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Bills threaten city, county water rules

Wednesday, March 30, 2005 by

The Central Texas environmental community is gearing up for a fight legislative proposals that would strip cities and counties of their ability to regulate water quality, including a bill by Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria) that will get its first hearing today.

The SOS Alliance has called the first wave of bills to hit the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee on Wednesday the “grandfather bills” because they lock in past development rights. One such bill by Armbrister, Senate Bill 574, would expand the current “grandfathering” law, locking in the rights of a plat as long as a good faith effort has been made by the developer to move the plat forward.

Armbrister’s office did not return phone calls on the bill. According to his explanation of intent in the bill analysis, however, the veteran legislator wants to make sure that private property and developmental rights of landowners are preserved against city rulemaking.

”Despite the clear intent of the language found in Chapter 245 (of the Government Code) to prevent punitive retroactive rulemaking by cities that is oftentimes intended to restrict, or even stop, development, there has been a troubling rise in cities’ attempts to circumvent the original intent of the statute,” Armbrister wrote. “As proposed, SB 574 amends the existing exemptions to clarify that zoning regulations and other land use regulations, annexation regulations or regulations to prevent the imminent destruction of property or injury to persons affected ‘landscaping or tree preservation’ or ‘open space or park dedication’ are not exempt from the application of the Act.”

And just to enforce the fact he’s serious, Armbrister has included language in the bill that makes sure that cities are not immune from being sued over infractions.

A second bill Senate Bill 848, authored by Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) would give property owners rights on a plat as soon as the plat is postmarked. Such measures would give property owners protection in lawsuits over “takings.”

The City of Austin will be testifying against both bills, said lobbyist John Hrncir. “There are problems with both bills, and we’re testifying against them,” Hrncir said. “They could amend it, but at this point we are opposed and will testify against them.”

Both Austin and Travis County also have concerns about “takings” bills filed by Sen. Todd Staples(R-Palestine) and Rep. Robby Cook (D-Eagle Lake) that would provide even more limits on how far jurisdictions could go to regulate landowners. Under Senate Bill 1647, which has yet to be referred to committee, any regulations that would limit impervious cover to less than 45 percent would be considered an illegal taking of land.

Cook’s companion bill, House Bill 2833, has been referred to the House Land Management and Resources Committee, since it involves land use issues. Such a bill, if passed, would torpedo all local efforts to raise the water quality measures required in the Barton Springs recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. A broad subcommittee of developers, environmentalists and civic leaders across northern Hays and southern Travis counties currently are involved in drafting new development regulations for the area.

“They’re going after existing practices as opposed to future expectations,” Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman told the Commissioners’ Court yesterday. “We use some density restrictions right now that the bill doesn’t necessarily affect, but it would certainly affect our ability to pass future ordinances on water quality.”

The city is also likely to oppose the takings bills, given that they appear to run counter to the voter-approved provisions of the SOS water quality ordinance.

Rep. Robert Puente(D-San Antonio), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, says he’s aware of the committee’s work and is concerned at the Staples-Cook bills that would limit municipal and county regulation of water quality.

“I want to work with them and understand where they’re coming from,” Puente said. “Maybe we can work with them to figure out where they want to go and draft some regulations that help them get there. We still have a need to regulate water quality, and a lot of commercial developers are willing to be regulated by cities, as long as they know what the rules are and what is expected of them.”

Setting the bar as low as simply meeting the state’s minimum standards does no one any good, said Puente, referring to House Bill 2832. According to HB 2832, cities are expected to enforce pollution control and abatement programs “only to ensure compliance with ( TCEQ) pollution and degradation standards and practices and with commission rules. The city does not have the authority of the commission to regulate water quality, issue permits or establish standards and practices for water quality.”

While that makes it clear that cities are not intended to usurp the state agency’s authority, it appears to run counter to the state’s efforts to decentralize water planning for the state. Legislation in prior sessions has made a point of “farming out” the state’s authority to local regions, directing the regions to formulate long-term water strategies.

