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Recall organizer faults Perry for toll road plan

Tuesday, August 24, 2004 by

Costello urging Governor to stop plans approved by CAMPO

Organizers of the drive to recall Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas are getting some new office space. People for Efficient Transportation has been given the use of an office near the UT campus and plans to move in this week, according to PET PAC founder Sal Costello.

Although the recall effort itself is focused on the three members of the Austin City Council who voted for a toll road proposal when it went before the CAMPO board, backers of the campaign are also turning their attention to officials at the state level. The AustinTollParty.com web site includes a form letter for supporters to send to Governor Rick Perry, and Costello has been in contact with the Governor’s staff. Costello accuses Perry of "blackmailing" local officials into passing the toll road plan. But he is still holding those elected officials responsible for their votes. The group has printed up t-shirts promoting the recall effort, and Costello says one is being sent to the Governor to remind him of their position.

An email from Dede Smith in the Governor's office tells Costello that the toll-road plan approved by CAMPO was a "local decision. As such, should you have recommendations for a change in current law, you may consider contacting legislators, as they are the officials with authority to introduce and vote on legislation." But Costello's response paints Perry as the mastermind behind the toll road plan. "Trying to blame what your office has instigated years ago with the planning of HB 3588 is unacceptable," Costello wrote back. "Your fingerprints are all over this mess and YOU have the opportunity to stop it now and let the community have a voice."

The group wants HB 3588, which authorized the creation of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, to be rescinded. While the Governor could have vetoed the bill, since it became law any change will have to go through the full Legislature. The next regular session is scheduled to start in January of 2005. If the bill is not rescinded, the Austin Toll Party wants several changes in the law. Those would include adding language to prevent short, unconnected stretches of road from being tolled and language to allow new stretches of roadway to be built only if they are funded primarily through bond financing. Gov. Perry does not have the unilateral authority to make those changes.

Texas State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn added her voice to those criticizing the Governor on Monday, borrowing some of the key talking points used by members of the Austin Toll Party over the past few weeks. "I have been an advocate of toll roads, but only if they are designed, considered, debated and built as toll roads from the beginning," she said. "To me, making drivers pay a toll on a road that is already funded is double taxation." But Strayhorn said she was not affiliated in any way with the Austin Toll Party or the campaign to recall locally elected officials.

Foes of subdivision disappointed by developer's response

Planning Commission to take up Smart Housing plan tonight

In a far East Austin neighborhood, residents have organized in opposition to a new subdivision, a Smart Housing development proposed by Evan Williams’ DJW Investments and Lockwood Engineers, Inc. near Boggy Creek. Neighbors say the Edward Joseph subdivision, which would consist of just under 100 homes on a 14.88-acre tract, would drastically increase the number of people living in the neighborhood and driving on Bolm Road.

The proposed development would sit between Perry Road and Walton Lane in the eastern slice of Austin bordered by Airport Boulevard and U.S. 183 on the west and east, and the Colorado River and the Tank Farm on the south and north. There are only two routes out of the neighborhood—Bolm Road to Airport or to U.S. 183—the newly approved toll road. Neighbors say that Bolm is already clogged with cars and the addition of up to 200 more automobiles will harm the quality of life residents now enjoy.

Williams and representatives from Lockwood met with residents of the neighborhood last week in an effort to hammer out compromises, but the two sides only agreed on sidebar issues like fencing and the directing street lighting inward to limit light pollution.

City of Austin Senior Neighborhood Planner Steve Barney facilitated the meeting, as well as a meeting with Johnston Terrace residents the previous week to help them organize and voice their concerns about the subdivision.

“The neighborhood association was able to supply a list of sub-issues that were kind of on a scale that the developer would be able to address,” Barney said. “It sounds like (Williams) is willing to entertain the idea of a postponement from the Planning Commission.”

The newly formed Johnston Terrace/Boggy Creek Neighborhood Association principally objects to the high numbers of homes in the proposed development, but the developer insisted that the level of density was necessary to make the construction and sale of the homes affordable.

“Basically, I’m devastated by his reaction,” said Perry Road resident Theresa Houston. “Density was the big issue… He said the density makes the housing affordable, which I disagree with. We asked him to lower the density, and he said no.”

Williams told the assembled residents that he had played on the property as a child since the largely wooded area along the east bank of Boggy Creek had been in his family for years. Williams also said that, by requesting a zoning change from SF-3 to SF-4A during the neighborhood planning process, he was clearly trying to raise the prospective density allowance for the property.

“When we went through the neighborhood planning process, we didn’t have a pretty picture at the time… and we, I thought we made clear when we went through the zoning,” that a higher-density development would be allowable. “I know there’s a big impact… We tried to minimize the impact to the neighborhood.” Williams added, “There’s tremendous risk involved in this.”

The neighborhood association included many people who attended neighborhood planning meetings in 2002 and 2003, but none of the residents remembered any proposal that would bring so many new homes into such a small area. The Planning Commission vacated its previous preliminary approval of the subdivision because the city failed to adequately notify all affected property owners. Many residents said the lack of notice was not just a one-time occurrence, but that, in effect, many property owners were unaware of the planning process altogether.

“It could be affordable on big lots,” Houston said. She said neighbors had several suggestions to make the subdivision less dense. “Maybe there’s a creative solution,” Houston said. Neighbors also requested that the plan be put through an environmental review to analyze its effect on Boggy Creek.

The largely Hispanic neighborhood enjoys low density right now, and the property on which the subdivision is planned was previously the equivalent of a private mobile-home park—with several huge trees, an unpaved road, and residents in trailers who moved out earlier this year.

Williams agreed to the SMART Housing requirement that at least 40 percent of the homes be sold to people with 80 percent of the median Austin income–$39,800 for a one-person household and $56,900 for a four-person family. Barney said Austin’s median income is significantly higher than other cities.

