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Travis considers new ESD for Elgin area

Monday, February 27, 2006 by

Travis County Commissioners are considering the creation of an Emergency Services District (ESD) on the west side of Elgin to serve the rural Blackland Prairie area in Travis County.

As Cliff Kessler of Elgin explained to commissioners last week, the growth of subdivisions in Elgin is on the west side which crosses into Travis County. Most of Elgin is in Bastrop County.

But neighbors to the east, who are primarily rural and elderly, wanted equal protection for their own outlying community. An early petition effort, which included a portion of the extra-territorial jurisdiction of Elgin, was rejected by Elgin City Council. After some thought and effort, the group came back with a petition that excluded the Elgin ETJ area and maintained a more limited tax base.

Commissioners must approve the petition in the next two weeks, possibly as early as tomorrow, to get it on the ballot. The court might have taken a vote last week, but Commissioner Ron Davis, in whose precinct ESD No. 13 would be located, was absent and requested that the final vote on the issue be delayed.

The Blackland Prairie area would like to get an ESD approved and then contract with the City of Elgin to provide fire protection for the area. Kessler estimates that the newly configured district would have 3,000 residents who could raise a budget of between $55,000 and $62,000 based on a tax rate of 10 cents. Such a tax base, Kessler admitted, would permit a contracting arrangement but not a self-sufficient district.

County Judge Sam Biscoe told the group early on that he was not necessarily enthusiastic about plans to create another ESD in Travis County. He would have preferred the area be annexed into another one of the existing emergency service districts. “In the back of my mind is the fact that we have a whole lot of districts already. I’m tempted to say too many,” Biscoe said. “Half of them have a tax base that’s sufficient to really deliver the required services and the other half probably don’t. Half of them are problematic and the other half are self-sufficient.”

Local residents are concerned with response time for local emergencies, they told the court during the hearing. Under the group’s plan, the area would be served by the 40-member Elgin Volunteer Fire Department, which is about to begin construction of a fire station inside the Travis County line on FM 1100 just four miles from the area.

Elgin Fire Chief Larry Faner told the group that Elgin is in the middle of finalizing plans to form an ESD in Bastrop County, taking in parts of the county out to McDade, which is 10 miles east of Elgin. So, in essence, the fire department could be funded by two ESDs in the outlying rural areas around the city. Faner said firefighters had agreed, in a vote in December, to go ahead and serve the ESDs if they were approved.

An election this year would have to occur in May or November. Attorney Ken Campbell, who represented the Blackland Prairie group, said the group wanted to get the election on the May ballot so that tax collections could start this year. The dual elections – in Travis and Bastrop counties – would also address a concern that too much power might be given to one county or the other.

County commissioners could vote on ESD 13 on Tuesday but no later than March 7 if they intend to get the ESD on the ballot in May.

Duplex developer awaits ZAP decision

A bid by a developer to subdivide a South Austin lot and build duplexes will have to undergo yet another postponement before getting an up or down vote by the city Zoning and Platting Commission. It will be the seventh time the matter has been postponed at the ZAP.

The property at 2211 Thornton St. sits in a critical water quality zone, although the tributary bordering the triangle-shaped property is a man-made drainage ditch. The original plan for the property was to subdivide it into four tracts, leave a single family home on one, and build duplexes on the remaining three tracts.

Problems with the property arose at a hearing before the Environmental Board, which voted in September to recommend denial of the variance because a large portion of one of the duplexes would have been built out into the CWQZ. According to Environmental Review Specialist Elizabeth Johnston, the applicant redesigned the offending duplex so that only a small portion of it was in the zone.

That change gained staff approval and the Environmental Board reconsidered the case on December 14 and approved the project, with several conditions. The vote was 6-1 with Vice Chair Karin Ascot voting no, and adding a dissenting opinion to the record, which read, in part:

“Economic considerations ought to be taken into account PRIOR (sic) to purchasing property. . . I believe this pattern of requesting (and ultimately obtaining) environmental variances for what are clearly economic reasons is contributing to the ever increasing cost of property and housing in Austin.”

Jeff Howard, the attorney for the owner, told ZAP members this week that the project would be an improvement to the neighborhood.

“The project will redevelop an area with declining structures in a way that the city in currently encouraging growth,” he said. “The project is economically viable, has no drainage variance, was recommended by the Environmental Board and has met the findings of fact by city staff.”

Brian Hinkle, who lives across street from the project, spoke in favor of it.

