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Despite fears, Austin fares well

Tuesday, May 31, 2005 by

Legislature did little to change city's ordinances

The City of Austin is claiming victory in this year’s Legislature, more for the bills it fought off than in the bills that managed to get passed this session.

Typical of most sessions, developer interests made an end run at the city’s SOS Ordinance, using both direct and indirect means. While one property rights bill– Senate Bill 574–passed this session, the bills considered most onerous to the city’s lobbyists, SB 1858 and House Bill 2833, failed.

Governmental Affairs Officer John Hrncir noted that the words “property classification” were inserted into SB 574 on third reading in the House. The bill was initially expected to be limited to landscaping but was broadened to include property classification. Experts say the language may or may not prohibit cities from downzoning properties, but a court is likely to decide the issue. In general, SB 574 expands the protections of Chapter 245 of the Local Government Code, frequently called 1704 after the original House bill establishing grandfather rules for property.

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos(D-Austin) killed HB 2833, the major takings bill of the session, on a point of order in the Senate, after it had passed the House by a wide margin. A bill to give the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality the authority to set water quality standards, SB 1858, also died this session, on the House calendar. Hrncir said killing those bills was a major victory for the city this session.

The sting of the appraisal caps and revenue caps bills – considered a major threat to the stability of city and county budgets – was limited this session under SB 18, passed by Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands). The bill will require hearings on any increase in a budget, but it is not considered the most burdensome of proposals.

The city also closely tracked movement on telecommunications-related bills, which proposed changes for right-of-way access agreements and would have established statewide, rather than local, cable franchises, Hrncir said. Language showed up in both the telecommunications deregulation bill, HB 789, and the sunset bill for the Public Utility Commission, SB 408. HB 789 would eventually fail in conference committee and the offending language was stripped from SB 408.

Hrncir said he tracked about 1,800 bills, 200 of them fairly closely. He is still sifting through the language in the final version of the legislation approved, which often changes in conference committee reports. Other notable bills affecting the city that passed this session included House Joint Resolution 80, which outlined exactly what cities could offer under economic development tax abatement agreements, and HB 2702, the major transportation bill this session, which designated the initial segments of State Highway 130 to be “billboard free.”

Commission grants variance for condos

Barton Springs Road area slated for new development

The Planning Commission unanimously approved a variance last week for land behind the Filling Station restaurant on Barton Springs Road. A prospective buyer of the property, who wants to build a handful of condos in the wooded area behind the defunct restaurant's parking lot, requested the variance to the city's regulations regarding street connectivity.

According to agent Rick Vaughn, Michael Martin and his wife have an option to purchase the back half of the property, which is currently undeveloped. In addition to their own home, they would like to construct up to four other homes to help offset the cost of purchasing the land. Access to the lots would be taken from an extension of South 3rd Street, which would connect to the south side of the property. The variance is to allow for an extension of South 3rd, but that extension would not connect all the way through to Barton Springs Road.

Under the code, that would normally require the developers to construct the street as a cul-de-sac. But Vaughn said that would require the addition of more impervious cover, the removal of more trees, and encroach into the critical water quality zone for Bouldin Creek. "Any other type of configuration would render this tract virtually unusable, given the piece of land and the price of construction on it," he said.

City staff recommended the request for a dead-end street extension after negotiations with the Austin Fire Department. While the fire department usually requires cul-de-sacs to allow enough room for emergency vehicles to turn around, Vaughn said AFD had determined that firefighters and rescue personnel would be able to access all of the homes on the site even without a cul-de-sac.

While office buildings facing Barton Springs Road occupy most of the area near the site, the nearest residential neighbor is Brad Rockwell. Although Rockwell regularly speaks to the City Council and other city boards and commissions in his capacity as Deputy Director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, he addressed the Planning Commission on his own behalf Tuesday night. He opposed the variance on the basis that it would facilitate the development of the lot, leading to more impervious cover and runoff into Bouldin Creek. "Can this property be legally subdivided? I would argue that if you don't grant this variance, it cannot comply with subdivision regulations and should not be allowed to be subdivided," he said.

The current owner of the property is seeking to sell only the undeveloped portion, keeping ownership of the restaurant building facing Barton Springs in hope of finding a new tenant. Rockwell told commissioners that the entire lot had 50 percent impervious cover, and that splitting it in half would create one lot with 95 percent impervious cover. "I would suggest that the proper thing to do would be to deny the variance. There's no requirement for the subdivision. The lot, before the subdivision, is already fully developed at 50 percent impervious cover," he said.

