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Anti-McMansion theme pleases McCracken audience

Wednesday, September 6, 2006 by

Council Member Brewster McCracken is willing to take his McMansions message to the masses, even if his audience has a tendency to argue over the existence of God, watch animated shorts and sing "Home on the Range" with a glass of merlot in hand.

Dionysium, which meets on the first Tuesday of each month at Alamo Drafthouse South, mixes equal parts civil and silly discourse. Last night, McCracken hit a home run with his arguments about McMansions – or, as he called them, Hummer homes – with a mixed crowd that appeared to be heavy on liberal free-thinkers.

Designer George Blume of Webber + Hanzlik – who argued that a refusal to permit McMansion density would push growth the suburbs – didn’t stand much of a chance against McCracken, who has spent months discussing the finer points of the ordinance.

Blume said that the McMansions movement – or simply the movement to greater density – was the result of homebuyers demanding larger houses. Most houses built in the 1950s and 60s were around 1,000 square feet. Today’s family demands much larger homes, and when they don’t find those homes, they head for the suburbs, Blume said.

McCracken, for his part, hit hard on a theme that Austin was a victim of California-based syndicates that came into town on weekend tours to buy up to 30 houses, simply to put the bulldozers in motion on Monday morning to turn those houses into profit-making jumbo duplexes that ruined the fabric of Austin’s neighborhoods. He quoted a figure that a third of the city’s houses were bought last year by syndicates.

McCracken insisted that did not mean he was anti-growth. Growth should be pushed to urban corridors – like Lamar Boulevard, on which the Alamo Drafthouse sits — and not the neighborhoods. He dismissed Blume’s contention that change must come to Austin. Austin is not Cedar Park, Round Rock or Houston. It is Austin, he said.

"There needs to be a balance between protecting property rights and protecting neighborhoods," McCracken said. "This doesn’t limit what you can build, as long as it’s in scale to the lot. You can still paint your house purple, you can still have a pet goat, and families can find the house of their dreams, with both character and characters."

This was not the City Council hearings on the ordinance, where both developers and those who wanted larger homes were equal to those opposed to them. Instead, McCracken easily won his points, especially when he described the character of neighborhoods as being a $700,000 jumbo duplex with the options of "beige stucco, beige faux-stucco, limestone mixed with beige stucco or limestone mixed with beige faux-stucco." That drew approval from the audience.

McCracken agreed that the McMansions argument – just like the environmental debate – came down the fundamental right of individual freedom versus the responsibilities that the property owner has to his neighborhood and community. It’s a balance between what a homeowner wants to do and what is going to encroach on the rights of others.

Blume, who sometimes got bogged down in technical points on issues such as impervious cover, argued that Austin must move forward, that the point should not be whether the city will grow but how it will grow, and planning that growth does not mean locking the current neighborhoods into a permanent-and-forever 1950s configuration.

The Council is scheduled to meet again on Sept. 28, at which time they will likely consider changes to the McMansions ordinance, which won second round approval last week. ( See In Fact Daily, Sept. 5, 2006.)

Salvage Vanguard Theater presents Dionysium. Those interested in attending Dionysium’s meetings can go to http://www.dionysium.com for more information.

Hays County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a hefty tax exemption for the elderly and disabled, but nixed Pct. 2 Commissioner Susie Carter’s proposal for an all-inclusive tax exemption for Hays County taxpayers.

The elderly and disabled exemption, which will take effect in the 2007 fiscal year, increases the current exemption for residents over age 65 from $25,000 to $45,000. Eligible disabled property owners will also receive a $45,000 exemption, the first the county has granted to them. The 2007 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2006.

According to County Judge Jim Powers, there are 4,879 over-65 homesteads in Hays County and 523 eligible disabled homesteads. The decrease in taxes at the current tax rate for elderly households would be from $527 to $431, and for disabled from $641 to $431.

While there was no disagreement about the exemptions granted, several commissioners voiced concern that an overall homestead exemption of 20 percent would only benefit wealthy homeowners and take away from the elderly and disabled exemptions.

