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Travis Commissioners reject Pflugerville race track

Wednesday, November 17, 2004 by

Road conditions, competition with Manor Downs, cited

Travis County Commissioners say the Austin Jockey Club has put the cart before the horse, planning a pari-mutuel horse race track along a two-lane road in Pflugerville long before the road could accommodate the traffic.

The owners of San Antonio-based Retama Park have held the license on the Class II pari-mutuel track in Austin for a number of years. After failing to secure a site in Southeast Austin, the owners have made a second attempt, trying to secure a 228-acre tract in Pflugerville.

The Pflugerville City Council and Pflugerville Planning Commission have unanimously endorsed the track as an economic development project, one that will eventually cater to traffic from State Highway 130. But at the county, Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Ron Davis led the charge in opposition to the $15 million track based on road issues.

Sonleitner said Austin Jockey Club’s acknowledgement that road traffic on the two-lane Pecan Street “might be a problem” did not go far enough in addressing the issues a race track would present. The race track’s proposed site also is adjacent to Northeast Metro Park.

“It isn’t enough to acknowledge there are transportation infrastructure and traffic issues,” Sonleitner said. “There is nothing in this application that amounts to a commitment to address the problem.”

Sonleitner said she was uncomfortable with the thought of a race track moving forward when the funding and the right-of-way had yet to be secured to expand Pecan Street (FM 1825). She also pointed out that traffic on the road would include horse trailers because Retama intends to drive its own horses from San Antonio to the track in Austin.

Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman echoed Sonleitner’s concerns about road needs in a memo on the issue. Gieselman estimated that the expansion of Pecan Street would cost about $6 million.

Bryan Brown, who represents the Austin Jockey Club, attended yesterday’s Commissioners’ Court meeting. He told the Court the owners would be willing to pay their fair share of the cost of the road expansion – possibly in the neighborhood of $1 million – and would not move forward unless the road was enlarged.

“We’re not real interested in building a race track fronted by a two-lane road. We’ve gone on the record with that,” Brown said. “We will participate in the cost of Pecan Street.”

Brown said the Austin Jockey Club picked the Pflugerville site for the specific reason that Pecan Street was likely to be expanded with growth. Brown said by the time the track had moved from simulcasting into live horse racing, State Highway 45 and State Highway 130 would be within months of opening.

Commissioner Davis voiced some of the same concerns as Sonleitner, adding that he didn’t want to see a race track go in that might challenge Manor Downs in Precinct 1. Davis also was concerned that Montopolis residents had opposed the track. At the time, the residents had wanted to see single-family homes on the large tract. Instead, with the departure of the race track, the site is now rezoned for multi-family housing.

Pflugerville Pfamily Pfirst, which organized a petition drive against the track, was on hand to applaud the commissioners’ opinions. Pastor Mike Northern of First Baptist Church, one of the leaders of the drive, said he was opposed to the track on a number of grounds, from the traffic impact to the unwanted gambling.

“The City Council thinks this is going to help Pflugerville grow,” Northern said. “We say this is the wrong time and the wrong place and the wrong business.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he would not cast a vote on moral grounds but that he, too, would oppose the Austin Jockey Club. Daugherty did not want to see the Texas Racing Commission approve a race track only a year after it required Manor Downs to spend $3.7 million to expand its oval for more competitive racing.

The Court agreed, voting unanimously to send a letter to the Texas Racing Commission to oppose the race track. The TRC will meet next Monday morning to consider the Austin Jockey Club’s application.

In their letter, the commissioners wrote, “Pecan Street is a rural, two-lane county road and is inadequate to serve the traffic demands of the race track. Whereas, the county has completed design plans to upgrade Pecan Street to a multi-lane arterial, neither the county, nor city, nor state has committed funds to construct the improvements.

“Moreover, the county expects private development, such as the race track, to bear its proportionate share of the roadway improvement costs. The application of the Austin Jockey Club being considered by the Texas Racing Commission shows no financial commitment to improve Pecan Street.”

