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East Riverside residents still divided over future

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 by

Council delays action on neighborhood plan, future land uses

Jan Long waited patiently for her turn to address the City Council last Thursday, and when her turn came, she produced a visual aid to make her point: a wagon overflowing with binders of information compiled during the almost three years she has been working on the East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan (EROC).

Long, a member of the Southeast Austin Neighborhood Alliance and EROC’s Planning Team, expressed the long-term fatigue that many of the other EROC advocates expressed in dealing with the city’s neighborhood planning process.

“This stack of three-ring binders and papers represents my 35 months in the neighborhood planning process: Thirty-five months of meetings, notes, handouts, emails, drafts – 35 months attempting to navigate neighborhood planning,” she said. “The goal of neighborhood planning is for diverse interests to come together and develop a shared vision for their community. This is a worthy goal but it's been hard to reach after 35 months.”

Council Members heard more than three hours of public testimony over the EROC plan, but differences between residents and city staff over the area’s future land use map (FLUM) caused them to delay the process another three weeks.

The main problem began when an “Advisory Committee” arose from among several of the represented neighborhoods that had drawn up a somewhat different FLUM than the one city staff was recommending.

The EROC area consists of the Riverside, Parker Lane and Oltorf neighborhoods, and is – outside of the Downtown area – the most densely populated part of the city. It has a very high percentage of rental properties and one of the highest crime rates in the city.

Gail Goff, co-vice president of the South River City Citizens, said when the process began, residents in the area were polled and a set of priorities was established. But the end result, she said, does not reflect those priorities.

The EROC planning process did not address the issues that concerned stakeholders,” she said. “It did not create a plan representative of stakeholders' goals for the future.”

Goff said in an effort to redirect the course of the process, a group of active participants joined in meeting with the top level Neighborhood Planning staff. She said participants wanted sessions to deal with area issues.

“They wanted to set re-zonings aside so that actual planning could happen,” she said. The response was no. So, recognized representatives of eight registered neighborhood organizations formed a planning team and agreed to continue collaboration to attempt to address the issues and concerns that have been identified by that first survey. The result ? An improved plan document, a planning team FLUM that represents our vision for the future and respects existing zoning, environmental features and area assets.”

The Advisory Committee drew up a FLUM that sought to increase the number of single-family homes in the area, and to redevelop many of the tracts that currently have multi-family housing.

Council Members debated several different approaches resolving the differences between the two groups’ FLUMs, but could not reach any kind of compromise. In the end, they decided to delay the plans another three weeks until Oct. 19 to allow the neighborhoods and city staff to negotiate further.

County assesses sites for new courthouse

Travis County Commissioners are close to beginning the assessment of two county-owned sites – the former University Bank site at 11th and Lavaca and the San Antonio garage next to the Criminal Justice Center – as potential locations for a new civil courthouse.

Over the next three weeks, Facilities Director Roger El Khoury and Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes will be informally polling site selection experts that will be able to tell the court whether the sites work – with all environmental constraints, among the historic buildings and, most importantly, within city codes and the Capitol view corridor – or whether the search for a civil courthouse site should be expanded to a larger area around the downtown core.

El Khoury came to the Commissioners intent on looking at a broader swath of downtown, but given the court’s desire to connect the civil and criminal courthouses – and a wish to re-use the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse for civic purposes – it made more sense to settle on an initial assessment of the two county-owned sites.

The first, obvious site is the next to the Granger Administration Building across from the current courthouse, which is a full city block. The hitch is the Wooldridge Park view corridor to the Capitol, which would limit construction to no more than two stories. To use the site – if everything else was to work out – would require getting a member of the Travis County delegation to carry a corridor waiver during the next legislative session.

County Judge Sam Biscoe said it’s time for the county to know what can be done with the site, whether or not it is used for the civil courthouse. If the site were to be used, the assessment would be completed well before the session begins.

El Khoury’s rough estimates are that the county could put a four-story courthouse on the former bank site and provide up to 28 courtrooms, which is what El Khoury estimates the county will need over the next 30 years. He cautioned that his estimates were basic and did not include issues such as setbacks.

The second site, the San Antonio garage, takes up only a portion of a block. In this case, the county would likely have to assemble various parcels of property. The view corridor could be up to 200 feet tall off of this property, though, so the county could be safe using only a portion of a block to build the civil courthouse.

If neither site works out, the county could widen its sweep. The initial budget El Khoury proposed for the search was $50,000 to $75,000, but that budget included a wider sweep of the downtown area for available sites. El Khoury’s initial suggestion was to assess sites within the boundaries of Fourth Street, Lavaca, Ninth Street and Rio Grande. Further away would be less strategic, El Khoury said.

If the county were to decide either of the two county-owned sites was acceptable, planning could begin on the building, with a bond package proposal going to voters by 2009. The plan would be to open the courthouse by 2011. Already, County Commissioners have put aside $200,000 for initial site selection and planning on the courthouse.

Commissioner Ron Davis, in particular, wanted to make sure those employees who were on the University Bank site – which is where a number of departments and the fitness department are located – would remain downtown.

Whatever the site, it will be expensive, El Khoury said. Judge John Dietz, who is heading up the stakeholders group for planning the new courthouse, said he supported the downtown location, especially given the many law firms and support services that had rented and bought space downtown to be near the court buildings.

Hays deputies contracted to patrol Buda

Hays County and the City of Buda are moving forward on an agreement that will bring contracted law enforcement from Hays County Sheriff’s deputies into the Buda city limits.

