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Neighbors say remodeling permits used to mask demolition

Monday, December 5, 2005 by

Council Member Lee Leffingwell and members of the Historic Preservation Task Force have expressed concern about owners of historic structures who take advantage of remodeling permits to demolish their houses. Task Force members heard last week about several instances where permits may have been used to demolish potentially historic homes.

Leffingwell said he has asked the city manager to direct the staff to help come up with some additions to or changes to the current ordinance that would strengthen the city's hand in enforcement. The task force has also expressed concern about such abuses and set a meeting in mid December to specifically discuss the matter.

At last week’s meeting, a number of West Austin neighborhood representatives were on hand at a task force meeting to talk about abuses of remodeling permits by property owners. Such permits sometimes are used to cloak the demolition of historic properties down to the building’s slab, with a promise of incorporating limited materials into a new structure.

In such cases the neighborhood is not advised about the possible demolition, nor is the city. The fine for such a violation is only about $500, sometimes making it cheaper to violate the law than to abide by it. Leffingwell said he might want to consider building-in some enforcement against demolition companies that participated in and the destroying a historic structure without the proper permits.

In some cases, the demolition concerns were considered valid by the task force, such as the demolition of a contributing structure in a national register district down to the slab in one West Austin neighborhood.

Chair Betty Baker, however, did point out to neighborhood leaders that a least a couple of cases the neighborhoods cited had actually gone through the historic preservation pipeline and were deemed unworthy for preservation by the City Council when the cases were up for final disposition.

After some discussion of permits, the committee reviewed the local historic district application, more properly known as the Historic Area Combining District Application.

Former Historic Landmark Commissioner Tere O’Connell presented a list of her concerns. Some of O’Connell’s remarks were housekeeping issues or the source of easy agreement, such as noting original subdivision boundaries or a neighborhood’s ethnic history in an application.

Other issues, such as the actual documentation needed to justify the creation of the local historic district, was a thornier issue for the committee.

The documentation issue is a balance between what is required to justify that a neighborhood is historic and what requirements would be considered an onerous burden on a local neighborhood, and especially low-income neighborhoods. As some noted at the meeting, even the documentation of the ownership and occupancy on a simple handful of properties could take at least two weeks to complete.

The discussion was whether a local neighborhood should meet a minimum threshold of sufficient merit, such as Keith Jackson suggested, or possibly a higher standard of justification for each contributing property in a particular neighborhood. Baker agreed that a full documentation of a structure sometimes took her up to 30 hours of work. She pointed out the hardest work is for those buildings built before 1905. After 1905, city directories often can provide a good starting point for building documentation.

The task force also discussed the analysis of architectural composition of the district. That documentation could be extensive or possibly more general, such as a noting that 85 percent of the roofs in the district were hipped roofs. Extensive or general, the parameters would likely have to be verified by city staff through a visual inspection. Baker noted the city also will have its hands full with making sure that pulled permits meet design guidelines, which would be different for each local historic district.

Baker set the next meeting of the commission for December 12, asking that a building inspector be asked to speak to the committee about the specifics of remodeling and demolition permits. The task force’s goal would be to narrow down what specifics would be necessary to make sure remodeling permits do not turn into demolition permits.

Contractor hired to fix leaks in ABIA terminal

Company hired despite lack of minority participation

L.D. Tebben Company won a contract last week to repair leaks in the roof of the terminal of Austin Bergstrom International Airport. The company was approved by the Council on a vote of 7-0 despite concerns from Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas about the level of minority sub-contractors.

The company submitted the low bid of $1.34 million, plus a $134,000 contingency fee. Three other companies also bid on the project, but one bid was considered non-responsive and the city staff determined the other contained an error. The project had actually been put out for bids previously, when only one company submitted an offer which was rejected by the city because it was over the budgeted amount.

The leaks at the terminal have been occurring since the building opened in 1999, and efforts by city crews to repair the problem so far have been unsuccessful. “So it’s become very time sensitive to get the roofing repairs completed so that the facility doesn’t undergo additional damage because of that, and also because of impacts to the passengers,” said Public Works Director Sondra Creighton, “So it’s primarily because of the time interest and the fact that it has been bid before that makes it much more urgent this time.”

