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Landowner sues city, Stratus

Friday, November 21, 2003 by

S.R. Ridge claims "conspiracy" in Wal-Mart blockage

S.R. Ridge Limited Partnership filed suit in federal court yesterday against the City of Austin and Stratus Properties. Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Daryl Slusher are named as the leaders of an effort within the city to prevent Wal-Mart from building a huge store on a site over the Edwards aquifer.

Endeavor Real Estate, which had an option to purchase the property, planned to sell the land to Wal-Mart. Endeavor gave up the option when Wal-Mart withdrew from the deal. Neither Wal-Mart nor Endeavor is named as a party in the lawsuit. Ridge accuses Stratus of conspiring with Slusher and with consultant and lobbyist Mike Blizzard, who was paid by Stratus to organize a public relations campaign against the superstore. The suit claims the city breached its1996 settlement agreement with the property owner and asks for $8 million in compensation. Ridge also claims the city interfered with its property rights under the Texas Constitution and claims tortious interference with the settlement agreement by Stratus. For the latter charge, Ridge is seeking punitive damages equal to twice the economic damages sustained. The plaintiff has asked for a jury trial, which means the process is likely to take at least a year.

Slusher denied any wrongdoing and added, “Clearly environmental progress has been made when I’m accused of conspiring with Stratus to keep development off the aquifer.” City Attorney David Smith said he accepted service on the city’s behalf yesterday afternoon. Brian Cassidy of Locke Liddell & Sapp is representing the plaintiffs.

Big box study gets green light

The City Council last night voted 5-1 to authorize funding for a study on the impact of big box retail on local businesses. Mayor Will Wynn voted against the expenditure, which will not exceed $45,000. Economist Jon Hockenyos outlined the study’s seven tasks:

• Outline recent economic trends as well as structural trends in various industries nationwide.

• Provide an overview of the status of retail business throughout Austin and its suburbs.

• Review academic literature related to the impact of big box stores and national retailers on local economies, emphasizing communities similar to Austin.

• Survey the Austin market to learn the relative prices for similar goods from national retailers, regional retailers and locally owned business.

• Survey an array of national, regional and local businesses to determine the range of wages, benefits, charitable contributions and spending through other businesses.

• Analyze crime data and traffic patterns to determine the relative impacts on public safety and the environment.

• Analyze the findings and make recommendations for public policy related to land use.

Hockenyos said his firm, Texas Perspectives, would work with Scott Polikov of Gateway Planning Group on the study. City staff, the Austin Independent Business Alliance and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce will also assist in the project. Robin Rather and Susan Moffat, who support the study, said they would be putting together a stakeholders group within the next two weeks to provide input. An important part of the study will include asking the sorts of questions that may make some business owners uncomfortable. Hockenyos said he would assure that such information would remain confidential.

Wynn said he was interested in the environmental and esthetic impacts of big box retail and supports that part of the study. However, he said, “It seems to me that the majority of this work is analyzing retail trends in modern American society. In these tough budget times, I don’t see the city spending money analyzing the (retail) trends in a free society.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher, who sponsored the study, said in addition to environmental and esthetic concerns, the city and its citizens are worried about the economic impact of big box retail. “The impact of these multinational retailers on small merchants . . . is a concern of many, many Americans.” He said the city had incorporated ideas for the study from Moffat, former Council Member Bill Spelman and the Real Estate Council of Austin. He added that it is important to know what health benefits are being paid because the city has to foot the bill for those who are uninsured but need service at Brackenridge Hospital. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said she too thinks the health insurance issue is especially important.

McCracken said, “We have right now large, national retailers coming in with strategies that involve cutting wages and cutting prices. We could see all our grocery store chains wiped out by large national retailers.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman was off the dais but has said previously that she supports such a study.

Council rejects plea from start-up cab company

After hearing from both sides on the matter, the Austin City Council Thursday turned down an appeal by a coalition of cab drivers to grant them a new cab franchise. The drivers were seeking a new franchise and permits for 50 vehicles to launch Lone Star Cab, which they said would offer better financial terms and equity participation for the drivers.

