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McMansion Ordinance hearing continues The long-awaited Council hearing on the residential task force (AKA McMansion) ordinance began shortly before midnight last night, with staff and task force members presenting the ordinance to the Council. With numerous questions from the Council, as well as minority reports, it was 1am before Blake Tollett of the West Austin Neighborhood Group kicked off the hearing as the first speaker.

Friday, June 9, 2006 by

At that point, Mayor Will Wynn said enough citizens indicated they wanted to speak that the Council would be hearing "a combined total of 597 minutes" of testimony, depending on the willingness of citizens to wait.

The Mayor thanked the task force members for their work and the task force thanked the staff. It was one of the more civil moments in recent Austin City Council history. Wynn opined that the Council would have to figure out a way to keep the public hearing open, since so many wanted to register opinions. Many of those wanting to speak or donate time gave up and went home but it seems likely that the next Council will be hosting a continued public hearing and vote on the ordinance. Council Member Brewster McCracken warned that the interim ordinance would expire on June 23.

Bonds get a boost to $567.4 million

Council adds open space, affordable housing funds to package

Environmental groups and supporters of affordable housing scored a significant victory on Thursday as the Austin City Council set the amount of the city bond package that will be on the November ballot.

The Council voted to increase the amount proposed for acquiring open space and for funding affordable housing, raising the total amount of the bond package from $539 million to $567.4 million. The package will be split up into seven different proposals covering transportation ($103.1 million), drainage and water quality protection lands ($145 million), park facilities and parkland ($84.7 million), community and cultural facilities ($31.5 million), affordable housing ($55 million), a new Central Library ($90 million), and public safety facilities ($58.1 million).

After receiving a recommendation of $614.8 million worth of projects from the Bond Election Advisory Committee, Council Members had spent the past few weeks trying to whittle the package down to an amount closer to $500 million to minimize the impact of the bonds on the city’s property tax rate (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 6, 2006). To allow for the higher amount of $567.4 million, Council Member Betty Dunkerley proposed staggering the bonds over a seven-year period instead of a six-year period. "By doing this it allows us to keep the tax rate below the 2 cents per $100 valuation previously mentioned, while at the same time allowing us to have more bonds in the bond package," she said. "That would result in a tax impact of 1.88 cents rather than the 2 cents as previously described." Her suggestion won unanimous support from the rest of the Council.

Most of that additional money, if voters approve, will be devoted to purchasing more water quality protection land. The amount originally set aside for that line item was $30 million. At the urging of Council Member Lee Leffingwell, the Council increased that to $50 million, boosting the total amount for drainage and water quality protection from $125 million to $145 million.

"Obviously, we’re very pleased," said Mike Blizzard, who worked with a coalition of groups supporting money for parks and open space. He also praised the Council decision to alter the wording for the bond proposal for park facilities and parkland to allow the city to use that money to buy tracts in the Blackland Prairie area. "Instead of going to a destination park, it could be used to preserve prairie land in northeast Austin, which is rapidly diminishing," he said "Overall, I think it’s a great package that’s going to have a very broad and active support base."

The Council’s decision to add money for parks and open space was also warmly received by Environment Texas, the environmental arm of the Texas Public Interest Research Group. "The Council clearly listened to the overwhelming public support for protecting the springs," said Luke Metzger of Environment Texas. "This proposed investment couldn’t come at a more critical time for aquifer protection."

The second major boost was to the amount set aside for affordable housing. The Council adjusted the amount in the bond package for that line item from $50 million to $55 million. "We’ve heard a lot from the community on this issue," said Council Member Raul Alvarez, who made motion to put more money into affordable housing.

Some cultural facilities whose supporters had consistently requested funding during meetings of the Bond Election Advisory Committee were also added to the bond package on the dais. The Council accepted a request by Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas to add $1.5 million for an African-American Cultural District. That same amount had previously been deducted from the amount set aside for park facilities and parkland. The Council also supported a request from Council Member Raul Alvarez to add $5 million for a new Mexic-Arte Museum. "The amount requested is only a portion of the amount anticipated for the construction of a new museum," he said, "but this is a good way to show public support for the capital campaign on which the museum will be embarking." The Council also added $500,000 for the Elisabet Ney Museum and $500,000 for the Susanna Dickinson house.

