 tree-planting project. “These awards recognize the best of urban and community forestry in Texas,” Jim Hull, director of the Texas Forest Service, said. “Recent research has shown that trees act as the lungs, water filters, and air conditioners of our cities. These awards honor those Texans who help keep our community trees safe and healthy.” TreeFolks is a non-profit organization whose mission is to grow the urban forest though tree planting, education and community partnerships . . . Appointments . . . Yesterday, the Council reappointed Beatrice Fincher and Timothy Finley to the Downtown Commission. Fincher represents the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Finley represents the Downtown Austin Alliance. The Council also reappointed Exalton Delco to the MHMR Board of Trustees and Mayor Will Wynn reappointed Ben Sifuentes to the Urban Renewal Board.

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