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City to seek injunction against café

Thursday, September 29, 2005 by

New code enforcement policy starts today

The City of Austin plans to file a request for its first civil injunction on a building code violation in District Court today, seeking a cease and desist order against the owners of South Congress Café for the use of an illegal structure for a commercial enterprise, a city official said Thursday. The structure at issue is a deck on the back of the restaurant.

The injunction request is the first civil action the city has sought in prosecuting code violations, Leon Barba told the Austin Neighborhoods Council last night. Barba, an assistant director in Watershed Protection and Development Review, presented an overview of some of the more aggressive measures the city now is taking to tackle persistent code violations.

Keith Leach, who is chief over Solid Waste Services’ Code Enforcement Division, also was on hand at last night’s meeting. He told neighborhood leaders the injunction being sought on Thursday set a precedent for city action against a code violator.

“This temporary injunction is the first time we’ve filed a civil lawsuit against somebody,” Leach said. “This is a test case for us, and we’re real anxious to see how it goes through the court system, whether it’s capable of handling those people who blatantly ignore the law. In those cases, we might be able to go in and get a civil remedy.”

The owner of South Congress Café, who was cited on a Class C misdemeanor charge more than six months ago, has failed to remove an illegal deck and also has fenced off a portion of the public sidewalk as part of the back deck area. In the past, according to Leach. City inspectors have generally pursued remedies through Municipal Court, typically in the form of a fine for a violation of code. In this case, however, the City Attorney’s Office has agreed to also pursue civil penalties against an owner who has not addressed a violation, he said. The Municipal Court case is still pending. Owners of the café have argued that they did not need a permit and have violated no city regulations. They can be expected to argue strenuously against the injunction. Richard Suttle, attorney for the café, has said that closing the deck might result in loss of jobs for some who work at the restaurant.

The civil remedy is only one way the city is being more aggressive, Barba said. The city is making an effort to streamline the enforcement of the building code, even though it’s a process that continues to be stretched across a number of city departments.

For instance, building inspectors who tackle permit issues and stop orders –such as who is building and are they entitled to build it? — are in the Watershed Protection and Development Review department with Barba. On the other hand, code enforcement inspectors – once it’s built, are they following the city’s rules — are under the city’s Solid Waste Services Department with Leach.

The Solid Waste Services Department is undergoing a reorganization to combine some of its code enforcement functions with the Austin Police Department. Leach, formerly of APD, says that code enforcement has surpassed crime as a chief concern among many residents in the city. Reacting to those concerns, Solid Waste Services has chosen to divide the city by geography rather than complaint.

Under the new code enforcement system, the city will be divided into quadrants. Code inspectors and current APD district representatives will serve as the point of contact in those quadrants for zoning enforcement, property abatement and substandard buildings. Instead of three different people – even on the case of a single lot – residents will have one person who will follow a case through to its conclusion, said Matthew Christianson, who was at last night’s meeting and will serve as the supervisor in South Austin.

The reorganization is only the first step. As Leach and Barba told the ANC last night, Council has approved the use of citations for the first time in the city. Soon, code inspectors will be able to go out and issue complaints on the spot against violators such as mobile food vendors or people who fail to properly dispose of trash. Typically, those violations are pursued through Municipal Court, when they are pursued.

The goal was to have the process up and running by August. That hasn’t happened yet.

“We’ll be the first department to use the citation program, and we’re being very cautious,” Christianson said. “Right now we’re finalizing our standard operating procedures, and as soon as that is finalized, we’ll begin a program with a select group of violation types, to see how it works.”

The citation process is commonly used in large cities like Houston. If the citation process works well in Solid Waste Services, Watershed Protection and Development Review is likely to follow suit, Barba said. Christianson said the process would include proper warnings prior to ticketing. Both peace officers and inspectors are given the ability to write citations for violations of the city ordinance.

Leach said Solid Waste Services wants to make sure local neighborhoods understand the reorganization chart and the reporting process for violations. Those interested in training sessions should contact his office at 974-1979.

