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Hays Pct. 3 race a lesson in local politics

Monday, August 2, 2004 by

Most bet on Republican Will Conley to outpoll Democrat David Baker

All Hays politicians have to tackle the issues surrounding development and environmental protection that confront the 31st fastest growing county in the nation. The myriad of subdivisions and the issues created by them fill the agendas of the various governmental entities charged with regulating development. Most of these issues require the attention of the commissioners court at some point.

Only one seat is up for grabs on the Hays County Commissioners Court this year. Precinct 3 Commissioner Bill Burnett of Wimberley, a Republican, is not seeking reelection and is said to be planning a run for county judge.

The Democrat in the race, David Baker of the Village of Wimberley, faced no opponent in the March Democratic primary. Baker has served as an appointee of the court to various advisory commissions. He is also on the board of Envision Central Texas. But Baker, 45, faces one well-known fact in Hays County—the influx of suburban residents into previously rural areas has solidified the Republicans’ hold on seats like Pct. 3.

The Republican in the race, Will Conley of San Marcos, won the primary in March against two better-known adversaries. Conley, 27, sealed his nomination by defeating the former favorite, realtor and retired businessman Sam Davis, in an April runoff. Conley owns a full-service car wash in San Marcos. The Republican is now the favorite, but the difference between the candidates’ ages and experience suggests that the race could be close.

Precinct 3 stretches from the westernmost portion of San Marcos northwest to take in the small community of Wood Creek and the Village of Wimberley in the center of the county.

“It’s easy to label young people who try to get involved,” Conley said. “It’s important that we have a hardworking commissioner that has a good hold on the business community . . . Mainly I’m interested in the job and what lies ahead.” Conley refused a chance to comment on his opponent.

Baker said the voters should consider experience. “Will is a fortunate young man,” Baker said. “But as far as his credentials . . . there’s very little . . . You want somebody on the court that understands the complexity of the issues.”

Baker owns and operates a bed and breakfast called the Dancing Waters Inn at the headwaters of Cypress Creek in Wimberley.

Both candidates agree that Wimberley is a unique community in terms of the activism of its citizenry and the seriousness with which village residents take their politics. Both county parties’ chairs live in Wimberley.

“You have a very interesting constituency in Wood Creek and Wimberley,” Conley said, noting the spirit of volunteerism among the people. “You have to admire them for that.” Conley said that as commissioner he would work hard to help those communities develop the infrastructure they need to handle growth. He pointed out that San Marcos has the tools it needs to grow for the most part, and the smaller communities would have to look to the county. “The truth of the matter is, we have to help bring this county into the 21st Century,” Conley said.

“We’ve been a rural county for so long, and we’re just starting to become urbanized,” Conley said. “The county’s really going to be a different place in ten years.” Conley said Hays needs to become less dependent on the Austin and San Antonio economies, and the goal, he insisted, is an economy where citizens can “live here and work here in Hays.”

Republican County Chair Mike Cox said that the GOP was united behind Conley in the race and suggested that, given Baker’s history of environmental activism, the Democrat would fail to address other concerns of voters.

Baker said the growth of the county depends on the preservation of the Hill Country’s unique environment. “You can’t learn anything unless you get involved,” Baker said. “It’s my passion. If you are going to maintain the value of the property that the people have invested in here—we have to do a good job of managing growth.”

Conley, when asked his opinion of recent lawsuits by the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS) against the City of Buda over the controversial Whispering Hollow subdivision, said he was not informed enough to comment given that the fast growing city is not in Pct. 3, but added, “I admire and applaud anybody who volunteers their time and gets involved. Do I agree with SOS most of the time? No.”

Baker is a member of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, which is a private, non-profit organization that holds conservation easements in the area. Baker was vice-chair of the county’s parks and open space advisory board. He also served on the blue ribbon 2025 Transportation Planning Commission.

Both candidates had reservations about the toll road plan recently approved by the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO). Commissioner Burnett sits on the board and voted for the toll road plan.

“I think that this toll plan is unlike any other toll program in the state or the country,” Baker said. “It takes existing public highways and converts them to toll roads, which I do think equates to a double tax. It really hasn’t been as well vetted and planned (as those in Dallas and Houston),” Baker said. “I am opposed to those toll roads coming into Hays County.”

Conley said he was uncomfortable with the toll plan. “I don’t believe that we should toll existing roads,” he said. But when it comes to handling transportation needs, Conley said, “We’re going to have to use all the tools that we can.” He said, however, toll roads give people a choice, “and that’s what I really believe in.”

