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Voters to have say on smoking rules

Tuesday, March 1, 2005 by

Onward Austin's petition validated for May election

Austinites will get to vote May 7 on a set of tough anti-smoking regulations for public places, due to the efforts of Onward Austin, a coalition of health, church and community organizations. City Clerk Shirley Brown said Monday that a random sample of Onward Austin’s petitions showed that it had gathered more than the 36,764 signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot.

Onward Austin organizer Rodney Ahart said the group’s volunteers worked hard to get the final batch of signatures. “It was all about grassroots,” he said. “We had 15 days in which to get the numbers we were short. We had many volunteers—we had individuals, churches and organizations out gathering signatures. It was a pretty strong grassroots effort.”

Onward Austin’s first submission of signatures to the city clerk in early February came up short of the number of needed signatures. As required by state law, the group got a 15-day extension to come up with the extra signatures. The announcement yesterday was about the amended petition, submitted on February 22.

Brown will certify the petition to the City Council at this week’s meeting, and then the Council is expected to put the matter on the May 7 ballot. The measure would ban smoking in all public places except restaurants that have already set aside a separate, ventilated smoking section. The new rules would be tougher than the current law, which took effect in June.

“We are now preparing to move towards Phase 2, which is the campaign,” said Ahart, who works for the American Cancer Society. “We are ready to start the campaign to win the election.”

A group of Austin bar owners has organized in opposition to the referendum. Paul Silver, treasurer of the opposing group, Keep Austin Free PAC, says he is disappointed that the matter will be on the ballot. “It’s aimed directly at bars here in Austin,” he said. “It’s a matter of personal choice for the bar owners. Many of the bars don’t allow smoking now under the current ordinance, but this would completely remove the element of choice.”

Silver, who owns the club 219 West in the Warehouse District, said his group would concentrate on educating the public about the true effect of the ordinance. “We have to make people aware of just how restrictive this is,” he said. “We have to begin campaigning in earnest so that people aren’t hearing about this for the first time when they walk into the voting booth.” He says bar owners are also concerned about the effect it would have on live music.

The proposed ordinance would be almost identical to one passed in June 2003, which virtually banned smoking in bars and restaurants. That ordinance never took effect, and was later amended to allow bars and restaurants that make at least 70 percent of revenue from alcohol sales or have separate smoking sections to allow smoking by paying $300 for a permit. The proposed ordinance would allow fraternal organizations, pool halls and bowling alleys to continue to allow smoking.

Council to name ECT bond committee

The City of Austin is putting together a special advisory committee to review infrastructure needs and consider proposals for a possible city bond election in 2006. That committee will include representatives of Envision Central Texas, since Mayor Will Wynn wants any bond package put before the voters next year to include money for preserving open space as outlined in the growth scenario endorsed by those who participated in the ECT process.

The committee will be made up of 27 members. Each Council member will be allowed to appoint two representatives, with another seven coming from the implementation committees already established by ECT to deal with specific subjects such as land use and transportation ( http://www.envisioncentraltexas.org/). The remaining six members will be non-voting representatives from other government agencies. Wynn will ask commissioners in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop, and Caldwell Counties to appoint members to the committee, along with the Austin Independent School District.

“There’s a frequent conversation about poor communication regarding city investments or land use decisions with AISD,” explained Wynn. “We’ll make a big land use decision that likely creates a lot of homes in a certain area, and AISD at times feels like they weren’t consulted appropriately.”

Although some other Council members questioned the size of the committee, it won unanimous approval at the most recent City Council Meeting. “They will have important jobs, because they will have to be ambassadors as well as keepers of the flame, and not just for Austin,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. “As we move on, these folks will be the ones that will have to be liaisons with boards and commissions that we have in the city to really get a close look at what the needs are and what strategic moves we can make.”

The Council is expected to make appointments for the committee by next week’s Council meeting. Committee members will be invited to attend the March 10 meeting for a briefing from the City Manager’s office on the city’s bonding capacity and the timing of a bond election. That will be followed by a presentation at the March 24 Council meeting on infrastructure needs identified by each city department.

“We need to keep in mind that there are going to be a number of basic service needs in the city,” said Council Member Daryl Slusher, “and I always think that our first responsibility to the citizens is to provide basic services.”

He also applauded the inclusion of the ECT representatives and those from the surrounding counties, since much of the land targeted for preservation by ECT is outside of Austin’s city limits. “We need some partners in that because it’s very, very important to preserve land,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been a single tract that’s been purchased in this region where anybody has come back later and said ‘they shouldn’t have bought that.’ I don’t think that’s ever happened, and may never happen. But we do have to balance that against providing the basic services in our city.”

