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Council OKs changes on Champion tracts

Friday, December 2, 2005 by

Items approved 4-2, will come back for final vote

In what at times played out like a courtroom drama, the Austin City Council listened to almost four hours of arguments for and against approving a set of zoning changes last night that would keep a mediated settlement between the city and Champion sisters on track. The Council tentatively approved the changes on first reading 4-2, with Council Members Raul Alvarez and Jennifer Kim voting no and Brewster McCracken absent.

The changes, proposed for three parcels of land near FM 2222 and Loop 360 known as the Champions tracts, include increased square footage for development on the tracts and an increase from a limit of 6,400 trips per day to 11,000 trips per day for all three parcels.

Those changes are conditions listed in a mediated settlement of a lawsuit the Champion sisters filed against the city in 2004, claiming the zoning changes on the properties by the city constituted a breach of a 1996 settlement of an earlier lawsuit involving the land.

There was only one speaker in favor of the zoning change and settlement, Michael Whellan, the attorney for the Champion sisters. He outlined the history of the case to the Council and cautioned them about the risk of continued litigation.

“It’s time to put this thing to rest,” he said. “If this goes back to court and the Champions win, there would be no limitations on the number of trips to the development. What we have compromised on here reflects what we think is appropriate.”

More than 80 people signed up to speak against the settlement during a public hearing, mostly residents of neighborhoods along West Bull Creek. While many donated their time to other speakers, it still took almost three hours for those opposed to make their comments.

Many of the speakers opposed to the city agreeing to the settlement said that in doing so, the Council would be neglecting its duty to preserve the health and safety of its citizens.

“We are concerned about the impact this will have on the water quality in Bull Creek, which feeds Lake Austin and ultimately the city water supply,” said Roy Whaley with the Sierra Club. “It will also impact other quality of like issues, such as added traffic onto 2222, which is already at capacity. It’s a bad deal for the city.”

Brad Rockwell with the Save our Spring Alliance agreed. “This is not an antidote to urban sprawl, as the developer’s lawyer claims, this is urban sprawl,” he said. “In my opinion, the Champions have a weak case. Contract zoning is illegal and that’s what this case amounts to. I urge you not to approve the settlement but to stand up in court for what is the city’s right to regulate water quality. To not do so is bad public policy.”

Almost all the rest of the comments centered on either environmental issues or safety issues regarding increased traffic.

Council members were under a deadline to approve the zoning changes—at least on first reading—or either party could return the case to the courts. Council Member Lee Leffingwell, after asking several pointed questions of staff regarding just what last night’s vote would and would not mean for the city, said he would back the proposal… for now.

“I will support this on first reading to maintain our legal position,” he said. “But I’m going to want to look into this a lot further before this comes back for a second and third reading.”

One complication of second and third reading will be that a valid petition exists against one of the three tracts, meaning that that case will have to be approved by a super-majority of the Council (six votes) for the agreement to go forward. With two “no” votes last night, that could be problematic in future hearings.

ECT makes its pitch to Travis County

Daugherty continues to oppose funding for group

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was opposed to the county’s contribution to Envision Central Texas a year ago, and nothing in the last year has changed his mind.

Yesterday, Executive Director Sally Campbell and members of the Envision Central Texas board presented an overview of the group’s work over the past year and an update on next year’s plan at a county work session. The group is asking county commissioners to contribute another $25,000 to the regional planning effort. The group has set a budget of $323,000 for next year, up from $225,000 this year.

Campbell noted the creation of seven focus committees, a variety of locally sponsored events and the recent State Highway 130 summit. She mentioned goals for the upcoming year, such as a regional toolbox of development resources for local communities, continued dialogue on the SH 130 corridor, public forums on growth, community stewardship awards and the launch of a weblog on issues surrounding the new highway. The group also came into the new fiscal year with a $75,000 surplus in its budget.

To Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, Envision Central Texas was an easy sell. Sonleitner said the group had risen to the challenge of moving from its two-year process of creating a vision to the actual implementation phase of the regional planning effort. Commissioner Ron Davis, on the other hand, wanted to make sure the group pushed for development and utilities along both sides of SH 130. The east side of SH 130 should not be comparable to the east side of Interstate 35, Davis told Campbell.

But Campbell and “her crew,” as she called them, didn’t come close to winning over Daugherty. Daugherty was critical of the involvement of more businesses in the group – a move Envision Central Texas made, in part, at his request – because he pointed out most of those businesses had a vested interest in the region’s development process. Envision Central Texas, Daugherty said, should strive harder to add more independent voices.

“I’ve said it – and I’ve said it in front of RECA (Real Estate Council of Austin) – it doesn’t smell right to have the majority of the people involved in something with a vested interest where you really do have the opportunity to participate in things that get voted on,” Daugherty said. “There’s a conflict of interest there.”

Land planners and real estate attorneys joined ECT, Daugherty said. Campbell acknowledged that participation in the group could be broader but pointed out more “neutral” businesses – such as Samsung, 3M, URS and Texas Gas Service– had agreed to participate in Envision Central Texas activities.

Daugherty also accused ECT of being a front for pro-rail supporters. While members protested that the group had taken a balanced rail-and-road approach to its message, Daugherty said it was difficult to support a group that would not press harder for what he considered to be a critical need for the construction of additional lane miles inside Austin.

Daugherty did not hesitate to point out Capital Metro provides a third of ECT’s budget and to hint that his long-time friend Jim Skaggs – a true road warrior – had been marginalized in the transportation subcommittee’s planning efforts. Travis County is being crushed under its mobility challenges; the region needs a strong voice that can stand up and fight for the options that give the region some results, Daugherty said.

Board Member Jim Walker told Daugherty that the ECT group had been careful during the visioning process not to dictate a particular strategy for each jurisdiction. The group provided a framework. Each jurisdiction set its own priorities and course.

County Judge Sam Biscoe will put the ECT contribution on an agenda in January. So far, Campbell and her board have raised 59 percent of next year’s budget.

Community Land Trust moves forward

After spending the past few months reviewing different options for a Community Land Trust in Austin, the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office will take those various options to a stakeholders group over the next two months for public feedback. By soliciting input from homebuilders, non-profit groups, real estate professionals, lenders, and members of city boards and commissions, city staff hopes to craft a plan with the maximum amount of community support to bring back for Council consideration in March of 2006.

While relatively new to Texas, Community Land Trusts have been used around the nation to reduce the cost of housing. “The basic concept is simple. The Community Land Trust owns the land. The homeowner owns the improvements,” explained Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Director Paul Hilgers during a briefing Thursday. That allows the homeowner to finance only the cost of the home itself while at the same time allowing savings on property taxes, since the land is held by a government or non-profit entity. In areas with rapidly-accelerating land values, properties held by a Community Land Trust can remain more affordable and the trust can impose specific rules on the resale of homes that also prevent runaway inflation of home values.

Beginning next week, Hilgers hopes to establish a stakeholders group to review the benefits and drawbacks of Community Land Trusts operated by governments, non-profit groups, and even private entities across the country. Hilgers said by comparing different regulations, Austin could craft its own unique proposal taking the best options available. That could include having a land trust established by the city but operated by a non-profit. Hilgers said non-profit land trusts could face questions since their tax exemptions were not always guaranteed, while government-run trusts could sometimes face difficulties acting quickly enough to secure property in a competitive marketplace. A hybrid model could provide the property tax exemptions guaranteed by government ownership while keeping the other benefits associated with non-profit groups dedicated to affordable housing.