The winner will join Commissioners Debbie Ingalsbe-Gonzales of San Marcos, Susie Carter of Kyle and Russ Molenaar of Dripping Springs, who occasionally get under each other’s skin. The court has seen several less-than-cordial disagreements during its Tuesday morning meetings this year.

Design Commission still working on new mission

If all goes well, the Design Commission will take one more month to review the language it intends to forward to the City Council on its future vision and purpose.

The Design Commission has taken a retreat and a number of regular and special called meetings to review the language for its ordinance revision, a revision suggested by the Boards and Commissions Task Force. Most of the commission’s members—many of them design professionals with more than a passing interest in city regulations and projects—have labored over every phrase of the review.

The commission's experience working with city staff on downtown design guidelines and evaluating the Smart Growth matrix has caused the panel to evolve over time, Chair John Patterson said. The ordinance will not be a stark departure from the current actions of the committee but a clarification of the commission's role.

"The purpose of the ordinance is to provide a clarity of purpose for the commission's involvement in perfecting the development of the city's urban environment," Patterson said.

The primary focus of the Design Commission will remain downtown. This week, the commission reviewed the tasks it intended to accomplish as a commission: providing design guidance to other city commissions, educating the public on quality urban design, and promoting higher standards for urban planning, architectural design, landscape development and pedestrian orientation in future downtown projects, among others.

The fact that the members of the Design Commission are design professionals makes it somewhat different than other commissions. Staff Liaison Pollyanne Melton has urged the group to consider offering its expertise to help other commissions work on projects.

"I think we can provide constructive advice to those other boards and commissions that are dealing with the built environment, meaning the urban environment," Patterson said. "When you're talking about buildings and open spaces and plazas, I think we are the right type of entity to provide a supplement to the reviews completed by other commissions."

The Design Commission also wants to expand its role by providing assistance this fall on the city's intention to develop design guidelines for commercial corridors. Urban Design Officer Jana McCann has championed design guidelines that are tailored to the purpose and traffic of the city's major corridors, such as Burnet and Lamar boulevards.

Patterson said the Design Commission would have a final work session on the proposed ordinance Tuesday, followed by a work session with city legal staff on August 23. The group also intends to provide input this fall into the city's proposed retail design guidelines, which are still being reviewed by various groups and commissions.

City flip-flops on rail corridor . . . The Council is asking the City Manager's office to initiate a process necessary to change the designated downtown rail corridor from 4th Street to 3rd Street. That designation had originally been made when voters were considering a light rail proposal from Capital Metro in the fall of 2000. Since then, Mayor Will Wynn pointed out, the geography of downtown has changed. "The new Frost Bank Plaza hadn't been built at 4th and Congress, the new Hilton Hotel hadn't been built at 4th and Red River and the Convention Center hadn’t been expanded up to 4th Street." While all those changes are positive, the Mayor said, "I think it would make a cross-town rail corridor a little more difficult, at least compared to 3rd Street." The proposal will go to both the Planning Commission and the Urban Transportation Commission for their recommendations . . . Ramirez moving to Sempra Energy . . . Austin Energy Senior Vice President of Power Production Andy Ramirez has announced his resignation from the city-owned utility effective August 15. Ramirez has accepted a “great job opportunity” with SEMPRA Energy, a California-based company that recently acquired power plants in Texas, according to General Manager Juan Garza. In a memo to utility staff, Garza wrote, “While seeing Mr. Ramirez leave is unfortunate, I congratulate him and thank him for his service to Austin Energy. I am currently assessing interim assignments and expect to make an announcement soon.” Ramirez has been with Austin Energy for eight years and before that had worked for Central Power and Light in Corpus Christi for fourteen years . . . Today’s meetings . . . With a marathon agenda to complete, the new Travis County Hospital District Board is scheduled to meet at 9am today, and again on Wednesday. After taking the oath of office, they will elect a chair, vice-chair and secretary. They will also be drawing lots to determine who will serve one-year, two-year and three-year terms. They will also get plenty of legal advice and appoint a district administrator. The Music Commission will meet at 6pm and the Design Commission will meet at 5:45pm . . . Dunkerley likely to run for re-election . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley told In Fact Daily that any rumors about her moving over to a hospital district job are without foundation. In fact, she said she is likely to run for re-election next spring when her first term ends . . . In case you missed it . . . The city's efforts to lure Home Depot's new data center helped convince company officials to select a site in Northeast Austin for the facility. Gov. Rick Perry joined Mayor Wynn and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe to make the announcement. Officials with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce were also on hand to applaud the company's decision.

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