Discussions begin on changing Cesar Chavez

Consultants retained by the City of Austin are just beginning to review the city's options for converting traffic on Cesar Chavez Street from one-way to two-way downtown. The Council voted to support that goal last year, and U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith recently announced that $3 million in federal funding for the project had been included in the latest transportation funding bill approved by the House. City staff and the consultants are in the process of reviewing newly collected traffic count data and modeling the impact of different scenarios using two computer software programs.

Renee Orr with the city's Public Works Department told members of the Design Commission this week that four options are initially being reviewed for converting the traffic flow. The simplest and least expensive is to re-stripe the existing lanes. That, however, would almost certainly result in a backlog of traffic from vehicles attempting to turn left onto Congress Avenue or any of the other north-south streets. "Whenever you take four lanes of traffic and squish them into two lanes and have the same amount of 'green time' (at a traffic light), about half of the cars can't get through," she said.

The second option would be to add turn lanes at key intersections. "That would allow, during the same amount of green time, turning movements to occur into the city and south across the river," said Orr, "without having the turning traffic queue up in the main lanes." The third option is to add both turn lanes and additional through lanes for extra traffic capacity, likely by widening the street on the south side. Existing development on the south side of Cesar Chavez east of Congress would play a role in any plans for that option. The Public Works Department would also have to work with the Parks Department, since some of the land on the north shore of Town Lake approaching Cesar Chavez is classified as parkland. Orr said the department had already advised the Parks Board of the situation and intended to work closely with that group as various options are considered.

The fourth option is still largely undefined, but calls for adding enough lane space to make sure the east-west traffic flow would not face any negative effects from the changeover. Dubbed the "capacity neutral" option, there are still many specifics left to work out. "We don't really know how wide something like that would be," said Orr. When asked about the possibility of expanding Cesar Chavez on both the north and south sides, Orr said the existing development on the north side of the street would make that extremely difficult. "We're kind of using that as a last case scenario at this point. We're anticipating we would run into a lot of opposition," she said, "especially since the sidewalk isn't as wide in some of these areas."

Some members of the Design Commission commented that slowing traffic through downtown on Cesar Chavez would not necessarily be considered a negative side effect of changing the traffic flow. That could help deter people from using downtown as a conduit to get from Southwest Austin to Nrtheast Austin, said Commission Member Gerard Kinney. "What happened at the time the ' Second Street Shuffle' was created and Cesar Chavez was no longer two way, is that people began to use the Lamar Bridge for that purpose," he said. That use of a primary downtown street as a throughway, Kinney said, had spread to other parts of the downtown traffic grid. "It took a lot of working through for people to come to realize that really we shouldn't be thinking of these streets as an important part of an east-west connection. Downtown is a destination. People who go through downtown should be doing so because they chose to, not because it's their primary route from their home to their work. We should create other solutions other than going through town for that," he said. "What I'm describing is my opinion, but I believe a lot of other people think that as well."

The Public Works Department is inviting downtown commuters, property owners, business owners, and anyone else interested in the Cesar Chavez conversion to an Open House meeting at City Hall today to discuss the project. That meeting starts at 4pm.

Notes from the campaign trail

A brief history of gender on the Austin City Council

A few weeks back, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman told the Austin Women’s Political Caucus she wouldn't mind having seven women on the City Council . After all, she said, there were seven men for a very long time. One of our readers quibbled with that characterization, noting that the seven-member Council started in 1971. True enough.

So, here’s a brief history lesson.

City Council Elections from 1924 to 1951 were at-large, with each person running against all the others. “The top five vote getters became the elected members of the Council. The elected Council members then chose the Mayor,” according to the city website. A random search showed no women elected before 1948, when Emma Long won a special election to replace Homer Thornberry, who stepped down to replace Lyndon Johnson in Congress. LBJ won election to the Senate that year. Mrs. Stuart Long’s name appeared with her given name in parentheses on the ballot throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She served with four men on the City Councils elected in 1949, ’51,’53, ’55 and 1957. She did not run in 1959 but Mrs. John Barrow lost to her male opponent that year. In 1961, Long lost a runoff to Bob Armstrong–who later went on to become Land Commissioner–by 68 votes out of more than 20,000 cast.