Council Member Raul Alvarez, who has championed the land trust idea, suggested the process could move more swiftly if the staff crafted a specific proposal first, then sought feedback, rather than taking input without a concrete proposal on the table. “I think we’ve talked about this issue for several years now, and certainly would like to see some movement forward on implementation,” he said. “At some point I think we have to move forward in creating the land trust and getting the documents worked out. It seems to me if we had something specific to send through a stakeholder process then we might get more meaningful feedback than just continuing a broad discussion on a concept.”

Hilgers said the stakeholder group could move quickly once it is established, and early input could prevent confrontation later in the process. “I think that by incorporating and spending another two months…with the understanding that the Council has given us the direction that we want to implement a Community Land Trust based on some general parameters, that that would give us the impetus to bring back some very finalized recommendations to you on a specific proposal,” he said. “I think we gain further ownership on the part of a broad-based community and, frankly, a greater opportunity for success for support for the Community Land Trust.”

Hilgers plans to establish a committee with representatives of the Austin Homebuilders Association, the Real Estate Council of Austin, members of the Zoning and Platting Commission, Planning Commission, Design Commission, plus other city groups and private-sector organizations to study different models for a Community Land Trust. The timetable calls for the staff to craft a final proposal for the Community Land Trust by the end of February with a presentation to the Council in March.

Alvarez urged Hilgers to keep the group focused, warning that delays caused by getting side-tracked could hurt the city’s efforts to keep housing affordable in East Austin. Earlier in the day, the Council had heard from Hilgers about an East Austin home that had tripled in value over the past three years. “We’ve all seen what’s happening with property values all over town,” Alvarez said, “and so the longer this takes the less benefit we get…and the less opportunity that we’re going to have for this to be a meaningful tool for us.”

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

Glasco to leave city . . . Alice Glasco, director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, will only have to attend one more City Council meeting-on Dec. 15. Glasco has been eligible to retire for some time but just recently decided to take that opportunity. She said she would step down at the end of December . . . McFadden switches to non-profit . . . Elliott McFadden, who has been involved in numerous Democratic campaigns, has become Executive Director of the group Solar Austin . . . Municipal Court changes . . . In noting that appointments of Municipal Court judges would be postponed for two weeks, Mayor Will Wynn made it clear yesterday that he, at least, intends to make some changes. Wynn said the terms of all the current judges would be extended until mid February in order to allow for transition. Municipal Court judges are appointed by the Council and serve two-year terms . . . CSC cleared to sell land . . . The city had a right of first refusal on property owned by a CSC downtown next to City Hall. On the advice of their attorney, the Council relinquished that right yesterday to give CSC an opportunity to sell the property to Silicon Labs . . . Zoning cases put off . . . The Council postponed action on several setting cases yesterday, including office zoning for two properties on West Sixth Street close to the entrance to MoPac. They also agreed to postpone the case for requested office space at 5717 Balcones Drive . . . SOS holiday party tonight . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance annual Holiday Party is planned from 6 to 11pm tonight at the Mercury Hall at 615 Cardinal Lane, off South First Street. There will be food, drinks, dancing and a silent auction. Not to mention a "gorgeous outdoor area complete with a waterfall." . . . District 47 endorsement . . . Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Victor Carrillo Thursday endorsed Austin businessman Alex Castano, a Republican candidate in the contested race for State Representative, District 47. Castano will be running against Bill Welch and Rich Phillips for the Republican nomination for the seat currently held by Republican Terry Keel. Jason Earle and Valinda Bolton will be running in the Democratic Primary. . . KDBJ back in court . . . A suit was filed earlier this week against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) over its re-issuance of a permit for a Water Pollution Abatement Plan for a controversial rock crushing plant operated by KDBJ Holdings in the Ruby Ranch area of Northern Hays County. A district judge in Austin ruled KDBJ's permit invalid in October, but a new permit was administratively reissued by the TCEQ within a few weeks. Leonard Dougal, attorney for plaintiff Ann Ashmun, said the suit was filed mainly to preserve their rights in the case and in hopes of getting a hearing on the matter before the full TCEQ Commission.

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