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Council OKs McMansion moratorium

Friday, February 10, 2006 by

Planning Commission to review regulations next week

The McMansion issue erupted into a full-scale battle on Thursday night as a strong contingent of developers and property owners showed up to protest the City Council’s interim rules to scale back construction in inner-city neighborhoods.

For almost a decade, the City Council and a number of commissions – from the Environmental Board to the Historic Landmark Commission – have tangled with new construction in the city’s central neighborhoods known as either super-duplexes of McMansions. These McMansions – while in line with the city’s goal of greater density in the inner city – have often been out of scale with surrounding single-family homes in neighborhoods such as Tarrytown, Hyde Park and Allandale.

Last night, the Council finally decided to take action, only to find the opposition to such action as strong as the neighborhood support of it. People – both those who had made their living off building additions and those who had hired the developers — were just as angry about limits on construction as their opposite numbers were about the construction of McMansions.

Those against the heightened regulation of teardown construction, like developer Terry Mitchell, said the quality of architecture was a far bigger issue than the actual size or massing of the new construction. Hyde Park architect Karen McGraw, on the other hand, said it would take city code to force better construction.

“I’ve spent a lot of years trying to get respect and regulations to preserve Hyde Park,” McGraw said. “I can tell you when you ask a speculator for respect, you do not always get it. If you have regulations, it works a lot better.”

Council Members Brewster McCracken, Betty Dunkerley and Lee Leffingwell proposed interim regulations, which are expected to lead to permanent rules to address the McMansion issue. Under their proposal, construction of additions and the replacement of teardowns would be limited by a floor-to-area ratio of .4-to-1, with a new home limited to 2500 square feet or 20 percent greater than the square footage of the pre-existing home. A remodeling permit would be limited to the same FAR, with additions limited to 1000 square feet.

While developers, including former Planning Commissioner Michael Casias, said they would be directly impacted by the new regulations, the impact of the regulations on those attending the meetings appeared mixed. City staff, who visited with people who had permits in the city pipeline, reported that some would be affected by the new regulations and others would not. The city has seen a rush in remodeling and demolition permits in the last week, all from people who wanted to beat the timeline on new regulations.

The city used the issue of drainage as the legal hook to propose the ordinance, a reason that was cited by critics as a weak argument. George Oswald of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department told the Council that the city’s drainage system was most vulnerable in core neighborhoods. Only two years ago, the city had identified $800 million in new storm sewer needs, mostly in the inner-city neighborhoods. Construction of large-scale housing on single-family lots taxed city infrastructure and created flooding issues.

The biggest frustration among neighborhood proponents has been the super-duplexes, or “mini-dormitories” that have popped up in inner-city neighborhoods. Cases like that often lead to problems such as traffic, noise and parking issues. Neighbors in one-story houses next to two-story buildings said the construction often stripped them of their privacy.

By the end of the discussion, Mayor Will Wynn said he was convinced the issue was far broader than simply limiting the size of construction on a lot. Wynn saw the issue as one of compatibility, an issue that should be weighed more carefully in a stakeholder group. While Wynn said a discussion of such issues could take up to a year, Dunkerley said she saw the issue differently. She said the McMansion issue could be limited to a handful of code amendments, particularly when it came to parking and occupancy limits.

A motion to delay action on an interim ordinance, made by Council Member Jennifer Kim, failed for a lack of a second. The final motion, made by Leffingwell and seconded by Dunkerley, accomplished a number of things: It put the interim regulations into effect on first reading, as of today. That ordinance will come back for second and third reading next week. It also instructed staff to create a stakeholder task force, to bring long-term regulations back to Council no later than May 7.

Wynn did express a desire to roll duplexes into the scope of work for the stakeholder committee, as well as the broader issue of compatibility. The motion made at Council last night can be amended to include such charges at next week’s Council meeting. The Planning Commission will take up a review of the proposal on Tuesday night.

Bond Election set for November

Choosing what appeared to be the lesser of two evils, Council members voted Thursday to schedule a major bond election in November instead of May. Most of them said there was not sufficient time to go through all the necessary procedures and trim the list of proposals in time for a May vote.

The city’s Bond Election Advisory Committee has given the Council a $614.8 million bond proposal, pared down from an original Needs Assessment of $769.1 million. Council members say they will likely reduce the final bond proposal to slightly more than $500 million.

Council members voted 5-2 for the November date, with Members Raul Alvarez and Lee Leffingwell opposed. Council member Betty Dunkerley summed up the majority positions, saying the schedule for a May vote was “too aggressive.”

“I am strongly for the November vote,” she said. “I know that many of the people on the Advisory Committee and other advocates want to go forward now, but we have a lot of work to do to pare down the list of items. I think the prudent thing to do is set the date for November.”

