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Judges hear arguments on Congressional districts

Friday, August 4, 2006 by

Federal panel studies options, likely to release findings today or Monday

Travis County voters will likely get another chance to vote for Congressman Lloyd Doggett when a federal three-judge panel gets done redrawing Congressional lines this week.

The panel, which has been hard at work on the US Supreme Court’s order to remediate an illegal 23rd Congressional District in South Texas, heard testimony from the state and plaintiff lawyers on Thursday morning. The general back-and-forth from the bench indicated to many among the plaintiff lawyers that the court had a map and was simply testing the waters on its postulations before releasing it on Friday.

"There’s nothing we can do that will make everybody happy," Judge Patrick Higginbotham said at the end of the morning session. "Our standard will be the voter."

If the map reflects the general line of questioning from the judges, and especially Higginbotham, it would reunite Webb County in Congressman Henry Cuellar’s 28th Congressional District, as preferred by the Supreme Court. It would also push the northern boundary of Congressman Henry Bonilla’s district into Southern Bexar County; and push the southern boundary on Doggett’s 25th Congressional district north; and possibly give Hidalgo County to the 15th Congressional District, which belongs to Congressman Ruben Hinojosa.

After the hearing, Doggett said he would represent any district drawn by the court but would prefer to see a district where a candidate is elected on merit rather than race. Doggett has not been as vocal about anchoring his district in Travis County – after two years of working on a base in South Texas – as his constituents have been.

The map proposal, of course, is speculation. No judge on the panel came out and said these would be the lines, but questions frequently focused on the commonality of Travis County and Hidalgo County Democrats; the kind of base Webb County presented for a South Texas Congressional District; and the "magic number" that would maintain Hispanic opportunity districts without, implicitly, kicking out Hispanic Congressman Bonilla, who relies heavily on Anglo Republican voters to carry his district.

Attorney Renea Hicks, who argued two different plans for Travis County, said it was important to note that the plans that came out of the House initially back in 2003 – before the conference committee and the partisan interventions – actually kept both Travis County and Webb County whole. Such a choice was not impossible under the map, Hicks said, although he noted the difficulty of giving Congressman Lamar Smith much of western Travis County – as is currently the case – if Doggett returns to the Travis County-preferred Austin-centric Congressional district.

Higginbotham did sharply question Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who was arguing on behalf of a plan favored by Gov. Rick Perry on that plan’s choice to divide Travis County into three Republican Congressional districts, none of which represented the actual political leanings of constituents. Cruz replied that the districts were compact and complied with the court’s mandate on South Texas – creating the required safe and opportunity districts – and did the least harm to incumbents.

Most of the maps—except the plan drawn on behalf of Republican incumbents Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick—were intended to inflict minimal disruption while protecting various interests. Both Republicans and a plan submitted by Bonilla, Cuellar and Smith would continue to split Webb County. Other maps united Webb County and made choices on how the lines around the county would be drawn. Reuniting Webb County could easily lead to current incumbents being paired to run against each other in special elections.

ZAP backs high-density apartments on Bull Creek

A majority of the Zoning and Platting Commission voted Tuesday night to support a zoning change to MF-6-CO for the Bull Creek Apartments on Bull Creek Road near MoPac. If the change from MF-4 is eventually approved by the City Council, it will allow Ardent Residential to redevelop the properties at 4320 and 4330 Bull Creek Road with a new, higher-density apartment complex.

Brett Denton of Ardent Residential proposes replacing the existing 140-unit complex of two-story buildings, which dates back to 1968, with a complex made up of three and four-story buildings and a total of 250 units. "It’s been a challenge in that the city does not have a zoning category that allows density for multi-family redevelopment because of floor-to-area (FAR) limitations," he said. "Our only tool in this case is to utilize MF-6 zoning with an appropriate conditional overlay."

The developers have worked out an agreement with the Oakmont Heights Neighborhood Association to limit the height of the project to 60 feet and increase the setbacks along both MoPac and Bull Creek Road from the required 15 feet to 25 feet. The proposal also calls for the buildings closest to the property line to be limited to three stories, with the four-story buildings on the interior of the site.

Attorney Michael Whellan told the ZAP that the primary reason for requesting the MF-6 zoning, the highest-density multi-family zoning, was for the increase in FAR. "The proposal will create a building envelope that is more restrictive than MF-4," he said. "We are talking only about FAR which would drive the density, and it’s something that has been agreed upon."

