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Vendor ordinance gets Council hearing today

Thursday, August 31, 2006 by

After hearing criticism from both vendors and South Austin neighborhood activists over proposed new regulations for mobile food vendors, the Planning Commission is sending its recommendations on those new regulations to a City Council hearing today. Those recommendations include allowing individual neighborhood groups to opt-in or opt-out of some of the key provisions of the ordinance including set-backs from residential areas and hours of operation.

The opt-in/opt-out language was added at the urging of Commissioner Cid Galindo, who said the minimum set-backs outlined in the ordinance could unfairly hurt vendors that had operated as close as 20 feet to residential uses for years without any conflict. “If there’s even one mobile food vendor that this puts out of business, but they’ve done nothing but serve their neighborhood and everybody wants them to be there…why would we take an action to put them out of business? There needs to be an opt-in mechanism so neighborhoods can decide if they have a problem or not,” he said. “Otherwise, I think we’re just creating a nightmare and we’re putting a lot of good people out of business who have never created a problem for anyone.”

At least one Council Member, Mike Martinez, has gone on the record opposing the opt-in/opt-out provision, saying that the ordinance should apply equally to all neighborhoods.

The original proposal called for a prohibition on mobile vendors within 100 feet of a residence, then allowing various hours of operation depending on how far beyond 100 feet the vendor was from the nearest residential use. While that restriction was designed to protect people in single-family homes from the noise associated with late-night customers of some vendors, especially along busy Riverside Drive, both vendors and neighborhood groups said it was unsatisfactory.

Vendors were represented by a group called AVATACO, which stands for the Austin Association of Mobile Trailer Food Vendors. “We continue to insist on our recommended 70-foot buffer,” said Raul Ramirez. He told the commission that 95 percent of the mobile vendors he had surveyed were within 200 feet of residential areas, and many were within 100 feet. Although the trailers are technically “mobile”, Ramirez said many of those vendors were facing constraints that would limit where they could move and the proposed set-backs would force some out of business.

Neighborhood groups were concerned with a provision allowing mobile vendors to operate as an accessory use for restaurants even without the proposed setbacks. “Restaurants already have an economic advantage over true mobile vendors and should not be exempt from this ordinance. Mobile vendors identified as restaurant accessory uses should be subject to the same regulations,” said Toni House, with the South River City Citizens. “If you exempt the restaurant accessory use mobile vendors, residential neighborhoods will continue to suffer the same late-night complaints this ordinance should resolve.”

SRCC members were drawn into the mobile vending debate in the first place because of El Taquito on Riverside Drive, which began as a mobile vendor but now operates as an accessory use to a restaurant. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 13, 2003 and June 5, 2002).

Commissioners sought a way to protect those neighborhoods opposed to mobile vendors without putting hundreds of other vendors out of business. They eventually decided on a minimum 50-foot setback from most single-family residential uses for mobile vendors, provided the neighborhood chose to opt-in for the setback regulation. Vendors less than 300 feet from a single-family residential use would be limited to operating between 6am and 10pm regardless of whether the neighborhood chooses to opt-in. Beyond 300 feet, vendors would be allowed to operate until 3am.

The commission’s recommendation also calls for placing the 6am-10pm limit on vendors operating as an accessory to a restaurant, which would deal with the issue raised by members of the SRCC. The commission also recommended adding those time restrictions to a separate provision in the ordinance allowing vendors on private property for three hours or less, which was originally written to allow vendors at construction sites during the day. SRCC members pointed out that without that restriction, they could still face a vendor operating on private property near their homes from midnight until 3am.

The Planning Commission’s recommendations, approved on a vote of 8-0, is on today’s Council Agenda for a 6pm public hearing possible action. The current interim ordinance governing mobile vendors expires Sept. 29.

Peninsula residents ask for single member districts

Residents of the area near Lake Austin dubbed "The Peninsula" tried several different tactics at a public hearing Tuesday to convince the Austin City Council not to annex their 432 acres. While some speakers followed up on complaints aired at last week’s City Council meeting regarding the new taxes or the quality of city services, several speakers protested their possible inclusion within the city limits on the grounds that they would not have adequate representation at City Hall.

