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City sales tax continues to rebound

Thursday, March 11, 2004 by

January sales tax numbers put returns $1.7 million above budget

The City of Austin continued to receive good news from the State Comptroller’s Office yesterday—a sales tax payment of nearly $8.7 million, an increase of 5.8 percent over last year’s March receipts. The figure, which reflects tax money collected in January, brings the amount above budget this year to $1.7 million.

Assistant City Manager John Stephens said the city had budgeted 2 percent sales tax growth for the entire year. At this point, he said, those projections have been revised and city finance minders are anticipating 4-percent growth for the fiscal year. In order for that to happen, Stephens explained, sales tax revenue must be at least 3.5 percent higher for the remaining eight months of the 2003-2004 year. If that projection holds true, he said, the city will end the year with $3.6 million more than anticipated.

While October 2003 was a down month—about half of one percent below the previous year’s sales—the three months since have more than made up for the loss. November’s tax receipts were 7.7 percent above what had been projected and December’s receipts were 8 percent above those for 2002.

Stephens noted that San Antonio has had the most impressive recovery of the state’s five largest cities, with cumulative growth for the current year at 6.3 percent. Austin and Houston are tied in second place, each registering cumulative growth of 5.4 percent so far. Fort Worth came in third with 4.3-percent cumulative growth and Dallas was in last place, but still registering 3.6-percent cumulative sales tax growth for this fiscal year.

Planning Commission splits over fate of West Lynn houses

With four on each side, matter moves to Council without recommendation

The Planning Commission split Tuesday night over the potential historic value of three houses on West Lynn, sending no recommendation on to the City Council.

Conversation over the three tiny white board-and-batten houses at 802, 804 and 806 West Lynn was peppered with the phrases “could have been” and “might have been.” These three small houses could have been section housing for the city’s railroad workers. They might have been moved to the site from some other location, an embodiment of a certain group and class of people who lived in Austin at the turn of the century. But no one could provide definitive proof of any significant historical value of these small houses. One of the three is so dilapidated that it was condemned. While Old West Austin neighbors insisted the three houses once belonged to a railroad company as rental properties for railroad workers, deed research on the land offered no definitive proof.

Neighbors worked long hours to make their case, presenting an impressive display of documents that evoked the early history of the neighborhood. The Historic Landmark Commission was so convinced by the presentation that they recommended historic zoning for the properties, over the recommendation of Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky.

Even when resident Robin Carter admitted her initial research was flawed and appeared to be on the houses across the street, commissioners still found the overall evidence compelling enough to recommend the landmark designation. Two HLC commissioners, David West and Patti Hansen, were troubled enough to vote against the recommendation.

At the Planning Commission, residents brought forward even more evidence of the possibility the houses could be historic—although nothing was definitive. HLC Chair Lisa Laky, who also lives in Old West Austin, told the commission she had never seen a better embodiment of a time or place in Austin history, one of the criteria the commission considers when supporting landmarks.

“I think that this is the third hearing that I’ve been involved in,” Laky said. “Every time we’ve had a hearing on this case there has been more and more incredible information that has come up on these houses.”

Each new piece of information, Laky said, convinced her that the houses were worthy of designation and she thanked the neighborhood for its research efforts. She told the commission that the HLC was “overwhelmingly” in support of the historic zoning.

Jim Bennett, who represented owners Alex Muskin and Tom Cummings, stressed that the speakers in favor of historic zoning had no real proof of the historical relevance of the house. He also had questions about the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association’ s website, which advertised a petition for the historic zoning as a chance to keep high-density condominiums or apartments out of the neighborhood. A neighborhood representative said the posting was the opinion of one person and not the entire neighborhood.

Bennett maintained that the owners agreed to relocate the houses to whatever location necessary, spending up to an amount they intended to spend on demolition of the houses. Supporters of historic designation, however, said they were continuing with research and were committed to raising enough funds to preserve the three structures.

Members of the Planning Commission lined up on opposite sides, with some supporting the neighborhood and others opposing historic designation.

Commissioner Chris Riley, for example, supported the designation and said that 400 signatures on a petition signified the importance of the houses in the community. His colleague Niyanta Spelman said a lack of facts did not necessarily equate to a lack of history and cited a need to preserve working-class homes. Chair Lydia Ortiz placed her confidence in the standards of the Historic Landmark Commission to properly assess the relevance of the properties.

Commissioner Matt Moore, on the other hand, said the most compelling evidence for historic designation must fall to those cases where the owner opposes the landmark designation, as was the case of the West Lynn houses. Moore said that the same level of certainty had not been met with the West Lynn case. Commissioner Cynthia Medlin said she saw no clear connection with the railroad and was not convinced that the owners, even faced with historic designation, would put the effort into preserving the three houses.

Commissioner Maggie Armstrong supported the motion, but she noted that the city had no system in place to support owners faced with preservation in the face of historic designation, other than placing greater burdens on them to preserve the city’s historic properties.