In response to questioning from Commissioner Matthew Moore, Vaughn explained that the area could be developed with up to four units even without the subdivision, which was not yet before the commission for consideration.

Rockwell contested that claim, which was based on the MF-3-NP zoning for the site. "There is a zoning map of the Bouldin neighborhood, and what shows there is large-lot single-family," he said. "If you look at the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Plan, it says the future land use for that property is single family." But Vaughn said the property had been zoned multi-family since the mid-1970s.

The commission voted to support the variance request 7-0. "As the land exists right now, they could do the project they want," said Commissioner Matthew Moore. "But in the bigger picture here, what we're talking about is additional subdivision regulations. There have been complaints from the development community about more and more regulations, especially when they're taken out of context." The proper context for the street connectivity ordinance, Moore said, was suburban subdivisions, not urban in-fill projects. "I think this is a case where they're hindering a really good project," he said.

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

. . . Place 3 City Council runoff opponents Margot Clarke and Jennifer Kim both began advertising on television yesterday. One of the lessons learned by Gregg Knaupe, which might be summarized as ‘Show your face on TV or miss the runoff,’ has not been lost on the women’s campaigns. Election day is June 11, so each candidate has 11 days, counting Monday, to get her message out . . . Early voting resumes. . . After three days of early voting—then a pause for the holiday weekend—the polls will reopen today. When the polls closed on Friday, less than 0.9 percent of the city’s registered voters, or 3,826 people, had cast ballots. Northcross Mall continues as the most popular place to vote early, followed by Randall’s on 35th Street and Randall’s on Research. Four hundred voters had cast ballots at the mobile voting locations. One percent of voters (4,928) had voted after the first three days of early voting for the May 7 election. Avid voters at the University of Texas led other polling locations after the first three days of polling for the May 7 contest. Many of those voters are assumed to be students anxious to express their opinions on the smoking referendum. There is no early voting location at UT for the runoff . . . Meetings. . . The Planning Commission’s committee on codes and ordinances will meet at 6pm in Room 2017 of City Hall. Its agenda includes considering whether to initiate changes to the Land Development Code to exempt outdoor seating from parking requirements . . . Because of the Monday holiday, this could be a very slow week at City Hall . . . Historical commissioners named . . . Gov. Rick Perry named Austinites Earl Broussard Jr., president of TB6 Planners, and Donna Carter, president of Carter Design Associates, to the Texas Historical Commission. Also chosen were Tom Phillips of Bastrop, former chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court; Sarita Armstrong Hixon of Houston, chairman of the San Jacinto Museum of History Association; Diane Bumpas of Dallas, who was reappointed; and Marcus Watson, the Heritage Preservation Officer for the City of Plano . . . So, there! . . . Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller was clearly irritated by the Legislature’s failure to act on education and health care. Miller issued the following statement to emphasize her disgruntlement: "Texans clearly set key priorities for this Legislature, especially dealing with crises in school funding and children's health care. But lawmakers wasted time on distractions like sexy cheerleaders, scapegoating gay Texans and pushing vouchers. Now three times in three years they have failed to improve the way we pay for our public schools. Next year, we'll find out if politics has a three-strikes rule " . . . Equally miffed was John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, who issued a lengthier statement, which said in part: “The governor and Legislature have let down the schoolchildren and teachers of Texas. We urgently need a renewed state commitment to bolster high standards of achievement with sufficient resources to help our students succeed. Instead the governor and Legislature this session gave top priority to a tax shuffle that would have raised taxes on the vast majority of Texans while leaving our schools badly underfunded. The real problem began on day one of the session, when it became apparent that the tax shuffle was the main focus, with education as an afterthought.” . . . Ozone Action. . . Capital Metro notes that today is first Ozone Action Day of the year, when conditions will be right for poor air quality in the Austin area. Officials remind Austinite to fill up their gas tanks after 7pm, don’t mow the lawn during the middle of the day, and of course, take a free ride on Capital Metro, which does not charge a fare on Ozone Action Days. This year marks the 12th year Capital Metro has been providing free rides to customers on Ozone Action Days .. . . An early start . . . Right on the heels of the Legislative session, election season begins. Andy Brown, an attorney at DLA Piper, announced his candidacy Monday in the Democratic Primary for State Representative in District 48. That seat is currently held by Republican Todd Baxter. Brown said "I intend to provide the kind of leadership on health care, public education and ethics that Travis County residents expect. . . District 48 deserves a new voice." Prior to working at DLA Piper, Brown worked as an attorney at Baker Botts in Austin and clerked for U.S. District Judge Randy Crane in McAllen. He also worked in the Texas Legislature as aide to former Speaker Pete Laney.

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