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SOS presses suit to block AMD complex

Thursday, March 23, 2006 by

Judge plans ruling by Friday on Alliance request

State District Judge John Dietz told attorneys for the City of Austin, Stratus Properties and the SOS Alliance Wednesday that he would rule by the end of the day Friday on SOS’s request to block the city from issuing a permit to allow AMD plans to build a new office complex.

SOS has asked for a temporary injunction to prevent the city from issuing a development permit for the southwest Austin site, alleging that the city has misapplied state grandfathering laws. Stratus owns the property on Southwest Parkway where AMD plans a campus for about 2,000 of its employees.

The judge heard testimony from Lauren Ross, an engineer who said AMD’s site plan does not meet the requirements of previous water quality ordinances, nor does it come near the more stringent SOS requirements. Ross said the impervious cover and pollutants released from the preparing the site for construction would cause damage that would not otherwise occur. The plaintiff must show that failure to issue the injunction would cause irreparable harm and that SOS is likely to prevail in a final hearing on the matter.

The city, which believes the site plan is grandfathered under Chapter 245, is close to issuing a permit. However, Environmental Officer Patrick Murphy assured the judge that no such permit would be issued today or tomorrow. Murphy said he sits on the city’s committee of senior staff members who make decisions about grandfathering requests. He said there is no necessity to have such a committee since the work could be handled by a single reviewer.

SOS has argued that the matter should be heard by the City Council as an exception to the SOS Ordinance but the matter has not come before them because there was no request for the exception. The case turns, at least partially, on whether the retail zoning on the tract would allow for the site plan AMD proposes.

Attorney Jim Nias, a former Assistant City Attorney now in private practice, was asked whether the project has changed over the years. “It’s pretty obvious to me that it has not. This piece that we’re talking about now, it was always intended to be flexible,” he said.

Engineer Jim Knight of Bury + Partners said the water quality protection measures far exceed what is required, adding that AMD has tried hard to show that it has gone beyond legal requirements in designing the office park.

Following the hearing, attorney Mike McKetta, who represents Stratus Properties, said, “The point I was trying to make with the judge is that right next to (the AMD tract), the office building just south and west . . . has twice the density and was fully compliant, and no SOS person ever said ‘stop that’ or ‘that’s illegal’, because it’s not. This truly has state of the art features…the rainwater collection system, the HVAC system. This is a state of the art thing. And what you sometimes have is people who are surprised because they’re not communicating. I believe that AMD truly believes that this is going way beyond what the community ever expected to receive, and I believe that Bill Bunch (of SOS ) thinks ‘How can they not get it?’ And I think it’s just a basic communication issue.”

Notes from the campaign trail

Opponents mobilize against amendments

Group calls Open Government and Clean Water propositions fatally flawed

Several elected officials and some of the region’s environmental leaders on Wednesday announced their opposition to the citizen-initiated charter amendments on the May 13 ballot in Austin. The group campaigning against Propositions 1 and 2, the Open Government and Clean Water charter amendments, includes a majority of the current Austin City Council and some former Council Members.

During a news conference outside City Hall, Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Jennifer Kim, Betty Dunkerley, and Brewster McCracken focused most of their criticism on the Open Government charter amendment. “Amendments 1 and 2 were formulated behind closed doors with no public input, no opportunity for changes to correct errors and omissions,” said Leffingwell. “The process, I believe, was flawed…and there’s no opportunity to make necessary corrections.”

Leffingwell went on to list his concerns with the Open Government proposal, including what he said would be the unintended negative consequences. “The Open Government amendment would impair the city’s ability to vet citizen e-mails for privacy protections guarantees under state law, because they’re required to be posted on-line in real time.”

But for Leffingwell, the biggest problem would be the cost of complying with the charter amendment if it is approved by voters. “The initial cost for the Open Government amendment alone is estimated to be $36 million, and then $1 million per month for every month thereafter in perpetuity. That’s $33,000 a day. The question we should really be asking ourselves is…do we want to spend $33,000 of taxpayer money every single day to implement these amendments when we have some many other pressing needs?”

The $36 million cost estimate, according to Dunkerley, may be low. “People have challenged the expense that we’re quoting,” she said. “I’ve looked at the details. I can tell you that the equipment and the software totals are right on target. I, for one, think they’ve underestimated the implementation. I’ve never had a project manager ever come in having over-estimated the cost or over-estimated the time. So I think that there will be some changes there, but I think it will be some changes in the implementation.”

