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Task force report: change historic landmark program

Wednesday, April 7, 2004 by

Report addresses smaller tax abatement, incentives for rehabilitation, historic districts

Members of the city’s Task Force on Historic Preservation have recommended new rules that will cut abatements and tighten up qualifications for properties zoned historic in the future. Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who was worried about the impact of tax abatements for properties designated historic, was the force behind creation of the task force. She and other Council members got copies of the task force report this week.

Although she had not had time to thoroughly digest the report, Dunkerley said Tuesday that she liked the changes the task force was recommending for tax exemptions and for criteria of future landmarked properties. Members of the task force were: Betty Baker, chair, Jerry Harris, vice chair, and John Donisi, Keith Jackson, Joseph Martinez, Tere O’Connell. HLC Commissioner Laurie Limbacher served in an ex officio capacity.

The task force recommended continuing property tax exemptions under the old rules for currently designated homes and commercial property until a property changes hands. Thus, current owners would continue to pay city tax on only 50 percent of the land value and the residence itself would be exempt. But when a new owner takes over the property, new rules, if adopted by the Council, would apply. Under the proposed rules, a property 50 years old could be designated historic but only those 75 years old or older would be eligible for property tax exemption. The maximum exemption would be the greater of $2000 or 50 percent of the taxes.

Under task force recommendations, structures already designated historic would continue to carry that designation and be eligible for tax benefits even if they are not 75 years old when they change hands. Commercial property owners would receive an exemption from city taxes of 50 percent of the value of the structure and 25 percent of the land value with no maximum exemption

In explaining the rationale for these changes the task force wrote, “This recommendation retains the attractiveness of the property tax incentive program for all historic landmark owners, and does not adversely affect owners of lower-valued historic landmarks by reducing their property tax incentive. The task force also hopes to impart a higher degree of predictability of the amount of city revenue lost to historic landmark property tax exemptions each year with the imposition of a maximum exemption amount.”

The task force offered these specific examples of how their recommendations on tax exemptions would affect four properties with exemptions above $2000. All four were designated landmarks in 2003 and the city is currently exempting the four homes, including the Pease Mansion, for a total of $17,999. If the new rules had been in effect when those homes were designated historic, the city would have gained $4,761 for a one-year period.

Following recommendations made by the Historic Landmark Commission, the task force recommended more stringent criteria for designating historic landmarks in the future:

• The property must be at least 50 years old;

• The property must be a significant work of a noted architect, builder or artisan; and

• The property must have a substantial association with persons, entities or events of historical significance.

Various neighborhoods have indicated a desire to become historic districts and the task force recommended rules for establishment of local historical districts. In order to gain the designation, at least 51 percent of the “principal buildings within a proposed local historic district must contribute to the historic character of the district.” The Council would exercise control over the boundaries of the district. Each of the districts would be required to come up with their own preservation plan, which would be binding on the property owners. The district plan would define the character of the neighborhood, including what design, scale, architectural character, etc. the district exemplifies. The same penalties would apply for illegal demolition of contributing buildings within the district as currently apply for demolition of historically designated structures.

Historic landmarks within the district would continue to enjoy tax abatements. In addition, the task force recommended incentives for rehabilitation of owner-occupied residences within the district. It would be the task of the property owner to get an appraisal of the property before rehabilitation. The tax value would be frozen for seven years at the pre-improvement value if the owner spent at least 25 percent of that value on “qualified rehabilitation expenditures, including at least five percent” for exterior improvements.

For income-producing properties within the district, the owner would be able to ask for a 10-year property tax freeze at the original value if he or she spent at least 40 percent of the pre-improvement value, including five percent on the exterior, in rehabilitating the building.

Dunkerley said she wanted more information on the rehabilitation proposal before making a decision on that part of the report. The task force also recommended reducing the Historic Landmark Commission membership from 11 members to 9, with seven appointed by individual Council members and two by consensus. Dunkerley said she agreed with that proposal. She said she also liked the idea of asking the Travis Central Appraisal District to value historic properties based on others in the same geographic area. At this time, historic properties are measured against all other historic properties, regardless of price. In Fact Daily will address the task force's minority report tomorrow.