Another paragraph was added to address Daugherty’s concern, noting the expenditure made by Manor Downs, “The court does not understand why the state would require this investment and then subsequently approve a competitor within the same market area.”

Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols said it was his interpretation that the Texas Racing Commission would make its decision to grant the application based on the needs of the industry rather than the needs of the community. Community needs, however, such as the limitations of infrastructure in the area, could be considered if they might have an impact on the track’s success.

Early Council candidate forum focuses on downtown

Smoking and downtown safety dominated the discussion at the first forum for Austin City Council candidates Tuesday. Dozens of downtown business owners filled the meeting room in the basement of Truluck's restaurant in the Warehouse District for an early glimpse at the men and women running for the three positions on the ballot next May.

After a brief opening statement from each candidate, forum organizer Paul Silver went straight to the issue of the city's smoking ordinance, asking the candidates to explain what they considered to be a "fair compromise" between public and private interests.

Several candidates, including small business owner Jennifer Kim, seeking the Place 3 seat, pointed out that the issue of smoking in bars and nightclubs may be out of the hands of the City Council due to a petition drive seeking to have an ordinance put directly to the voters next spring. "Musicians here make most of their money in bars where there is smoking and I want to be sensitive to them and their needs," she said. "At the same time I realize it is a health risk being around smoking. So as far as a compromise, we'll see what happens when this gets on the ballot…and whatever the policy is I'll support the ordinance that is on the books."

Other candidates were more direct in their opposition to tightening the city's restrictions on smoking. "Right now, 90 percent of our food and beverage establishments are smoke-free," said Gregg Knaupe, the legislative director for the Texas Hospital Association. "Sixty percent of our bars are smoke-free. In my opinion, you have several choices now if you want to be in a smoke-free environment. I think it's certainly too early to go any further with the rule we have right now. I would prefer to see some data, to see how the rule that we have works and impacts the small businesses." Knaupe has not declared for a specific seat yet.

Former Environmental Board Chair Lee Leffingwell, running for Place 1, took a similar position on maintaining the current ordinance. "It's only been in effect since June," he said. "I think we ought to wait for a few years to see what the true economic impacts are, give us a chance to judge what the secondary smoke effects are on employees with the new ventilation systems.”

Driskill Hotel managing director Jeff Trigger told the audience his position on the city's smoking ordinance was based on his first-hand experience running the hotel's bar and restaurants. "I can tell you my bar income is down by 10 percent since the ordinance took effect," he said. Trigger has not yet filed paperwork with the City Clerk's office, but has indicated he would be running in Place 3. He did not call for rolling back the ordinance, but instead supported leaving the current smoking rule in effect. As for the drive by leaders of the American Cancer Society to place strong prohibitions against smoking on the ballot in May, Trigger said he would try to convince them to drop the proposal. "I would put my arms around them and say 'You just changed the ordinance, you need to give it time. You've got nothing to lose by pushing your referendum. But if you do that, and your referendum fails, then we're going to go back to (the rules in place in) 1994.' Maybe that would encourage them to wait," he said.

Incumbent Place 4 Council Member Betty Dunkerley reminded the audience she had been one of the swing votes in support of the current ordinance, and argued against changing it again so soon. Frequent candidate Jennifer Gale, the only announced challenger to Dunkerley, told the crowd people needed safe places to smoke in public without endangering others. Gale also used the opportunity to express her support for the legalization of marijuana, adding some comic relief to a serious meeting. Gale was not invited to the forum, but arrived and insisted on being seated with the other candidates.