“We certainly have seen lower income people be able to afford it,” Barney said. He also emphasized that prospective buyers in that range would have access to the city’s down-payment assistance program. “There was a misperception,” Barney said, “that all of the homes would be priced at $120,000.”

Susana Almanza of People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) said that the SMART Housing program’s definition of affordability was not affordable for people living in Johnston Terrace and other East Austin neighborhoods.

“We need housing,” Almanza said. “Real, affordable housing.”

Barney said the Smart Housing program was designed for mixed-income communities that are accessible and transit-friendly. He said the standards are rigorous.

“This is the kind of housing the city wants to encourage,” Barney said, “homes that are accessible enough for a wheelchair . . . (which) meet at least Level 1 of the city’s Green Building Program.” Barney said. He pointed out that such developments receive fee waivers and an expedited approval process.

The proposal is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission again tonight.

Cap Metro wants cycling to be part of overall plan

Capital Metro hosted a meeting between local cycling activists, TxDOT representatives and nationally recognized transportation planner Mia Birk on Thursday to discuss "Rails with Trails." Birk, with the Alta Design firm ( http://www.altadesign.com), has worked on several projects around the country in which bicycle trails were incorporated into right-of-way-for-rail projects. With Capital Metro gearing up for a November election on commuter rail along existing freight tracks, agency representatives said the time was right to consider how the service could connect with other means of transportation.

"The idea behind this is to work locally with the folks that are working on bicycle projects that are ongoing," said Capital Metro's Sam Archer, "and try to identify opportunities that we could use our railroad right-of-way to really integrate more trails through the Austin area . . . in ways that would be both functional from a commuter's perspective but also from a recreational perspective as well." Establishing bicycle trails, Archer said, could benefit both cyclists and Capital Metro. "The point behind this is that it's all part of a network . . . so that you can bring more people to the stations and provide more access," he said, "but at the same time provide a nice green space that will allow for more recreational activities."

Birk outlined Rails with Trails success stories from other cities, such as Portland, Oregon. But she also warned that the projects should be handled carefully, since the concept runs counter to much of the established thinking in the rail industry. "The three main issues are the setback distance, the separation technique and where the trail crosses the railroad line," she said. Traditionally, railroad companies are used to keeping people away from their tracks for both safety and liability reasons. If bicycle trails are to run parallel to tracks, Birk said, the design must include features to promote cyclist and pedestrian safety.

Typically, trails are located within the right-of-way held by the railroad, but are set back several feet from the actual track itself. Birk said the average setback distance was 33 feet, but was sometimes less than 10 feet. "I don't have a specific number for the setback," she said. "There is no standard. You can't say uniformly what a required setback distance is . . . you have to look at the speed of the train, the frequency of the train, sight distance and other conditions that are out there." Many projects also include fencing, but she advised that it should be carefully selected to preserve the beauty of a trail.

Another problem in designing trails along rail lines is "pinch points" in the rail system. These are locations where the railroad right-of-way is narrower, such as through urban neighborhoods, or where a trail faces natural obstacles such as a creek or stream. Neighborhoods along Capital Metro's tracks include Wooten and Cherrywood. In many cases, bicycle routes can be detoured away from the tracks and onto existing streets, as long as they are clearly marked by signs or other features. Birk cautioned, however, that large detours would deter riders.

Similar issues exist where the railroad has an at-grade crossing with a city street. Capital Metro's line includes an at-grade crossing of North Lamar and several other city streets. "Under-crossings or over-crossings are very expensive," said Birk, who suggested routing cyclists to existing marked crossings at regular intersections.

In areas where the tracks run through residential areas, she encouraged planners to make sure neighborhood groups are an integral part of the planning process. Neighborhood residents are frequently resistant to the idea of more traffic, even bicycle traffic, on their streets. Birk said that including them in the planning process could help minimize difficulties, and that neighborhoods groups often liked the idea of having trails nearby for their recreational value.

Today’s meetings . . . The City Council Healthcare Subcommittee will meet at 3:30pm today in Room 304 of City Hall. They will hear an update on the Hospital District’s implementation issues and approve hiring an auditor to verify the city’s ad valorem tax rate . . . The Planning Commission will meet at 6pm tonight in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The RMMA Advisory Commission is scheduled to meet at 6pm at Waller Creek Center . . . No HLC meeting . . .There was no quorum at the Historic Landmark Commission last night. The commission won't hear the city's proposal on Rainey Street rezoning until Monday, Sept. 13. Members blamed the faulty attendance on summer vacations . . . Other historic landmark news . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley has put an item on this week’s Council agenda directing the Historic Preservation Task Force to review their recommendations relating to tax abatements and incentives and report back to the Council within 45 days. The city’s legal staff had objections to the group’s previous recommendation concerning grandfathering of abatements for buildings already declared historic. Betty Baker, chair of the task force, said yesterday that she plans to set meetings every Monday and Wednesday evening until the group has completed its work . . . Clean air hearing no big deal . . . The TCEQ’s public hearing on Austin's Early Action Compact failed to draw much of a crowd on Tuesday. Representatives of Travis County, the City of Austin, and the " Clean Air Force" all attended, but the hearing itself lasted less than 15 minutes. Travis County Clean Air Program Manager Scheleen Walker took the lack of opposition to the plan as a positive sign. The implementation of emissions testing for automobiles in Dallas and Houston had generated some controversy in those cities, but that has not been the case here . . . SBA lenders ready to meet loan seekers . . . The City of Austin's Small Business Development Program is holding a "Meet the SBA Lenders Fair" tonight at the Holiday Inn at I-35 and Woodward. It's a chance for small business owners to learn about the lending programs offered by more than 20 institutions.

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