The cure for that situation, said Tom Fanning, would be single-member districts. "I personally would gladly choose Balkanization with the chance to have a voice over taxation with no representation, which is what’s being tabled presently," he said. Fanning, who also offered up a critique of the city’s environmental groups, neighborhood associations, and campaign finance regulations, said high voter turnout in central-city neighborhoods marginalized those voters in the outlying areas. "Under the existing system, elected officials would represent an ever-smaller percentage of the residents, both geographically and philosophically."

The single-member district argument was also put forward by Robert Brooks, who said the City Council should promise a change in the city charter before bringing his neighborhood into the city. "It’s mandatory. We currently have no voice," he said. "You plan to confiscate our money. We want representation. You will have to defer this annexation until a charter amendment is adopted."

Mayor Will Wynn pointed out that such a change was not up to the City Council and was not required by any state law for the city to proceed with annexation. "Only the voters can amend the charter," he explained. "Several different Councils have put that issue to the voters. It’s always been defeated." While the issue may come up again, Mayor Wynn said, the Council could not make it a provision of the annexation proceeding. To counter the claim that the Council only represents a small group of central city voters, the Mayor offered up is own analysis of voting patterns in Austin municipal elections. "With all the annexations that have occurred in Austin…there’s a misconception about voting patterns. There are more voters in the City of Austin west of MoPac than there are east of MoPac," he said. "A big reason for that has been these annexations. The fact of the matter is there are lots and lots of votes in this part of town and farther west because of these annexations."

As the annexation process advances over the next two years, the city’s focus will be on developing a detailed plan for providing services to the approximately 1,000 people in the area. Residents will have a say in that service plan. A five-member negotiating team will be appointed by Travis County Commissioners to represent the residents, and those interested in serving on that group can contact Commissioner Gerald Daugherty or any other member of the Commissioners Court.

HLC hears McMansion complaint

Rising construction costs have slowed building of City Hall café

Before the City Council issued a moratorium on McMansions, or outsized homes in older neighborhoods, last February, there was a scramble by a number of developers to get their plans for new homes or remodeled home approved before the new rules were put into place.

Plans for one such project – a new home on a vacant lot at 2303 Windsor Road – brought protests from the neighbors and frustration on the part of several members of the Historic Landmark Commission, who reviewed the case Monday night.

The home, according to city staff, will be a 4,920 square foot structure built on a 12,700 square-foot lot. Plans for the home show it will be a two-story Mediterranean style structure, with a 3,840 square-foot footprint.

According to Kari Blachly, agent for owner Richard Hill, a demolition permit for the previous structure on the lot was issued in January, 2005, and all of the plans met city building regulations at the time they were filed. Thus, the project is grandfathered from any of the new regulations.

But homeowners who will be the neighbors of the new home said the plans danced right on the edge of what is permissible, and went far beyond what the new regulation will allow.

"If you look carefully at the plans submitted, it’s really 7,900 square feet, not the 4,900 square feet the plans say," said Ron Carroll, who owns a home across the street from the building site. "The architect for the home tells me that city only counts air-conditioned space towards the allowable square footage."

Carroll said that by building un-air conditioned terraces and other areas, and by using so-called "pervious concrete" which the city counts at 50 percent of coverage, the entire project will, in fact, have close to 60 percent impervious cover, as opposed to the 40 percent allowed.

"The pervious concrete is counted at one-half dirt by the city," he said. "And who’s going to stop them from going back and air-conditioning the rest of the house later on? I don’t want them to get away with this circumvention of the zoning rules."

Another potential neighbor, Mary Jordan Baker, said despite presenting a reasonable profile from the front of the lot, the structure was still too big.

"There are some large homes in our area, but they are also on larger lots," she said. "My house is about 2,600 square feet and this home will tower over it. This is entirely too large of a home on such a narrow lot."

The neighbors received a great deal of sympathy, but little else from the Historic Landmark Commission.