Thomas had questions about the level of minority participation in the contract after the Department of Small and Minority Business Resources reported that the company did not meet the goals the city established for the project. “DSMBR said, if I’m reading this right, not solicit available (minority contractors),” Thomas said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable in supporting it if we got zero percent of the goals.”

Staffers told Thomas that the City Manager had granted a waiver from the city’s minority contracting goals, which is allowed in certain cases if it is determined to be in the best interests of the city.

“We actually grant very few of these waivers,” said City Manager Toby Futrell. “They go through a very extensive review process. The low bidder did go through a process of trying to contact certified (MWBE) firms. They contacted almost two-thirds of the certified firms trying to get compliance, but they didn’t make it all the way through the list. It weighed a little bit for me in signing the waiver in that there was a substantial effort for compliance and that their bid was so much lower than the next.”

But the key factor in awarding the contract, said Charles Gates of the Aviation Department, was the need to get the leaking roof fixed as soon as possible. “If you’ve been out to the airport, you’ve seen the barricades around where we’ve been relocating the equipment that’s in the ticket counter to other areas. As part of that project, other areas of the airport have been reconstructed,” he said. “And some of the areas where we’ve had leaks have affected those areas.” Airport officials wanted to press ahead with the repairs to avoid having those newly-renovated areas damaged by the water leaks.

After those reassurances from the city staff, it was Thomas who made the motion to approve the contract. “I want to make sure on the record that people know that we work hard to meet the (minority contracting) goals, and this particular project has an urgency,” he said. The company will have seven months to complete the job.

Rail District looking for new source of funds

The Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Commuter Rail District is not limiting its funding to federal, or even state, dollars when it comes to the creation of a commuter rail line between Georgetown and San Antonio along the Union Pacific freight corridor.

Assessing the viability of the commuter rail corridor—which neither Capital Metro in Austin nor Via in San Antonio is ready to fund—has been a slow process. An initial feasibility study was completed in 1999. That study was updated last year. Carter & Burgess is currently completing an alternatives analysis to meet the requirements to secure Federal Transportation Administration funding under the New Starts program.

Rail line advocates anticipate using the Union Pacific freight rail line that runs, in part, down MoPac Boulevard. Board President Sid Covington speaks positively of current negotiations to move UP over to the State Highway 130 corridor, but even if all goes well that is unlikely to happen before 2010. The board also is split on traffic through San Antonio. One route travels, roughly, down the Interstate 35 corridor, past the airport into downtown. A secondary spur, favored by at least one San Antonio-area board member, crosses East San Antonio. The rail district could choose to operate one, or possibly both, routes into the city.

Even Ross Milloy, president of the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Rail District, admits the chances of securing New Starts funding are slim. The 2006 New Start recipients include urban rail projects in Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego, among others, and none of them come close to receiving the $615 million that Milloy anticipates will be needed to secure and launch the region’s commuter rail line.

Still, the alternatives assessment will be necessary for almost any kind of funding Milloy intends to secure and he outlined three options to his board on Friday: public-private partnerships that will share the cost of the rail line through vehicles such as comprehensive development agreements; access to federal funding, separate from the New Starts program, that is being set aside for higher speed rail corridors in the south and west; and the creation of local transit investment zones around the 15 proposed stations that could generate tax revenue to pay for revenue bonds and operational costs.

The district has retained Charles Heimsath of Capitol Market Research to complete area economic impact studies on each of the 15 proposed stations. Those stations include five in Austin, five in San Antonio and one apiece in Georgetown, Kyle, San Marcos, Round Rock and New Braunfels. Heimsath has completed a dozen station studies to date, with another three close to completion, and estimates the taxes that might flow to the district over 25 years could be up to $353 million.