“It’s clear these folks are trying to do the right thing. They’re trying to improve their lives,” said Mike Blizzard, who represented Lone Star Cab. “From a city-wide perspective, it would foster competition. It would reduce reliance on social services that many of these drivers are reliant on because they aren’t making enough money to make their bills.”

But representatives of the existing cab companies and dozens of drivers who attended the meeting told Council members the city was not in a position to support any more cabs given the current state of the economy. “The number of trips per taxi cab from the year 2000 to the year 2002 has declined 24 percent. The number of trips out of the airport has declined 37 percent,” said Joe Chernow, president and CEO of Texas Taxi, owner of American Yellow Checker Cab in Austin, the city’s largest cab company. “I’ve been informed that the average wait for a cab driver to get a trip after arriving at the airport is a minimum of two hours . . . an average of three hours,” said Chernow. “It’s a clear indication that not only is there an adequate number of cabs to serve Austin, there are excess cabs.”

Chernow told Council members that city staff had estimated that there were actually 50 more cabs authorized in the city than would normally be allowed under the current formula. Cab drivers lined up to add their own personal observations about the state of their industry. “This is a very tough time, and we do not need to have a hundred extra cars on the street right now,” said Hannah Riddering. “Let’s not make the burden on the cab drivers and their families any more difficult. We really cannot deal with having more cabs right now.”

The Council was presented with two options. The recommendation from city staff was to grant the new franchise along with 50 cab permits. While the company’s attorney told Council members they would prefer 100, the principal organizers of the co-op said they would be willing to attempt to start the company with 50. The staff recommendation to grant the new franchise hinged upon changes in the guidelines for awarding those franchises. The number of permits is based on a formula which takes into account the city’s population and traffic at Austin Bergstrom International Airport. The recommended changes would allow the city to reserve new permits, as they become available, for a new company. The staff also recommended a special provision allowing the Council to award a new franchise if there were fewer than five cab companies operating in Austin for a period of five years or more. Since that is the case now, the staff’s proposal would have resulted in Lone Star Cab receiving a franchise.

But a majority of Council members supported an amendment to that proposal offered by the Urban Transportation Commission. That clause calls for the city to refrain from issuing new permits while there is still a surplus under the current formula. City transportation officials estimated that the first new permits would actually be needed in three to five years, depending on the economy. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman moved to support the UTC recommendation, with a second from Council Member Betty Dunkerley. “I do not think we need to issue any additional permits until the glut of permits is worked off,” Dunkerley said.

Council Member Danny Thomas offered a substitute motion to approve the staff’s plan, which received a second from Council Member Daryl Slusher. But they were the only two members to vote in favor of awarding the new franchise. The Council then returned to Goodman’s original motion, which passed on a vote of 6-1. Council Member Daryl Slusher voted in favor of Goodman’s proposal after discussion and clarification of how a new franchise would be awarded.

Ochoa case settled for $5.3 million

The City Council yesterday voted to settle a lawsuit filed by Christopher Ochoa, who was wrongfully imprisoned for the rape and murder of a young woman in 1988. Ochoa will receive $5.3 million, but has agreed to give co-defendant Richard Danziger $500,000 of that because Ochoa, under pressure from one or more Austin police officers, confessed to the crime and named Danziger as his accomplice. Later, Ochoa testified against Danziger at trial. City Attorney David Smith said Ochoa is also transferring to Danziger his right to make a claim under a state statute that provides compensation to prisoners wrongfully imprisoned. That claim is valued at $300,000-$500,000. Danziger recently received a $9 million settlement from the city. Scott Ozmun represents Danziger.

Acting Assistant City Manager John Stephens said the city will pay for the settlement by issuing judgment bonds. Those bonds will be issued in September along with other bonds the city is selling, he said. Mayor Will Wynn said, “This has been the most troubling case that I’ve personally dealt with,” as a member of the City Council.

Local business promised for airport

The debate about which brand of coffee should be sold at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport came to a close on Thursday. The holder of the lease for the airport’s business center, who had been seeking Council permission to sublease the slot to a company that would install a Starbucks, withdrew the request. Instead, Stacy Dukes-Rhone of the Austin Airport Business Group agreed to a Council directive that she seek out a locally owned company.