In a presentation to Hays County Commissioners, Sheriff Allen Bridges said he feels confident working with Buda to provide contract deputies is the best way to address the law enforcement needs of the growing community.

Buda officials approached the Sheriff’s Office with the idea initially, proposing that the city provide funding to have deputies and a supervisor, provided by the sheriff, working more permanently inside the city limits. Buda currently relies totally on the Sheriff’s Department for its law enforcement.

Bridges praised Buda leaders’ initiative, saying the area is growing enough to warrant more permanent law enforcement options.

“It’s a good deal, because the City of Buda is stepping up to the plate, and it gives us the opportunity to keep the standard of law enforcement we’ve started,” Bridges said. “If the City of Buda hadn’t come forward to ask for this, I’d have gone to Commissioners Court before too long to ask for additional funding.”

Although the court unanimously passed a motion to authorize the Sheriff’s Office to continue working on the contract, there are few details about when the change would take place, how many deputies would initially be assigned to Buda and what kind of money the city will have to kick in.

Bridges wouldn’t comment on the financial details of the future contract or say how many deputies he thinks will start off the initiative. He did say the program would probably start small and increase as the city grows, though.

Kyle, Buda’s neighbor to the south, has its own police force. But Buda Mayor John Trube said subcontracting is a better financial option for a city Buda’s size.

“I like the idea of subcontracting, because as we all know, the law enforcement piece of a city budget can be a significant piece,” Trube said. “It’s a little bit of an out of the box solution for a smaller town needing police but not wholeheartedly having the resources to pull it (a police department) off.”

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

Council Members seeking higher salaries . . . The City Council will consider a resolution this week directing the Ethics Review Commission to make recommendations on benefits, compensation and various ethical questions relating to the Council and outside employment. Mayor Will Wynn, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley and Council Member Brewster McCracken are sponsoring the item. Council Members make about $45,000 a year and have not had a pay raise in the past eight years. A majority of the Council believes the time is right for that but wants the ethics panel to weigh in on the matter. Council Member Jennifer Kim said she believes the Council should get cost of living increases and enough money to make up for the fact that they cannot join the city retirement system. Several years back, Council members were able to serve and also hold down jobs. Those days are over. Kim, McCracken and Council Member Sheryl Cole have all given up their businesses in order to spend full-time at their City Hall jobs. Dunkerley, who is retired, said the current salary is insufficient to draw people from different parts of the community. "You either have to have old people like me that are retired or you have to have people that have an independent income," she said. Cole said, "I recognize that a city that owns its own electric utility, its own airport, water utility and convention center-the demands on understanding the policies and making good decisions demand a full-time effort." McCracken said the decision to send the matter to the Ethics Commission was a choice the sponsors made because, "we believed ethically we should not be the ones to make the decisions. And I would expect the Ethics Commission to come back with something that limits outside employment." Council Member Lee Leffingwell said he does not know how much the Council's salary should be in order to catch up with cost of living raises city employees have received in the last eight years. He noted that he had already asked the Ethics Commission to look at various matters related to lobbying and reporting. Leffingwell, who is retired like Dunkerley, said he believes younger members should be able to put away some money for retirement while they serve . . . County hearing tonight . . . Travis County Commissioners will host a Chapter 26 hearing tonight on the Cortaña tract, which the City of Austin wants to use for Water Treatment Plant 4 . . . Other meetings . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . New advertising venue . . . Former In Fact Daily editor Ken Martin sent us the following tidbit via email last night, The Tea House, a Chinese restaurant at 13376 N. US 183, is handing out unusual fortune cookies. Ken's wife, Rebecca Melancon, got her cookie, wrapped in the usual clear cellophane, with a standard message on one side: "It is impossible to please everybody. Please yourself first." But, he notes, on the other side the fortune read, "Vote Nov. 7 for Prop 4. Invest in Austin's Creative Economy." Proposition 4 in next month's election would provide for more than $31 million in cultural and community facilities, including the Asian American Resource Center. . . Other groups ready for bonds too . . . Environment Texas announced yesterday that it would deploy staff across the city to talk to voters and urge their support for Propositions 2 and 3. Proposition 2 would allocate funds to protect land over the aquifer and for flood control projects and Proposition 3 would provide money to buy new park land and make repairs to existing parks . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has announced its board of directors unanimously endorsed all seven bond propositions on the November 7 ballot . . . Kinky on campus . . . Kinky Friedman will visit the University of Texas at Austin on at 11am today. He will speak to students, faculty, staff and the community in the Union Ballroom in the Union Building. Voter registration will be available at this event . . . Blessing of the pets . . . If you and your cat aren't busy today, the Austin Humane Society has a little something different going on. Pastor Karl Gronberg of Gethsemane Lutheran Church will be walking through the kennels and cat areas donning his pastoral robe, singing and strumming a guitar and sprinkling holy water, for this years' Blessing of the Pets. This is a universal custom that is conducted in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi's love for all creatures, and people typically bring their pets to church for a service on this day. Since the pets living at the shelter do not have owners to take them to the service, the service will be coming to them. "The Austin Humane Society is a wonderful neighbor to us, and we very much believe in the importance of what they are doing," says Pastor Gronberg, "we are delighted to come over and offer blessings for all of the animals." For additional information, go to www.austinhumanesociety.org or call 646-7387, ext. 226.

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