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Travis to intervene in redistricting lawsuit

Wednesday, November 5, 2003 by

Vote is 3-2, with Sonleitner, Daugherty dissenting

The Travis County Commissioners Court agreed to intervene in the Congressional redistricting lawsuit yesterday, and the City Council is likely to follow suit on Thursday. After a two-week delay, county commissioners agreed to file a motion to intervene. With one lone Republican on the court, the only surprise vote came from Commissioner Karen Sonleitner. Sonleitner, a Democrat, voted against the motion, saying she had a “huge bloc of folks” in her precinct that simply would not support a motion to intervene.

Sonleitner cited problems such as poll confusion, conflicting communities of interest and the amount of time and energy county commissioners had put into lining up local, state and federal lines. Still, Sonleitner voted with Republican Commissioner Gerald Daugherty against the motion to intervene in the redistricting case.

“I’ve got other viewpoints, and I am going to respect that,” Sonleitner said of her precinct. “I’ve been floating this around in my precinct for the last three weeks, and I can’t go there.”

County commissioners voted to file a motion to intervene and to spend up to $25,000 on outside counsel before seeking additional funding. The deadline to file the motion is Friday.

The county’s effort could be matched by a city decision. Council Members Daryl Slusher and Raul Alvarez and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman added an item to this week’s City Council agenda to consider whether the city should intervene.

“The City of Austin’s interests were clearly harmed and we put this item on the agenda to discuss the possible options we might have to fight that,” Slusher said on Tuesday. “It’s the worst thing that’s been done to the City of Austin by the State of Texas since the attempt to move the state archives and state government to Houston,” Slusher remarked.

Council Member Brewster McCracken, who first brought up the idea several weeks ago, said last night that he would definitely vote to intervene. McCracken is a staunch Democrat, but he said, “I don’t think this is a Democratic or Republican issue. This is about whether the nation’s 16th largest city should have its own representative in Congress. Travis County is 900,000 people, and the City of Austin is about 700,000. A congressional district holds about 600,000, but we wouldn’t have a single Congressman.”

McCracken also pointed out that Austin is not the only community that has been hurt by the redistricting plan. “Fort Worth has been split into four, Galveston has passed a resolution (opposing redistricting), and Lubbock has been hurt,” he said. “Under the legislature’s plan, Sematech will be represented by a congressman from the Valley.” He indicated that there is a plan to put a medical school in North Austin, but a congressman from Houston would not be supportive of such an effort.

Those were the same issues being raised by a number of speakers at a county hearing this morning. Democratic activist and fundraiser, Alfred Stanley, said Travis County would be the largest county in the state, and possibly the nation, without its own Congressional representation.

None of the three Congressional districts drawn under the new map provide Travis County with a clear majority. In fact, these districts would more likely pit regions against each other, Stanley told commissioners. He added that the districts also grouped the majority of Austin’s African-American voters with the Latino voters of Hidalgo County.

Former long-time State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco told commissioners that Austin is a community of interest. Elected officials from the school district, city, county, state and Congress had aligned their interests and issues to speak with one unique voice on issues such as the environment and education. That cooperation has enhanced Austin’s quality of life.

“We need to continue to move forward, not backward, and make sure we do it in unity,” Delco said. “We do that in strength and we do that through a ballot with someone who can make contact with us on a daily basis.”

With its own Congressional district, Travis County had won federal funding for projects such as construction of the Highland Lakes, rural electrification and the aptly named J.J. Pickle Research Center, Stanley said. Congressional representation brought the Internal Revenue Service, MCC and Sematech to town, as well as federal funding for highways and emergency services. He implied that those projects would be lost without dedicated representation.

Native Austinite James Eccles told commissioners he had dressed his four-year-old daughter as a ladybug on Friday night and walked her down the street. By the end of the evening, they had trick-or-treated across three different Congressional districts.

