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City still processing plan for MoPac & Slaughter

Thursday, February 5, 2004 by

Retail plan no different from original Wal-Mart site plan

Wal-Mart won’t be operating at the corner of Slaughter and MoPac, but the owner of the tract, SR Ridge Limited Partnership, is still seeking city approval for a site plan identical to the one filed last summer on behalf of the world’s largest retailer. City officials confirmed yesterday that engineers for the partnership had gotten an extension of time to update the site plan that lay dormant for about two months after Wal-Mart and Endeavor Real Estate Group announced they had withdrawn from the deal on October 1.

The original application for site plan approval was filed on June 13, 2003 and was scheduled to expire on December 10, 2003. However, engineer Tres Howland of Doucet & Associates, Inc., who is handling the site plan, filed a request for an extension on December 5. Senior Planner Kathy Haught wrote a letter to Howland on December 9, giving the partnership until March 9 “to comply with provisions of the Land Development Code.”

The updated application “is basically the same application they submitted with the ‘Wal-Mart’ changed to ‘Retail,’” said Development Services Manager George Zapalac. Richard Suttle, Wal-Mart’s attorney, said whatever might be going in there is definitely not a Wal-Mart. Brian Cassidy, attorney for SR Ridge, said, “Right now, I’m not aware of any specific user. People are scared of it.”

Haught explained yesterday that the developer and the city have certain deadlines to trade comments and proposed solutions in disputes during the site review process. At this point, she said, the city is responding to proposals submitted on January 23. The response will be completed and turned over to the engineer on Friday, she said. That letter will note that the site plan cannot be finally approved until the developer has a green light from both the Water & Wastewater Utility and the Fire Department. In addition, Haught said, the developer must put up either cash or a bond to ensure that there are appropriate erosion sedimentation controls. Zapalac added that the developer must also pay for traffic signals at the intersection. Haught said the environmental reviewer has not yet approved the site plan.

One possible area of contention relates to setbacks from critical environmental features (CEFs). After Wal-Mart rejected site, the Ridge partnership sued Austin, alleging that the city interfered with the business relationships among the parties and failed to live up to promises made in settlement of a previous lawsuit. That lawsuit, also disputing the city’s enforcement of land use rules, was filed in 1995. The following year, there was a settlement agreement that stipulated which regulations would apply to the property at MoPac and Slaughter and that the city agreed to “cooperate . . . to promote the efficient performance and implementation of this (1996 settlement) agreement.”

According to a memo from City Attorney David Smith, the 1996 settlement agreement would permit development under regulations in effect in 1984 and 1985 and allow up to 65-percent impervious cover.

Smith added, “Apart from that agreement, this site came before the City Council again in response to a zoning request, and the Council, while granting the zoning necessary to permit the development of the site as a Wal-Mart, imposed a requirement that development comply with the city’s rules relating to the protection of critical environmental features.”

Brad Rockwell, deputy director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, which opposed the Wal-Mart and other big box stores over the aquifer, said the organization has expressed itself on numerous occasions as opposing big box stores on the site. “We’re unhappy that they’ve granted the extension.” He also criticized the Council for creating an exemption from the big box ordinance for land subject to settlement agreements. “We’re unhappy that despite the fact that there seems to be a big public outpouring (against it) . . . the city is going forward and giving them special treatment that could perhaps allow a Wal-Mart or some other similar gigantic store to be there.”

Cassidy said limited discovery is proceeding in the litigation, but full-scale depositions and record gathering will not begin until Federal Judge Sam Sparks rules on motions by the defendants to dismiss the case. That should happen within the next few weeks, he said.

Council not united on judge reappointments

Goodman says she wants to keep incumbents, add one

Council Member Raul Alvarez has proposed keeping the three Municipal Court judges that a subcommittee of the Council had recommended replacing and setting up a more rigorous evaluation process. The City Council is scheduled to make a decision and announce the appointments this afternoon. The subcommittee had recommended against the reappointment of Judges Celia Castro, John Vasquez and Mitch Solomon. They have received a considerable amount of public comment, especially emails and letters, urging them to keep the judges.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who is on the subcommittee, says she still thinks it is a good idea to regularly bring in new judges. “I think it’s something that’s legitimate . . . However, I would prefer to keep the three judges and add Al Jenkins.”

Jenkins, who serves as assistant police monitor, has applied for an appointment. Goodman points out that there is a vacancy due to the resignation of Judge Karrie Key earlier this year. The subcommittee had made a de facto decision to eliminate that position, but Goodman said, “I want to see if we can find the $100,000,” for wages and benefits. Relief judge payments can add up to more than that, she says.

Elimination of the position is one of the concerns addressed by Alvarez in his memo. He wrote, “Municipal Court has been operating with one less associate judge for several months. This has placed a strain on operations and decreased efficiency at Municipal Court and Central Booking. The Council should determine if Municipal Court is currently operating at a preferred level before deciding to permanently eliminate Judge Key’s position. Given the reduced staffing situation, it is clear that replacing three associate judges with a great amount of experience will only further strain the system and potentially increase liabilities for the City, County and community at large. (Please refer to several communications Council has received from the Travis County Sheriff's Officers Association.)”

He also suggests that the subcommittee arrived at “very strong conclusions” based on “very limited information.” A number of police officers, municipal court prosecutors and some members of the criminal law section of the bar association were surveyed. But, Alvarez wrote, “I believe that the information that we have available to us to evaluate the performance of the sitting judges is incomplete in many respects. There are some very strong conclusions being drawn on very limited information. Furthermore, it does not appear that we have reached out to a broad enough constituency in conducting our evaluation.”

Finally, if turnover is desirable per se, he wrote, the Council might consider establishing a goal “for replacing one position during each (two-year) cycle.” He wrote that he is ready to assist in developing a policy to provide for turnover if a position does not become free through attrition every two years. He concludes, “I . . . hope that you agree with me that the experience that Judges Castro, Solomon and Vasquez bring to Municipal Court is something that should be preserved.”

Council Member Betty Dunkerley said yesterday, “I’m looking for a good compromise.” She added, “Although we’ve got a general direction, I think we need a more formal survey technique that’ll give us a better evaluation.”

Council Member Brewster McCracken said, “I read the memo and I think that the judicial subcommittee reviewed a lot of information and we reached a unanimous conclusion based on that information. I have not seen any additional information that would change my sense of the committee’s recommendation, “ but he added, “I don’t have a sense of how this will end up. We’ve gotten a lot of emails on both sides.”

Resolution not needed after all . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken is pulling Item 20 on today’s Council agenda. It concerned the future of a new stretch of US 183 between McNeil Road and RM 620, which is scheduled to open this spring. Under new TxDOT rules, once the road is opened it could be converted into a toll road. A resolution on today’s agenda called for the Council to officially oppose that plan, but McCracken says the resolution is no longer necessary. He received written notice from TxDOT late Wednesday stating that “TxDOT will not toll the mainlane segment of US 183 between McNeil Drive and RM 620.” McCracken had been working with northwest Austin residents on the issue for the past few weeks and is applauding the decision, since a toll would have had a significant financial impact on the people who live along the road. “There are so many schools right along US 183…a lot of grocery stores…this will save folks a lot of money and make sure that this road, which has already been paid for, will continue to be free,” he said.

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