CTRMA customer poll brings mixed results

Data from a blind customer survey conducted on behalf of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority over the summer was mixed and provided just enough ammunition for toll opponents to say Central Texas toll road projects were “in trouble.”

Washington DC-based Wilson Research Strategies conducted customer research over the summer that included the results of four focus groups and a random telephone survey balanced across the region, plus in-depth interviews with 50 major business leaders in Travis and Williamson counties. CEO C hris Wilson, who presented the information with CTRMA Marketing Manager Steve Pustelnyk, said the goal was to determine the baseline level of opinions about toll roads, determine the level of knowledge of potential users, identify areas of confusion and use that information to develop strategies.

As Wilson pointed out, the data from the surveys could be parsed and dissected in any number of ways. Wilson laid out some expected and unexpected findings: Traffic congestion was considered, by far, to be the biggest problem in the region. Those surveyed supported mass transit options but wouldn’t choose to use it themselves. Respondents who were willing to pay for new roads chose tolls over taxes. Tolling of new roadways was preferred over tolling of existing lanes.

Opposition to toll roads was strongest in South Austin, where the Austin Toll Party has been most active. And, surprisingly, those who make between $20,000 and $40,000 per year were the ones most likely to use the roads and most willing to pay higher prices. About 40 percent said they would likely buy a toll tag. Wilson noted that even among those who opposed toll roads, there were those who said they would buy a toll tag.

The survey generated plenty of discussion from board members, who wanted to see the data parsed in different ways. Johanna Zmud wanted to make sure the sampling sizes were big enough. Bob Bennett, for instance, was interested in drilling down to the attitudes in the areas around the US 183A project, to get a sense of just how much support might surround the CTRMA’s first road project. Chair Bob Tesch also wanted geographically specific information, as well as good descriptions on the survey areas that Wilson described, such as the boundaries of “Hill Country.”

Sal Costello of the Austin Toll Party focused on the opposition to toll roads in his own review of the data. Costello said most riders were opposed to converting highways to toll roads and were unwilling to pay 15 to 18 cents per mile to ride Central Texas toll roads. The average price respondents were willing to pay for tolls was 9.3 cents per mile.

