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Austin Energy announces ambitious solar goal

Wednesday, December 3, 2003 by

Solar energy advocates ecstatic over plan

Austin Energy officials stunned solar energy advocates gathered to discuss the utility’s proposed Strategic Plan last night with the announcement that the plan would include new goals for the development of solar energy. “Austin Energy has not been a leader in solar,” said AE Vice President Roger Duncan. “We intend to change that.” Part of that effort will involve setting a goal of 100 megawatts of solar installations by the year 2020.

The announcement was greeted by a standing ovation from most of the 75 people in the auditorium of MCC, home to the Clean Energy Incubator. “This is true cultural change we’re witnessing tonight. It’s historic,” said Michael Kuhn, Vice Chair of the city’s Resource Management Commission. That group had previously requested that Austin Energy include goals for solar installations in the long-range plan.

“It’s a big commitment, and it would put Austin clearly in the leadership in all the cities in the United States in terms of development of renewable energy,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen. “There’s a big competition going on. It’s going to be the next industrial base in America.” Mike Tomsu of the law firm of Vinson & Elkins, a major supporter of the Austin Clean Energy Initiative, summed of the feelings of many of the solar boosters in the audience when he announced “Christmas came on December 2nd! We can now go to work.”

The goal behind the aggressive push to install solar panels on commercial buildings and private homes around Austin is two-fold. In addition to providing a clean source of energy, local officials also hope that strong demand for solar power will help attract those companies involved in the manufacture of photovoltaic cells. “What Austin Energy did tonight was help bring more jobs to Austin,” said Council Member Brewster McCracken. “They’ve put Austin at the leadership of this emerging economic sector.”

The goals for solar energy production are one piece of the overall Strategic Plan, which outlines the priorities for the city-owned utility over the next five decades. The plan outlines a transition from the standard business model for a municipally-owned utility to one that includes on-site power generation along with a “smart grid” to distribute electricity from those multiple sources. The plan also includes provisions calling for a total of 20 percent of the utility’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, with another 15 percent coming from conservation efforts. While Austin Energy is committed to the development of solar power, most of the electricity from renewable sources is expected to come from wind power

The plan goes to the City Council tomorrow. The short time frame for public comment sparked one of the few complaints at the meeting. Activist Paul Robbins urged a 30 or 45-day delay for additional public input. Austin Energy officials and members of the Resource Management Commission outlined the opportunities for public input up through this point, along with the utility’s efforts to seek out customer feedback. Representatives of several different solar power companies in the audience called for a vote on the plan sooner rather than later. The plan includes provisions for rebates for photo-voltaic cells that would be the highest in the country, the creation of a subdivision of affordable homes using solar panels, and the installation of solar cells on existing public buildings and schools. Those programs, the business representatives said, could play a key role in attracting new jobs to Austin and should not be delayed. McCracken, who moderated the meeting, told In Fact Daily he would support a Council vote on the plan this week.

New subdivision leaves ZAP without choices

Dense subdivisions coming into city

Members of the Zoning and Platting Commission expressed their frustration last night at the recent spate of cases that have limited the city’s ability to zone in the extra-territorial jurisdiction.

ZAP had little choice but to approve zoning on a 182-acre tract southeast of Thaxton Road at Salt Springs Drive where KB Homes is proposing a 1000-home subdivision. The way KB Homes avoided city jurisdiction—which Commissioner Keith Jackson called a loophole—was to file completed subdivision applications with the city prior to annexation proceedings.

Because of those pre-filed applications, the city must allow this property to come into the city under the single family-2, single family-3 and single family-4A zoning categories. Each of them represents dense zoning in a part of town where school district officials already predict overcrowding at three elementary schools.

Chair Betty Baker said she was inclined to write a memo to the City Council to discuss how a number of developers were using the loopholes to sidestep city jurisdiction. In this case it happened even as the developer knew that annexation into the city was imminent.

“I don’t like to have cases before me in which I have no discretion,” Baker said.

By code, the typical progression for a subdivision is zoning, subdivision and then site plans. Most land annexed into the city comes in as interim RR, which gives the city more zoning discretion. A zoning condition of SF-2, the standard single-family lot, allows for moderate density similar to most neighborhoods. Approval of SF-4A zoning, the single-family residence small lot district, allows for moderate density with lots of 3,600 square feet.

