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Rules on mobile vendors move forward

Thursday, May 25, 2006 by

Council to hear about interim proposal today

Whether they are a welcome service available to hungry customers or a nuisance and a crime magnet for neighborhoods—depending of whom you ask—mobile food establishments (MFEs) are suddenly on the city’s radar screen.

Following a public hearing on a proposed ordinance to regulate the rolling restaurants, the Planning Commission recommended that the City Council appoint a task force to study the issues surrounding MFEs. Commission members, after considerable debate, also voted to recommend most of the elements of the ordinance be put in place as an interim step until a permanent measure is approved.

Greg Guernsey, Director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, said most of the MFEs in the city are currently operating illegally, but rather than clog the municipal court with complaints, staff hoped to get an ordinance in place to clarify the issue. He estimated that there are between 800 and 1,000 MFEs in the Austin area, but said it’s difficult to know just how many there are.

The proposed ordinance would allow MFEs to operate in all commercial and industrial districts. It stipulates that they must be licensed by health authorities, and may not be located within 200 feet from a residential area. It also limits the hours of operation from 6am to 3am, bans the use of sound equipment and seating for customers.

Several neighborhood representatives called for putting the restrictions in place quickly to resolve what they called a "serious problem" with the MFEs.

"This issue needs to be studied by a task force to look at all the issues," said Toni House with the South River City Citizens. "There is a high crime rate connected with the mobile food vendors in the Riverside neighborhoods. The late operating hours are particularly a problem. Three am is too late for them to operate."

Dave Eiger agreed. "Crowds tend to gather outside of clubs after they close at 2am," he said. "That causes all kinds of problems, everything from petty crime to littering and noise. It’s also an issue of enforcement. It ties up police resources which could be dealing with other problems."

But the vendors said they are merely meeting customer demand, and want to abide by any regulations the city thinks is necessary.

"We see it as an issue of keeping a distance from residences and the hours of operation," said Andy Martin of Brown McCarroll, an attorney hired by several vendors to represent them. "Not everyone agrees that it is illegal for them to operate on private property. What we need are clear guidelines for everyone to operate by."

Commissioners voted quickly to recommend that City Council appoint a task force to study the various issues surrounding MFEs and report back in 90 days. However, the panel was deeply divided over what—if any—regulations to put in place in the interim.

Commissioner Dave Sullivan moved that the hours of operations for all MFEs in areas other than industrial sites be limited to 7am to 11pm, with 6am to 3am at industrial sites.

After some debate, Commissioner Cid Galindo—saying he wanted to maintain the status quo for the vendors—made a substitute motion to institute the staff recommendations minus the 200-foot buffer, until a permanent ordinance is approved.

The Commission voted 5-3 to approve Galindo’s motion with member Gary Stegeman absent. Commissioners Sullivan, Mandy Dealey and Chair Chris Riley voted no. The issue is scheduled to go before City Council today.

City, county take another look at Waller tunnel

Construction of the Waller Creek tunnel could have one more shot as city and county officials agreed yesterday to take another look at the project as a joint investment.

Of course, a look does not necessarily mean action. At a regularly scheduled city-county meeting yesterday afternoon, County Commissioner Margaret Gomez agreed to take a proposal on a Waller Creek tax-increment finance district back to the county. Gomez did not guarantee, or even indicate, that the county was interested in such a deal.

This appears to be first time in two years, however, that the city and county have discussed the project, spurred by the fact that it failed to make the proposed list of projects on the November bond ballot and the fact that development in portions of the proposed tax-increment finance district is imminent, dropping the amount of financial gain the city would see if local officials do not act quickly.

John Stephens, the chief financial officer for the city, has attempted to shepherd the Waller Creek tunnel project through the approval process since it was discovered that bonds that were passed in 1998 were not going to cover the full cost of the tunnel. As Stephens explained to the joint city-county committee, the city is anywhere from $25 to $45 million short on the project, depending on which version of the project is picked. The most expensive version would both take the most land out of the flood plain for redevelopment and provide a constant flow of water along the creek bed.

The original Waller Creek project was intended to bring more than 1.2 million square feet of space out of the 100-year flood plain for development. Under the initial proposal, both the city and county would have issued an equal amount of certificates of obligation to supplement the existing bonds, with each side agreeing to share in the maintenance costs of the tunnel.

Stephens appeared to indicate that a new proposal would involve the city issuing additional debt and the county handing over a portion of its incremental revenue from the TIF zone in order to pay off the debt.

