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Final anti-smoking petitions submitted

Wednesday, February 23, 2005 by

Supporters of tightening Austin’s anti-smoking ordinance submitted about 4,500 additional signatures yesterday to City Clerk Shirley Brown. Petition organizer Rodney Ahart of Onward Austin told In Fact Daily Tuesday that the group needed to submit about 3,300 signatures to reach their goal of 36,764 signatures of registered City of Austin voters. “And we think we have well over that,” he said.

Brown said she expects to finish the signature validation process by next Monday. A preliminary analysis of signatures previously submitted by Onward Austin concluded that the first batch of signatures contained fewer than 33,795. State law requires the clerk to randomly sample 25 percent of the signatures submitted and ensure that they are registered to vote in the city. Brown explained that her employees use a computerized petition validation system that was specifically created to help ensure accurate sampling. The names submitted yesterday will be sampled in the same way as those submitted on the original petition. If there are enough—10 percent of the city’s registered voters—Brown will notify the City Council, who will put the matter on the May ballot.

Ahart, who works for the American Cancer Society, said his group has been focused on gathering the signatures rather than on the campaign they will need to wage if they make it onto the ballot. “We want to win because we feel this will be a win for public health in Austin,” he said “I feel like we’ll have a really strong campaign.”

Onward Austin is seeking public approval of a stringent no-smoking ordinance similar to one approved under Mayor Gus Garcia before he left office in June 2003. With the addition of Council Member Brewster McCracken, the Council gained a majority in favor of allowing bars and restaurants to allow smoking under certain conditions, and the law was amended in October 2003. (See In Fact Daily, October 31, 2003.)

The current ordinance allows bars and nightclubs to obtain an unrestricted smoking permit, provided the business earns at least 70 percent of its revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages on-premises. Other businesses can obtain a restricted permit, allowing smoking between 2pm and 6am as long as the designated smoking area has a separate ventilation system. In both cases, people less than 18 years old are prohibited from entering the designated smoking area. Fewer than a dozen businesses chose the second route. Those that have a separate ventilation system will be grandfathered for 10 years, Ahart said.

Paul Silver, treasurer of the opposing group, Keep Austin Free PAC, said last night that he expected to be in a battle at the ballot box with the anti-smoking group. Just how much money the PAC can raise is still a mystery, however. “We know how to win this,” he said, indicating that his group’s campaign would target bar patrons who wish to continue smoking in their favorite clubs. But he said, “We’ll never have as much as the health enthusiasts.” Initially Silver had hoped to raise $150,000 to fight Onward Austin and keep the current ordinance in effect. That seems less likely now, he said, because many bar owners do not seem to realize the gravity of the situation or believe that they can affect the outcome of the vote.

Silver said Keep Austin Free PAC is working with political consultant Mark Littlefield.

Design standards: work in progress

McCracken, stakeholders continue to tinker with ordinance

Council Member Brewster McCracken, who has labored for months on design standards he hopes will improve the aesthetics of future development in the city, says he has reached some agreements with members of the development community. Those agreements have been hammered out in a series of meetings with neighborhood, architectural and real estate interests, McCracken said Tuesday. One such agreement, he said, is on block size. In the future, blocks would be 660 feet, a reduction from the current size of 2,000 feet.

Members of the Planning Commission have labored for years to reduce block size in order to provide more possibilities for walking in new neighborhoods. The commission last night postponed further consideration of the staff’s design proposals because of ongoing stakeholder discussions. The Zoning and Platting Commission task force set up to give that group’s assessment also postponed its meeting until McCracken can present an update on the proposed ordinance to the City Council. He plans to do that on March 3.

McCracken also told In Fact Daily that stakeholders had agreed that pole signs would be banned citywide except on highways. He also said there had been “a big change on development orientation.”

The first draft of the ordinance would have made it difficult for new development to be built with parking between the store and the street. The idea was to encourage businesses to build close to sidewalks and hide parking behind the store or in parking garages. “The middle ground agreement that has emerged is you cannot put parking between the street and the building on urban roadways designated premium transit corridors,” McCracken explained. The term “ premium transit corridors” is a brand new one. An example of such a corridor, he said, would be South Lamar Boulevard, “where we really do need buildings up at the sidewalk.” Buildings on other streets would be allowed to have parking between the building and the sidewalk, he said, but that would trigger other requirements. What those might be are still under discussion.

Planning Commission chair Chris Riley, who has been involved in the stakeholder discussions, suggested that the city use a format for design standards similar to the Green Building Matrix, instead of a point system, McCracken said. For instance, a small business would either have fewer things to do to comply with in the ordinance or would be exempt, according to McCracken. The Council Member said he wants to make sure that the public fully understands the proposal, adding that he is continuing to receive valuable input from different segments of the community.