Dunkerley said the expense of installing the new system would force the city to raise the property tax rate by 3 cents per $100 of property value, which would be high enough to trigger a rollback election, or force cuts in basic city services like public safety, health, the library department, or social service contracts. “I, for one, don’t think that easier access to e-mails and phone logs is justified or warranted by the pain that will be caused by the cuts we will have to make in these very important social services in the city.”

The current Council Members were joined by Council candidates Mike Martinez, Eliza May, and Sheryl Cole. Outgoing Council Member Raul Alvarez and former Council Member Daryl Slusher did not attend the event, but signed on in support of the group’s goal of defeating the amendments at the ballot box. Some long-time supporters of environmental causes including George Cofer, Fred Ellis, Jeb Boyt, and Mary Ann Neely also stood with the elected officials to demonstrate their opposition to the charter amendments.

“We all on the Council support clean water,” said Kim, who said the proposed Clean Water amendment would not accomplish that goal. “There are other efforts that would be more balanced that would also protect the environment, such as the Regional Water Quality Management Plan.”

Leffingwell pledged to work on ordinances and resolutions promoting the goals of the clean water and open government amendments over the next few months which he said would be superior to the Clean Water amendment.

“In many instances, we believe it’s contrary to state law and we would anticipate lawsuits that we would have to defend if that amendment were passed,” he said. As for the plan by AMD to build a new office complex over the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer that has motivated supporters of the Clean Water amendment, Leffingwell said citizens should continue to use the normal political process to convey their displeasure.

“I think they can do exactly what they have been doing, and that is to convince AMD to make their project as environmentally friendly as possible,” he said. “On the environmental attributes of their particular project, I don’t think anybody argues that it’s probably the best one we’ve seen to date. They are offering at this point to present substantial mitigation for purchases of lands in the Barton Springs zone to offset the impact of their development.”

Members of the SOS Alliance and groups supporting the Open Government amendment attended the news conference, and afterward disputed some of the claims made by Council Members. “This is a group of community members getting together that care about the community and trying to change it,” said Jordan Hatcher, who challenged Leffingwell’s conclusion that the supporters of the Open Government amendment had behaved secretively as they drafted the amendment language. “I don’t know how much more democratic you can get.”

Hatcher also challenged the predictions by several Council Members that implementing the Open Government amendment would harm the city’s budget or require the city to violate citizens’ privacy. “They don’t mention at all the savings from tax giveaways and back-room deals that cost the city far more than even $36 million,” he said. Hatcher, who claimed he helped write the amendment, said the intent was not to require real-time posting of incoming e-mails to Council Members. “What we’re trying to do is to set a standard that’s a plain-language standard in the charter…and how that gets interpreted is up to the city in their ordinances,” he said. “I guarantee you that when this passes, they’re not going to be trying to interpret it in the ridiculous way they’re intending. The Council Members believe this charter amendment will somehow trump state and federal law. There’s no way it will do that. It would be illegal, and not called for in this amendment, to allow e-mails going in and out of the city to be placed on-line without any scrutiny whatsoever. We don’t ask for that.”

Also Wednesday, Ted Siff filed a designation of treasurer for EDUCATE PAC, which will oppose the two charter amendments, which will appear on the ballot as Amendments 1 and 2. Siff, publisher of two education magazines, is former Executive Director of the Austin Parks Foundation.

OWANA opposes demolition permits

Neighborhood group says town homes no substitute for original

Neighbors were not inclined to support the demolition of two properties in Old West Austin’s multi-family district last week, no matter how lacking those two properties might be in historic or architectural value or how upscale the new town homes might be.

Likewise, the Historic Landmark Commission did not hesitate to initiate historic zoning cases on 1515 Enfield and 1510 Palma Drive, both triplexes in an MF-3 district. Those two homes, combined with 1513 Enfield, would provide the space for the eight-unit Wellbridge Townhomes, which would be a combination of two- and three-story buildings.

Former City Attorneys Andy Martin and Jerry Harris made a two-pronged presentation on Wellbridge. Martin spoke to the historic value, or lack thereof, of the structures, as well as the percentage of historic structures in the neighborhood. Harris presented schematics on the new upscale town home project, stressing the architect’s careful consideration of the historic character of the surrounding properties. Both are with the firm of Brown McCarroll.

“These are the architect’s renderings,” Harris said, pointing to renditions of the proposed 24,000 square-feet of new construction. “It’s very much in character, in that it is new construction, but it is very sensitive to the existing historic framework of the Old West Austin neighborhood."

