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Lowe's settlement wins first round approval

Friday, November 7, 2003 by

Slusher, Alvarez, Thomas vote no

On a vote of 4-3, the City Council gave preliminary approval to a settlement of the lawsuit that would give Lowe’s city water and wastewater service at about 2:30am today. Council Members Daryl Slusher, Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas opposed the motion. The matter will now go to the Environmental Board, the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission for their comments and recommendations. Final consideration of the matter is set for December 4. The matter attracted about 70 citizens wanting to speak, but by the time it came up that number had dwindled to about 30, mostly environmental activists and lobbyists. Those speaking included Mayor Terry Cowan of Sunset Valley who urged the Council to reject the deal. Lowe’s has promised the city $600,000 in mitigation funds to purchase water quality land, but Cowan said Sunset Valley could make Austin a higher offer.

McCracken laid out the case for approving the settlement: “We’ve received a lot of emails about ‘Please don’t allow Lowe’s to build over the aquifer.’ I think it’s important for everyone to know that in our judgment this is not about whether Lowe’s is going to build over the aquifer. In our judgment, with or without the settlement, Lowe’s is going to build over the aquifer. Based on the seven or eight executive sessions we’ve had on this issue….The question is if Lowe’s is going to build in this location, what do we do? We can do nothing, we can try to make this property better, or we can fight it.

Slusher took the opposite side of the argument. Citing the recent example of Wal-Mart changing its decision about building at Slaughter and MoPac, also a prime location over the aquifer, Slusher said there was reason to believe that public pressure could also convince Lowe’s that the decision to build over the aquifer would cost them business. “That’s something I’ve been calling on folks to do for many years,” he noted. I think that was the turning point on the Wal-Mart—maybe a historic turning point. I think we could see the same thing happening on this Lowe’s . . . and there are risks to not approving this settlement….but balancing that, my personal judgment is that we have a better chance with people saying ‘We’re not going to shop where you pollute. That’s a key reason I’m not going to vote for it.

Council approves Ben White Wal-Mart zoning

Big box study and final readings to return November 20

South Austin residents appealed to the City Council Thursday night to deny a zoning change at Ben White and I-35 requested by Wal-Mart for the construction of a new supercenter there, pointing to the harm that development on the tract could have on nearby Blunn Creek. But the Council, noting that the Wal-Mart would likely be able to proceed even without the requested zoning change, approved the company’s request 7-0 on first reading.

The sliver of land in question covers 1.3 acres and is currently zoned SF-3. A much larger area of LI (limited industrial) surrounds that parcel. Attorney Richard Suttle told Council members that the land had been inadvertently left SF-3 when the tract was brought into the city limits. He added that the company could build the planned store without the change, but that unifying the zoning with the adjacent land would give the company flexibility in its design and could also lead to improvements for the neighborhood and the environment. “In the event you decide SF-3 is appropriate, the site plan will have to be adjusted,” warned Suttle.

Members of the South River City Citizens group were adamant about their opposition to the store and the zoning change. “We have three creeks in our watershed,” said Rene Barrera. “Blunn Creek is certainly the most precious and fragile at this time.” The group presented geologist Lauren Ross to provide technical support to their arguments. She warned that the relatively increase in development in the area, combined with the additional impervious cover required by Wal-Mart, would pose irreparable harm to Blunn Creek. “You’re going to take this upper watershed area from 16 percent impervious cover to 45 percent impervious cover. You’re going to lose this creek right now,” she said. “That’s the main point. If you let Wal-Mart go through without addressing this, with just meeting minimum code standards, this resource that has been unique in this community since we started as Austin is lost. And the reason it is lost is because we’re covering up the headwaters.”

SRCC President Tim Mahoney also pleaded with the Council to reject the zoning change on environmental grounds. “Blunn Creek snakes through the SRCC neighborhood,” he said. “Many there consider it the neighborhood’s connection to the environment. Blunn Creek is really one of Austin’s special environmental jewels.” Other neighbors turned their criticism directly to Wal-Mart, reiterating the now-common complaints about the national chain’s impact on locally owned businesses. “We know that when local stores are replaced by national chains we lose our regional character…and the money goes out of the local economy,” said Elloa Mathews.