"The task force that wrote the McMansions rules was dominated by building professionals," said Commissioner Jean Mather. "The neighborhood people fought hard, but didn’t get much relief. Unfortunately, this board does not have any power to deal with this kind of problem. The City Council needs to hear your concerns."

Mather added that she was also concerned about changes the homeowner might make at a point after the home was completed. "We already have problems with code enforcement," she said." And code enforcement is complaint driven. That puts the onus on the neighborhood to be vigilant."

Commissioner Timothy Cuppett agreed that the structure was oversized.

"It is awfully big for the size lot it is on," he said. "It especially looks too big from the side. I am concerned about it.

Chair Laurie Limbacher, noting that interpreting building standards and enforcing design guidelines regarding the scale of a structure was outside of the commission’s purview, said, "There is a new tool available in situations like this."

Limbacher explained, " The formation of a local historic district would give the neighborhood the power to develop building design guidelines. That would allow the neighborhood to voluntarily set standards as to the scale of new homes."

The commission was not required to take any action on the item.

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What’s the big secret? . . . Although city staffers are ready to give a presentation on consolidating the various police officers into one department, they have been unwilling to let the Council have a paper copy of the presentation, a decision that has irritated more than one council member. The reason, we hear, is that staff wants to avoid leaks. So, that raises the question of what’s so important that it must be kept under wraps? Perhaps that question will be answered when the staff makes that official presentation to Council today. Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez and Mayor Will Wynn asked that staff report on the possible cost savings in creating one department as well as the overall increases in cost. No doubt the Council will hear what the pricetag would be for bringing more officers under the contract with the Austin Police Association. Management is certainly loathe to increase public safety costs and give the APA more power. From the perspective of those on the Council who asked the question, however, there may be a more important question: Could the ailing park police learn how to be more professional if they were given the same training and scrutiny as their counterparts at APD? . . Mild answer . . . Asked what she thought about Travis County Commissioners’ decision to hold their own public hearing on use of the Cortaña site for the city’s Water Treatment Plant 4, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley said Wednesday, “I hope they’ll carry on with their process and do what they need to do.” The Council is scheduled to set a public hearing for Sept. 28 on use of Cortaña today . . . Student safety emphasis . . . Council Members Jennifer Kim and Sheryl Cole have an item on today’s agenda directing the city manager to help create a coalition of UT students to improve their safety. Cole said she expects the Austin Police Monitor’s Office to help with the process. She is especially concerned about date rape, robberies and aggressive hazing and hopes that the UT group can serve as a model for other student communities . . . Meanwhile, Dunkerley is doing what comes naturally—for her anyway. She’s taking requests for budget adds from her colleagues and trying to figure out how to fit it all into a package that makes them all happy. Dunkerley had a similar job when she was a member of the city’s financial team and said she really took over last year when staff and colleagues were so busy taking care of refugees from Hurricane Katrina . . . Town Hall meeting planned . . . City Council Member Mike Martinez will visit with East Austin residents at a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. on Sept. 7 at the Conley-Guerrerro Senior Activity Center. He will be joined by State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, and Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken and Sheryl Cole. The town hall will focus on highlights of the proposed city budget and upcoming bond package. Martinez is meeting with residents to seek input regarding specific needs of the community. “By bringing our community together, we provide residents an opportunity to have an active voice in building our city,” said Martinez. “I encourage the East Austin community to join me in this discussion, and help identify those budget issues that impacts our future.” . . . SOS backs Fix 290 Coalition . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance is urging its members and others to contact Mayor Will Wynn and County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, both members of the CAMPO Board, to urge them to support the Fix 290 Coalition’s plan to redesign the US290/SH 71 intersection. In an email to members, SOS Communication Director Colin Clark notes that the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan for the “Y” in Oak Hill will cut the community in half, bring noise and blight, and severely damage Williamson Creek in the Barton Springs Watershed. The Fix 290 Coalition has designed what it considers to be a community- and environment-friendly parkway project. Go to www.fix290.org for more information. Interested persons can also attend a forum at 7pm on Sept. 7 at the Austin Community College Pinnacle Campus on the US 290/SH 71 project.

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