McNeill, McAngus make their arguments

The two candidates dueling for the Republican nomination for Travis County Sheriff spoke at yesterday’s Republican Club of Austin luncheon. Precinct 3 Constable Drew McAngus had an 8-point point lead over APD Commander Duane McNeill in last month’s primary. Next Tuesday, voters will decide who will face Democrat Greg Hamilton, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission chief who was Margo Frasier’s choice as her successor for Travis County Sheriff.

Neither candidate has a clear edge. In his opening remarks, McNeill stressed his endorsement from the Austin American Statesman, but McAngus was quick to jump in and say he had won two races without an endorsement. McAngus said he was the most “electable” against Hamilton.

To win the sheriff’s race, Republicans will have to pull in some swing voters, and even some Democrats, McAngus told the luncheon crowd.

The time format only allowed the two candidates to take three prepared questions offered from the podium. Both supported interlocal agreements. Both believed collective bargaining put pressure on the county to raise salaries. And both cited the need to address waste in the current system.

Asked the collective bargaining question, McAngus went in his own direction and said the sheriff’s department has two employee associations that are “warring against themselves.” Morale is low, McAngus said. Corrections officers want pay parity with law enforcement officers. McAngus said the sheriff’s department needs leadership at the top that can bring the two groups back together as one family to serve citizens.

McNeill said law enforcement and correction officers should be paid according to their own skills but not the same salary. The goal should be to pay correction officers the best salary in the state of Texas for their positions. The same would be true of law enforcement officers.

Asked about ways he might cut the budget, McNeill said it was his service on the Travis County Jail Overcrowding Subcommittee that sparked his interest in the job of Sheriff. One suggestion McNeill had was to hire an in-house grievance officer to address jail inmate grievances, rather than taking those grievances to a judge. In the traditional route, the jail inmate would take the complaint to a judge, who would then direct a sheriff’s department investigation. McNeill estimated that 85 percent of the grievances from jail inmates could be addressed internally, saving time and money.

McNeill’s drew applause from the audience by saying he would not be opposed to pitching tents out at the Del Valle Jail.

McAngus said corrections were the biggest piece of the sheriff’s $87 million budget pie. Every penny should be spent right, he said, adding that it was important to make sure areas of waste were eliminated while still treating inmates with dignity. McAngus pointed out that he was the only candidate who had actually served as a corrections officer and understood the perspective of the jail.

In his closing comments, McNeill pledged to take a $7,000 pay cut if he won the job. McNeill said he, unlike his opponent, did not consider being sheriff a childhood dream. Instead, he saw himself as the best-qualified candidate to run for the office. McNeill said his candidacy was not an exercise in running for office, but an extension of his job experience.

McAngus told the crowd he had a vision for Travis County. He was tired of the liberalism in the county and wanted to have the county known for more than the drunken parties on Sixth Street. McAngus said his priority was to make the county safe and improve the quality of life for all people.

McNeill has also been endorsed by the Travis County Sheriffs’ Law Enforcement Association, but only for the run-off. The association will make a separate endorsement this fall.

Some focus on affordable housing for Mueller site

Overflow crowd attends Mueller information session

The possibility of an affordable housing component at the revamped Mueller site drew strong support from attendees at last night’s Mueller 101 meeting.

An overflow crowd of 150 people attended last night’s meeting of Mueller 101 at the Austin Energy building. The crowd was a mix of Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition members, curious Austinites and even retired Public Works Director Peter Rieck. Attendees broke into smaller groups around such topics as the Children’s Medical Center, financing options, minority business opportunities and affordable housing.

At one table, the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition Housing Working Group was laying the groundwork for affordable housing on the 700-acre site. The ad hoc committee presented recommendations for the mix of affordable housing, as well as the steps the city should take to guarantee the goal.

