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Historic home ordinance to return next month

Monday, June 14, 2004 by

Changes for tax abatements seem likely

The City Council will consider changes to the city’s historic landmark program on July 30, after asking the legal department last week to prepare a new ordinance with several alternatives for tax exemptions and creation of local historic districts. At Thursday’s meeting, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained staff recommendations for changes to the ordinance and compared those to recommendations from the Historic Preservation Task Force.

As Sadowsky explained, the city currently offers a tax exemption of 100 percent for residential structures and 50 percent of the value of the land. The exemption on income producing properties is 50 percent of the value of the structure and 25 percent of the value of the land. He recommended that the tax exemption for residential land value be lowered to 25 percent and eliminated for land on which commercial property sits. Exemptions for the structures themselves would remain unchanged.

Sadowsky praised the work of the task force, noting that many of the staff recommendations followed those of the volunteer panel. However, the task force recommended that only landmarks 75 years old and older be eligible for tax exemption, a recommendation that Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who set the task force and staff study in motion, particularly liked. Staff, on the other hand, recommended that all designated landmarks—regardless of age—be eligible for the tax exemption. Sadowsky pointed out that the major reason for giving the tax exemption is to encourage property owners to maintain their landmarks, which, he said, serves “the public good.”

In Fact Daily that the vast majority of structures that have been designated historic are at least 75 years old. He said those between 50 and 75 years amounted to “just a handful,” leading to his recommendation that all the residential structures be treated equally.

Owners of historic landmarks must apply for a tax exemption every year and pass an annual inspection conducted by the historic landmark office. The program costs the city approximately $700,000 in lost tax revenues annually. A reduction in the percentage of the land value of historic landmarks, as proposed by staff, reduces that figure to just over $500,000 a year with an estimated annual increase of about $33,000 to $35,000 a year, according to staff estimates. “The reduction of the value of the land focuses on the maintenance of the historic structure,” Sadowsky said, and would cost the average residential landmark owners about $300 per year. Although the reduction is relatively small, Sadowsky said, “It adds a great deal to the city’s overall program.”

The staff agreed with the task force recommendation on creation of local historic districts. Many cities in the U.S. have such districts, but Austin has only nationally designated historic districts. The task force recommended that every building within a district, whether contributing to the historic character or not, be granted a seven-year property tax freeze after making a designated amount of rehabilitative expenditures, at an estimated cost of $50,000 per year to the city. Staff on the other hand, recommended that only contributing buildings within the district be given the tax freeze. Low-income residential property owners would be able to qualify for the tax freeze by spending a smaller amount on rehabilitation. Sadowsky said the fiscal impact of the staff recommendation would be about $35,000 annually. Dunkerley said she agreed with the staff recommendation on the districts, but it was not clear how the rest of the Council would see that idea. Council Member Daryl Slusher asked for a clear explanation of the implications of the historic district when the matter returns for a vote.

The task force had recommended that the Historic Landmark Commission have a two-step process for hearing arguments over whether to recommend designation of a building as historic when the property owner objects to the designation. The staff recommended only one hearing. The staff also recommended an increase in fees for demolition and relocation permits, as well as in other categories.

Only three members of the public signed up to address the City Council on the matter last week, although that is likely to change when the Council considers changing tax exemptions.

Terre O’Connell, a member of the task force and of a group called Preserve Austin urged the Council to make only minimal changes to the tax abatement structure and conduct a comprehensive study of the matter, including the economic benefits of maintaining such structures.

Molly Alexander of the Downtown Austin Alliance said she was concerned about the impact of reducing tax abatements for commercial property. She noted that the task force had not made such a recommendation and urged the Council to consider the impact such a change would make on the ability of property owners to make long-term lease agreements. The DAA was surprised by the recommendation, she said, and had agreed with all of the recommendations of the task force. The Council will likely hear a lot more from DAA members and owners of historic homes before the end of July.

Council approves zoning for Ribelin Ranch

The owners of the Ribelin Ranch are one step closer to winning approval zoning for their 747-acre property in northwest Travis County along RM 2222. The City Council, on first reading, approved annexation of the territory and the Planned Unit Development being requested that would allow development on 188 acres.

Most of the tract will be left undeveloped. Travis County is set to acquire 319 acres for preserve land in conjunction with the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, while the PUD zoning will cover 428 acres. "This actually is a link between multiple thousands of acres (of the BCCP)," said Mayor Will Wynn. "It's a critical, critical piece as an acquisition to the preserve system . . . this is absolutely critical to the ongoing success of the BCCP preserve system." The city's environmental staff also endorsed the proposal, noting that the plan would preserve over 550 acres of habitat for endangered species. The plan also includes setbacks for some critical environmental features to protect the water quality of Bull Creek.

The 188 acres of developable land will include office space, a convenience store and gas station, retail, 950 apartment units and 300 condominium units. The plan also sets aside space for a park-and-ride facility for Capital Metro, should the transit agency decide to build one in the area.

