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Commissioners approve Lowe's plat

Wednesday, December 17, 2003 by

Delay would have meant automatic approval

The Lowe’s issue ended with a whimper Tuesday morning as Travis County Commissioners refused a last-gasp attempt by the SOS Alliance and Sunset Valley to draw the county further into the controversy between environmentalists and the city.

Both SOSA and Sunset Valley asked for a one-week delay on the county’s approval of the plat for the proposed Lowe’s on Brodie Lane. County leaders did not have the option to delay the decision, however, because state statute gives the county only 60 days to act on the Lowe’s plat, and those 60 days run out on Saturday. Had commissioners failed to act, the plat would have been deemed approved on Saturday.

“I’m worn out by this thing,” Commissioner Gerald Daugherty told his colleagues in frustration, citing delay after delay on the county’s decision. “This is ridiculous. We have been told by TNR and by Legal that this has met the conditions of what we have set forth, and for that reason, this ought to be simple.”

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner noted that she could remember no case in her nine years on the court in which the court failed to take some action on a plat. County Judge Sam Biscoe added that good government dictated the court should take action, rather than hide behind the statute. He called the court’s position “a tough situation.”

Daugherty moved for approval of the Lowe’s plat, noting that it met all county requirements. Sonleitner seconded the motion. The final vote of the Commissioners Court was 3-1. Commissioner Ron Davis voted against the motion, saying he was opposed to the development. Commissioner Margaret Gomez was absent from the meeting because she was testifying in the federal redistricting trial.

The SOS Alliance, in both letter and comments, had claimed that the conditions of the preliminary plat have not been satisfied. They argued that the owner had not met a note placed on the plat by Travis County requiring the owner to come to a settlement with the city or have the issue adjudicated in the court system.

City officials, who were at the meeting for the joint city-county code approval, considered the settlement issue to be resolved with City Council’s 4-3 vote last Thursday. The environmental group, on the other hand, considers the issue unresolved because the owner pledged to comply with SOS Ordinance requirements, and the ordinance requires a supermajority of City Council to approve a settlement. That means the City Council vote needed to be 6-1.

The original question on the table was jurisdiction, Assistant City Attorney Tom Nuckols said. Did the city have the jurisdiction to enforce stricter standards on the site? Commissioners wanted to know whether House Bill 1204 applied to Lowe’s. Nuckols said his reading of the preliminary plat notes indicated that the City of Austin had reviewed the issue and clearly agreed the city did not have jurisdiction over the site.

“City approval is not required,” Nuckols told the commissioners. “The intent of the preliminary plan note was to put to bed the jurisdictional issue, and it has.”

If the city had no jurisdiction, the SOS Ordinance would not apply. Biscoe said he suggested the issue go to the city because the city clearly could negotiate higher standards on the property. Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman agreed that the settlement met higher requirements than the county would have been able to impose.

Asked point blank by Davis whether the SOS Alliance intended to pursue the issue through the courts, SOS Alliance attorney Melanie Oberlin said such an action was still possible. SOSA’s board of directors has yet to decide on legal action, but that is still a possibility, Oberlin said.

Although the city and Lowe’s have agreed to settle their lawsuit, there are still some loose ends. Lowe’s must filed a motion to dismiss its action against the City of Austin, and that could be done any day. But Sunset Valley intervened in the case, so Lowe’s must still deal with that aspect. Attorney Terry Irion, who represents Lowe’s in the litigation, said he was not sure exactly how that part of the case might end.

ETJ subdivision rules win final approval

Staff of city, county will continue to meet with stakeholders

There was a moment on Tuesday morning when it appeared Commissioner Gerald Daugherty would not vote in favor of the joint city-county subdivision ordinance.

Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman explained a second amendment to the agreement between the city and the county. The changes adopted both a sunset review and a Process Review Board. That board—comprised of Gieselman and Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon, as well as city and county staff and stakeholders—will meet monthly to identify and analyze problems and successes in the process. At the end of six months, the two sides will submit joint recommendations to improve the process, Gieselman said.

Gieselman had to admit the current process was “probably not what the stakeholders wanted, but they’re agreeable in part because we’re intent on making this work.”

When the stakeholders haven’t been happy, Daugherty hasn’t been happy. And the stakeholders have given only qualified support to the joint ordinance. Daugherty asked city officials pointedly whether they were admitting the city and county were not truly getting a single office process, as the stakeholders wanted and the law required.

The county and city are committed to a blended approval process, Gordon told Daugherty. Both sides are committed to a “smooth seamless process” and intend to address issues month by month. At the end of six months, both sides will come together with possible changes. Those will be proposed in the form of amendments to the ordinance.

Daugherty said the real question was whether the city and county had met the mandate of House Bill 1204. Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd said the joint code meets the interlocal requirements of HB 1204. Lloyd admitted that although city and county staff members have philosophical differences with stakeholders, the choices the city and county have made should reduce the “ping-pong effect” of subdivision approval.

Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols passed out copies of the bill, pointing out the choices the two sides made under the options offered under HB 1204.

Gieselman and Gordon assured County Judge Sam Biscoe that staff would be in place to handle the new process when it goes into effect next Monday. In addition, Gordon assured County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner that the city would look into some kind of arrangement to give the county access to the proper city computer records.

Daugherty finally conceded that he would vote for the system set up by the city and county, especially given the six-month review process. Daugherty said he knew city and county staff had worked hard, but that the issue of a joint code had been raised because of problems. Anyone could admit that, Daugherty said. Daugherty expressed a “cautious optimism” that stakeholders would ultimately be pleased with the single office results.

The vote to approve the final Chapter 30 was unanimous. Commissioner Margaret Gomez was absent because she was testifying in federal court. The City Council gave final approval of the code last week.

HLC unhappy about ZAP move

Homeowners can petition for Council action

The Zoning and Platting Commission may be able to stop thehistoric designation of about five houses this year, but the commission won’t be able to put them off forever.

Members of the Historic Landmark Commission were dismayed to hear this week that the houses they recommended be designated as historic as far back as September had yet to make it before the City Council. That means those homeowners will not be able to claim tax abatements this year. City policy is to abate 100 percent of city taxes on the structure and 50 percent on the land for those homes so designated.

Last month, the Zoning and Platting Commission asked that five historic cases, including the Violet Crown, be delayed until Jan. 6. Commissioner Keith Jackson said it would give a recently appointed task force reviewing the city’s Historic Landmark Ordinance more time to tackle the sensitive issue of tax abatements on historic properties. Jackson serves on the task force, along with ZAP Chair Betty Baker and Commissioners Joseph Martinez and John Philip Donisi, among others.

HLC Commissioner Julie Hooper, who attended the ZAP meeting last month, said that the ZAP had delayed the cases rather than hear from Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. Hooper said homeowners who attended the meeting were “very unhappy.” The ZAP, unlike the HLC, has no deadline for considering submitted applications for historic designation.

On the other hand, the houses that moved through the Planning Commission on the way to the City Council had all received a positive recommendation. That included the home of Planning Commissioner Michael Casias. Casias’ house, which was well documented, was enthusiastically endorsed for historic designation, with Casias abstaining. The Council then granted the house historic status.

Houses up for historic designation can make one of two stops. Those that are in an existing neighborhood plan or in the planning process go to the Planning Commission. Those that are not included in the process go to the ZAP. That’s the only difference, Hooper said.

“That certainly can’t be okay,” Hooper told her fellow commissioners.

Sadowsky said City Council members were well aware of the delays. Austan Librach, director of Transportation Planning and Sustainability, wrote a letter to the Council, he said. In Fact Daily also highlighted the differences in treatment of such buildings by the two commissions. (See In Fact Daily, November 20, 2003.)

Houses awaiting approval before the ZAP include the Violet Crown at 1504 West Lynn; the RL White House, at 1503 Lorrain; the Brunson House in Fairview Park; the Fisher House at 1505 Wooldridge in Pemberton Heights; and the Adams House at 2200 Windsor across from Pease Park. Tax abatements would total $56,000 for the current year.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Tonight’s meetings . . . The Historic Preservation Task Force is scheduled to meet at 6pm in Room 240 of One Texas Center. Also set to meet at 6pm is the Environmental Board, which will meet at One Texas Center, in Room 325. These are the final city meetings of the panels that In Fact Daily follows. Thursday’s report will be the final one of the year for this publication. We hope all of you will enjoy the holidays . . . Bird watching for the holidays . . . If you can’t go to an exotic destination for New Years and like watching birds, the LCRA has a deal for you. You can practice your birding skills Saturday, Jan. 3, by taking part in the annual nationwide Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Westcave Preserve, a 30-acre preserve off Hamilton Pool Road in Southwest Travis County, is taking part in the event by coordinating bird counts in Southwestern Travis County. Christmas bird counts have provided valuable data to scientists on changes in the range and abundance of birds for more than 100 years. Four sites will be surveyed in the daylong count, including Westcave Preserve and the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve. Westcave is a unique place where the arid savanna of the Edwards Plateau meets a limestone canyon leading to a spring-fed waterfall and cave formations. It is home to a number of plant and animal species, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. To register, or for more information, call Westcave Preserve at (830) 825-3442 or visit http://www.westcave.org/. . . ANC celebrates tonight . . . The Austin Neighborhoods Council will have a celebration of 30 years of service tonight at Threadgill’s World Headquarters from 6-8pm. Last week, the City Council proclaimed today Austin Neighborhoods Council Day in Austin Texas . . . Centennial celebration of flight . . . Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic first flight. The centennial of flight will be celebrated with a Customer Appreciation Day as part of observances held at airports nationwide. Personal appearances by actors portraying Orville and Wilbur Wright, early Austin aviation exhibits, live music, art from jet engines, free cake and savings from some concessionaires, are all part of the festivities in Austin.

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