“It seems that Council is not going in the direction of having a Starbuck’s in the airport, but we still want to go ahead and move forward with changing the venue and the terms,” said Dukes-Rhone. “The item has been removed to bring in the Starbucks . . . However, we would like to make the change with the commitment that we would move forward with a local group. That means local ownership in addition to local presence.”

What exactly qualifies as local then became the subject of debate. Some Council members were concerned that a local company could win the contract only to install a franchise of a national chain. Council Member Brewster McCracken suggested postponing the item yet again to allow Dukes-Rhone time to present additional information to the Council. “I think we’re on a great direction right now,” he said. “I just want to make sure everyone has the same understanding of what we’re proposing to do.” He requested that the changes to the Dukes-Rhone contract with the City of Austin be presented in writing because there had been so much

miscommunication and misunderstanding over the contract in the past.

McCracken was also concerned that documents presented to the city still stated Bush Entertainment would be involved. McCracken said that Bush Entertainment had a previous concession contract at Houston’s Hobby Airport and that contract had not been renewed because of problems Houston experienced.

After extensive discussion, the Council determined that the agreement with the Austin Airport Business Group would be written to reflect that there must be 51 percent local ownership and local flavor and that staff review the financial information from those entities before the contract is executed. The vote to allow Dukes-Rhone to proceed was 5-2, with McCracken and Slusher opposed.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Wing watchers to gather . . . Matt Curtis and Mark Nathan are teaming up to make a documentary of Nathan Caperton,“king of wings,” as he makes his bid to regain the title of King of Wings. Caperton lost the crown to another heavy poultry eater who consumed 163 wings in one sitting. But this Sunday, beginning at 5pm, Caperton hopes to plough through 200 of the “Fire in the Hole” wings at Pluckers, 2222 Rio Grande. The wings are renowned for their eye-watering burn. Says one former wing-eating champion: “You go numb after 40.” Mayoral assistant Richard Arellano will provide musical accompaniment. Fun-seekers are invited to watch. See . . Appointments . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez reappointed Juan Cotera to the Design Commission and Maria Hernandez to the Commission for Women. Hernandez is chair of the commission . . . Bonner wins new honor . . . Woman’s Day Magazine has named Austin entrepreneur Cathy Bonner a winner of the “Women Who Inspire Us” awards for her role in founding T he Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future in Dallas. She raised more than $30 million make the museum a reality. “Museums are ritual places where we display what we value in a society,” says Bonner. “Even though there are more than 8,000 museums in America, not one, until now, is dedicated to telling the complete history of women and making sure that women’s stories become part of our heritage.” The museum opened in 2000. Currently she is president of Bonner Incorporated, an Austin-based advertising firm specializing in the marketing of state college savings and prepaid tuition programs. She is also president of the Foundation for Women’s Resources. For more information about the museum, go to . . Former judge to run again . . . Republican Ernest Garcia, who was appointed to the 126th District Court bench in 1998, but defeated in an election two years later by Democrat Darlene Byrne, plans to run for a seat on the Third Court of Appeals. His campaign manager, Seton Motley, said Garcia is hoping that Governor Rick Perry will appoint him to serve the unexpired term of Lee Yeakel, who left the Court of Appeals for the federal bench. If Perry does not appoint Garcia, he would likely run for the seat currently held by Democratic Judge Jan Patterson, who is up for re-election next year . . . Whaley to wed . . . ZAP Commissioner Melissa Whaley plans to wed in Cozumel, Mexico next week. Her finance is a chiropractor from Denver. Best wishes to both of them. . . . Senior Officer Martinez honored. . . The Council approved naming the city’s new forensic center (under construction at 812 Springdale Road) the Robert M. Martinez, Sr. Forensic Center. Martinez, a well-respected APD officer for 30 years whose career achievements include being named runner-up for Police Officer of the Year by Parade magazine in 1989, and receiving commendation from President Bill Clinton for his work helping Texas youth avoid gangs and drugs, died this week from cancer. His son, Robert Jr, was killed in the line of duty in 1989; an Austin street is named after him.

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