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Changes planned to strengthen historic landmark law

Wednesday, May 10, 2006 by

More buy-in from homeowners on forming historic districts and stiffer penalties for builders and others who abuse remodeling permits were two of the major changes in the city historic preservation program recommended by the Historic Preservation Task Force. The panel also recommends giving owners more clout when they oppose a case involving their property.

The findings of the Task Force were presented to the Planning Commission last night, which approved the 14 recommended changes and forwarded them on to City Council with a couple of additional suggestions. The Council reconvened the Task Force back in August to deal with recurring problems with the historical designation process and other issues that had arisen regarding historic districts.

Betty Baker, chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, served as chair of the Task Force. The report was prepared by and delivered to the Planning Commission by Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky.

"The group met 14 times over the past nine months," Sadowsky said. "They have prepared a comprehensive list of changes that we believe will streamline the process of designating historic districts."

One of the main changes suggested was a measure to require that at least 60 percent of the property owners within a proposed district support designation of the area at the time the nomination is made. That is an increase from previous recommendations that only 51 percent be in support the district.

In addition, the Task Force recommended that at least 51 percent of the principal buildings within the proposed historic district contribute to its historic character at the time of application.

Sadowsky said another recommendation was that 75 percent vote of the filled seats on the HLC be required to move an owner-opposed case forward to a land-use commission (ZAP or Planning) and the Council.

"We were sending a lot of cases with a 4-3 vote to the Council," Sadowsky said. "The cases need to be stronger than that before they move beyond the Historic Landmark Commission." He also noted that all appeals of a denial of Certificate of Appropriateness must first go to with the ZAP or Planning Commission before they can be further appealed to the Council.

One the strongest suggestions made by the Task Force would provide for increased penalties for un-permitted actions in local historic districts, including illegal demolitions, relocations and architectural modifications to contributing buildings.

"Our current penalties aren’t much of a deterrent," Sadowsky said. "A lot of builders and remodelers just factor them in as the cost of doing business. We need some penalties that will deter them."

Sadowsky suggested fines as high as $2,000 per day for illegal destruction of historic buildings. He said the city might also consider denial of a building permit for a period of time to builders who violate their permits to prevent them from building a new structure on the site.

Other recommendations include: a staff review of applications for remodeling permits within National Register and local historic districts; staff should have the same authority to approve applications for minor building permits in National Historic districts as well as local districts; and applicants for demolition and modification permits should detail the scope of the planned project for staff to review to identify potential permit violations.

In addition to Baker, other Task Force members included Jerry Harris, Keith Jackson, Tere O’Connell, John Philip Donisi, Charles Betts, Joseph Martinez, and David West (ex-officio). The panel’s report and recommendations will go before City Council on May 18.

Mueller development on track

Advisors want to keep affordable housing on Catellus' priority list

Construction of housing on the former Mueller Municipal Airport site is on schedule to begin next year, and the city’s advisory team on the project wants to make sure that the developer and the city do not lose sight of the continuing need for affordable housing.

Greg Weaver of Catellus presented an update of the project to the Robert Mueller Municipal Advisory Plan Implementation Advisory Committee, primarily focusing on the master-development retail project in the northwest quadrant. Site work already has begun, and the first phase of the project, totaling 220,000 square-feet of retail space, should be complete by next March with leasing continuing through the fall of 2007. Major tenants should be announced in the next 30 to 60 days.

Once retail building begins on the site, construction of housing will begin. Weaver said that one single-family project of 344 lots is under construction, with 21 percent of the lots set aside for affordable housing at 80 percent of median-family income. Two multi-family options – one non-profit senior-oriented on the Town Center and the other family-oriented near the elementary school – have set aside 10 percent of their units for affordable housing at 60 percent at median-family income. The overall goal at Mueller, when the project is complete, is to have one in four homes be affordable.

The first homes at Mueller will be available next fall, Weaver said. The marketing program for the Mueller project is projected to begin in January.

Commissioner Donna Carter said she would prefer a dialogue on keeping units affordable sooner, rather than later. As soon as construction begins on the first residences at the end of 2007, the value of the property within the community will begin to rise. Economic development is good, but it should not be done at the peril of losing affordable housing, she said.

Chair Jim Walker agreed that diversity was important in the Mueller community. He agreed to call a meeting to talk not only about setting, but also maintaining, affordable housing values. That meeting is likely to occur in June, with the assistance of the project’s affordable housing adviser.

Catellus also has initiated a small builder program, one that would utilize local builders for specialized projects on the Mueller project. Weaver’s team has identified the popular garden homes – 12 lots on a central yard court – to be an ideal project for a smaller builder. A smaller number of custom homes may be planned for the lakefront, at the higher-end price point of the residential properties at Mueller. Weaver said a request for proposals would be going out to a long list of builders in the city.

Dell Children’s Hospital is slated for completion next June. The construction of the project’s first major greenbelt is slated for this fall, and selection of an artist this summer for a $500,000 public art program at Mueller. Other projects expected to be underway at Mueller soon could include a proposed University of Texas academic health research center, which could be announced this spring or summer.