Heimsath outlined the parameters of his study to board members on Friday: Heimsath and his staff assessed the amount of developed and undeveloped land around each station site, establishing current market conditions and estimating future values. Forecasts for each station were made based upon the amount of available land, current plans, local market conditions and the host city’s response to station development. And, finally, the actual tax amount expected to flow to the rail district is based upon 30 percent of the taxes on the incremental value increases around each station.

City, county and school district taxes are all included in Heimsath’s estimates, although board members had some questions as to whether school districts would, or could, participate in the tax-increment districts. No deals have been signed with any municipalities yet. Some have suggested an even higher participation rate. Milloy said it was important to get the route locked in as soon as possible to try to get a reasonable baseline value for land around the potential station sites.

Board Member Fred Harless, who represents Capital Metro, noted the transit agency’s success with joint development agreements with local developers. Capital Metro purchases land around its station sites, then solicits bids from developers who want a share of the growth in the area around the station. Under the public-private agreement, the developer also agrees to share some of the cost of putting down the rail line.

Once the alternatives analysis is complete, Carter & Burgess’ next step will be a ridership analysis. That analysis, Milloy said, will be a critical component in determining whether the rail line has a viable future and can be funded.

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

Libertarians file . . . The Libertarian Party last night announced a slate of candidates for the upcoming general election, and one for an upcoming special election. According to Executive Director Wes Benedict, the following candidates are running: Charles Edward Lincoln, III, Attorney General; Jon Roland, Attorney General; Michael Badnarik, US Rep, District 10; Grant Rostig, US Rep, District 25; Matt McAdoo, US Rep, District 31; James R. (Bob) Thompson, State Senate, District 25; Tom Gleinser, State Rep, Dist 45; Richard Wedeikes, State Rep, District 46; Ronnie Gjemre, State Rep, District 47; Yvonnce Schick, State Rep, District 47; Ben Easton, State Rep, Dist 48 (Easton also plans to file for the January special election); Jerry Chandler, State Rep, District 50; Arthur DiBianca, State Rep, District 51; Lillian Simmons, Stare Rep, District 52; and BW Holk, State Rep, District 53. Saturday was the first day to file for next year's general election. The most important of these from a local standpoint is the race for Dist. 48 to replace Todd Baxter, who stepped down in November to become a lobbyist. At least three Democrats and one Republican are running for that post. Democrats Donna Howard, Andy Brown and Kathy Ryder have indicated they would seek the job, as has Republican Ben Bentzin . . . Bond committee seeks comments . . . The Bond Election Advisory Committee seeks public comment as it begins the next phase of finalizing its recommendation for a possible 2006 bond election. On November 29, the committee voted, 17-2, to approve its draft recommendation package totaling $614.8 million. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 30, 2005) Public hearings on the committee's draft recommendations will be at 7pm Thursday in room 130 at Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Road and 7 p.m. on January 5 in Council Chambers at Austin City Hall. The draft recommendation, found at http://www.cityofaustin.org/budget/beac.htm, includes funding for dozens of critical drainage and water quality improvements; transportation investments in roads, sidewalks and bikeways; needed repairs and renovations to parks and public safety facilities; major investments in affordable housing and open space; a new central library; and other quality of life and cultural facilities . . . Meetings . . . The Council's Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee meets at 3pm today in Council Chambers at City Hall. . . .The Historic Landmark Commission meets at 7pm in room 325 at One Texas Center. . The Design Commission meets at 6:15pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Music Commission meets at 6pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . Save Barton Creek . . . The weekly meeting of the Save Barton Creek Association is set for 7pm tonight at Vinny's Italian Café at 1003 Barton Springs Road. On the agenda is discussion of the SOS Alliance drive to gather signatures for Charter Amendment elections . . . San Antonio group sues over toll roads . . . A San Antonio-based group, the Aquifer Guardians, has filed suit against the Texas Department of Transportation for not conducting an environmental impact statement for a planned toll road project system that could eventually run 47 miles along U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 in north San Antonio. The group seeks to stop construction, which began last week on the highway that could eventually run, in part, over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The state did perform an environmental assessment of the project in 1984, but not a full impact statement. The Austin-based People for Efficient Transportation joined Aquifer Guardians in the suit.

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