The line item for the new Central Library was approved for $90 million, the amount requested by library supporters. That large amount of money for a single project had made an attractive target for supporters of other causes who sought ways to fund their favorite project without adding to the overall cost of the bond package. But Council members decided to send the proposal to voters this fall with a $90 million price tag, which was the minimum amount supporters said would be necessary to begin construction of a Central Library large enough to meet the needs of the city’s growing population.

"The new library will be a space not just for getting books, but to bridge the digital divide. We’re seeing more and more that libraries are using their space to teach people how to use computers," said Council Member Jennifer Kim. "Libraries are not just for checking out books. They really have a greater purpose and mission in our communities. I look forward to having a new downtown library."

Mayor Will Wynn, who first proposed the idea of an "Envision Central Texas" bond package more than a year ago (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 19, 2005), was happy with the final package. "We took longer than usual, but I think it was appropriate," he said. "We worked closely with the board of Envision Central Texas to make sure that as we move forward as the core city of the five-county region, we keep the fundamental principles of Envision Central Texas in mind as we make these critical capital investments." The seven propositions will be on the November 7 city ballot.

Water conservation measures could save the city a significant amount of water over the next few years, according to a report by the Austin Water Utility to the City Council Thursday. But after a 90-minute presentation, some Council members weren’t entirely convinced that city staff had explored conservation as a viable alternative to building a new water treatment plant.

In a wide-ranging report, with presentations by Deputy City Manager Joe Canales, AWU Director Chris Lippe, Plummer and Associates consultant Steve Coonan and others, current and past conservation efforts were laid out, and plans for future projects were revealed.

Staff reported that programs such as toilet replacement, clothes washer rebates, irrigation audits and rain barrels were saving the city about 5 percent of capacity, or some 12.7 million gallons per day (MGD). Future programs such as reducing the amount of water leaks in the system, putting multi-family and industrial customers on a 5-day cycle, increasing water rates for those at high consumption levels and requiring more efficient fixtures could save another 21.1 MGD. Plans to reclaim treated wastewater could save another MGD.

But even with the ability to save that amount of water, staff continued to tell Council members that it is critical that the city bring additional water treatment capacity online by 2011. That concerned some Council members, such as Lee Leffingwell, who had a testy exchange with City Manager Toby Futrell.

"Why can’t we use conservation to put off building a new plant for a year, possibly two?" he asked. "I believe we can save a lot of money by putting off building the plant for at least a year."

But Futrell disagreed, saying the time to avoid a water shortage is running out.

"We may have already missed the envelope in which we can get this done on time," she said. "We have talked to several engineering firms about the project, and they all expressed concern over being about to get it built by the 2011 deadline."

Leffingwell continued, asking how much money the city could save by putting off building the plant for a year. Staff did not have an immediate answer, but Council Member Betty Dunkerley came down on the side of staff, saying that given the way most projects go, it was now likely that 2012 or 2013 would be the earliest a plant could be put online.

Shortly after that exchange, Leffingwell and Futrell had an animated conversation off the dais.

Lippe pointed to a chart that he has shown Council on several occasions showing the city’s water demands and treatment needs, projected out through 2025. Adjusted to allow for projected conservation measures, it appeared to show that increased water savings could add only a slight amount of flexibility in having the Green Water Treatment Plant online by 2011, and possibly two or three years on Water Treatment Plant # 4, project for 2015.

He added that in comparison to other cities, Austin’s water use is somewhat higher. Statistics from the state showed that while the average usage in Texas was 145 daily gallons per capita, Austin was using about 180 gallons per capita. He said difference in the consumer-industrial mix in cities like San Antonio and El Paso accounted for much of that difference.

Staff also outlined a proposal from a group known as Sustainable Water Resources (SWR) led by Austin attorney Pete Winstead, to sell water to the city from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in Lee County. Though it is being studied as a possible long-term water supply alternative, staff said there are a number of concerns about the potential project, included when it could be online, issues of blending of two types of water in the system, and cost of the water.

Staff’s bottom line message to Council appeared to be that some water could be saved through conservation measures, but not enough to forestall the need to build new water treatment capacity. But from the reaction of some Council members, the issue of conservation as a water supply strategy seems far from settled.