The recommendations are still in draft form, yet to be presented to the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Advisory Commission. The ad hoc committee’s report included a number of early steps to prepare for the addition of affordable housing on the site:

• Funds should be set aside for Mueller through the city’s consolidated planning process, starting in 2005.

• Work should begin with social service agencies to provide services for transitional housing for formerly homeless families.

• A joint committee should be formed to go forward with recommendations.

While the coalition has a long-term focus, RMMA Advisory Commission Chair Jim Walker admitted to the people around the table that he had a much more short-term focus these days.

That focus is the Exclusive Development Agreement, which must be signed by master developer Catellus and the city before work can begin on the Mueller site. Walker expects the EDA to go to the Council before summer break.

Whether Catellus will lease or own the property is still undetermined, Walker said. Before dirt is turned or houses go up, the city needs to be assured that Catellus is in the Mueller picture for the long haul, Walker said. “The thing I’m focused on right now is getting past planning and getting on to implementation,” Walker admitted. “We’re going to have to have a coordinated united effort between Catellus and the city to have a serious degree of affordable housing on this site.”

Supporters of affordable housing need to rise to the challenge and join Catellus in the effort to create affordable housing, Walker said. Advocates, lenders, providers and builders must be gathered to help Catellus set what Walker called “a new standard for what we expect for affordable housing.”

Members of the housing working group presented the following overview of the affordable mix they wanted to see on site:

• At least 30 percent of the overall units should be affordable. The breakdown would be 10 percent apiece of 30 percent, 50 percent and 80 percent of the median income. The lowest income tier would include transitional housing, supported by city social services.

• Within the affordable housing goal, there should be a mix of homeowner and rental housing with specific target goals. At least half of the units should be affordable to households with incomes up to 80 percent of regional median income. At least 20 percent of the units should be affordable to households with incomes up to 50 percent of the regional income, also with the goal of home ownership.

• Create housing that will be affordable for the long term. The coalition supports affordable housing throughout the life of the project. A continuing stock of affordable housing should be available, with ongoing affordability routinely monitored and enforced by the city.

Uphold the principles of the Mueller master plan. The Mueller master plan suggests that affordable housing be integrated throughout the site and be qualitatively indistinguishable from market rate housing.

Follow Smart Housing development standards. The affordable housing component should meet the goals set under Smart Housing, such as accessibility for people with disabilities, proper building quality and access to transit.

Require an annual affordable housing progress report from Catellus to the City Council and the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department.

Meet and confer . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who wants to ensure that negotiations with the Austin Police Association are less painful—or at least take less time—when they come back around five years from now, says city management and the police union are making progress. They have agreed that the negotiations should start on time, that those negotiations take place in public and that if the two sides cannot reach agreement they would go through a mediation process. The city and APA have not agreed yet on when or if they would resort to binding arbitration or another mechanism for resolving differences. “My goal is to be able to do this process in nine months or less,” Dunkerley said . . . Two promoted . . . Sondra Creighton, who has served as Acting Director of Public Works and Joe Pantalion, who has been Acting Director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, have each been promoted to department director . . . Today. . . The Board of Adjustment and Sign Review Board are scheduled to meet at noon in Room 325 of One Texas Center. Attorney Richard Suttle has asked that the board overturn an administrative decision allowing construction of “a retaining wall within the five-foot interior side yard setback at 1906 Scenic Drive.” This is a fight between two neighbors and their lawyers over what can be built within a setback and how the setback rules should be interpreted . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission will meet at 6pm at Waller Creek Center. They have a routine agenda, with consideration of several contracts and contract amendments . . . Republicans turning out . . . As of last night, 1,991 Republicans in Travis County had cast ballots in the runoff election. GOP voters are selecting a sheriff nominee and a representative to fill the new District 10 congressional seat. Republicans must also choose a candidate for Railroad Commissioner and for Constable Precinct 3. Several precinct chairs are also in runoffs. Only 326 Democrats had voted, but the only race on their ballot is for Constable Precinct 4. The battle there is between Constable Maria Canchola and challenger Leticia Lugo.

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