A line of protesters told the HLC they were opposed to demolition. Jean Stevens, chair of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association’s Zoning and Land Use Committee, said the two properties were not located within the historic district but were noted to be “contributing properties” and an important component in any future local historic district application. Old West Austin is a target for new development, Stevens said, and the neighborhood had lost several older, and potentially historic, properties since last October.

Terri Meyers, a local historian who helped document the structures of the neighborhood, said she did not want to see older homes and buildings in the neighborhood, simply to be replaced by “Disneyland version” of faux historic structures. Both Meyers and David Newton expressed concern about the traffic on Palma. The development will be built around a courtyard, and traffic will empty out onto Palma.

Meyers also defended the fact that the two structures were not necessarily attractive or high profile. The lack of such qualities did not take away from the neighborhood.

“I don’t subscribe to the thinking that you have to destroy a village in order to save it,” Meyers said. “A home isn’t more historic, simply because it’s cleaner and newer.”

Linda McNeilage of OWANA had discussed the possibility of pulling some of the “unfortunate add-ons” off the back of the Palma Plaza and building some kind of development around the existing structures. Such a compromise would be far more desirable than a “faux historical” compromise proposed by the developer.

Any consideration of demolition permit begins with Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky’s cursory assessment of historic merit. Sadowsky found little architectural merit and no immediate historic associations with 1515 Enfield. The property at 1510 Palma Drive did have some attractive features, such as clipped gables, but those were not especially unusual, nor were the occupants noteworthy, Sadowsky said.

The Historic Landmark Commission initiated historic zoning cases on both homes. Sadowsky will do a more complete review of the homes’ history and return in April to discuss his findings with the commission.

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

PAC action . . . Three general purpose political action committees have filed notices with the Austin City Clerk’s Office that they intend to spend at least $2,500 or more than 50 percent of their expenditures during a reporting period in connection with City Council elections. The Austin Police Association PAC, the Real Estate Council of Austin Good Government PAC and the Small Business PAC filed such notices before the deadline set forth in city ordinance—60 days prior to the election. The Austin Fire Fighters PAC has already spent nearly $2,300 on T-shirts, yard signs and larger signs to support the candidacy of Mike Martinez. Martinez is president of the Austin Firefighters Association and does not hold a PAC position. He is running for Place 2 on the City Council in the May 13 election . . . Friday fundraiser cancelled . . . The Austin Restaurant Association and the Small Business Group have cancelled their fundraiser for four City Council candidates that had been scheduled for Friday night . . . Big fight to be postponed. . . The zoning case that might have provided some fireworks today, a tract at Riverside and South I-35, is still in mediation. The parties involved are expected to seek a postponement . . . GreenChoice drawing . . . With the recent rise is fuel costs, for the first time ever in Texas and most of the nation, green power is cheaper than conventional power. That cost savings will be passed along to about 1,400 Austin Energy residential customers. Prior to today’s Council meeting, postcards will be drawn from more than 5,000 submitted and those customers will be enrolled in Austin Energy’s GreenChoice program. GreenChoice subscribers currently pay less than non-subscribers. A drawing is being held because the remaining supply of green power, at its current price, is limited. Mayor Will Wynn, Council Members Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell will draw the initial round of names. To memorialize the drawing, today will be declared “Choose Clean Day” . . . Meetings. . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board meets at 6pm at district headquarters at 1124 Regal Row in Manchaca . . . Job creation . . . The Opportunity Austin Business Retention and Expansion Program announced Wednesday that 24,900 jobs were added in the Austin region in 2005, exceeding the goal by nearly 15,000 jobs. The program, backed by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, is a five-year initiative aimed at creating 72,000 jobs and a $2.9 billion increase in payroll to the five county region by the end of 2008. Since the inception of Opportunity Austin, a total of 47,600 non-agricultural jobs have been added to the Central Texas economy putting Opportunity Austin at a 66 percent achievement rate as it enters its third year . . . Sheriff’s Extravaganza . . . The Travis County Sheriff Office’s Extravaganza is scheduled this Saturday at the Manchaca Community Center, 1310 FM 1626. Free activities, which will run between 11am and 4pm, will include child safety seat inspections, SWAT demonstrations, children’s games and rides and child ID safety information . . . TTC opponents to rally . . The Blackland Coalition, an organization formed in opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor project, plans a public meeting and rally Friday near Temple. Three candidates for Governor, Independents Carole Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman and Democrat Chris Bell, will speak on the issues and impact of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor and eminent domain. Coalition members say the project is a “land grab” by the state and a potential environmental disaster. The meeting is set from 7 to 9pm at Seaton Star Hall, 5 miles east of Temple on SH 53. The hall will open at 5:30pm and barbecue and refreshments will be sold.

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