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

Clean air contribution. . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority agreed to make a $10,000 contribution to the Clean Air Force at Wednesday’s meeting. The money will come out of the same funds that also will pay for the CTRMA’s contribution to the regional mobility study, CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein told the board . . . Impending nuptials . . . CTRMA Chair Bob Tesch made note of the fact that Heiligenstein will be tying the knot this weekend with Lisa England. England is a local management consultant. Tesch wished Heiligenstein luck in his upcoming nuptials. Heiligenstein noted that he was the one getting the better end of the deal . . . Today’s City Council meeting . . . There’s not much of great general interest on today’s agenda, but there are a couple that are important to small groups of people. Those include revision of the billboard ordinance in a way that might allow billboard owners to move signs from areas near neighborhoods and scenic roadways to specifically designated areas . . . The Council will also take up the knotty problem of whether to remove the unpopular curb islands from Shoal Creek Boulevard. . . The Council is also scheduled to consider a policy to help people who receive high water bills as the result of a leak . . . Zoning. . . More than 20 new cases and eight which have been approved on first reading are scheduled for consideration at 4pm. Contested tracts within the Greater South River City combined Neighborhood Plan are likely to be postponed to the end of October . . . Back to City Hall . . . Jill Maness, the city’s building facilities officer, returned to her own office for the first time since August 29 yesterday. She said she was glad to be back from the Convention Center. Although most hurricane evacuees left the Convention Center by the end of last week, Maness said some special needs evacuees stayed at the Cesar Chavez location until Wednesday . . . Emerging technologies . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken was chosen by his colleagues, Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Jennifer Kim, to chair the Council Committee for Emerging Technology and telecommunications yesterday. Earlier in the day, McCracken joined Erin Defosse, director of the ATI (Austin Technology Incubator) and ATI Wireless, to tout the incubator’s new sector-focused strategy. The City of Austin has contributed $50,000 for the project, which is primarily funded by the University of Texas as part of the IC2 Institute. Defosse said ATI has assisted in the development of about 10,000 jobs in the area since its inception in 1989—including more than 1000 since 2000. . . . Council to get award. . . Jeff Trigger, Chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) will present members of the City Council with the International Downtown Association’s 2005 Downtown Achievement Award. This Merit Award for Downtown Planning was originally presented to members of the Downtown Austin Alliance who attended the International Downtown Association Annual Conference hosted this year in Denver, Colorado. The IDA Downtown Achievement Awards recognize the best that downtown revitalization and management have to offer. . . Saints honor city staff. . . Mayor Will Wynn and Rita Benson of the New Orleans Saints announced a gift to the City of Austin yesterday. The corporate donation, tickets to the New Orleans Saints versus Buffalo Bills game to be played in San Antonio this Sunday, will be distributed to city employees who volunteered for hurricane relief. . . . Chamber names chair-elect. . . The Greater Austin Chamber Board of Directors has elected Roger Mitchell, President of Texas Gas Service Company, to serve as the 2006 Chair-elect. He will become Chair of the 2,700-member, five-county business organization in 2007, following Tim Crowley, President–Austin Community Banking Group, Frost Bank. Mitchell has served as Chamber Vice-Chair for Governmental Relations and on the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors during 2005. . . Mayor’s Book Club to expand. . . Last night at the Plaza at City Hall, Mayor Will Wynn wrapped up another successful year of reading as part of this year’s Mayor’s Book Club. At the event, the Mayor announced a new program, not only to keep Austin reading, but writing as well: an interactive web site where veteran and aspiring authors can offer stories about their lives and Austin, http://www.writeonaustin.org. Through the combined efforts of the Austin Public Library, the University of Texas Humanities Institute, and with additional support of community-minded volunteers at Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network ( www.main.org), a web space is ready to extend Wynn’s vision. Write On, Austin! encourages people to continue to write about their experiences living in Austin and contribute their stories to the growing community at writeonaustin.org. . . Brown Santa needs space . . . Brown Santa is looking for a building that can be donated for a good cause. They are wishing for a 25,000 to 35,000 square foot building, mostly warehouse with some office space, with heat, air conditioning, restrooms, electricity and telephone lines. Single level is requested and loading docks are a must. They will need the building from October 15 through January 6. The building will be cleaned and left in the same shape as it is accepted. Brown Santa is a tax exempt organization. Those interested in donating their property should contact Senior Deputy Mary Rodriguez at pager 935-1252, cell 698-2813 or 247 2682 . . . TCSO heads for Louisiana . . .The Travis County Sheriffs Office will be sending 21 deputies and corrections officers and 13 vehicles to Southern Louisiana to assist in the hurricane relief effort today. The unit has been assigned to provide security at the Emergency Medical Evacuation Center at the LSU Medical Center. They will be at the center for two weeks. A second unit will leave next week as a relief for the first unit. Everyone participating in this effort is a volunteer who has paid for supplies to go on this trip. The Sheriffs Office has been busy assisting with security at the many shelters for the nearly 23,000 evacuees of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. . . . New judge appointed . . . Gov. Rick Perry has appointed Assistant Attorney General Bill Henry of San Marcos as judge of the newly created 428th Judicial District Court in Hays County. Henry will serve until the next general election. A graduate of Baylor University and Baylor Law, Henry was in private practice for 14 years and also served as assistant district attorney for Hays County. He is a member of the Travis County Bar Association and the Hays County Bar Association, where he previously served as president. He is a former board member of San Marcos Habitat for Humanity . . . Land preservation grant . . . The Williamson County Conservation Foundation has received a $725,000 federal grant to buy 64 acres of preserve land. The money is part of a $70.5 million series of grants awarded to 26 states by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The local grant will buy land in Cobb Preserve, which contains the Coffin Cave mold beetle and the Bone Cave harvestman, and will benefit the Georgetown salamander, according to the foundation.

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