Early voting sees big final day turnout

Countywide only 4.5 percent cast ballots

Although early voting has lagged behind other years, there was a rush to vote Tuesday, with many polling places seeing more than twice as many voters as they have on any other days set aside to cast ballots early. Still, the total early vote for all of Travis County was only 4.5 percent as early voting closed yesterday. Of the county’s 606,629 voters, only 24,573 have voted.

Political consultant Mark Littlefield, who is heading up the campaign for Council Member Brewster McCracken, estimates that 70 percent of those who voted early are City of Austin voters. He said it is normal for folks to wake up on the final day of early voting and make the trip to the polls. Tuesday’s vote may have been in response to a sudden deluge of television advertising—mostly related to Propositions 1 and 2. About 1,000 of those who had voted through Sunday live in the city’s ETJ, he said, and they would be eligible to vote on Proposition 2.

The Clean Water Clean Government PAC has been running two separate spots, with the most recent one concentrating on reasons to vote in favor of Proposition 2. The Committee for Austin’s Future, which opposes Propositions 1 and 2, has been running a spot attacking Proposition 1.

Place 2 candidates Eliza May and Mike Martinez are running TV spots, as are Place 6 candidates Sheryl Cole and Darrell Pierce. Mayor Will Wynn and McCracken also have TV ad buys, although their commercials seem more like a Chamber of Commerce spot for Austin than a campaign plug.

As usual, the final day’s vote was the heaviest of the nine-day period. From the Albertson’s on North Lamar, where 264 voters cast ballots Tuesday, as compared to only 118 on Monday, to the Randall’s in West Lake Hills, with 747 voters as compared to 393 the previous day, to the Randall’s on West 35th Street, with 507 voting Tuesday compared to 225 the day before, voting was up.

More than 590 voters cast ballots at the Randall’s on South MoPac and 762 at the Randall’s on Research. Each of those figures is more than twice the number that voted the day before—and Monday’s vote was generally heavier than the previous days.

Voters in East Austin may perceive this year’s election as more important than some, with the two traditional "minority seats" up for grabs. But, like their counterparts in West Austin, they put off voting. At the HEB on E. 7th Street, 125 voters cast ballots yesterday, compared to 211 for the entire previous eight days. Ninety-two voters marked ballots at the Northeast Health Center, compared to 56 the day before.

But some people may stay home because this year’s race for Mayor, like the one of 2000, has zero sizzle. That year, popular Mayor Kirk Watson was re-elected. Also on that ballot were Raul Alvarez, Thomas, and Wynn, all running for the first time.

Thomas and Wynn won their seats without a runoff. Only 7 percent of the city’s registered voters showed up for that election. If that is the case this year, as few as 35,000 voters could be making decisions on matters deemed critical to the city’s future.

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

Council on break . . . There is no Council meeting this week. Council Member Betty Dunkerley is attending the Government Finance Officers Association meeting in Montreal, Quebec and will be back on Thursday . . . Mayor Will Wynn will be attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors Energy Summit in Chicago today and tomorrow. The Mayor was elected Chairman of the Energy Committee to the USCM. last June after his presentation to the group on Austin's Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle program and alternative energy initiatives. During this week's meetings, Wynn will again be discussing Austin's continued leadership role on Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles and alternative energy sources . . . Meetings . . . The Telecommunications Commission meets at 7:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Solid Waste Advisory Commission meets at 6:30pm in Room 105 at Waller Creek Plaza . . . Hispanic chamber hires Matthews . . . The Board of Directors of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has selected Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing to re-brand the GAHCC. The marketing firm plans to create and produce a brand, logo, and tagline for the GAHCC, and develop marketing and promotional materials about the benefits of the GAHCC . . . New Round Rock annex . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court has approved a motion by Pct. 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman to amend the county's zoning application with the City of Round Rock for the proposed Deep Wood Drive county annex to prohibit the inclusion of probation offices. Although the county is not required to go through the zoning process, Birkman chose to go through the process in order to alleviate concerns of nearby Round Rock West residents. Birkman plans a community meeting to present preliminary plans for a new county annex at 7pm on May 15 in the cafeteria at Deep Wood Elementary School, 705 St. Williams Drive in Round Rock. The annex will contain offices for the Tax Assessor/Collector, Pct. 1 Commissioner, Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace, Pct. 1 Constable, Williamson County and Cities Health District, Sheriff's office and possibly an EMS substation . . . Environmental awards . . . Three Austin area projects will receive awards tonight at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's 2006 Texas Environmental Excellence Awards. Austin Energy, Goodwill Industries of Central Texas, and Bamberger Ranch Preserve are among the 10 honorees across the state. Sen. Kip Averitt, chair of the Texas Senate Committee on Natural Resources, will present the keynote address. The program begins at 6:30pm at the Austin Convention Center. For information on the awards, go to . . Think you're smart? . . .A lot of us think we're pretty smart because we choose to live in Austin. Now Kiplinger's magazine agrees with us. The financial monthly has ranked Austin at No. 5 on its list of America's smartest places to live. For the record, Austin finished behind Nashville, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Albuquerque and Atlanta. Kiplinger's editors asked readers to describe their ideal place to live, and the answer was they wanted cities that are fun, vibrant and affordable. It then sent writers in search of 50 smart places to live that fit that criteria. Austin items getting kudos from the editors included the view of downtown from the State Capitol and the tacos at Guero's in SoCo.

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