But Suttle urged the Council to make its decision on established zoning principles, not on the accusations made against the retail chain. “We’re not asking tonight for approval or disapproval of a Wal-Mart. Wal-Marts are an allowable use in industrial zoning,” he said. “We have 22 acres of industrial zoning here. Whether or not the sliver is zoned or not only makes a difference in how good the site plan can be.” And while most of the speakers at the Council meeting opposed the zoning change, Suttle told Council members the store did enjoy community support. “You have over thee thousand signatures of people living in and around this zoning case and this Wal-Mart,” he added. “I would submit to you that there are lots of people that do support this.”

Council Member Betty Dunkerley moved approval of the zoning on all three readings, with a second by Council Member Brewster McCracken. “Austin has a consistent policy of encouraging development in the Desired Development Zone,” McCracken reminded his colleagues. “This development does satisfy that policy. I think we’d be getting off into some inconsistent territory if we tried to prevent development on I-35 and Ben White.” Council Member Daryl Slusher offered a friendly amendment that the approval be on first reading only, giving the company another opportunity to meet with neighborhood residents about environmental protection matters. “Wal-Mart wants to improve their image here in Austin,” he said. “I think that’s behind some of the things you’re offering to do here. It did help a lot when Wal-Mart pulled off the aquifer store.” The zoning change passed on a vote of 7-0. The item is scheduled to come back before the Council on November 20.

After the vote on the zoning at Ben White, Council Members took up the proposal to launch a study of the impact of big-box retail stores on the local economy. Many of the same people had signed up to speak, but passed on the opportunity given the lateness of the hour. “We are not asking you to shut down big-box across the board, and we do not expect the Austin City Council to fix the way a multi-national corporation does business,” Susan Moffat told the Council. “Our goal is to seek a study that is not intended to limit but to ensure healthy, balanced, continued growth for our community and our local economy.” The Council voted 7-0 to direct the City Manager to come back in two weeks with an outline of the scope and cost of a big box study.

City to enter redistricting lawsuit

Even though it was nearly 1am when they got to the matter, the City Council finally approved intervention in the federal lawsuit to overturn the Legislature’s redistricting of Texas’ Congressional districts—but not before they had discussed it thoroughly. Only Mayor Will Wynn voted against the motion. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Members Daryl Slusher and Raul Alvarez sponsored the motion. Council Members Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken added supportive comments.

Democratic activist Alfred Stanley urged the Council to act. “You are the legitimately elected representatives of a community of interest that is being ripped asunder for partisan political reasons. And as legitimate representatives I urge you to fight this in the court and tell you that the lead attorneys in this matter say that participation of Austin and Travis County will greatly increase the odds of its success when it comes to trial,” next month in Austin.

Stanley also read a message from Democratic State Rep. Elliott Naishtat:“The City Council voting to intervene is quite appropriate, quite helpful in that anytime a legitimate elected entity such as the City Council or the Commissioners Court chooses to weigh in on a clearly controversial issue, it brings the force of that entity into the picture in a way that sheds light on the debate for the ultimate decision makers.”

Stanley outlined the effect of redistricting on Travis County and Austin, which will be divided into three districts. For example, only 32 percent of District 10, which is currently represented by Congressman Lloyd Doggett since the retirement of JJ Jake Pickle, is within the City of Austin. Forty-three percent of District 10 lies within Travis County. That district is in the northern part of the county and stretches to Houston. As for District 25, the most Democratic of districts stretches to the Rio Grande Valley. Melissa Gonzales, who testified at a number of redistricting hearings at the Legislature this summer, also urged the Council to intervene.

City Attorney David Smith indicated that he planned to hire redistricting lawyer Renea Hicks to represent the city. Hicks is also representing Travis County, which led Mayor Will Wynn to question the need for the city to hire him also. But Goodman countered that the city’s different political structure warranted its own representation. “We are a non-partisan, at-large elected body. That in itself gives us a different perspective on how city operations can be impacted. I definitely want to have our perspective part of the focus of what the court will be looking at.” McCracken added that the county could not argue as effectively about matters such as funding Austin-Bergstrom International Airport since Travis County does not operate an airport. The deadline for intervention is today. A petition must be filed with the federal court in Tyler where the various suits have been consolidated. The case will be heard in Austin beginning on December 8.