"All our appraised values have gone up," Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley said. "I feel that at 29 years old being a home owner just like my older constituents…the difference is where we are in life. My home is an investment. An 80-year old senior, I think they want security. They bought and paid for their houses years ago."

Carter said according to a report put out by the Texas Association of Counties, 93 of the state’s 254 counties give homeowners a 20 percent exemption. Hays County has $15 million in reserves, Carter said, and with the general homestead exemption costing about $2 million, the money would help homeowners from all walks of life.

"My intent was to remember young people who may be single mothers or don’t have a spouse," Carter said. "There are poor people in every category and wealthy people in every category. The whole problem is that appraisals are constantly going up in a fast growing area like ours, and average people can’t afford to keep up with market prices."

But Powers pointed out that a general homestead exemption paid for with the county’s reserves would be a one-time action. If commissioners voted to continue the exemption after the 2007 fiscal year, taxes would have to increase to support it, negating the benefit.

While Powers and several commissioners said Carter’s idea is sound, the overall opinion voiced was to wait for a general homestead exemption, and for lack of a second, the motion died.

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Reminders . . . Each Council Member received a bouquet and green plant from the Austin Police Association Tuesday. Two Council Members said they did not know what had sparked the flower appreciation. There is no Council meeting this week, except for the budget hearing that Council Member Mike Martinez has set for 7pm Thursday in East Austin. Council is scheduled to vote on the budget next Tuesday, with further votes set for Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 13-14, if necessary . . . Not so fast . . . Outgoing state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos is somewhat miffed with Gov. Rick Perry for appointing Austinite Martin Hubert to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "In 20 years in the Senate, I have never had a governor – of either party – proceed with an appointment from my senate district without consultation and approval," Barrientos said in a news release. "I understand there are pressing issues currently pending at TCEQ because only two of the commissioner positions are filled, but Ralph Marquez’s term was up on August 31, 2005 and he officially resigned on March 31st of this year." Barrientos pointed out that Gov. Perry appears to be breaking with along-standing tradition for the Governor to gain the approval of a Senator before appointing a person from his district to a state board or commission. "I am going to let people draw their own conclusions," said Barrientos. "But I do suggest that in so doing, folks remember that the fall campaign season is now underway, and that campaigns for statewide elective office need a lot more than elbow grease on which to run." . . . Meetings . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission will meet at 6pm in room 104 at the Waller Creek Plaza . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . CapMetro runs to ACL . . . For the fifth straight year, Capital Metro will provide free shuttle service between Downtown Austin and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. From Sept. 15 through Sept. 17 from 10am to 11pm, Capital Metro will use 75 buses to transport more than 100,000 shuttle users from Republic Square at 4th and Guadalupe streets to Zilker Park. Capital Metro will provide free entertainment at the shuttle boarding site. Parking is not provided at the festival; however, parking will be available at several garages and lots throughout downtown. Patrons also have the option of parking outside of downtown and taking a Capital Metro bus or `Dillo route to the shuttle boarding site at Republic Square. Bus and shuttle schedules and maps, including the ACL Festival route and parking facilities, are available at http://www.capmetro.org . . . Call to action . . . AARP-Texas has set up a toll-free hotline that Texans can call to urge Gov. Rick Perry to immediately restore funding for a program designed to help low-income households pay for electricity. Funded by a monthly charge on residential ratepayers, the program was gutted by the Legislature last year and the funds diverted into the state’s general revenue fund. Texans can call 1-888-633-3650 and — after a brief introductory message — enter their zip code and be connected to the Governor’s office . . . Annex groundbreaking . . . Williamson County Commissioner Frankie Limmer and Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace Judy Hobbs will be on hand for the groundbreaking for the new Williamson County Hutto Annex building at 9:30am today. The building is located at 350 Exchange Blvd. in Hutto . . . Oops!. . . In Fact Daily mistakenly report on Friday that the Council had approved the new commercial design standards on second reading only. The ordinance won approval on second and third readings and will not be coming back for reconsideration.

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