“I support its intended use,” he said. “It will contribute to the neighborhood and the environment, it provides increases in density, improves sustainability, is reasonable and it benefits the neighborhood.”

However, Carol Gibbs with the South Lamar Neighborhood Association argued that if the project could be redesigned to pull most of the buildings out of the water quality zone, it could be changed to pull all of the buildings out of the zone.

“That would mean that one of the duplexes would have to be changed to single family unit,” she said. “We believe that he can get a decent return on his investment by doing a single family home on one of the lots. We don’t see that the project warrants a variance.”

Gibbs presented a different site plan for the property that moved all buildings out of the 50-foot water quality buffer zone. She noted that with the original plan, the owner would not be able to build decks, sheds, patios, and the like on the property because of the limitations.

Commissioner Clarke Hammond, citing an already deteriorating environment in the area, moved to deny the variance. “I’m not sure how many people realize how much erosion is going on in the urban watershed,” he said. “People are losing their backyards. You can see the damage in Stacy Park; there are examples all along the Bouldin Creek watershed. I just can’t support putting economics over the environment in this case.”

Commissioner Keith Jackson offered a substitute motion to approve the variance, saying that if the Environmental Board and staff were recommending it, ZAP should too.

But on a vote, the board split 4-4 with Hammond, Commissioners Stephanie Hale, Joseph Martinez and Melissa Hawthorne voting against the variance. Chair Betty Baker and Commissioners Jay Gohil, Janis Pinnelli and Jackson voted in favor. Commissioner Theresa Rabago had left the meeting early, causing the tie vote. Baker moved to table the matter until the next meeting and vote again when a full commission would be present. The next meting is scheduled for March 7.

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

Extra patience may be required. . . When Austinites contemplating remodeling their homes heard about the possible moratorium on large-scale reconstruction, they began to flood Watershed Protection and Development Review with permit applications. Development reviewer Donna Cerkan notes that there was “a major influx of customers” the week of February 6-10. During that week, there were 82 residential addition applications, she said, an increase of 273 percent. At the same time, there were 129 new residential applications, a 22 percent increase from the three weeks previous to that. “That huge increase sort of put us behind in the schedule on reviews and we’re still not caught up,” said Cerkan. A number of those who came in to file had no reason to be concerned, but filed applications in anticipation of the moratorium. The flood is over, but the normally busy city office is busier than ever. So, if you’ve been wondering about an application, it may have been caught in the logjam . . . Democrats plan big effort for Hubener . . . Annie’s List, which supports pro-choice women seeking election, will take a bunch of volunteers to Grand Prairie Tuesday to do Get-Out-The-Vote efforts for State Rep. District 106 candidate Katy Hubener. For more information, contact Robert E. Jones at (512) 587-2794 or . . Meetings . . . The Historic Landmark Commission meets at 7pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Austin Library Commission meets at 7pm the Austin History Center . . . The Design Commission meets at 5:45pm in the Executive Session Room at City Hall . . . The Capital Metro Board of Directors meets at 4:30pm at Capital Metro headquarters at 2910 E. Fifth Street . . . Community relations. . . The National Crime Prevention Council and the Travis County Sheriff's Office is hosting a one-day conference to discuss law enforcement and faith based community relations. About 150 community and law enforcement leaders have been invited. The conference will be as well from 8:30am until 4:30pm on Tuesday at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. . . . LCRA plans EOC . . . The Lower Colorado River Authority is planning to construct a $15 million emergency, public safety and river management center. The 35,000-square-foot center will be on the site of the LCRA's old environmental building, at the corner of Red Bud Trail and Lake Austin Boulevard. It will consolidate LCRA's Public Safety, Emergency Management and River Operations Center, and provide a central location for staff to respond to emergencies and manage floods. The building will include meeting and training rooms available for public use on evenings and weekends. Construction will be completed in the summer of 2007 . . . Annexation plans . . . At its regular meeting this week, the Georgetown City Council plans to take the first steps in identifying areas to be annexed into the city limits this year. The council will discuss annexation areas at today’s 4pm workshop and plans to identify areas for involuntary annexation at the 6pm meeting on Tuesday. The council will continue an annexation effort that began last year when it annexed more than 5,000 acres into the city limits. This year the city may involuntarily annex up to 6,565 acres, according to state law. Many of the areas to be considered by the council at the Monday and Tuesday meetings are adjacent to or near the SH 130 right-of-way. The City Council workshop session on Monday and the regular meeting on Tuesday both will be held at the City Council chamber, located at 101 E. Seventh Street in Georgetown.

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