Survey error puts new home in jeopardy

A surveyor's error has pitted a homeowner on Stamford Lane against his immediate neighbors and members of the West Austin Neighborhood Group (WANG). Due to an error in establishing the boundary lines for the lot at 1807 Stamford Lane, Marshall Durrett's new home is less than two feet from the property line. Durrett went to the Board of Adjustment requesting a variance to the required five-foot minimum side-yard setback.

"The day I found out about the encroachment, I went to the people in the permits office to explain what my situation was and find out what my options were…the next day I filed this application," said Durrett. "This is a very clear case of surveyor error. It's a unique hardship because surveyors don't usually mess up." Since the foundation has already been poured and the structure is almost finished, Durrett said, moving the house would not be a feasible solution. "It's not a minor quick fix that could be done to bring it into compliance," he said. "The house is already at 75 percent completion."

But neighbors told the board that they had tried to warn Durrett and his construction foreman on several occasions that their survey was off and the structure was too close to the property line. That foreman, however, kept referring back to the surveyor for clarification on the location of the property line, and the surveyor did not discover his error until well after construction was underway.

The immediate neighbors of the property testified that the encroachment into the setback was not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. "They're building on our driveway," said Kelly Black. She and her husband had planned to remove the existing home on their lot, which is currently a rental property, and replace it with a new one. However, she said that would not be possible due to the proximity of Durrett's home. "The hardship is on us," she said. "To build the home we wanted to build is impossible." Blake Tollett and more than 30 WANG members also attended the meeting register their opposition.

Attorney Richard Suttle, who argued that surveyor error was not sufficient cause for a variance under the rules of the board, also represented the neighbors. "The justification for the variance is the special circumstances of the property…not his relationship with his surveyor," he said. "You can't give him one (variance) just because you feel bad for him. Clearly, there is a reasonable use for this lot," Suttle concluded, reminding the board that there had been a home on the lot before Durrett began his new construction.

A majority of the four board members present for the special meeting clearly sided with Suttle and the immediate neighbors. "There's no way I'll vote for it," Board Member Betty Edgemond said of the variance request. "The land has been stolen from the neighbors, in my mind." Board Members Leanne Heldenfels and Greg Smith both agreed that Durrett's findings of fact did not provide for one of the hardships specified under the code.

Only Board Chair Herman Thun indicated he would favor the variance, but with the tide clearly running against the applicant he urged a postponement. "We're not in the mode to mediate disputes, but I'd like to see if there's an opportunity to get this resolved," he said. Durrett has been in talks with Jason and Kelly Black about purchasing some or possibly all of their lot, but so far the two parties have not been able to come to terms. They will have until the next Board of Adjustment meeting on March 14 to find an amount agreeable to both sides.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Goodman backs toll finance resolution . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman has joined the list of sponsors of a resolution to study the financial aspects of CAMPO's toll road plan. Council Members Brewster McCracken and Raul Alvarez are the other sponsors. The matter was added yesterday to this week’s Council agenda . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will meet at 6pm in Council chambers, while the Comprehensive Plan Committee of the Planning Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 500 of One Texas Center . . . The MBE/WBE Advisory Commission is scheduled to meet at the DSMBR Office, 4100 Ed Bluestein Blvd. at 6pm . . Edwards Aquifer summit this weekend . . . Several Hill Country conservation organizations will get together beginning Friday in San Antonio to focus on the future of the Texas Hill Country and the Edwards Aquifer. Beginning on Saturday, conservation and business leaders as well as government officials and experts will participate in a series of panel discussions on current plans and trends. Those expected to participate include Robert Potts, general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, former Mayor Kirk Watson, former S an Antonio Mayor Bill Thornton, State Rep. Mike Villarreal, transportation consultant Bill Barker and SOS executive director Bill Bunch. For more information, call 210-320-6294 or e-mail annalisa@aquiferguardians.org . . . Campaign to stop SBOE chair . . . The Texas Freedom Network has launched a campaign to stop the reappointment of Geraldine “Tincy” Miller to chair the State Board of Education. Gov. Rick Perry recommended the appointment to chair the committee last week, a recommendation that is subject to a confirmation vote by the Senate. TFN calls Miller’s leadership of the conservative bloc on the SBOE “an embarrassment,” especially her efforts to try to censor the state’s textbooks . . . Movin’ on out. . . . Starting in April, if you have business with Williamson County, you won’t find its offices in the usual location. County spokeswoman Connie Watson said beginning this week, offices located in the County Courthouse in downtown Georgetown will begin moving to temporary homes while the 94-year-old structure gets a $4 million makeover (See In Fact Daily, December 15, 2004). The County Clerk’s office has moved to the Williamson County Justice Center, 405 MLK; the T ax Assessor/Collector is at 904 S. Main St., and remaining offices will move to the Williamson County Annex, 301 SE Inner Loop, in March. County Commissioners will continue to meet at the Courthouse until March 29. Watson says barring unexpected complications, the restoration should take about 20 months.

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