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Sign ordinance passes on second reading

Monday, October 3, 2005 by

An amendment to the city’s sign ordinance that would allow sign companies to exchange billboards in residential neighborhoods for new signs along some of the city’s major expressways passed the Council on second reading last week. There may be more changes to the proposal from Council Member Betty Dunkerley before the item is brought back for third reading, since three members of the Council voted against the amendment.

Council Member Dunkerley initially proposed allowing sign companies to install new signs in high-traffic areas in exchange for signs in neighborhoods as a way to allow for redevelopment in some areas where existing billboards were blocking new construction. Since first reading, several new provisions have been added to the exchange program.

At the suggestion of Council Member Lee Leffingwell, new billboards installed along major expressways as part of the program would be limited to a 25-year life span. If the sign owner agrees to take down two neighborhood signs in exchange for installing one sign along an expressway, that new sign would be allowed to remain in place beyond 25 years.

“Our objective from the beginning here is to honor the goals of the original sign ordinance, which is to get Austin on a downward trajectory as far as the number of billboards,” said Leffingwell. “Other methods to achieve that trajectory have not worked very well. Essentially the only way that we have now to get rid of billboards is through attrition with redevelopment, and that certainly is going to be limited.”

But other Council Members were not convinced that the exchange program was necessary. Council Member Raul Alvarez said he believed the rules would benefit the sign companies to the detriment of the city’s scenic beauty. “I think allowing for the relocation of that large of a number of billboards onto these corridors is going to produce a very unattractive situation,” he said, citing staff figures showing that approximately 250 billboards city-wide could be eligible for relocation under the proposed rules. “I would argue it’s already somewhat unattractive on these roadways…we’re talking about a couple of arterials key to accessing our airport and visitors who come to our town. I have concerns about that.”

Alvarez was also concerned about the potential for a one-for-one exchange, noting that such a swap would allow sign companies to replace low-performing signs in low-traffic areas with new signs in high-traffic areas. His concern was shared by Council Member Jennifer Kim, who said the one-for-one and two-for-one provisions of the amendment did not go far enough toward eliminating billboards. “It seems like the companies really benefit a lot more than I think they need to,” she said. “I would like to see more of a three-for-one or something like that. For me, it doesn’t seem to be enough in terms of the removal of the signs.”

Austin Mayor Will Wynn joined Alvarez and Kim in opposing the measure, which passed on a vote of 4-3. But he urged the Council to consider more public input on the matter before the third and final vote. “This ordinance has evolved a lot over the five years that we have been revisiting this,” he said, “and so based on where we may go between second and third reading, I think it would be appropriate for more public input. But I appreciate the hard work by members of Council and our collective staff as we try to come up with what ultimately is, I believe, a unanimous goal on the dais, which is to see more billboards removed sooner rather than later.”

Watson to RECA: SH130 regional planning is critical

Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Chairman Kirk Watson urged developers to get involved with the regional planning effort for northeast Travis County last week. Watson was the featured speaker at luncheon at the Four Seasons Hotel sponsored by the Real Estate Council of Austin.

While most of Watson’s address focused on the successes of the Opportunity Austin campaign, he also touched on the need for planning future growth along the SH-130 corridor. “It may be the biggest economic development opportunity we have seen in our lifetime,” he said. “The building of that infrastructure and what it can mean for the tax base will be huge, if it’s planned properly. It will be big anyway, but it needs to be planned in such a way that we maximize that.”

That planning, Watson said, should include the provision for an east-west thoroughfare within the newly-developing area. The city’s opposition to building such a thoroughfare in the past, he said, had been well-motivated but had unintended consequences.

“We didn’t do it because of damage that it could do to a couple of neighborhoods, and that’s legitimate. But what we did was damage twenty neighborhoods, because now when people can’t get across town, they dig through those various neighborhoods,” he said. “Why don’t we now learn from our history and start designating where we’re going to have the east-west thoroughfares so that we protect the neighborhoods on the front end?”

In the shorter term, Watson said the Chamber’s Opportunity Austin economic development campaign is proceeding ahead of schedule. The job-creation program has a goal of bringing 250 corporate prospects to Austin for visits over a five-year period, and 93 corporate leaders have already visited the city.

City and business leaders have also made more than 200 visits to companies outside of the region on a five-year timetable for 500 such visits. “We’re seeing success,” Watson concluded. “This community has left nothing on the field. I am very proud of the effort that has gone into this program.”

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

Getting down to business . . . Expect some votes from the Historic Preservation Task Force on Wednesday night over at One Texas Center. Members of the task force, headed by Chair Betty Baker, have done a lot of talking about moratoriums, historic districts and remodeling permits. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky expects some firm votes to be taken this week on those issues. The task force meets at 5:30pm Wednesday in Room 240 at One Texas Center . . . Watson to receive award . . . Austin Meals on Wheels and More will present the Austin Community Keepsake Award to former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson at a reception on October 25. The group said Watson was the unanimous choice of its Board of Directors to be this year's honoree because of his distinguished background in public service and economic development. . . Courthouse costs . . . Williamson County Commissioners were given a "guaranteed maximum price" last week of $9 million for the Courthouse renovation project by Browning Construction. In that amount, there are contingencies of $1.2 million that can only be spent with approval of the Commissioners Court. The amount authorized by the Court is $7.8 million dollars. Browning Construction will now put the individual jobs within the project out for bid with work beginning shortly thereafter. That process should take approximately six weeks to two months. Browning anticipates that construction should take 16 months. . . Red Cross center moves . . . The American Red Cross will move its service center to Givens Recreation Center, 3811 E. 12th St. beginning today Families affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina may visit with a Red Cross caseworker from 9am-5pm Monday through Saturday. "We've assisted almost 2,000 families since Wednesday," said Wayne Brennessel, executive director of the American Red Cross of Central Texas. “That is in addition to the 5,500 families affected by Hurricane Katrina that we have assisted over the past few weeks." . . . Going underground. . . . Legislative leaders from Idaho are in Austin today to look at our state's solution to capitol space problems: A network of underground meeting rooms. Adding to Idaho's capitol building using underground or "garden level" rooms would save the state money and protect the historic building's appearance, said Sen. Brad Little, a member of Idaho’s Legislative Capitol Restoration Task Force. Texas spent $178 million between 1993 and 1997 on an underground extension and restoration of the main building and the capitol grounds. . . Campaign season on its way . . . Both Democrats and Republicans are gearing up their grassroots level folks for next spring’s primaries. Republican Party staff will host training sessions in Huntsville and Lufkin on October 8 and Brownsville on October 22. Training for Republican Party County Chairman and Primary Elections Administrators will be on October 14 and 15 in Austin. Meanwhile, the group Democracy for Texas will be sponsoring an intensive Candidate Training Program in January, 2006. Space is limited. For information, contact http://www.democracyfortexas.org/CandidateTraining .

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