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Grandfather bill moves forward

Thursday, April 21, 2005 by

Bill gives developers extra breathing room

A Senate bill aimed at allowing developers to lock in older building standards and avoid some of Austin’s environmental regulations won tentative House approval Wednesday, but not before parts of it were toned down by an amendment. Senate Bill 848 was passed on to third reading in a 132-29 vote, and could receive final approval as early as today.

According to an attorney for the SOS Alliance, Austin did a good job of damage control on the floor of the House, even though the environmental group still terms SB 848 “a developers’ special interest bill.” The measure amends Chapter 245 of the Local Government Code to ensure that cities cannot erect extra procedural barriers to a developer filing for a project permit.

The bill defines “filing” in terms of when a developer gains vesting rights. Under SB 848, those rights are vested when the application is postmarked. Hence, the bill was known as the “cocktail napkin” bill, although Rep. Edmund Kuempel(R-Seguin) insisted that no application would be considered vested until the city or county deemed the application to be complete.

“Senate Bill 848 is about property rights and fairness and playing by the rules when you started your subdivision project,” Kuempel said when he laid out the bill on second reading. “There are many things that SB 848 does not do. It does not create new vested rights under Chapter 245. It does not take any powers out of the hands of local government and what rules they are allowed to make. It does not circumvent the regulations that are in place when the project begins.”

But attorney Sarah Baker of the SOS Alliance says SB 848 gives developers more opportunities to grandfather plats than does the current law. In the past, cities could deem an application incomplete but were obligated to give the developer the chance to make the application complete. At the point the city considers the application complete, the application is considered vested.

“What this bill is doing is to allow the developer to mail in incomplete applications and be grandfathered from that point,” Baker said. “In practice, engineers and developers send in incomplete applications all the time. Sometimes it’s a long process, but this gives them a guarantee that they are vested.”

Environmental groups working to protect the Edwards Aquifer – in both San Antonio and Austin – gained points in a couple of areas before the bill was passed. The first point, before the bill hit the floor, was that a time limit was placed on when an application needed to be completed. If an incomplete application is filed, the developer has 45 days to respond to concerns and complete the application. If the application is not completed, the developer must re-apply.

The other point, offered up in an amendment by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), was what types of utility applications are needed to gain vesting rights. At one time, electric service to the property would be enough to be vested. The Rodriguez amendment offered water and wastewater service as the threshold for vesting rights. Water and wastewater applications have expiration dates, unlike electric service, Baker said.

Those were small gains, according to Baker. The gist of the bill remains the same. “This still is a special interest bill for developers to expand grandfathering,” Baker said. “It makes it easier for them to get around the ordinances that cities work hard to create.”

Other amendments proposed by Reps. David Liebowitz (D-San Antonio) and Robert Puente(D-San Antonio) to protect water quality measures failed to pass the House. Opponents argued that current city regulations were sufficient to protect cities.

Notes from the campaign trail

Candidates address questions from the arts community

City Council candidates got an opportunity to outline their positions on issues for Austin’s arts community Tuesday night, but not before they got an earful on those concerns from several community leaders. The Austin Cultural Arts Commission Forum, held at Nuevo Leon on East 6th Street, drew a broad cross-section of about 100 people from arts organizations.

At the beginning of the forum, representatives of the literary, visual arts, theatre, music and film communities were each given a chance to address the panel of candidates to share their viewpoints on the current relationship between the city and arts organizations. Speakers were Helen Ginger of the Writers League of Texas, Kelli Montgomery with Visual Arts, Latifah Taormina of Austin Circle of Theatre, Theresa Ferguson from the Austin Music Commission, and Rebecca Campbell with the Austin Film Society.

Most talked about their group’s contributions to Austin’s culture and tourism, but many also said they are having problems with the way the city currently funds arts projects. “We make the city look good, and we are a $40 million segment of the economy,” said Montgomery. “But there is a lack of display space in Austin; we have many artists who have to go to Dallas or Houston to sell their work because they can’t here.”

Questions were put to candidates in the three races by moderator Richard May, and then some questions were also taken from the audience.

Place 1 candidates were asked if the city is doing enough to support the arts. Write-in candidate Steve Adams said the city could do more on several fronts. “Funding is never enough, but the many of the city’s other policies are not friendly to arts either,” he said. “The overall economy and the city’s policies are also a factor. People are leaving Austin because they can’t afford to live here. They drive a lot of artists out of the city.” Candidate Andrew Bucknall said arts are just as important as streets and sidewalks. “The arts are a part of Austin’s infrastructure,” he said. “They are an integral part of the community, and the city needs to treat them that way. They need to invest in the arts.”