Regardless, city staff will be back on June 22 with a recommendation on which engineering firm Council should hire to do the preliminary engineering for design of a new Green Water Treatment Plant. And on July 27—the next meeting after the June 22 meeting—with evaluations on privately owned sites for the new Green. Both of those sites are in East Austin, downstream of the Longhorn Dam.

Mobile Food Vendor rules returned to Planning Commission

Thursday, the City Council sent the proposed mobile food vendor ordinance back to the Planning Commission for more work, recommending that mobile vendors be prohibited on property that has been zoned for residential or commercial use and directing the commission to look at the distance required between the food vendors and homes.

Temporary regulations governing such businesses are still in place.

The mobile vending ordinance was sandwiched between a hearing on an interlocal agreement with the Austin school district and the marathon session on the McMansions ordinance. Still, more than a dozen speakers – both from mobile vendors and South Austin neighborhoods – were on hand, all dissatisfied with the draft efforts. A total of 43 people signed up on the vendor ordinance, almost every one of them against it.

Mobile vendors wanted the Council to know that they pay taxes, meet Texas Department of State Health Services regulations and complete the kind of food management certification requirements of other types of food establishments. Polo Cardenas, representing a number of the mobile vendors in the audience who did not address Council, showed his health inspections and tax certificates.

"What we’re asking you is to please defend us in our position as well," Cardenas told the Council in Spanish that was translated by another speaker. "All we want to do is to pay for our family and our way of life. We’re just trying to operate a business."

Neighbors, on the other hand, were distraught by the disruptions that mobile food vendors had brought to the neighborhood. While the recommendations of the Planning Commission addressed issues such as seating, setbacks and signage, The real problem, they said, are the hours of operation. The later the mobile vendors operate, the more drunken the patrons are, neighbors complained.

While the vendors may be running an honest business, the late-night hours often lead to criminal activity in the neighborhood, said Toni House of the South River City Citizens. Patrons – who are often leaving the nightclubs on Riverside Drive – show up on foot and often inebriated. They are easy prey for criminals. House urged the city to use the San Antonio ordinance – which required more reasonable hours – as a model.

Former City Attorney Andy Martin was on hand to defend the vendors as their representative at Council. Martin, who is now with Brown McCarroll, told the Council that there was clearly some confusion over cause and effect when it came to the ordinance, implying that the real problem was how the city made sure how local bars handle intoxicated patrons.

"Nobody gets drunk from eating a taco," Martin said, later adding. "This is not a matter of the operation of the mobile vending establishments."

A number of Council members said they had no desire to put mobile vendors out of business. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said the recommendations from the Planning Commission – a 200-foot distance requirement from the vendor to local homes – needed some serious scrutiny to judge its real impact on vendors. Instead, Dunkerley proposed that the mobile vendors be prohibited on residential or commercial property.

Council Member Raul Alvarez, who made the final motion, agreed. Like Dunkerley, he said zoning limitations should be enforced and that the Planning Commission should review the distance requirement more carefully. He noted that the exclusion of zoning categories was a significant step in regulating food vendors. A recommendation on the distance requirement – whether a task force or subcommittee is necessary would be up to Planning Commission – would be expected back to Council by the end of August.

Alvarez also struck some sections of the Planning Commission recommendation that didn’t apply, given the changes proposed by Council. The motion to send the ordinance back to the Planning Commission passed on a vote of 6-0, with Council Member Brewster McCracken off the dais.