When pressed by bar and nightclub owner Bob Woody for a declarative “yes” or “no” answer as to whether they would change the current ordinance, all the candidates but one said they did not want to see the ordinance modified just yet. It started with Trigger, who was seated on one end of the table, and each candidate after him said the current ordinance should be allowed to stand until its impact can be measured. Steve Adams, who previously ran for Council against Raul Alvarez, said the current ordinance had to be scrapped. "It's a private property issue. If I own the business, I make the choice," he said. "But unfortunately, too many people are imposing their view on private property owners." Adams is a member of the local Libertarian Party, and his position is in line with the party's general philosophy of less government regulation. Clearly, there are many laws governing what may and may not be done in public places, including those governing smoking.

The other big topic of discussion was public safety downtown, and the business owners in the audience offered up their personal experiences and those of their customers as they questioned each of the candidates on what changes they would make to deal with the problems of panhandling and homelessness.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley indicated she would support revisions to the city's current ordinances, which are already being discussed by the City Council (see In Fact Daily, November 5, 2004). "We've put a lot of money into helping the homeless…but we really do need to look at all of our ordinances and come back to the center, because our business owners and property owners have rights too," she said. All of the other candidates agreed that something needed to be done to protect quality of life downtown, with differences cropping up over the most effective way to deal with the situation.

Place 3 candidate Margot Clarke said she would be willing to look at revising the city's ordinances, but did not want to over-simplify the problem. Some of the people causing headaches for downtown business owners, she said, were likely in need of mental health treatment. "We are in a terrible situation because of cuts at the state level. I really think that if we can move forward with a mental health facility in Austin that would deal with drug treatment and alcohol abuse, that would be making great strides for people in our community." In addition, she said that increasing pedestrian activity downtown could drive out some criminals. "Part of the solution in addition to looking at strengthening the ordinances, is making sure we have the kind of vitality in downtown, particularly as far as being pedestrian friendly," she said. "That means doing a better job of figuring out the parking situation and having transportation options for people moving around in the downtown area." Clarke is director of outreach for the Texas Sierra Club.

Kim called changing the city's ordinances on panhandling and sleeping in public parks, but also for the city to help create more transitional housing to help break the cycle of homelessness. "There's got to be some sort of transitional housing for people so they're in a place where they have comprehensive services, including alcohol and drug treatment, so they can move up that continuation of housing and become productive," she said.

Trigger agreed with Kim on the need for more transitional housing, and pointed out that he had served on the board of a non-profit group that had actually built a transitional-housing facility. He also announced he would be unveiling a long-term plan to deal with the issue of chronic homelessness during the first half of December Trigger also laid out specific positions on some of the ordinance changes being considered by the Council. He would support a 24-hour prohibition on panhandling downtown, which he said would likely survive any challenge in the courts. As for the city's ordinances on camping and blocking the sidewalk, Trigger said he supported the rules as written.

In the Place 1 race, candidate Lee Leffingwell also supported strengthening the city's existing ordinance, but advised caution. "We need to respect the human rights of all these people, they need to be treated with dignity. That said, I'm in favor of strengthening the ordinances," he said. Leffingwell also focused on drug and alcohol treatment for the chronic homeless

Knaupe said the city would need to coordinate its efforts with Travis County, noting that the county already had a program to help people recently released from jail to avoid becoming repeat offenders or becoming homeless. "It's a volunteer project, where the homeless are allowed to go to a half-way house," he said. He cited statistics that only 29 percent of program participants committed another offense within 72 hours.

Debate organizer Paul Silver hopes the issues raised by the small business owners play a major role in the upcoming campaign. "It was gratifying to watch the Council candidates discuss this," he said. "That really was the mission of this get-together…to see if we can elevate the business- related issues, because business generates the revenue for us to have the quality of life we want."

Commission likes gentrification amendments

After a two-week delay to allow for further staff review and analysis, the Planning Commission has signed off on a series of amendments to the Land Development Code designed to reduce the impact of gentrification, especially in East Austin neighborhoods. The proposed changes include two recommendations from stakeholders that came late in the review process.

