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County lobbyists give upbeat report

Wednesday, June 1, 2005 by

Financial impact less than two years ago

Counties suffered fewer slings and arrows against their bottom line in this session’s budget, lobbyists reported to Travis County Commissioners Tuesday.

Lobbyists Bob Kamm and Chris Shields reviewed the biggest bills of the session, as well as some of the priority legislation for Travis County. Shields reported that a special session is still under discussion, including the possibility of a one-day special session to clear up some last-minute snafus on bills for tuition revenue bonds and judicial pay raises.

“This budget did not harm local government in a variety of significant areas. There was not the amount of cost-shifting that we saw last session, and there were some additional dollars in the budget for programs that you would be supportive of, including CHIP and Medicaid,” Shields reported to the court in his update.

The sting of the bills fought most vehemently by counties – appraisal caps and revenue caps – was limited during the session, Shields said. Appraisal caps were out, and the revenue cap bill was fairly “benign,” reported Shields, limited to a required hearing on any budget above the county’s effective tax rate.

In a brief update of the bills being tracked by the county:

Historic zoning approved despite objections

Unanimous Council votes to save 84-year-old West Austin house

The City Council last week approved historic zoning for a home in the Old West Austin Neighborhood over the objections of the new owners, who want to demolish the 84-year-old structure. Although the city's Historic Preservation Office recommended against the historic zoning for the home at 609 Harthan St. and the Historic Landmark Commission was unable to agree on a recommendation, neighbors argued that the home was an essential part of the historic fabric of Harthan Street and could contribute to local and national historic districts, once those districts are approved.

The home lies within the boundaries of the proposed Old West Line National Register Historic District, which would be bordered by Baylor St., MoPac, 5th and 6th streets, and 12th Street. The application has been submitted but has not received final approval from the National Park Service. An application for a local historic district has also been submitted, but the city has not yet established procedures for creating those districts.

Representatives of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association (OWANA) told the Council that losing the home at 609 Harthan would seriously damage the historic character of the area covered by those two proposed districts. "This little block has a cluster of houses that are fundamentally little changed for over 85 years," said Linda MacNeilage. "Any demolition of any of the houses threatens the distinctive and historic character of this small enclave of late 19th-century and early 20th-century houses on the street, a character of which has been maintained in largely pristine condition for the better part of a century."

Although MacNeilage agreed with the staff's assessment that the home had not belonged to a significant figure in Austin's history, she said that should not be a criterion for judging its historic value. "Up until recently, there has been a trend to designate grand homes, lived in by famous people, as historic," she said, "a trend which more recently has been identified as being rather elitist."

Historic preservation consultant Terry Myers also urged the Council to grant the house historic status. Myers, who has been working with OWANA members on the nomination for the local historic district, said it was especially important to prevent the loss of any homes on Harthan Street. "One of the outstanding things that I see in Harthan Street is that all of the properties are historic. This is a very rare thing in our city to have a whole block where everything is historic, only one I considered non-historic," she said. As for the home at 609 Harthan, she said, "it is a contributing building in the national register; if it's demolished we will lose that contributing building."

But Mary Alice Keyes, who argued against the historic zoning, said neither of those two districts was in existence and that the home did not have distinctive architectural or historic significance. "This house is old, but not historic," she said. "It was not marketed as an historic property nor is it currently in a national historic district or a local historic district. The property was passed over by the open market, also passed over by members of the neighborhood association," she said. "Instead, I believe the neighborhood encourages a 'zero tolerance' policy for owners who choose not to rehab." Since the home was not historically significant, she said, barring her from building new homes for her and her mother on the property went against the goal of promoting urban density. "I find it unrealistic to tell people who want to escape traffic and sprawl that they can't build their dream home in one of the closest neighborhoods connected by similar infrastructure to downtown," she said. "To deem all housing in this area unofficially off limits to urban in-fill does not help with the mission of SMART Housing."

Before casting their vote, Council members questioned Keyes about her plans for the site should she be granted a demolition permit. "I have no specific plans," she responded. "They're expensive to draw up. I plan on a responsible demolition by hand, and a responsible new construction project that will be properly engineered and architecturally designed." She also pointed to an engineer's report recommending that the current home be demolished.

But Council members expressed concern that a new home on the block could have a detrimental effect. "What really concerns me about the potential demolition is something that I witnessed when I lived in Houston," said Council Member Brewster McCracken, "which is what had happened to the West University neighborhood. It had gone from being a neighborhood similar to this to being zero-lot line 'McMansions'. The place is just unrecognizable." McCracken, along with Council Member Betty Dunkerley, said the large number of historic or potentially historic homes on the street was a significant feature that needed to be protected. "It appears this house is architecturally and structurally sound," he said. "This house is highly salvageable. The plan of what would replace it would seriously undermine the character of one of our wonderful neighborhoods, so I think it does require is to protect the neighborhood."

Council Member Danny Thomas moved to zone the home historic, and that motion passed on first reading by a vote of 7-0.

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

Pumping up code enforcement . . . At the conclusion of last week's budget presentation from City Manager Toby Futrell, Council Member Brewster McCracken asked about the possibility of more money for code enforcement. Futrell said there would likely be more money for that function, but that it was not included in the presentation since the numbers provided last week dealt strictly with the city's General Fund. The Solid Waste Services Department handles code enforcement, and that department's budget is reported as one of the city's Enterprise Funds. Code violations include litter and tall weeds, parking in the yard, and zoning code violations, such as operating a business out of a property zoned for residential use only, among others. McCracken's office tells In Fact Daily that preliminary figures provided by the Budget Office include a boost of more than $300,000 to cover the cost of adding seven full-time employees to deal with code enforcement. "This is the best thing they could do for the neighborhoods in Austin," said Linda Moore with the North Austin Civic Association, which has been pushing for increased code enforcement for several years . . . Runoff. . . Austin voters, choosing between Jennifer Kim and Margot Clarke to take the Place 3 seat of outgoing City Council Member Jackie Goodman, beat the bushes at mobile voting locations Tuesday. The pair also talked about issues at a forum hosted by the Northwest Chamber of Commerce, although attendance was sparse . . . Voting continues . . . Early voting got started in earnest yesterday after a three-day holiday. Northcross Mall continues to draw in the most voters, followed by the Randall’s on South MoPac and the Randall’s on Research. UT students, those visiting or working at the LBJ State Office Building and those voting by mail helped swell the total to 1.38 percent of the total registered voters as of the end of the day yesterday. Early voting will continue through next Tuesday for the June 11 election . . . Meetings . . . The Environmental Board is set to meet at 6pm in City Council chambers. The board is scheduled to hear requests for a positive recommendation for variances on four development projects . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission, which meets at Waller Creek Center, will meet at 6pm. The board has a number of construction contracts on its agenda . . . No change recommended for day labor sites . . . Acting Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald and David Lurie, director of Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services, have advised the City Council that they believe the city should not establish an additional day labor site at the St. John’s Home Depot. In a memo to the Council, they say city officials have met with representatives of Home Depot, Hispanic contractors, the Catholic diocese, the Central Texas Immigrant Workers Rights Council, Equal Justice Center and representatives of the Austin Police Department to discuss issues surrounding the current First Workers program at 51st Street and I-35, as well as a request to establish a day labor site at Home Depot. The Dispute Resolution Center facilitated six sessions over a six-month period. Neither the St. John’s Neighborhood Association nor Home Depot wanted a new site so close to the other. According to the memo, “Any recommended new site would most likely be in a different part of the city . . . Home Depot has agreed to work to promote First Workers to their contractors and other customers. We are also working with them to develop incentives for contractors to use First Workers.” .

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