The first vote was Riley, Spelman, Ortiz and Armstrong in favor of the historic designation, and Moore, Medlin and Commissioner Jerome Newton voting against the designation. Commissioner Dave Sullivan recused himself from the discussion.

Given the split vote, the commissioners agreed to send the case forward to the City Council with no recommendation.

ZAP declines invitation to rezone neighbor's land

The Zoning and Platting Commission decided at its meeting last week not to intervene on the side of the owner of the West Park PUD, Buffalo Equities, seeking city help in initiating a zoning case against his next door neighbor, the owner of the Speedy Stop. Buffalo Equities has an easement across the Speedy Stop property but cannot build the driveway without rezoning because the Speedy Stop land is zoned I-RR. It is city policy not to allow a driveway to a PUD or commercial property to be built across land zoned residential, but the owner of the Speedy Stop would not agree to the rezoning. The tracts in question are at the intersection of US 290 West and RR 1825.

Before asking Zoning Case Manager Greg Guernsey to speak, Chair Betty Baker said, “I would like very much to limit this discussion to why this zoning case should be initiated by the city.”

Guernsey explained that attorney Michael Whellan’s client, West Park PUD, wanted the city to change the zoning on a tract owned by the Speedy Stop in order to accommodate the PUD owner’s desire to build a driveway across the Speedy Stop property. Guernsey tried to explain the sequence of events that led to the granting of the PUD approval without a rezoning of the easement. That left Baker to ask, “Is there a nice way to say the staff made a mistake?”

Baker and Commissioner Melissa Whaley asked a number of questions about the impact of the easement and zoning change on the neighboring property owner’s ability to meet the requirements of the SOS Ordinance. Currently, the Speedy Stop lot has 50-percent impervious cover and came into the city as a nonconforming use. Following the discussion, Whaley said she was still not comfortable with how the impervious cover and drainage issues might be resolved.

Commissioner John Donisi wanted to know of other cases in which the commission had intervened because of a dispute between adjoining property owners, but Guernsey could not name one.

Although the matter seems like a private dispute, Whellan told commissioners, it really involves the city, which anticipated that the driveway would be built to connect the PUD to US 290 West and RR 1825. He also pointed out that the Land Development Code does not prohibit a driveway across residential property for the PUD—it is a staff interpretation of the code.

Richard Suttle, representing the Speedy Stop, asked the commission not to take what he termed “the extraordinary remedy” of initiating a zoning case but let the property owners work out the matter. He said that when the easement was granted in 1997 there was no need to rezone the small convenience store tract because the tract that is now zoned PUD was SF -3.

Baker closed the public hearing and asked for action from the commission. Commissioner Joseph Martinez moved to table the matter, but before anyone could second his motion, Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry was on her way to the podium to advise that commissioners could only table an item for the length of the meeting. However, if they simply did nothing that would dispose of the matter—at least as far as the ZAP was concerned.

Donisi immediately moved to adjourn the meeting. The vote was unanimous, with Commissioner Jay Gohil absent.

Contacted later, Whellan said his client would not be pursing rezoning through the city but would instead take his complaint to district court. He predicted that Buffalo Equities would sue both the Speedy Stop and the City of Austin.

Saying good-bye to an Austin icon . . . Several hundred friends and family members of Ed Wendler, Sr. gathered at Threadgill’s World Headquarters yesterday to celebrate the life and share stories about the man who was once dubbed “the most powerful man in Austin.” But the memories were of Wendler as humanitarian and tireless worker for progressive causes and the man who always had a kind word for those who served. Wendler’s former law partner and protégé Garry Mauro noted, “If electoral politics had been a sport, Ed would have been an Olympic coach.” Wendler was 72 . . . Emissions hearing for Ruby Ranch rock crusher . . . The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will hold a hearing at 7pm tonight on a request for an air quality permit for operation of a rock crusher near the Ruby Ranch subdivision in northern Hays County. Neighbors are expected to attend the hearing to ask that the permit not be issued. The executive director of the TCEQ has already made a preliminary decision to issue the permit. The hearing will be at the Jack C. Hays High School Cafeteria, 4800 Jack C. Hays Trail, in Buda. (See In Fact Daily, July 15, 2003; July 24, 2003.) . . . Vision coming . . . The final draft of the vision of Envision Central Texas will be presented to its board of directors today. Once the board approves the final draft it will be presented to jurisdictions within a five-county region, said Executive Director Beverly Silas. Envision Central Texas will ask each of the jurisdictions for voluntary adoption of the vision and its strategies…. CNN VP to headline awards luncheon . . . The Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce (TAMACC) announced yesterday that Rolando Santos, executive vice president and general manager of CNN Headline News, would serve as keynote speaker for the Inaugural Legislative Leadership Awards Luncheon on March 18. The group plans to recognize local, state and federal legislators for leadership, legislative advocacy and community involvement . . . Looking ahead. . . In Fact Daily will take off next week for spring break.

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