Alvarez, who is not running for re-election, responded, “I think we should set it in May. A November election will mean that some members of the old Council will set up the bond package, but won’t be able to see it through to completion. I think we should complete this before any new Council members are seated.”

Leffingwell was looking for a compromise approach. “While I agree with most the arguments for a delay, I still think we should get started on the process,” he said. “If we can only get so much done in time for May, then we can put it up for a vote then, and the rest in November. I think we should start the process for a May election, and if we can’t deliver, then postpone it until May.”

City staff presented the Council with two proposed timetables—one for May and one for November–to get ready for an election. The May schedule would involve several work sessions and at least two special called meetings in the next few weeks in order to approve the ballot language and decide what items would go on the ballot. The November schedule is not without its pitfalls, as much of the run up to the election will coincide with the city’s annual budget process.

According to City Manager Toby Futrell, holding the election in May would not help get any of the bond projects built earlier.

“We sell our bonds each year in August,” she said. “The funds from these bonds will be used for projects starting in 2007. The 2006 bond package is already in place, so a May election won’t speed anything up.”

Council members will have to wait until their next meeting to approve a schedule for deciding on what to put before voters, as the city’s legal staff ruled that they were not properly posted to vote o n that yesterday.

City, SOS continue negotiations on charter

Members of the SOS Alliance returned to City Hall Thursday morning to continue negotiations with city management on a possible compromise for submitting charter amendments to the electorate in May. The environmental organization has been collecting signatures since November to put two City Charter amendments before the voters this spring.

On Wednesday, SOS executive director Bill Bunch and political consultant Glen Maxey met with City Manager Toby Futrell, City Attorney David Smith and Council Member Lee Leffingwell. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 8, 2006.) Bunch brought a box containing the petitions on the SOS charter amendment but did not file it after talking to city officials about the possibility of a compromise. In Fact Daily’s reporter was excluded from that meeting despite strenuous efforts to attend. The meeting was also moved to a windowless room to prevent the reporter from seeing the proceedings.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Leffingwell said he hoped the city could avoid some of the expense calculated to ensue from passage of the proposed "Open Government" charter amendment. The same group met Thursday but did not arrive at an agreement. Bunch would not comment on whether the two sides had made any progress.

As promised on Wednesday, City Clerk Shirley Gentry presented a letter to Bunch outlining the procedures her office would follow if and when SOS presents the 20,000 signatures needed to put each of two items on the May 13 ballot. In that letter, Gentry said that if the approximately 21,000 signatures each have voter registration numbers assigned to them, as represented by SOS, she would make all reasonable efforts to accomplish validation within six business days for each petition.

The letter stated "This is only an estimate, not a guarantee, that the validation process can be accomplished within the six-day timeframe described. I am assuming the best case scenario in terms of turnaround by the contract (printer and statistician) services, but I have no control over outside resources, "she wrote. Gentry told In Fact Daily that the last petition presented by Maxey, which was in support of last year’s anti-smoking referendum, was approximately 92 percent valid. But she said the petitioners may have a better rate this year because of what they learned during last year’s validation process.

There has been widespread speculation about whether or not petitioners have been able to gather the necessary signatures, especially given the difficulty of gathering signatures on two petitions simultaneously.

The city’s Chief Information Officer, Peter Collins, has estimated that new hardware, software, infrastructure, security, consulting services and staff would cost the city approximately $36 million the first year and $11.6 million the second year. All of those costs are associated with implementation of the online government requirements of the "Open Government” charter amendment. Bunch has disputed that estimate but has not provided one of his own. There is no estimate for the possible costs associated with the other amendment, known as Save Our Springs. However, city management is fearful that implementation would lead to numerous lawsuits.

The open government amendment can be found at http://www.cleanwater-cleangovernment.org/ogo_amendment.cfm. The SOS Charter amendment language can be found at http://www.cleanwater-cleangovernment.org/sos_amendment.cfm.

TCEQ must consider environmental flows

Judge's ruling will help San Marcos River foundation

In a major victory for Texas environmental groups, an Austin district judge has ruled that organizations seeking to purchase water rights to keep streams and rivers flowing despite increasing demand will have the same standing as cities and businesses.

The ruling will force the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to consider granting water rights that preserve environmental flows—the water needed by the state's bays, fish and other wildlife. The agency had denied four such applications by environmental groups.

The plaintiffs, including the San Marcos River Foundation (SMRF), hailed the ruling as a major breakthrough in their ability to purchase water rights upstream in order to preserve the flow of fresh water into Gulf Coast bays and estuaries. Other plaintiffs include the Galveston Bay Foundation, Galveston Bay Conservation and Preservation Association, Matagorda Bay Foundation and Caddo Lake Institute.