The Commission voted unanimously to support all of the staff's recommendations as presented at the previous Commission meeting (see In Fact Daily, November 1, 2004), along with the two new code amendments which were the focus of discussion two weeks ago. Since then, city staff agreed to recommend both of those proposals. One called for allowing more flexibility for setback requirements for new single-family homes built within the MU (mixed use) zoning category. The other would allow condominium units as a permitted residential use under MU. The city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office had requested time to review the impact of that change, but did not oppose it at the meeting. Steve Barney with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department told Commissioners that staff of both departments had met to discuss the proposal and agreed to recommend it, since condos are currently allowed in other residential zoning categories ranging from SF4-A up to MF-6. "It makes little sense that it's not also permitted in mixed-use combining district," he said.

Commissioner Dave Sullivan cited examples of gentrification in his own central city neighborhood as reasons to support the proposed changes. ""I think that these are elements that can help preserve local character," he said. "With regards to easing restrictions, does that raise property values? Would it lead to greater gentrification? In this case, I don't think that it will," he said. "What we're talking about is easing restrictions to increase the housing stock. If you increase the supply, then the cost should drop," he concluded.

Commissioner John-Michael Cortez also supported the changes to the Land Development Code, but wondered whether they would have enough of an impact to preserve affordable housing in the city's central neighborhoods. "It seems to me that a lot of what we're doing here on the commission is making the urban core a much denser place, much more liveable, more pedestrian oriented," he said. "It's generally increasing the quality of life, and I think everybody should have the opportunity to participate in that. I'm afraid what's going to happen is we're going to price so many people out of the urban core, we're going to create a ring of poverty or semi-poverty around the city. It's going to be much more difficult for folks of limited means to take advantage of all the investment we're putting into the urban core."

The vote on the amendments passed 8-0. The city staff is working on another round of amendments designed to provide further protections against the negative effects of gentrification, but that effort is still in the preliminary stages.

Hot case postponed. . . The case that would have kept the Zoning and Platting Commission for an extra hour or two at last night’s meeting was postponed until January 4. Chair Betty Baker appointed a committee, including herself and Commissioner Clarke Hammond, to work with staff and representatives of both the neighborhood and developer of proposed apartments or condos at 3100 N. Capitol of Texas Highway. The land is next to St. Stephen’s School, which proposes to sell the land to the Gables for development. Steve Drenner represents the developer. Sarah Crocker represents the Davenport/Bunny Run Alliance, which opposes the zoning change and changes to the restrictive covenant. The case would have been postponed until Dec. 7 at any rate, due to a notification error. Crocker said the neighborhoods were ready to move forward and did not want to participate in negotiations . . . No Houston here . . . The Historic Landmark Commission expressed criticism of the “ Sam Houston Park” concept currently being proposed by Council Member Brewster McCracken to address historic houses on Rainey Street. Houston has gathered a number of its houses on parkland near City Hall, with the city committing funds to both rehabilitation and upkeep. None of the houses, however, are currently being used. Members of the Historic Landmark Commission would prefer to see any preservation of the historic houses on Rainey Street to be much more like Pensacola, or even like New Orleans’ French Quarter, where homes continue to be preserved and used. “We should really take our preservation cues from Houston,” cracked one of the Historic Landmark Commissioners during the discussion . . . Planning ahead . . . The Save Barton Creek Association will hold a 25th Anniversary celebration from 6-10pm next Monday at the Zilker Clubhouse. Bill Oliver & the Otter Space Band will provide music. The SBCA will honor Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Slusher for their exemplary public service, The event begins around 7pm. The public is invited . . . Tonight . . . About three-dozen people braved the rain last night to attend a meeting on the creation of a new historic preservation plan for Austin. This plan, which is being completed with the assistance of the University of Texas, will catalogue and prioritize the preservation value of Austin’s buildings, landmarks and monuments. The second of two meetings on the plan will be held in the auditorium of the Texas School for the Deaf tonight at 6:30 p.m.. . . . The Environmental Board will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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