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Commissions study SOS ordinance proposal

Thursday, May 11, 2006 by

The proposal would curtail new development in the city’s Barton Springs Zone, bar the city from entering into economic development agreements with any business or employer that builds in the zone, and stipulates that a majority of the City Council must affirm in open session that a "grandfathering" development claim is valid.

The proposal is not the Proposition 2 Charter Amendment on Saturday’s ballot, but a proposed amendment to the city’s SOS Ordinance being floated by Council Member Lee Leffingwell, with support from Jennifer Kim and Raul Alvarez.

Any resemblance between the two measures is purely intentional.

The proposed ordinance amendment, which has been heard by the city’s Environmental Board and Planning Commission, was likely born of several days of negotiations between the city—led by Leffingwell—and the SOS Alliance as a compromise to keep what city officials considered a poorly constructed charter amendment off the ballot.

Those negotiations failed, and a series of political squabbles and legal battles have ensued over what effect the ordinance will have on the city’s ability to perform its duties in the Barton Springs Zone should the proposition become part of the City Charter.

Some backers of Proposition 2 have charged that the ordinance was introduced as a ruse to allow Council members to campaign against the charter amendment and avoid charges of abandoning the city’s commitment to protect Barton Springs.

City Environmental Officer Pat Murphy presented the amendment to both city boards, noting that measure would force city staff to perform a cost/ benefit and environmental analysis before the city approves a significant ($5 million) expenditure for major development infrastructure within the zone.

It would also force any business that enters into an economic development agreement for a development outside the zone to repay the full value of the package if at a future date, that business builds a facility in the zone that is subject to a grandfather claim allowing it to avoid SOS water quality standards. That clause also applies to businesses locating a major employment center in the zone.

SOS’s Brad Rockwell said the ordinance encompasses many of the protections that his groups seeks for the aquifer and its contributing zone, but falls short in some areas.

"We need to counteract the trend of a high level of development occurring in the Barton Springs zone," Rockwell told the Planning Commission this week. "You can count the number of developments in the zone that adhere to the SOS water quality standards on one hand because of grandfathering."

Rockwell pointed out several of what he considers loopholes in the proposed ordinance. He recommended that the measure require a supermajority of the Council affirm that a grandfathering claim is valid; reduce the size of developments in the zone that the Council must review; and remove a clause that would allow an exception to projects which contain a SMART housing component.

He also called for closing what he called the "AMD loophole," which he said would allow subsidiaries and close affiliates of corporations to enter into economic development agreements with the city after parent companies build in the zone.

The Environmental Board appointed a subcommittee to study the proposed ordinance, and the Planning Commission has postponed action on the item until its next meeting on May 23. The ordinance could go to Council as early as June.

However, if the voters approve Proposition 2 on Saturday, the ordinance would apparently become moot.

Domain seeks variance for signs

The developers of The Domain are seeking approval for a variance to the city’s sign ordinance for their mixed-use project in Northwest Austin. While the 234-acre project has frontage on several major roadways, the MI-PDA (Major Industry – Planned Development Area) zoning means it is classified as one single tract. That means it is allowed a much smaller number of signs than would normally be permitted if the project were subdivided.

Agent Melissa Hawthorne told the Sign Review Board this week that the developers would like a variance on both the number of signs and the height of some of the signs. Because of the terrain and the configuration of the MoPac access road, she said, getting onto the site could be problematic without proper signage giving drivers advance notice.

"The idea on the signs is to hit the access points to get you in, to get you on the private roadway," she said. "We are trying to do some really tasteful, artistic signs that allow you to have identification to get everyone in for what is planned to be 9,000,000 square feet and 3,500 living units."

The signage on the site is also constrained by the city’s rules governing scenic roadways. Although the parts of the tract fronting Braker and Burnet would not normally face those restrictions, the MI-PDA zoning effectively extends the regulations for those parts of the tract on MoPac to the rest of the site.

"As a unified development tied to a common plan…then the regulations go on top…for a scenic roadway even though they’re not scenic in these areas," explained Hawthorne.

Board members seemed ready to accept Hawthorne’s arguments to increase the number of signs on the property, especially along the parts facing Burnet and Braker. "I was OK with the number of signs being that this is a huge area, but I have issues with some of the other variances," said Chairman Frank Fuentes, citing the height of the proposed signs along Braker and Burnet. In some cases, the developers are requesting variances of 50 percent or more to the height that would be allowed under the scenic roadway regulations.

Hawthorne countered that the signs would be consistent with those allowed on commercial roadways. While board members seemed sympathetic to that argument, Fuentes said that Hawthorne’s findings of fact as presented in the application were insufficient. She agreed to request a postponement of the case and return with more information.

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

Conventional wisdom . . . Rumor has it that those who can predict such things—we’re talking geeks with computers, not tea leaf readers—predict that Proposition 1 will go down, Proposition 2 will pass or fail just by a hair. The rest of the proposals to amend the charter, including the not so controversial insurance for domestic partners of city employees, are all expected to win approval . . . Press conference today . . . A group of women environmentalists, including Shudde Fath, Brigid Shea and Mary Arnold will hold a press conference at noon today at City Hall to discuss their support of Propositions 1 and 2 on Saturday’s ballot. They will also call on AMD to abandon its decision to build a campus over the Barton Springs . . . Meetings . . . The Commission on Immigrant Affairs meets at 6pm in Room 2016 at City Hall . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District meets at 6pm in district headquarters at 1124 Regal Row in Manchaca . . . J udge upholds state on petitions . . . Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel has ruled in favor of the Texas Secretary of State in a lawsuit brought by Comptroller and independent gubernatorial candidate Carol Keeton Strayhorn over how the state planned to verify the signatures on her petition to get on the November ballot. Secretary of State Roger Williams said he will verify all signatures, instead of using a sampling technique. Both sides claimed victory in the ruling, with Williams saying his policy was vindicated, while Strayhorn says the court hearing forced Williams to cut the estimate of how long he will take to certify the petitions. Strayhorn has submitted petitions containing some 223,000 signatures. The other independent candidate, Kinky Friedman, plans to submit his signatures today . . . Apartment recycling . . . The Solid Waste Advisory Commission is taking a look at extending the city’s current Commercial/Multi-Family Recycling Ordinance to more apartment complexes in the city. Currently, all properties with 100 or more employees or rental units must have a recycling program for its tenants. However, Chair Gerard Acuña said they are studying extending the ordinance to those with 50 or more. Rhonda Martinez, a property manager for an 82-unit complex in West Austin, said it is very difficult to get apartment dwellers in small complexes to cooperate with recycling programs. Acuña says the Commission will study the matter further before penning the ordinance. . . Weaver moves to Denver . . . Greg Weaver, the driving force behind the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport redevelopment project, has announced that he is moving to Denver. ProLogis, the developer for the Mueller project, has promoted Weaver to a new position where he will be national manager of mixed-use and retail development for the company. Weaver will continue to be heavily involved in the Mueller project, which is the largest of ProLogis mixed-use developments . . . New beat reporter . . . Asher Price has taken over the environmental beat at the American-Statesman. The post has been vacant for some time . . . Getting it straight . . . In an article in Wednesday’s In Fact Daily, we misidentified John Philip Donisi. He served as a member of the Historic Preservation Task Force.

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