“This is a major victory for us. This is the only way that our rivers and bays and estuaries will be there for future generations," said Dianne Wassenich, executive director of the SMRF. “If we don’t get control of the them now, they’ll be sucked dry and then we will have major problems.”

SMRF filed the original petition with the state in 2000, seeking to preserve water flow from the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers into San Antonio Bay on the Gulf Coast. . Other applications, filed in 2002, aimed at conserving water for Galveston Bay, the Trinity, Colorado and Lavaca Rivers and Caddo Lake. Together, the proposals sought more than 12 million acre-feet per year.

“The fresh water from the rivers flows into the bay, diluting the salinity and allowing fish and wildlife to reproduce,” Wassenich said. “Without the freshwater inflow, the bay would have too much saltwater for the creatures to thrive.”

SMRF’s initial application in 2003, which would have secured 1.3 million acre-feet of water a year for the Guadalupe and San Marcos rivers, was rejected by the TCEQ, which said it didn’t have the authority to issue water rights to conserve water

However, Austin District Judge Suzanne Covington ruled that environmental groups did have equal standing with businesses and municipalities in securing water rights.

TCEQ officials say they are considering an appeal.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Early voting numbers soar . . . Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said Thursday that early voting in the District 48 Special Runoff Election is exceeding turnout numbers in the January election. "Voters are heading to the polls in numbers that will exceed the first round of early voting, in spite of the shortened five-day voting period," said DeBeauvoir. During the first four days of early voting, 5606 votes have been cast. That’s 5.67 percent of the registered voters, already exceeding the 4584 ballots cast during the 11-day early voting period of the January Special Election. Early voting for the runoff ends Friday. Election Day is February 14. . . Bentzin, Howard debate . . . Despite some fairly nasty attack ads that have shown up on TV lately, last night’s debate for the District 48 candidates was a fairly cordial affair. Republican Ben Bentzin and Democrat Donna Howard took questions for an hour in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Both candidates stuck to their campaign themes: Bentzin emphasizing his business experience as a Dell executive; Howard cited 30 years of residence in the district and her background in education issues. Both candidates agreed that a revenue neutral, broad-based business activity tax was the best way to fund schools. They disagreed over school vouchers, with Bentzin saying they should be considered in some cases, where Howard was firmly against them. Both candidates took their party’s position on the state’s “Robin Hood” system of funding equity, with Howard calling for high state contributions to districts and lower level of recapture, while Bentzin said it should be eliminated. The winner of the election will serve out the balance of the term vacated by Republican Todd Baxter, and will likely serve in the upcoming Special Session on school finance . . . . . Primary endorsements . . . The West Austin Democrats endorsement meeting on Wednesday night had a record turnout, with 76 voting members. The results were: U.S. Senate – Barbara Radnofsky; Congress, District 10 – Ted Ankrum; Governor – Bob Gammage; Lieutenant Governor – Benjamin Grant; Agriculture Commissioner – Hank Gilbert; Texas House District 47 – Valinda Bolton or Jason Earle; Judge, 299th District Court – Charlie Baird; County Court-at-Law 2 – Eric Sheppard; County Commissioner, Pct. 2 – Karen Sonleitner; County Commissioner, Pct. 4 – Margaret Gomez. Neither HD47 candidate got majority support for a sole endorsement, so WAD endorses the top two candidates. Results are also posted at http://www.westaustindemocrats.org. . . . Kim office turnover . . . Kelly Vidovic has joined the staff of Council Member Jennifer Kim. Vidovic has worked with Kim as a consultant in the past. She will not be taking the position being vacated by aide Heidi Gerbracht, who said she and the Council Member have been interviewing for her job. Gerbracht has accepted a family planning position in Baltimore . . . Oswald honored . . . Engineer George Oswald, a member of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, has been honored as a Diplomate of Water Resource Engineering. The Council applauded him for that award at Thursday’s meeting . . . Puppies on the patio . . . Council Members Kim and Leffingwell will be at Opal Devine’s on West Sixth Street at 2pm today to tout a proposed change in the city’s Restaurant Code to allow man’s best friends to accompany their owners on outdoor restaurant patios. Both Council Members will have their dogs with them for the occasion, so consider it a photo opportunity. So much for the five-second rule on that dropped taco . . . Free vaccines . . . Before you take man’s best friend to lunch, you may want to get him or her registered and vaccinated. The Austin/Travis County Health Department and Town Lake Animal Center will offer free rabies vaccinations and pet registration from 8am until noon this Saturday at the Montopolis Recreation Center, 1200 Montopolis.

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