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Champion sisters return to battle over property

Tuesday, March 23, 2004 by

Trip limitation harms their ability to use land, say property owners

Josie Champion and her sisters, Alma Champion Meier and Mary Margaret Champion Roberson, have engaged in litigation and negotiation with the City of Austin over regulation of their property for the past 10 years. They have two zoning cases on this week’s Council agenda, which if approved, would allow their property at FM 2222 and City Park Road to generate more traffic than allowed under zoning ordinances approved in 2000. The sisters have also sued the city, seeking to overturn those earlier zoning ordinances, alleging that the city broke its agreement when the Council limited to 6500 the number of trips that can be generated by four of the Northwest Austin tracts.

In 1994, the Champions filed suit against the city, challenging the applicability of the Bull Creek Ordinance and the Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance to their 259 acres, which are divided into five tracts.

Under a settlement agreement signed in 1996, all development applications for the Champions’ property “will be governed solely by the applicable ordinances, rules or other regulations in effect for the (Champion) property on December, 8, 1993,” which was just prior to enactment of the Bull Creek Ordinance. That put the Champion property under the rules of the less stringent Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance. The agreement also enumerated “protections against impervious cover restrictions” that were not in effect before passage of the Bull Creek Ordinance. They were given six years to file development applications for the five tracts.

According to the new lawsuit, the agreement requires the city to “follow established regulations and procedures for any legislative actions (including, but not limited to, zoning or rezoning).” The Champions claim that the city breached that agreement when the City Council approved zoning ordinances on March 9, 2000 that limit trip generation on three of the tracts to 6500 adjusted trips per day. The Council also approved zoning for the northern portion of another tract, limiting traffic to 782 adjusted trips per day. “In addition, the 2000 ordinances impose on some of the tracts limitations on the square footage of gross floor area for developments on the tracts,” which the sisters claim is “inconsistent with the development permitted under the agreement.”

The lawsuit claims that the sisters “have sustained financial harm and lost the benefits expected to be received from the agreement if the 2000 ordinances are permitted to limit the development that is authorized” by the lawsuit settlement. “In fact, much of the land cannot be put to any use at all as a result of the trip limitations. Money damages would be an inadequate remedy because the tracts in question are unique. Plaintiffs seek specific performance of the agreement.” If they cannot get the trip limitations declared illegal, the sisters request money for the alleged taking of their land without compensation.

The Champions have won approval for site plans on some of the tracts. A portion of one tract has been sold to the Gables Champions Limited Partnership, which built several hundred apartments on the land.

Michael Whellan of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody represents the Champions. At the time the zoning ordinances were approved, he had requested a total of 9,500 trips per day. But the Council was swayed by arguments from the 2222 Coalition Of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), which insisted on no more than 6,500 trips per day. Whellan offered to cut the trips to 8,000 and guarantee that 10 percent of the residential units would comply with Smart Housing, but neighbors were adamant. Then Council Member Bill Spelman argued in favor of Whellan’s compromise but to no avail and the vote was 5-0, with two members—Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Gus Garcia off the dais. (See In Fact Daily, March 14, 2000.)

Assistant City Attorney Nancy Matchus said the city has responded to the Champions’ suit. She said the City Council couldn’t be sued over zoning decisions because such rulings are considered legislative and the Council has immunity from suit on those matters. Matchus said she would also argue that the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit too late, missing a deadline under the statute of limitations. She said it would take “at least a year to a year and a half” for the suit to go to trial.

Finding new library site still problematic

Library supporters say growing city demands larger space

The Friends of the Austin Public Library and the Austin Public Library Foundation (APLF) are scouting locations for a new Central Library downtown. The groups have identified six possibilities so far. Although each site has its own set of problems, members are hoping for a city bond election before the end of the decade to fund construction of a replacement for the existing Central Library as the city’s population grows.

Al Simmons, vice president for strategic planning with the Austin Public Library Foundation, described the need for a new Central Library and the problems with the sites the group has identified at the most recent meeting of the Downtown Commission. The Faulk Central Library downtown, Simmons said, was designed to serve a city with a population of 300,000. Austin’s current population is more than double that number and is expected to grow to 800,000 by the year 2010. “Great cities have great libraries . . . Austin is not among that list,” he said.

In addition to providing a draw for traffic downtown on nights and weekends, Simmons said an improved Central Library could help promote economic development. “When corporations are looking at the city of Austin and thinking about Austin being the place to be . . . one of the things they always look at is libraries,” he said. “Unfortunately, Austin does not rank high in this area. It’s not because of the service. The service is great . . . it’s because of the facilities.”

The group has put together conceptual plans for a library covering one downtown block. A taller facility covering a smaller footprint is possible, but that design would drive up the operating cost of the resulting facility. “The smaller the footprint and the taller the building . . . the less efficient it is, the larger the staff is,” Simmons said. “Operating costs go up. Anything less than a block, it’s very, very difficult to operate for this size of library.” The plans outlined by Simmons include a seven-story building with three underground parking levels. The building would have 334,100 square feet for library use, 19,000 square feet for retail use, and 59,800 square feet for use by another civic or cultural partner. The Austin Public Library Foundation has been in contact with public television station KLRU, which is seeking a location to build new studios for its popular Austin City Limits program, but Simmons stressed that the group had not reached any agreement with the station.