For the Thaxton property, subdivision plans were filed prior to the date of annexation, giving the property its own grandfathering. According to the background on the item, state code “allows for a developer to begin to use the land in the manner that was planned prior to annexation, consistent with the development applications on file with the City.”

In this case, the preliminary plan application was filed in February. The property was annexed in March. The Zoning and Platting Commission approved the preliminary plan in April, and city staff received a zoning application in June.

The subdivision also has won Smart Housing approval. City code requires that proper, permanent zoning must be obtained prior to final plat approval.

Commissioners objected to the zoning plans they were seeing: five-acre residential lots on the south periphery will be lined up with dense development with no proper buffer. The commissioners also raised concerns about school enrollment.

According to a memo from Dan Robertson, director of planning services at the Austin Independent School District, the latest projections for schools in the area show that Palm, Langford and Menchaca elementary schools would be at 148-percent, 127-percent and 165-percent capacity during the 2007-2008 school year, even without new development. Akins High School is projected at 124-percent capacity and Paredes Middle School at 128 percent, in the same timeframe.

“Despite the fact that we intend to have a new elementary school in this general area on the Chateau Communities Tract at the termination of Pleasant Valley Road, it is clear that another elementary and middle school will be required if the KB Sheldon 230 Development is approved,” Robertson wrote. “We would like to know if any sites are possible in or adjacent to this proposed development prior to giving our comments/recommendations.”

Planner Wendy Walsh said that she had talked to the school district and that KB Homes had made contact with the district. Walsh said the school district, after discussion with the developer, was comfortable with the plans for the Thaxton property subdivision.

ZAP recommended approval of the zoning, with Baker and Commissioners Melissa Whaley and John-Michael Cortez abstaining from the vote.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Planning Commission recommending against Lowe’s deal . . . After learning that the Planning Commission now has only seven members, instead of the usual nine, Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry said minutes from last week’s meeting should be amended. The commission voted 4-2 to recommend that the City Council not agree to the Lowe’s settlement proposal, which is on this week’s agenda for a second of three readings. Terry said she had learned that Commissioner Michael Casias had officially resigned at a previous meeting and Commissioner Rhonda Pratt had stepped down prior to that. So, only five are needed for a quorum vote and four constitutes a majority. The commission voted 4-2 against the proposal. (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 1, 2003) . . . Triana kicks off campaign today . . . County Court at Law Judge Gisela Triana will announce for the 200th District Court bench during a press conference at noon today in her courtroom. Her first fundraiser will be tonight from 5-7pm at Gumbos, 710 Colorado. This race pits Triana, who has 10 years of judicial experience and ties in the Democratic party against attorney Jan Soifer and District Court Master John Hathaway. Hathaway’s primary experience has been hearing domestic issues, such as divorce and custody matters. He also has a lot of backers among the family law bar. Soifer, who has been active in the Travis County Bar and State Bar of Texas for years, has endorsements from a number of big name lawyers and their firms. With that comes the kind of money needed to run such a race against better-known names. The race is also interesting because Mark Nathan and Christian Archer are handling Soifer’s strategy while David Butts and Glen Maxey are assisting Triana. Pat Crow is Triana’s campaign manager . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Downtown Commission will be meeting at the Old Pecan Street Café, 310 E. 6th Street, beginning at 5:30pm. The River City Fiesta boat race issue is on the agenda, along with discussion of a proposed zoning amendment for the Nokonah Condominiums. The Water & Wastewater Commission is meeting at 6pm at Waller Creek Center . . . The Best Little Weekend in Texas . . . Fayetteville, Texas, which is halfway between Austin and Houston is offering a good time to those up for a celebration this weekend. Beginning on Saturday, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce will sponsor the Seventh Annual Country Christmas including a historic homes tour and Texas Authors on the Square. The authors will be in the square from noon to 6pm and the homes tour will be from 1-5pm. Antique shops on the square are promising Christmas specials from 10am to 9pm . . . Flores to drop out of CD25 race? . . . The Quorum Report yesterday quoted Senator Chuy Hinojosa as saying that Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s main opponent in the race, Rep. Kino Flores (D-Mission), will drop out of the Democratic primary by the end of the week. One big reason, of course, is that Doggett has the funds for a long fight and Flores does not. Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who was offended that Doggett jumped into the race instead of concentrating on the continuing battle over redistricting, would still like to run for the seat, but doesn’t have a war chest to match Doggett’s either.

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