Lee Leffingwell joked he had to stay up several nights trying to understand the city’s arts funding mechanism. “The city currently funds arts projects with funds from the hotel-motel tax,” he said. “But when hotel occupancy drops, so does funding. We need to figure out how to allocate funds so the money stays on a more even cash flow.” Candidate Scott Williams emphasized that art comes from many places to enhance the city. “Someone had to write the phrase ’ Keep Austin Weird,’” he said. “When someone arrives at the Austin airport, they see local art. I think the whole city should be that way. We need more space for local art to be displayed.”

Place 3 candidates were asked if the city should use general revenue funds for the arts. Margot Clarke said the city could use such funds to develop a self-sustaining arts district. “We could develop a unique arts district in the downtown area,” she said. “That might help resolve the growing problem of people living downtown that want to sleep there and musicians that want to play late at night.. It would also help keep costs down, and be a draw for the entire city.” Gregg Knaupe also endorsed the concept of a city-sponsored arts district. “It would help bring more of the arts to Austin,” he said. “The city needs to find a way to make that happen.”

Mandy Dealey said it might be difficult for the city to fund arts that way. “There are a lot of pressures on the city’s general revenue fund,” she said. “But the city could lead the way for expanded health services for artists. That would help keep many of them here who can’t afford to live here now. “

Place 4 candidates were asked whether the city that advertises itself as the Live Music Capital is hurting that image with its fees, regulations, and ordinances that make it less profitable to have live music. Candidate Philip Miller said Austin has a hard-earned reputation and stands to lose it. “I once told a cabbie in New Jersey I was from Austin, and he said ‘Yeah, you have all that music on 6th Street,’ “ Miller said. “We’re known far and wide for it, but if we don’t cut the red tape, we could see it go away.” Council Member Betty Dunkerley said the city could take the same approach with the arts as it is taking with small business. “The city has appointed a full-time liaison to its economic development staff to help small businesses,” she said. “I think they should do something similar for the arts, and appoint someone who can help arts venues get through the red tape.”

The arts groups did not issue any endorsements as a result of the forum.

Talk to neighborhood, says commission

Members of the Galindo Neighborhood Association will have another two weeks to meet with the would-be owners of a three-acre tract at Cardinal Lane and South 2nd Street. Two women, represented by Bill Faust, have the property under contract and are requesting a zoning change from SF-3 to SF-6.

The site currently has one single-family home. Faust said that under SF-3 zoning, the lot could potentially hold up to 20 single-family homes, with 10 separate driveways on Cardinal Lane and another 10 taking access onto S. 2nd St. "However, to do that, there would be a lot of major trees taken out," he said. "We intend to develop it under SF-6, with a condo regime, so we would have individual sales of the houses. We would be able to cluster the houses along the perimeter of the property away from the trees, save the trees, and protect the environment. We feel very strongly that this property should be developed in a very sensitive manner."

Faust and Galindo Neighborhood representatives offered different assessments of their communications prior to the hearing before the Commission. "There have been no negotiations over this," said Fred Johnson, the chair of the Galindo Neighborhood Association's Zoning Committee. "The women have had this property under contract for almost a year. We were approached three weeks ago for the first time. There have been three minor contacts, and we know very little about what they want to do with this property."

Faust replied that he had been brought on board recently, and he had done his best to make contact with neighborhood representatives, including attempting to attend neighborhood association meetings and e-mailing the group's president. "We're not trying to not negotiate with the neighborhood association," he said. "We are willing, ready, and able."

Neighborhood representatives also protested the lack of a site plan for the proposed development. "We have asked for a site plan," said Johnson. "SF-6 is not compatible with this neighborhood. We are predominantly an SF-3 neighborhood, with some MF which is low density and medium density." But Faust reminded commissioners that a site plan was not required at the zoning stage.

"My clients cannot afford to go forward and spend the money and do the site plan and all the work that has to be done, which is extremely expensive, until they know they've got the zoning," he said. "At that time, we are going to come back to this commission with a site plan."

The commission voted unanimously for a two-week postponement for the case. "It seems to me like a little more communication with the neighbors might be in order," said Commissioner Melissa Whaley Hawthorne. "That's my personal feel on it." The case is scheduled to be back on the commission's agenda on May 3.