Some commissioners were concerned about the size of the project and its impact on nearby single-family homes. "If I lived on 44th Street, I would probably be in tears to think that there was going to be redevelopment of something that was built in 1968 and I was going to have to face it. I would feel the same way if I were on 43rd," Commissioner Janis Pinelli said. "If you look at this map, there’s no MF-6. There’s not even MF-5. If there were MF-4 and ½, that might help. There’s nothing here that’s even close to this precedent as far as land use." The tracts across 44th Street are SF-2 and SF-3.

"We know that MF-6 is not on the zoning map nearby, but we do believe that at this location with the appropriate conditional overlays, it is the appropriate zoning category as our city grows," countered Whellan. "It’s appropriate here, in the city limits, where we can capture the tax base close to downtown. And really, if not here, where? There’s a real advantage to having it somewhere you’ve already got 90 percent impervious cover within the city limits. I think this limits sprawl in a manner that is conducive to city goals, and most importantly is respectful to the neighborhood."

The commission voted 6-3 to support the change to MF-6-CO, with the set-backs and FAR limits as laid out in the agreement with the neighborhood. "With the aging stock of apartment complexes in Austin, if done properly these are ideal redevelopment projects," said Commissioner Clark Hammond. "They meet a lot of the goals the city has established for having a denser urban core." Chair Betty Baker, Commissioner Joseph Martinez, and Pinelli were opposed.

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

Oops! . . . The members of the Water and Wastewater Commission who voted Wednesday night in favor of Chair Michael Warner’s motion to support the staff in choosing the Cortaña site for WTP4 were: Commissioners Chien Lee, Roger Chan, Karen Friese and Cheryl Scott-Ryan. In Fact Daily reported Thursday that Commissioners Reynaldo Gonzalez and Glen Coleman were among those voting in favor. However, we later learned that those two commissioners intended to resign and did not participate in the meeting. Gonzalez, who works for CAS Engineers, said he did not apply for reappointment, thinking that he had resigned. Coleman sent a letter of resignation to the Mayor and Council, but the word did not make it to the City Clerk’s Office, so both names still appear on the city’s official list of commissioners. Official city policy is that a commissioner either resigns or continues to serve until a replacement is named. This raises two questions: how many members does the commission now have? Who do you have to tell to escape from indefinite servitude if the Council does not appoint someone to take your place? Coleman said late Thursday that he resigned in order to take a job with the city’s water reclamation program . . . Rock star at City Hall . . . Bobby Garza, an aide to Council Member Mike Martinez, has recently returned from a road trip with the band Maneja Beto, after gigs in San Francisco, LA and Arizona. Garza, who plays percussion and keyboards, does some vocal back-up too. Maneja Beto will be playing at the Velvet Spade, 912 Red River, on Aug. 11 . . . Ford to pitch hybrid SUV . . . Austin’s push to use fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle has gotten the attention of the Ford Motor Company. Ford will make a presentation on the successful use of Escape Hybrid taxis to Mayor Will Wynn, Austin Energy and local commercial fleet managers, to raise awareness of the environmental and economic benefits of an Escape Hybrid. A news release from Ford said cities across the country, including San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, are successfully using hybrid-electric vehicles to meet clean air goals and reduce fuel costs – from taxicabs to municipal fleet vehicles. Some cabs have accumulated more than 150,000 miles of severe use with no major mechanical problems, and taxi drivers are saving up to $30 per shift on fuel. For cities, that fuel savings is the equivalent of 32,000 pounds of CO2 emissions over a year, or 100,000 miles. This savings could make hybrid- electric technology well-suited to Mayor Wynn's goal of making Austin the "Clean Energy Capitol of the World," Ford said. The presentation will begin at 10:30am on August 9 at City Hall . . . Dell wellness clinic planned . . . In appreciation of building the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, Children’s Hospital of Austin, S afe Kids Austin, and Insure a Kid are hosting a child wellness and safety awareness day for the children of the men and women working on this world class medical center. Children will receive free immunizations and health wellness, and child safety tips. The event will be from 8:30am to1:30pm at the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas construction site at the Mueller redevelopment site . . . Governor appoints Austinite . . . Gov. Rick Perry has appointed Edward L. Summers of Austin to the Texas Board of Professional Engineers for a term to expire Sept. 26, 2011. The board licenses qualified engineers, enforces the Texas Engineering Practice Act and regulates the practice of professional engineering in Texas. Summers is a retired professor of accounting from the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as a member of the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy for eight years.

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