Eastside neighbors reject dentist's zoning plea

Planning Commission undecided

A decision on a proposed zoning change in the Swede Hill neighborhood last night underscores the fact that the Planning Commission rarely varies from neighborhood plans when the neighborhood refuses to support the zoning change.

Even Chair Chris Riley had to admit the zoning change for the duplex at 901 East 15th Street was a fairly attractive one. A homeowner asked to use a portion of his home for a dental practice, even agreeing to give his own neighbors discounts on dental services. He proposed no exterior changes to the property and agreed to roll back the zoning from LO-MU-CO-NP to SF3-NP if the home were ever sold. The property is even on the freeway frontage road, making commercial use a logical choice.

A divided commission sent the proposal to the City Council with no recommendation.

“I’m afraid it pains me to say this, but if I lived in this neighborhood, I would be supporting the reasonable,” Riley said. “It looks to me to be a perfectly reasonable use of this property. Not only could you walk to the dentist, you would be getting a 50 percent discount. You’d have 24-hour access for emergencies. I would think this use would be a great asset for this neighborhood.”

Such a use would be a dream for a Planning Commissioner who favored multi-use development in a walkable pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. But the owner of the house, Fernando Loya, had raised the ire of his neighborhood because he had conducted the dental practice in his home without asking permission. The property was red-tagged by city code inspectors for an illegal use.

Staff recommended denial of the rezoning request, saying it was not consistent with the Central East Austin Neighborhood Plan, which designated the property for single-family use. And while Riley admitted neighborhood land use plans shouldn’t be set in stone, he agreed to support the neighborhood in its opposition to the zoning change.

In the end, the discussion came down to those who saw the use as reasonable for the neighborhood and those who favored maintaining the neighborhood plan. But even James Medina, president of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, admitted neighbors were almost evenly split on the issue, despite the advantages of a neighborhood dentist.

Medina saw the rezoning as an encroachment issue in the neighborhood. “We don’t want a Kerbey Lane. We don’t want a Medical Arts,” Medina said. “We don’t want an influx that intends to capitalize on the area and make it commercial.”

Commissioners split along the pro-neighborhood and pro-use lines. C ommissioners Matt Moore, Jay Reddy and Cid Galindo voted in favor of the zoning change. Reddy and Moore spoke of the excellent buffer the house would make to the freeway.

“We always say that we want live-work communities—that it’s a good idea,” Moore said. “This is an example of where it’s actually going to happen. Maybe the design isn’t the greatest, but it gives us a chance to do what we said we wanted to do.”

Commissioners John Michael Cortez, Riley, Cynthia Medlin and Matt Hollon voted against it. Cortez spoke about the time spent on the neighborhood plan. Medlin said she couldn’t reward someone for an illegal use. And Hollon called the decision excruciating, saying he was puzzled by the neighborhood’s reaction to the project. Finally, the commission voted to send the project on to City Council without a recommendation.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Art graces City Hall

. . . The city has begun to install an exhibit showcasing the talents of more than 50 Austin artists in the first art exhibit for the new space. The community is invited to the exhibit’s opening from 6-8pm Thursday. “This exhibit is one more example of the city’s commitment to the arts,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. “This is a celebration of our diverse arts community. City Hall is a perfect place to showcase the creativity of our artists.” The city’s Cultural Arts Division, which initiated the program, received help from Anne Elizabeth Wynn, the Mayor’s wife, who is acting as a volunteer consultant for the exhibition . . . Today’s meetings . . . A subcommittee of the Environmental Board will hold a meeting in room 16.117 at Two Commodore Plaza from 2pm- 4pm to discuss development in the Headwaters of Bull Creek . . . There will be a public hearing on transit-oriented development from 6-8pm at the Carver Branch Library, 1161 Angelina St. On Thursday, there will be an additional hearing from 6:30-8:30pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. . . The Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure meets at 3:30pm today in Council Chambers. On the agenda is an update from Austin Music Partners on the status of the Austin Music Channel. . . . Office warming . . . Place 3 Council candidate Margot Clarke is having a campaign office grand opening at 5:30pm Thursday at the new campaign headquarters, 5035 North Burnet Rd, No. 200. . . The Central Texas Commercial Association of Realtors is planning a luncheon Friday to discuss the East Austin Real Estate Market. Speakers will be Matt Mathias of Riata Partners, David Saling of Campbell Hogue and Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, editor and publisher of La Prensa. It will be moderated by Paul Saldaña, president of Adelante Solutions. The luncheon is set from 11:30am to 1pm Friday at the Austin Country Club. To register, call 873-8195 or contact http://www.hempsteadassociates.com/store2.

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