“Apparently I have no community of interest with people five blocks to the east. I’m more like folks in Harris County. And my neighbors are more like folks in Bexar County,” Eccles said. “‘Keep Austin Weird’ is a slogan, but it would appear we’re too weird, the way we think and vote, and the only way the state can handle it is to chop up our community.”

Robert Hartle told commissioners that Travis County had become more, not less, distinct in its voting trends over the last two decades. With its distinctive cultural interests and commitment to high tech, Travis County has special interests. The area has earned its right to represent its unique views in Congress.

After an executive session that included a discussion with legal counsel, county commissioners voted 3-2 to intervene in the lawsuit, with Democratic Judge Sam Biscoe, and Commissioners Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis voting in favor of the motion.

ZAP OKs zoning change, despite reservations

Plans for a new Smart Housing development in Southeast Austin cleared the Zoning and Platting Commission last night, with the commission voting to support SF-4A zoning for Lexington Parke, just off of Pearce Lane and Ross Road. Some commissioners had concerns about the density of the development on the 218-acre tract near Del Valle but voted for the zoning anyway, noting that the procedure that had been used to bring the tract into the city limits had left them few options but to give it their stamp of approval.

The project will include 950 lots, with 40 percent of the single-family homes in the subdivision qualifying as reasonably priced under the city’s Smart Housing guidelines. The original subdivision application was filed in July of this year, before the land was annexed into the city. That means under state law the developer has the right to continue on with the project as long as it is consistent with the original plan. Since that plan includes 950 lots consistent with the size allowed under SF-4A, a different residential zoning with larger lot sizes would be in conflict with the plan.

“They will eventually get their subdivision if it conforms to the preliminary plan,” said Assistant City Attorney Martha Terry. “All this is an order of process issue. You had a preliminary plan that was approved . . . now, just as in any other plat, the final is coming in. The final . . . if it conforms to the preliminary . . . you’re going to be obligated to approve it.” Terry advised the Commission that while the zoning was still at their discretion, the grandfathered development rights under Chapter 245 of the Texas Local Government Code (HB 1704) could trump any zoning that did not allow them to proceed with the plan for the 950 lots.

Commissioners expressed disappointment with the end result of the series of events that had brought the issue before them, noting that their vote was almost predetermined on whether to endorse the zoning change from Interim SF-4A and I-RR to SF-4A. “We have to zone it something,” said Commissioner Keith Jackson. Commission Chair Betty Baker stepped in to finish his sentence, adding, “But it makes no difference.”

City staff told the Commission that they had worked with the developer to ensure an affordable housing component to the project, which led to the developer asking for voluntary annexation of the property. “We worked specifically on an annexation plan with interim-to-permanent zoning that could make the economics work on this site that could make it viable for voluntary annexation,” said Stuart Hersh with the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office. “So if zoning were imposed that the applicant couldn’t meet, then the applicant couldn’t proceed with their preliminary plan and could choose to develop this entirely at market rates and take it out of Smart Housing altogether, which would defeat our purpose in moving forward on the voluntary annexation. So the risk is, when you reduce the number of lots through zoning . . . the net effect is you end up with no reasonably priced housing.”

The subdivision will be in the Del Valle ISD. With hundreds of new homes being added to the area from this project and other development in the area, Commissioners asked about the impact on Del Valle ISD enrollment. Hersh responded that the city was working with the school district to provide schedules for the build-out of the subdivision, tentatively scheduled for completion in 2009, and the district would be able to use that information to project its enrollment figures.

The vote to approve the SF-4A zoning was 8-0-1, with Baker abstaining. “We have an awful lot of area with large tracts out there,” she said. “We are really setting a precedent as to what can occur out there. I would hate to see an area of just small lots. There’s so much undeveloped out there. Based on the zoning, I cannot support it.” Commissioner John-Michael Cortez moved to approve the SF-4A zoning for single-family residential small lots. “I am understanding the concern about setting a precedent for density of development here,” he said “I would hate to jeopardize the opportunity for Smart housing in this area. I think it’s something that’s still very valuable, given the affordable housing shortage we continue to have here. We may be setting a precedent, but I don’t think it’s the worst precedent to set . . . in developing affordably priced housing in this area.”

