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Builders, NAACP sue Kyle

Wednesday, November 30, 2005 by

Suit says zoning rules discriminate against minorities

An unlikely coalition—the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, the National Homebuilders Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—has filed suit against the City of Kyle, saying its building regulations are designed to raise the price of affordable housing in order to keep minority homeowners out of the city.

The federal suit alleges that Kyle’s land use and zoning regulations, enacted two years ago, make it more difficult for minority groups, such as Hispanics and African Americans to buy single family residences in the area, as compared to whites.

The suit, filed last week, is considered something of a test case, as the groups decided to band together to test the legality of exclusionary subdivision and zoning ordinances. The complaint asks the court to declare the zoning ordinances invalid and to enter a permanent injunction against Kyle from enforcing similar laws. Kyle is a small town in central Hays County with a population of just over 5,300, according to the 2000 Census.

The higher costs to build a home, brought on by regulations that mandate increased lot size, masonry exteriors, landscaping regulations and others, violate the Fair Housing Act, according to the complaint.

“It’s important to understand that this lawsuit is not calling Kyle racist,” said Robert Notzon, attorney for the NAACP. “It’s saying that their ordinances have a disparate impact that violates the law and that we do not need to prove that they intended to discriminate. The changes they made in their homebuilding ordinances increased the cost of building a home there by approximately 38 percent, and that was not related to health or safety matters.”

A study prepared for the homebuilders in February states that prior to the new zoning laws, 61 percent of African American and Hispanic families and 76 percent of white families in the region could afford an average entry-level home in Kyle. After the changes were enacted in November 2003, the number of families who could afford an entry level home dropped to 49 percent for African Americans and 45 percent for Hispanics. Some 70 percent of white families could still afford the starter home, the study found.

According to Craig Douglas, attorney for the homebuilders, their concern goes beyond economic issues for its members. “Our members are concerned that these types of regulations can shut first time homebuyers out of the market,” he said. “When a city takes action to limit the amount of affordable housing, we are concerned. They are working against the best interests of the region and the people who can’t afford homes in the Austin market.”

Douglas said the homebuilders and the NAACP attempted to work with Kyle officials, both before and after the regulations were put in place, but to no avail. Notzon said a letter from the groups to the city warning them of pending litigation went unanswered. “All they did was raise their building permit fees by 25 percent in order to pay for the attorneys they needed to hire to defend the lawsuit,” he said. “They were not interested in talking with us about this.”

Notzon said the city is expected to file an answer to suit within 20 days, and he hopes the case can be heard by next summer. Kyle City Manager Tom Mattis did not return calls from In Fact Daily, but was quoted by the Austin Business Journal as saying the suit was “unfounded.”

Bond committee fails to reach agreement

Last night, the Bond Election Advisory Committee sputtered, and then stalled, when it came time to vote on a final recommendation to present to City Council.

Committee members Dave Sullivan and Jim Walker set up a careful system for the votes on the proposal–start with the median totals in each category on the bond ballot and then require a two-thirds majority to amend the totals in each area. But when it came time to take the vote, it was apparent that shifting funds would be a troublesome obstacle.

The first issue was to try to get more money to affordable housing. The group’s median on the issue was $67.5 million. Votes to shift money to affordable housing – either from facilities or from five other areas on the ballot – floundered. Members of the facilities subcommittee, for instance, were agitated that their total was being targeted, especially without a specific list of projects that would be cut.

Committee members had other concerns. Robin Rather wanted a discussion of an overall strategy for the $600 million before votes were taken. And Mike Clark-Madison noted that he was likely to abstain on any motion because of the trade-off issues involved in every vote, all without public input. That call for public input rang true for many of the committee members, who agreed to call off a final vote.

In the end, the committee set a couple of broad parameters and a goal. First, the committee agreed to go up to $614.8 million, a 2.5 percent range beyond the $600 million goal. Some committee members clearly preferred the $600 million.

Then the committee agreed to start with the median of votes of committee members in each category: $67.5 million for affordable housing; $122.1 million for drainage; $144 million for facilities, plus $90 million for the library; $92.3 million for open space; and $98.9 in transportation projects, for a total of $614.8 million.

Each subcommittee will meet between now and first public hearing on Dec. 8 to pare down subcommittee budgets to the proposed median. Committee members will be prepared to prioritize cuts within each budget area, using those decisions plus community input to make final decisions on recommendations in January.

It remains uncertain as to when the bonds might appear on the ballot, with Mayor Will Wynn—who first put forth the idea of an Envision Central Texas bond package—saying perhaps May would be too soon.

County rethinks expansion of ME’s office

Travis County Commissioners have agreed to put a planned expansion of the medical examiner’s office on hold, so they can take a second look at the cost and location.

Executive Manager Alicia Perez told commissioners yesterday it became apparent during recent meetings that the current plans to expand the eight-year-old facility on Sabine Street may not be sufficient, and could fail to meet the county’s needs 10 or 15 years into the future.