But Long came back to beat two men without a runoff in 1963 and was re-elected in 1965 and 1967. In 1969, Long lost her final race and seven men served from that time until 1975, when Women’s Liberation finally struck the Council and three women were elected. They were Emma Lou Linn and Margaret Hofmann, who were both defeated when they ran for re-election in 1977, and Betty Himmelblau, who served three terms and stepped down undefeated in 1981. Himmelblau was much more conservative than either Linn or Hofmann, who probably lost more because of their liberal voting records than their gender.

Carole Keeton McClellan(now Strayhorn) was elected Mayor in 1977. She and Himmelblau served together until 1981, when the latter retired. McClellan left the Council in 1983, when Sally Shipman became the sole woman on the Council. Shipman was re-elected in 1985. She held Place 3 until Louise Epstein defeated her in 1990. Epstein stepped down in 1993, when Goodman won the seat for the first time.

Besides Goodman, Brigid Shea was elected in 1993. But life on the Council was not for her and Shea stepped down in 1996. Beverly Griffith joined Goodman as the second woman on the Council then, serving two terms. Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken ran against Griffithin 2002, with Dunkerley winning enough votes to lead to a runoff with Griffith. At that point, Griffith decided to step down rather than compete in the runoff. So, it has been 15 years since a lone woman was elected to the Council.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

No recommendation . . . Even though it initiated historic zoning on the property, the Historic Landmark Commission will forward a zoning case for 903 Neches to the Zoning and Platting Commission with no recommendation. Commissioners did not have enough information – given the various additions to the house through the years – to give a nod to historic zoning. After the Zoning and Platting Commission hears the case, the City Council will make the final decision on the house . . . Travis County gets help with voting requirements . . . Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams was on hand at yesterday morning’s Travis County Commissioners’ Court meeting to present the county with a check for $4.5 million for implementation of the Help America Vote Act. Williams is on a 30-day statewide listening tour of the state to discuss HAVA. Counties have expressed concerns about the standards and cash flow issues surrounding electronic voting requirements. The state must meet the HAVA requirements by January 1 . . . Water worries . . . Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis has specific concerns about House Bill 2585, which was filed by Rep. Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville), to set water and wastewater rates once every five years rather than once every year. Davis has specific concerns about Briarcreek, a 172-acre subdivision of 1200 lots off I-35, that is about to see a steep rate increase to pay for the only local water provider’s infrastructure improvements. Davis wanted to express interest by letter, but the motion died for a lack of a second . . . RMA meets today . . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority will meet this morning at 9am at the Lower Colorado River Authority, 3700 Lake Austin Blvd. This is the first meeting since District Attorney Ronnie Earle cleared Chair Bob Tesch of conflict of interest allegations raised during a recent audit by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. The agenda includes an update on US 183-A, a discussion of the questions raised by Austin City Council and an executive session item on litigation filed by the People for Efficient Transportation and Hannah Riddering against the CTRMA . . . Saving water. . . Rep. Robert Puente (D-San Antonio) announced a dozen bills yesterday he filed to promote water conservation. Those bills included the creation of a statewide water conservation public awareness program, as well as a water conservation specialty license plates and incentives for measures that preserve water in both homes and businesses . . . Today’s events . . . Community conversation on disabilities . . . The Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities and Enable America is hosting a town hall meeting from 10am to 2:30pm at the Austin Marriott at the Capitol, 701 E. 11th Street. Those expected to attend include County Judge Sam Biscoe, City Manager Toby Futrell and Cap Metro Presidentand CEO Fred Gilliam . . . Tonight, one of the groups known as Tejano Democrats will hold an endorsement meeting at 6:30pm at Little Mexico on South First Street. Then at 7:30pm the candidates in Place 3 are invited to attend a forum put on by the University Democrats, UT Student Government- LRA, and UT Senate of College Councils at Jester Auditorium on the first floor of Jester Dormitory on the UT Campus.

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