Simmons pointed out that Block 21, just north of the new City Hall, had been named in 1997 as the site for a new library. However, the city recently put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) for companies to develop retail uses in that block in order to promote pedestrian traffic downtown. “We started with Block 21 because it was originally designated as a library site. It is an ideal site for a library, but we have also looked at other sites,” he said. “The Austin Museum of Art site is ideal, but it it’s owned by AMOA, not by the City of Austin.” The Austin Museum of Art has targeted a location at 4th and Guadalupe for its new building, which also covers an entire city block. AMOA’s Board of Directors has already approved the final designs for a new facility on that site. Simmons said the APLF has been in contact with museum officials about the possibilities for a partnership, but that those talks had not produced an agreement.

Other locations scouted by the group include Block 25 (owned by Intel) near the site for the new federal courthouse, the old Seaholm Power Plant, Sand Beach, the old City Coliseum, ACC’s Rio Grande Campus, a site across from the Salvation Army at 7th and Neches and the existing Green Water Treatment Plant downtown. But each of those locations had several obstacles, Simmons said. Block 25 is not a full block and would not be large enough for the structure envisioned to serve the city’s increasing population. The Seaholm Power Plant would require extensive renovations and does not have the large amounts of flat space necessary for a library to operate efficiently. Sand Beach is owned by a private entity and would be expensive to acquire, and the site of the old City Coliseum has long been planned for conversion into a park. The water treatment plant is still operational, and once it is shut down will require extensive cleanup and renovations before it can be made suitable for other uses.

Several commissioners proposed options for the APLF as it continues its search for a new site. Commissioner Chris Riley urged the group to consider a design that included some residential space, while Commissioner Linda Johnston suggested studying potential sites east of I-35, including land owned by Capital Metro. The commission supported, on a vote of 10-0, a resolution asking the City Council to identify a site for a new library before releasing Block 21 to a private developer.

“I think Block 21 will go for retail,” said Simmons. “There’s a minimum bid of $9.2 million. Whatever dollars come off of that, if a part of them could be made available to buy one of these other sites I think the library would be very happy, as long as it’s an appropriate site.”

Once a specific site is named, Simmons said, it would be much easier for the APLF to raise donations to supplement whatever city funds are approved for the project. The Library Commission is scheduled to tour the Faulk Central Library at its meeting tonight and review the proposed sites for a new library. The Commission could also choose to rank those sites and send that input to the City Council.

Buzz on police contract . . . City Council Members received several hundred faxes and emails—many of them identical—from opponents of the proposed new contract between the City of Austin and the Austin Police Association. Part of the recurring letter, thought to be drafted by members of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, says, “While officers would gain dangerous new tools to avoid punishment for misconduct under this contract, citizens would lose all their rights . . . SafePlace gets more funding . . . Congressman Lloyd Doggett announced yesterday that the Travis County Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Survival Center (SafePlace) will receive $1,450,000 to continue developing innovative practices relating to disabled victims that will serve as a nationwide model. “Austin’s SafePlace is at the forefront of the nationwide effort to prevent domestic and sexual violence,” Doggett said. “Until the real goal of eliminating violence is achieved, SafePlace’s tireless efforts to prevent violence and treat victims of it is reflected in the federal government’s commitment to their noble efforts.” For more information about SafePlace, the Disabilities Services Program go to www.austin-safeplace.org. . . TCEQ hearing on Edwards Aquifer Rules today . . . The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will take input on its technical rules and stormwater management practices at a hearing from 9am to noon today at the TCEQ headquarters, Building E, Room 201 S. 12100 Park 35 Circle . . . Garza to address RECA today . . . Jesus Garza, President/CEO of Brackenridge Hospital for the Seton Healthcare Network will address the Real Estate Council of Austin at a noon luncheon today. Garza is scheduled to address the impact of a hospital district on Central Texas. Travis county voters will vote on whether to authorize creation of a hospital district on May 15. The luncheon begins at noon at the Four Seasons Hotel . . . ABIA reports more passengers, less cargo. . . According to data released by Austin-Bergstrom International Airport yesterday, passenger traffic for February 2004 totaled 495,052, up 7.74 percent over February 2003. Passenger traffic year-to-date (January-February 2004) totaled 982,330, a 3.5 percent increase from the same time last year. However, air cargo traffic was down 4 percent for February 2004, totaling 18,979,479 lbs. Year-to-date air cargo traffic (January-February 2004) totaled 39,458,004 lbs., down 8 percent from last year. International air cargo was down 42 percent from February 2003, and down 49 percent for the first two months of this year. General Aviation operations for February 2004 were up 23 percent from last year . . . Cap Metro meeting . . . Capital Metro’s Board of Directors on Monday renewed the agency’s contract with Capital Rural Transportation Services (CARTS) for another three years. CARTS has operated the bus routes in outlying areas for Capital Metro since 1985. The Board also approved a $17 million contract with CD Henderson Construction to build the agency’s new North Operations and Maintenance Facility near Burnet Road and US 183. The facility will house 100 administrative employees and have room for more than 250 buses. Muniz Concrete & Contracting won a contract to provide construction services for sidewalks and bus stop improvements under the Build Greater Austin Program. The $88,000 allocated under the contract will provide for sidewalks, slabs and ramps on bus routes 339 and 19. Capital Metro’s contribution to the 10-year program is about $7 million annually . . . More union protests . . . Also at Monday’s Capital Metro meeting, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union 1549 appeared before the board to voice complaints about their on-going contract dispute with ATC/Vancom. That company handles UT Shuttle bus routes for Capital Metro. “On March 4, the union voted to reject the company’s last offer . . . It included a health insurance provision that would knock a lot of people out of the program,” said local union president Norm Couture during an informational picket outside the transit agency’s headquarters. Capital Metro’s position has been that since the drivers actually work for a private company, it would be inappropriate for the transit agency to interfere in the talks between the two parties.

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