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

Baker feted . . . Betty Baker was honored with the Sue and Frank McBee Visionary Award during the Heritage Society of Austin’s 44th Annual Preservation Awards yesterday. Baker was the first employee to oversee the city’s Historic Landmark program. She now oversees the Heritage Marketing program at the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. At the luncheon, Baker was honored for her work to preserve landmarks such as the Sheeks-Robertson House, the Nelson-Davis Warehouse and the Custer Building. The audience, which included Mayor Will Wynn, City Manager Toby Futrell and Council Members Betty Dunkerley, Brewster McCracken and Jackie Goodman, gave Baker a standing ovation . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman remembered when she was on the Planning Commission and Baker was doing research on historic structures. Goodman told In Fact Daily in an email: “You could tell how much she enjoyed having done the research, and being able to relate that history to the Planning Commissioners and others, who—without that presentation from Betty, would only have known a dab of the history she told us about. I remember one historic zoning case, where one of the notable characters associated with it was a City Council Member, who apparently liked to go out and have a little libation after a hard day at City Hall. From the pictures, he looked like something of a dandy. I guess Austin was more of a wild west town back then, and he must have been a “macho” dandy, because one evening he met his demise after a knife fight in the street. She could really make it come alive, no kidding, and it made me realize that the Jim Bowie and Colonel Travis kinds of Texas stories happened here, too; amazing and interesting men and women made Austin—beyond the larger than life history we all know, about Stephen F. Austin, Houston, Lamar and Travis, O’Henry, Ima Hogg, Elizabet Ney, our first woman Governor, up to the more recent Lady Bird, Roberta Crenshaw, Emma Long et al . . . More honors. . . The owners of a number of historic properties were honored by the Heritage Society. Those properties included the Robert Leon White House, 1503 Lorrain (restoration); The Tavern, 922 W. 12th St. (extending the life of building); Woodlawn Mansion, 6 Niles Road (Merit Award); Mary Perry Taylor House, 608 Baylor St. (restoration); Allen-von Boeckmann Building, 811 Congress (adaptive use); Kuehne-Moore House, 2303 Rio Grande St. (preservation/adaptive use); Goodall Wooten House, 1900 Rio Grande St. (adaptive use); Ettlinger House, 3110 Harris Park Ave. (restoration); and Blue Genie Industries (craftsmen) . . . Early Voting begins. . . The first day of early voting saw 1,456 Austinites cast ballots in person. Travis County also received 116 mail-in ballots yesterday, for a total of 1,572. The polling place attracting the most voters Wednesday was at the University of Texas, where 178 votes were cast, followed by Northcross Mall, Randall’s on South MoPac and the HEB on South Congress, each of which drew the attention of around 90 voters. Eighty-six voters cast ballots at City Hall . . . Early voting locations may be found at: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/election/evpl_050705. . . Fire drill today . . . If you have an appointment at City Hall at 10am or thereabouts today, you might want to consider moving to a friendly coffee shop. The grapevine reports that City Hall will be evacuated for a fire drill during that time period this morning . . . Design charrette . . . The city will host a charrette on the new proposals for commercial and retail design standards today from 1:30pm to 5:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. The charrette will feature a series of "what if" scenarios, including several actual site plans, to see how the new guidelines would impact them. The latest version of the guidelines can be found at: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/development/commercial_design.htm . . . No City Council meeting today . . . They’ll be back next week . . . Planning Commission committee . . . The commission is holding a special called meeting at 8am at City Hall. They will go into executive session immediately to “discuss legal issues related to Inclusionary Zoning” . . . Hizzoner’s sense of humor . . . Mayor Will Wynn got some guffaws from the well-dressed crowd at the Heritage Society of Austin’s Awards Ceremony yesterday. Wynn said, “This is about as a good a crowd as you can get in Austin. You can tell because most of the men are wearing socks.” But Austin-style politics is taking its toll on Wynn. Comparing his tenure to that of the speaker, Charleston S.C. Mayor Joseph Riley, who is in his eighth term, Wynn said he is in his seventh—measuring in dog years . . . Weekend events . . . The art movement Burn the Box is sponsoring the Direct-Aid Benefit for tsunami relief this Sunday. The event is on Sunday from 4pm-9pm at Big Red Sun, 1102 E. Cesar Chavez. Proceeds will go to Direct-Aid http://www.tsunami-rescue.org. Featured artists include National Geographic photographer Penny De Los Santos, E. Moises Diaz ( http://www.papersculpture.com), Timothy Raines ( www.timothyraines.com), rEy Madolora ( www.rEyShaunMadolora.com), Angie Steding and REMY Studios . . . If you still have time and energy, Burn the Box is having an after party photo opening for Matt Lankes ( http://www.mattlankes.com) from 9pm-Midnight at Maiko (6th & Lavaca) . . . Tunes Not Tolls . . . The idea of toll roads may give lots of Austinites the blues, so it may be appropriate that a pair of legendary Blues artists will be headlining the Austin Toll Party’s “Tunes Not Tolls” benefit concert tonight. Blues masters James Cotton and Jimmy Vaughan—along with special guests—will take the stage. The festivities begin at 7:30pm and the music at 10pm at the Doubletree Hotel at 6505 IH-35 North. Special appearances are planned by Comptroller Carol Keeton Strayhorn, Council Member Brewster McCracken and Council candidates Casey Walker, Margot Clarke and Wes Benedict. The concert will raise funds for the Toll Party’s political and legal war chest.

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