Baker countered with the suggestion of SF-2 or SF-3, which would have larger lot requirements. However, she acknowledged that such a recommendation would have little impact. “I feel real strongly . . . when you see such large tracts that remain undeveloped . . . we’re not doing a lot of favors to these communities,” she said.

Commissioners Jackson and Melissa Whaley joined with the majority in supporting the small-lot zoning, but not without their own reservations about the city’s procedures in this case. “It’s backwards, and I’m really quite torn as to what to do about it. I’d like to see large lot subdivision go out here,” Whaley said. “But because it came in cart before the horse, I have to say . . . I’ll be really aware of what’s going on like this in the future when I see another one of these.”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

City honored for energy efficiency . . . Mayor Will Wynn journeyed to Washington, DC yesterday to accept the Charles H. Percy Award for Public Service, the Alliance to Save Energy’s highest honor. The award was bestowed in recognition of Austin Energy’s leading role in promoting energy efficiency over the past 20 years. The utility invests nearly $15 million annually on energy efficiency programs, including energy audits, rebates, loans and free weatherization services for low-income customers. Since 1982, the utility’s efforts have yielded electricity savings equivalent to the annual output of a 500-megawatt power plant. Last year the Department of Energy recognized the utility as the leader in municipal renewable power sales when AE sold more than 251 million kWh of green power to its customers—approximately three percent of the city’s current power needs. Joining Wynn at the Alliance’s annual honors banquet were AE General Manager Juan Garza and Vice President Roger Duncan. . . Roasted crow . . . Central Austin Democrats are having a fundraiser beginning at 5:30pm Thursday at the AFL-CIO Auditorium, 1106 Lavaca. Veteran campaign manager Pat Crow will be roasted. Roasters include former Council Member Brigid Shea, former State Rep. Glen Maxey, District Judge Jeanne Meurer, Constable Bruce Elfant and political consultants David Butts and Barbara Rush. For more information, call Barbara Rush at 454-3109 . . . Street music . . . The Austin Music Commission got an update from Assistant Police Chief Robert Dahlstrom and APD legal advisor David Douglas about the ways the city’s noise ordinance could be affecting street musicians. Commission members had several questions about the rules governing sidewalk performers. They also elected new officers. Teresa Ferguson will take over as Chair for Kevin Connor, who will remain on the Commission. Musician Natalie Zoe takes over as vice chair for Jay Woods, who will also remain on the panel . . . Design Commission officers. . . The Design Commission has elected its slate of officers for this year. John Patterson will replace Perry Lorenz as chair. Other officers include vice-chair Richard Weiss, secretary Holly Kincannon and parliamentarian Joan Hyde. The officers will serve for one year . . . Metro offering rides to Warhol exhibit . . . This weekend marks the final days of the Austin Museum of Art’s Andy Warhol exhibition. Capital Metro advises on free and easy ways to go to Laguna Gloria without parking hassles. ‘Dillo routes leave from Austin High School and Toomey Road sites on Friday and from Waterloo Park on Friday and Saturday to the museum. Tour the Town Route 470, which takes folks from the state parking garages near Waterloo Park, is also available on Saturdays for 50 cents . . . Travis County to hold four Clean Air Action Plan hearings . . . Members of the public can ask questions and provide input on more than 50 proposed measures to curb ozone in the area. The meetings will be next Wednesday, Nov. 12, at the Pflugerville City Council chamber from 6-8pm; Thursday, Nov. 13, at the Travis County Westside Service Center, 4501 RM620 North (at Mansfield Dam) from 6:30-8:30pm; Saturday, Nov. 15, at the Travis County Satellite One Office, 9301 Johnny Morris Road, south of US 290 from 10am to noon; and Monday, Nov. 17, at Baty Elementary School, 2101 Faro (off Riverside) 6-8pm.

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