Dunkerley agreed. “I’m probably the least partisan member of the Council. I’ve worked for cities for 17 years. During that time I’ve come to realize how important our Senators and Representatives are in making a city successful. I really believe we need one representative for our city. By having three representatives, we really have no representative at all.”

McCracken said, “We’re going to end up in a situation where we’re going to be missing out on the decisions that affect our economic future. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. This is about jobs; it’s about road funding; it’s about protecting our high-tech base. It’s about standing up for ourselves. It’s about fairness.”

Council approves small steps for small businesses

Last night the City Council approved on first and second readings a number of ordinance amendments aimed at reducing the red tape that small businesses face when attempting to expand or open new businesses. After hearing from mostly pro-business speakers, the Council agreed to amendments that would:

• allow administrative variances for development in the 25-year and 100-year floodplains and waive drainage easement requirements;

• eliminate the platting requirement for parcels of five acres or less within the city limits, located on existing public streets that comply with frontage requirements and have received utility services since, on or before January 1, 1995; and

• allow development of up to 3,000 square feet without a site plan; the current code allows for construction of up to 1,000 square feet without a site plan. New impervious cover would remain at 1,000 square feet.

The Mayor’s Task Force on the Economy recommended in April that the city’s Land Development Code be streamlined to make compliance more affordable and more user-friendly. The change in the floodplain rules would eliminate the current 60-day delay and the cost of appearing before the City Council. The Environmental Board would retain oversight of variances within the Critical Water Quality Zone.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman asked that the Council not make a final decision on those three changes until the next meeting, scheduled for November 20, so that she could discuss objections from an Environmental Board member.

The Council also approved on first reading a staff recommendation for reducing the amount of parking required for small businesses but postponed action for two weeks on a change in the definition of a limited restaurant. Both of those items will be back on the Council agenda in two weeks.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Approved without fanfare . . . The Council approved a resolution directing the Planning Commission to consider neighborhood plans for eight South Austin neighborhoods: Riverside, Pleasant Valley, Parker Lane, South River City, St. Edwards, West Congress, East Congress and Sweetbriar . . . The Council also approved a $400 increase on the charge for Star Flight in-county transports from $1,600 to $2,000 and an increase from $3,400 to $4,000 for out-of-county transports. All revenue collected from the helicopter patient transfers is turned over to Travis County, which owns Star Flight. Commissioners approved the fee hike during last month’s budget deliberations . . . Annexations. . . One citizen from the Onion Creek area, which was annexed yesterday, came to tell the Council he and his neighbors had decided that belonging to the City of Austin was a good idea after all. The area has flooding problems and the new Austinite was hopeful that the city would be able to assist Onion Creek residents in protecting their homes. The Council also voted on consent to take in annexation areas known as Canyon Creek West, Bull Creek Ranch, Howard Lane at Dessau Road and Parkway at Howard Lane . . . Appointments . . . Tom Lewis and Dave Sullivan were reappointed to the Bond Oversight Committee. Sullivan is a member of the Planning Commission. Lewis is an at-large appointee. The Council also reappointed Eleanor McKinney to the Design Commission by consensus . . . Solid waste summit planned . . . Travis County has set a date for the regional Solid Waste Summit, which will address regional planning for solid waste disposal. Participants will be invited from the 10-county area covered by the Capital Area Planning Council. The meeting is scheduled for Nov. 21, 9am to 3pm, at the Clarion Hotel on I-35 . . . New digs . . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority will be moving into its permanent office space next week. The new address is 13640 Briarwick, near Parmer and RM 620. Suzanne Lawlor has been hired as office manager for the CTRMA project office . . . Postponed as expected . . . The City Council postponed for two weeks consideration of a proposal that would allow Starbucks to sublease space from a local vendor at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The Council also postponed a hearing and consideration of rezoning for a single-family lot from single-family-3 and single-family-4A for property at 1505 Bouldin in near South Austin. The Planning Commission is scheduled to take up the matter next week . . . Still trying . . . The man behind the drive earlier this year to bring back boat races back to Town Lake is mounting a public relations campaign. A billboard along I-35 is promoting the web site http://www.rivercityfiesta.com. It touts the economic benefits of a major boat-racing event in central Texas. According to the site, organizers hope to have a boat-racing event in the summer of 2004, but “the exact location has not been finalized.” In early October, Archer dropped plans to stage such an event at Festival Beach after neighborhood opposition.

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