If the facilities were limited to Travis County autopsies, County Judge Sam Biscoe pointed out, it would be enough space. The county, however, provides services to 40 outlying counties. Some of those counties may send only a couple of cases a year, while others provide a more substantial workload to the Travis County medical examiner.

What Travis County charges for autopsies is in line with other urban counties, Biscoe noted. But it may not be enough to cover the cost of any additional expansion. Biscoe said it was time to take a second look at the workload and determine if outlying counties should be sharing in more of the burden or taking their autopsies elsewhere. The county set a budget between $500,000 and $1 million to expand the Sabine Street facility.

The county also is dealing with accreditation issues. To get full accreditation for a new facility may require more equipment and staff, putting greater demand on the facility. Perez noted the current site might have limits in terms of space expansion if the county intended to meet those full accreditation requirements, plus additional cases.

The county spent $2.9 million to secure the current site, which has some parking limitations when dealing with a full caseload. Biscoe would like to see what price the land might fetch if it was placed back on the market for sale.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner noted that the location chosen by the county was picked because of the specific demands on the medical examiner’s office. She expressed her own concern that the county was failing to plan on a proper planning horizon.

The current facility was announced in 1992, planned in 1995 and opened in January, 1997. Less than 10 years later, the county is looking for expansion or possibly a new site. Sonleitner said a new facility should last at least 10 years from the time it opens, not from the time the initial plans for the facility are announced.

“We had the same problems with the Criminal Justice Center in terms of any space we might have for the future,” Sonleitner said. “We can’t just do five-year windows. It gets very complicated and very expensive, but we need to leave longer planning windows of at least 10 years for our projects.”

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

Special election . . . Governor Rick Perry has set January 17 as the date for a special election to fill the Texas House District 48 seat recently vacated by Republican Todd Baxter. Since there will not be any party primaries between now and then, multiple candidates from each party could wind up on the ballot. In the event that none of those achieve more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top candidates will head into a runoff in February. So far, Republican Ben Bentzin and Democrats Andy Brown, Donna Howard and Kathy Rider have said they would run in the March primary. The filing deadline for the special election is December 19. Filing for the primary begins this Saturday and runs through January 2. The winner of the special election will be elected in time for next year’s special session on school finance, widely expected to be in April. However, the winner of that election may not be at much of advantage if the special session does not turn out well for local school districts . . . McCracken packin’ . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken will be leaving Thursday’s City Council meeting early in order to catch a plane for New York. McCracken will be participating in a Planned Parenthood conference. Aide Karen Gross said her boss, who sponsored a local ordinance to prevent pharmacists from denying contraceptives to customers, would be talking about the ordinance at the meeting . . . By the way, a belated Happy Birthday to Ms. Gross, McCracken’s Policy Director. She turned 27 this week . . . Heavy agenda . . . This week’s Council agenda is packed. It should not be difficult to ratify the collective bargaining worked out between management and the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters. The matter has lacked only the Council’s approval since firefighters voted to approve the matter on November 18 . . . The Council will also consider an amendment to an outside counsel contract with the law firm of Scott Douglas & McConnico, which represents the city in a dispute with a wind energy company. The amendment is for $225,000, bringing the total to $855,000 . . . in executive session, the Council will hear about the possible acquisition of office space in the downtown area and they may approve that item in open session. There is no indication of where the office space might be . . . Six engineering firms, including Turner Collie & Braden, Camp Dresser & McKee and CH2M Hill will likely be designated to receive $5.5 million in contracts through the city’s water transmission main rotation list. The other firms are Alan Plummer Associates, Black & Veatch and Weston Solutions. There are also more than 25 zoning items. . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Historic Preservation Task Force meets at 5:30pm in room 240 at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs . . . The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Board of Directors meets at 9am at the Avery Ranch Conference Center at 1500 Avery Club Drive near Cedar Park/Leander. . . Fundraiser . . . Gary and C ristina Mauro are hosting a fundraiser tonight for District 28 Democratic Congressional candidate Richard Raymond, who is running against incumbent Henry Cuellar. The district stretches from Laredo to Hays County. The event is set for 5-7pm at Mauro’s house at 2208 Townes Lane off Windsor in West Austin . . . Calendar guys and girls . . . The Austin Firefighters Association’s 2006 Calendar will be officially released at a party Thursday night at the Cool River Café in North Austin. All of the models, 11 men and 2 women, will be on hand to autograph copies. Admission is free and calendars are $15 each. All proceeds benefit the Austin Firefighters Relief and Outreach Fund. For more information, check out . . . Take that, Houston! . . . Think you’re pretty smart? Well, you may be right. A new survey by Central Connecticut State University ranks Austin as the “Most Literate” city in Texas and among the Top 20 in the US. The school looked at a variety of factors, including newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and internet resources, in ranking 69 cities with a population of 250,000 or higher. Other Texas cities rankings included Dallas-Ft. Worth, 44th, Houston 53rd, and San Antonio 64th.

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