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

Final meeting for Thomas, Alvarez . . .Thursday's Council meeting was the last for Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas and Council Member Raul Alvarez. Instead of the usual street sign bearing his name, Thomas was presented with a sign for "Man of Principle Lane." The staff also presented Council Member Alvarez with a distinctive street sign, using the Spanish word for "road" to make the sign read "Raul Alvarez Camino." City Manager Toby Futrell announced that the gymnasium at the new Turner-Roberts Recreation Facility in Colony Park would be named for Thomas, while a new disc golf course in East Austin would be named after Alvarez . . . Another short-timer . . . Deputy City Manager Joe Canales is counting the days until he retires at the end of the month, having postponed his retirement at the behest of City Manager Toby Futrell. He reminded his boss of just how short his time is Thursday during the briefing on options for a new water plant, noting that it would be "my last presentation to you as a Council." Futrell interrupted, "Stop rubbing it in, Joe." Canales oversees the Austin Water Utility as well as the Public Works Department and the Department of Small and Minority Business Resources. Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza has already begun dividing his time between his office at Town Lake Center and City Hall in preparation for taking over Canales’ duties until Futrell chooses a new deputy . . . More changes . . . As C ouncil Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas prepare to leave office, their staffs have been looking for jobs. Alvarez’ executive secretary, Elaine Diaz, will be joining the CAMPO staff under the direction of Michael Aulick. Thomas’ executive secretary, Gwen McGee is going to the Parks & Recreation Department. Intern Dominique Washington will be joining the Health & Human Services Department . . . Gearing up . . . Council Member-elect Sheryl Cole and aide Kenny Thompson were on hand for Thursday’s presentation on options for the Austin Water Utility. Cole said she is also hiring Beverly Robbins, who will come to the city from the Austin Urban League . . . New Wi-Fi spot . . . Here’s a new way to convince your boss that you’re working when you’re really at Barton Springs Pool. Email her with information on all your new contacts as you bask in the sun by Austin’s favorite swimming hole. Council Member Jennifer Kim will be at the pool at 3pm today to discuss the latest on Austin’s wireless initiative . . . DeLay replacement enjoined . . . The Quorum Report reported last night that District Judge Darlene Byrne had issued a temporary restraining order against the Texas Republican Party which prevents the party from selecting a replacement to appear on the November ballot in place of Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Sugarland). DeLay won the Republican Primary in March but made himself ineligible for the ballot on Wednesday by notifying party Chair Tina Benkiser that he had moved to Virginia. The Republican Party chairs in his district were expected to choose a new nominee but must now wait to see what happens in the lawsuit. The parties will be back in court on June 22, according to the report . . . Special meeting for zoning . . . After postponing about 10 of the zoning cases on Thursday’s lengthy agenda Mayor Will Wynn warned the staff to be ready for an extra meeting in August. He noted that the Council would have no meetings between June 22 and July 27, which will mean the pressure to hear zoning cases will be especially heavy in August. He said he would like to schedule an extra meeting, perhaps on a Wednesday afternoon, just for zoning cases. The long sendoff for Council Member Raul Alvarez and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas meant that some folks who came for 4pm zoning cases did not have a hearing until after 8pm. So, the 6pm hearings began at 9:30pm, with the Mayor cheerfully telling the audience they should be making plans for breakfast . . . Clarksville house demolition OK’d . . . The City Council declined to deem the Bolden-Higgins House at 1710 West 10th Street historic last night, despite the passionate pleas of long-time Clarksville resident Pauline Dixon. Dixon’s comment that she did not want Clarksville to be lost like Wheatville – Wheatville having been swallowed up by the University of Texas long ago – drew applause from the audience. Council members, however, were swayed by reports of outside consultants who reported serious structural damage, including an inability to re-use the façade in any new building. Council Member Brewster McCracken initially called for a two-week delay to hammer out an agreement on design standards for the home between Owner Patrick Sutton and Clarksville residents, but the builder stepped forward to say such a delay would be a hardship. The vote denying the historic zoning was unanimous, 7-0 . . . Likewise . . . Other hearings last night overshadowed what was the likely end of the Austin Athletic Club on Shoal Creek. The clearly historic building – the city’s first public gymnasium – has been severely damaged in floods on Shoal Creek, making adaptive reuse possible only with significant work and money. Council voted 5-0, with Council Members Brewster McCracken and Raul Alvarez off the dais, against historic zoning. That clears a way for the demolition of the building, which has been closed for almost 20 years . . . At his last meeting on the dais, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas got to see the passage of an interlocal agreement on a project of great concern to him – the construction of the Turner Roberts Recreation Center and the Austin school district's Overton Elementary School – on the city-owned Colony Park site. If all goes well, the construction of the recreation center would be underway by late this year, with construction completed by next summer . . . Gay pride festival tomorrow . . . What is billed as the largest gay pride festival in Texas will be held from Noon to 8pm at Waterloo Park on Saturday. The festival will feature music, food, fun and more than 100 exhibitors, including the Austin Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

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