Stephens said the timeline – if the city is going to proceed with the project – is to get a proposal to the county by July or August. Right now, redevelopment in areas that would be incorporated into the proposed TIF – Waller Creek and Rainey Street – is possible.

"We need to get this done as soon as possible in order to capture and freeze the tax base at the lowest possible point so we’re getting the maximum amount of revenue for additional development," Stephens said. "The sooner we create the tax base, the better off we’ll be."

The city has completed two studies on the project – one by what is now Kellogg Brown & Root and a more recent one by Spillette of Houston. Both estimate the cost of the project and the possible revenue to be created by a zone. Stephens said the original consultant on the Spillane study, who has extensive experience in the Central Texas watersheds, would likely be available again to update his study.

County officials were less than eager to tackle a joint project on the Waller Creek tunnel project, especially given tight budget constraints. At the time of the original proposal, back in 2003, the county had just picked up $90 million in right-of-way costs on SH 130. Strains over funding the Travis County Healthcare District– city and county disagreed on what to provide in funding — only exacerbated the situation.

Wednesday’s joint city-county meeting was attended by Council Members Lee Leffingwel l and Brewster McCracken on the city side and Commissioner Margaret Gomez on the county side. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who also serves on the joint committee, was on vacation. Gomez agreed to take a proposal back to the county, and McCracken suggested that both city and county officials participate in crafting that revised proposal to guarantee that both sides are happy with the results.

The Downtown Austin Alliance, represented by Charlie Betts and Julie Fitch, attended the joint meeting but did not speak, along with potential Rainey Street developer Robert Knight. The DAA was a vocal proponent of the Waller Creek tunnel project, along with the Downtown Commission, which still supports including the project in the November bond election.

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

Today’s agenda . . . Last week, the Council meeting did not adjourn until about 2:30am after several lengthy zoning cases, an appeal and finally, a hearing on what to put on the November bond election. Council Member Lee Leffingwell said Wednesday that he expects the Council to postpone all the public hearings currently scheduled for 6pm tonight except for the bond election hearing. That will allow more people who want to express their views to actually do so. The ballot will not be set until June 8, however . . . The hearing on regulations of McMansions was going to be postponed anyway. The Planning Commission has postponed a hearing on those rules until June 6 at the request of the McMansion task force. That group will meet Friday, from 1:30 – 4:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room of City Hall . . . Zoning fury . . . Members of the neighborhood surrounding 505 Deep Eddy have a valid petition against a request for a zoning change. They’re more than a little miffed at the property owner, who tore down the previous structure without going through the appropriate process . . . The Council will also hold a hearing on the city’s MBE WBE rules at 1:30pm . . . Party for Maxey . . . Democratic political consultant Glen Maxey is having a party this evening to raise funds for his run to head the state Democratic Party. The party is from 5:30-7:30pm at the home of Susan Toomey Frost, 806 Rosedale Terrace. Opposing Maxey is Boyd Richie, who was elected interim chair of the party a month ago by the State Democratic Executive Committee. Democrats will choose their leader on June 10 at the convention in Fort Worth . . . Design award . . . The Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, a member of the Seton Family of Hospitals, is not yet complete but is already winning awards. The children’s hospital and Karlsberger, the architectural firm designing the new hospital, have been awarded the American Institute of Architects Columbus Chapter, 2006 Designing Towards Sustainability Award. This annual awards competition honors outstanding sustainable architecture. DCMCCT won in the unbuilt category. When completed, Dell Children’s will be three times larger than the current Children’s Hospital. The total cost of the project is $200 million. For more update and information on the construction visit: . . . Commissioner post still vacant . . . A large group of citizens from Precinct 3 in Williamson County, including the Sun City area, is pushing Williamson County Judge John Doerfler to appoint a commissioner to serve out the term of Thomas McDaniel, who died in office nine weeks ago. Three names have surfaced as candidates: Jack Noble, a former commissioner; Mert Darling, president of the Sun City Republican Club; and Valerie Covey, the Republican nominee for the commission seat in the November general election. Doerfler told the group he has not made up mind about who he wants to name, and gave no indication when he might do so. . . . Meetings . . . The Travis County Healthcare District meets at 5:30 p.m. at the Granger Building located at 314 West 11th Street in the Commissioners Courtroom . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board of Directors meets at 6pm at the district headquarters at 1124 Regal Row in Manchaca.

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