The motion approved on first reading by the Council includes more than a dozen staff recommendations covering variances to the Land Development Code ranging from cut-and-fill requirements and vegetative buffers to tree surveys.

The applicant had only two requests to deviate from the staff recommendations for the tract. Attorney Robert Kleeman, representing the Ribelin family, asked the Council to consider applying zoning fees already paid to the city for future development applications. That would have effectively been a waiver of fee revenue for the city of approximately $20,000. Kleeman pointed out that another large tract in the process of annexation, the Robinson Ranch, had not been required to pay fees. "We have noticed that Robinson Ranch was a Council-initiated case and the fees were waived," he said. "At the time we discovered that, it was too late for us to come back and ask you all to do that for the Ribelin family and still meet their contractual obligations to Travis County. What we have asked for instead of a refund on the fee is to see if the Council would consider a credit on future application fees."

City staff recommended against the credit request on the grounds that the Ribelin family had initiated the zoning case, not the city. Kleeman countered that the family had been in discussions with the city regarding annexation and zoning for several years, but the Council went with the staff's recommendation.

The other area of disagreement between the staff and the Ribelin family involved city parkland fees. Normally, the Parks and Recreation Department allows either the payment of fees or the dedication of land when a major tract for development comes into the city. Staff had recommended that the Council require the payment of fees instead of the dedication of land, but Kleeman requested that the family be allowed to follow the usual policy and that any decision on dedication of land or payment of fees be delayed until a developer filed preliminary plans for the site. Once Mayor Wynn made a motion to approve the PUD zoning on first reading,

Council Member Brewster McCracken offered an amendment to comply with that portion of the Ribelin family's request. "I'm pretty familiar with the area, and it's not going to allow the folks in this new neighborhood to have a park," McCracken said of the fee-only proposal. "What's going to result is they'll have to get on to RM 2222 in their cars to get to a park, and that doesn't serve their best interest. There is an ability to do some nice green spaces here for the public." With that one amendment to the staff recommendations, the zoning request passed on a vote of 7-0.

Innovative power plant dedication today . . . Mayor Will Wynn and officials from the department of energy will participate in a ribbon cutting on a prototype power plant at 2:00pm today at the Domain Industrial Park (at Braker Lane and Burnett Road). The cooling/heating power plant will generate 4.5 megawatts and is one of the largest in the nation to test a new technological approach: using the waste heat exhaust from a natural gas-fueled generator as the only fuel source for a chiller that provides air conditioning and heating. “Austin is extremely pleased to partner with the Department of Energy and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the testing of this emerging technology,” said Wynn. “Our goal is to make Austin a destination for clean energy development. To achieve that, we are willing to invest and participate in technology development” . . . Today’s Meetings . . . The Board of Adjustment and Sign Review Board will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center at 5:30pm . . . The Robinson Ranch Subcommittee of the Zoning and Platting Commission will have its final meeting at 5:30pm tonight in One Texas Center Room 500. The ZAP agenda for Tuesday night includes the Robinson Ranch zoning case. The City Council postponed action on the zoning in order to allow the commission to take a position on the creative zoning classifications proposed for the ranch . . . At 6:00pm the Music Commission will meet in Room 304 of City Hall to consider a recommendation on proposals from two groups, Austin Music Partners and Austin Music Network, on dealing with the financially strapped music network . . . Planning Commission to lose member . . . Veteran planning commissioner Maggie Armstrong has told friends that she and her husband will soon be relocating to the Dallas-Fort Worth area to be closer to their grandkids. Armstrong serves as the commission’s secretary and her departure would mean the nine-member board would only have seven . . . CAMPO board hearing tonight . . . The T ransportation Policy Board of CAMPO will hold a public hearing on changes to the FY 04-FY 08 Transportation Improvement Program at the Joe C. Thompson Auditorium at 6:15. They will discuss tollroad proposals, but will not take action until their July 12 meeting. They will also hear an explanation by Executive Director Michael Aulick of a request from the governor and the Texas Transportation Commission for CAMPO to develop a regional mobility plan and a list of prioritized transportation projects . . . ACC Early Voting continues . . . Early voting continues in the run-off between Austin Community College Board candidates Veronica Riviera and Marc Levin. Voting times are today and tomorrow 7am-7pm at ACC Highland Business Center, Rio Grande Campus, Northridge, Eastview, Riverside, Pinnacle and Cypress Creek . . . On Channel 6 . . . Last week’s urban design standards workshops with Robert Gibbs will be shown on Channel 6 at midnight on Tuesday and at 7pm on Wednesday . . . Contemplating the cost of electronic waste . . . Texas Campaign for the Environment will hold a press conference by telephone and release the first comprehensive analysis of the costs of obsolete computers and televisions in Texas at 11am today. On the eve of a statewide electronic waste seminar, TCE’s promises to report in detail the cost and amount of toxins in Texas e-waste. TCE says the waste will amount to a “financial and environmental tidal wave” for the state.

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