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New zoning category proposed for big box stores

Thursday, October 26, 2006 by

The fight to restrict the expansion of Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Circuit City and other similar superstores within the City of Austin continues in full force. This week, opponents and supporters of big box retailers took the fight to the Planning Commission and the commission responded by recommending some new rules.

If the Council adopts the Planning Commission proposal, businesses that wish to build a store of more than 100,000 square feet in a single building will have to first obtain a conditional use permit (CUP) from the commission. In addition, the city’s land use regulations would be changed to include a new zoning category just for big box retailers.

The proposal under consideration would bring any such planned development into the conditional use permit process, which would expand the notification requirements beyond the current 300-foot rule out to all neighborhoods within one mile of the project. The developer would also have to post a 4-by-8-foot sign at the proposed site outlining the particulars of the project.

In the U.S., big box retailers usually range in size between 100,000 and 250,000 square feet and are accompanied by large surface parking lots. Currently, all a developer needs is a large enough tract of land with the proper zoning (GR) to build such a business.

Supporters of the proposal say the CUP would allow more public input into the process of deciding where such businesses may be built, and would allow the city to look into additional factors such as the health, safety and welfare of the surrounding neighborhood, as well as the economic impact the retailer would have on the community.

Opponents of the measure said it was another level of unnecessary bureaucracy that would interfere with the free market, add expense to the project, and would eventually come down to a popularity contest among the businesses.

Former Council Member Bill Spelman said big box retail denotes a major change in the way products are sold.

”What you have is more and more people buying from fewer big stores,” he said. “These retailers are much bigger than what the current land use development code was designed for. Your average store used to be about 2,000 square feet. That’s no longer the case.”

Spelman said the CUP approach to big box retailers was a more common sense approach than some other cities and states were taking to the problem.

“There are several factors that are unique to big box retail,” he said. “Big boxes do not increase sales taxes. National chains keep less of our money here in Austin. They often have a larger cost to cities, including more traffic, higher street and road maintenance, more infrastructure costs, public safety costs and social costs, including low wage jobs and higher rated of uninsured workers.”

Speaking against the CUP process, developer Tom Terkel said big box stores would not exist if there weren’t a market for them.

“Somebody is shopping at those stores because they succeeding,” he said. “We live in a capitalistic and democratic society, and people are voting for these stores with their purchases.”

Terkel added that the CUP process would turn getting a zoning permit into a “popularity contest. The national corporations are all evil, and we will only give a chance to companies we like.”

Chris Ellis with Endeavor Real Estate questioned the need for a new ordinance.

“What we will end up doing here is trying to legislate who is a good and who is a bad retailer, instead of letting the shoppers decide,” he said. “It will just add more bureaucracy and most costs to the development process.”

Commissioner Jay Reddy moved to accept the staff recommendation to require a CUP for retailers with 100,000 square feet within the same building. But Commissioner Cid Galindo moved to amend that motion by also adding the creation of a new zoning category for big box retail, which would include expanded notification requirements.

The motion to amend passed 6-2 with Commissioners Mandy Dealey and Chair Dave Sullivan opposed. The main motion to accept the CUP ordinance, as amended, was approved 8-0.

Parks Board studies development dedication fees

The Parks and Recreation Board has begun looking at the city’s parkland dedication ordinance, intending to close loopholes and boost revenue.

Whether the city’s parkland dedication works – and yields enough revenue – has been the subject of discussion among a number of boards and commissions. Chair Linda Guerrero, in particular, has her eye on shoreline development, which could yield millions of dollars for downtown parks amenities with proper developer participation.

Planner Butch Smith’s briefing showed that the city’s parkland dedication ordinance – more often a fee in lieu of actual parkland – falls far below the average Texas city. Parkland fees, approved by the courts as a method to mitigate demand on park systems from new development, range from $250 per unit in Georgetown to $1,370 a unit in El Paso, Smith showed commissioners. The average among the eight cities polled was $942 per unit, with Austin averaging about $518 per unit for parkland dedication.

On Smith’s list, Bryan, College Station, Cedar Park, Arlington and El Paso all have higher fees than Austin. Fort Worth and Georgetown have lower fees.

Beyond the actual fee, loopholes also allow developers to avoid the parkland dedication requirements. The ordinance does not apply to commercial property, property being redeveloped but not subdivided, residential subdivisions with four lots or less, and any legal lot that is not subdivided. That includes large multi-family lots.

As Guerrero pointed out during discussion with the board, those loopholes mean that developers redeveloping existing property along the Town Lake shoreline do not have to kick in fees to the city. In the case of one development discussed on Tuesday night, that would have meant about $1.2 million in lost revenue to the parks department.

Equity also is a challenge under the ordinance, Smith said. Since land is far more expensive in the inner city, it’s more likely that developers would want to dodge the fees or dedication of parkland. One proposed solution would be to set a flat per-unit fee, rather than the dedication of five acres per 1,000 residents. That solution, however, could be problematic, since the point of fees is to create amenities within a one-mile radius of the new development. Downtown, the cost of those amenities would be high.

Parkland fees can be used for the purchase of land and the development of park facilities. Those fees cannot be used for park maintenance, park operations, park programs, staffing or special events. The intention is to benefit the residents of the subdivision that paid the fees, providing new services to that particular area of town, Smith said.

The briefing on the parkland fees was not posted for action on Tuesday night. Director Warren Struss said the item would be reposted next month for further consideration.

Board Members of Capital Metro will likely vote next week on putting out a Request for Proposals to run the agency’s commuter rail system. But the board could also direct the staff to begin preparations to run the rail system itself, bringing employees of Star Tran back under the direct control of Capital Metro while preserving their right to union representation.

“I would like to see all of Star Tran’s employees become employees directly of Capital Metro,” said Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who serves on the Capital Metro Board. “Of course, that has legal obstacles and would have to be a matter of mutual agreement. It means changing the format from collective bargaining to Meet and Confer. But I think that the possibilities of reaching an agreement on that are good. The second thing is, I want to make sure all future passenger rail jobs become union jobs.”

The board’s original plan was to hire an outside contractor to operate the rail system, and the staff had been preparing to put out an RFP for interested companies. “The direction we got in May was that we would proceed to contract it out,” said Capital Metro Executive Director Fred Gilliam at a board work session Wednesday. But within the past 90 days, Gilliam said, staff “slowed up what we are doing. I did make sure not to get myself or staff involved in policy direction.”

That direction, explored by Council Member Leffingwell and Council Member Brewster McCracken, would be to have Capital Metro operate the rail line itself, whether that be through Capital Metro or the Star Tran entity. Capital Metro’s Chief Operating Operator and Executive Vice President Dwight Ferrell described that scenario as “doable”, but also said it would be difficult. He provided a timeline to the board of the steps that would be necessary for that to happen while still meeting the agency’s target date to begin commuter rail service in 2008.

“It is an aggressive schedule,” Leffingwell said. “The conversation we had was ‘what would the barriers be for employees of Star Tran to become employees of Capital Metro?’ This would have a budgetary impact on what we do, because we had not planned to move in this direction,” he concluded. “We could do 2008, but again, it would be very aggressive. Everything would have to be perfect for it to work. It is an aggressive schedule.”

So far Star Tran has not been given instructions from Capital Metro to begin work on submitting a proposal in response to an RFQ to run the rail system. Council Member Brewster McCracken said that was a mistake. “What concerns me is that we are not planning internally at this moment to have our own folks ramped up to run the rail system, so we are creating a fait accompli…it’s going to have to be an outside organization,” he said, “because we haven’t authorized Star Tran to spend any money or effort to submit a proposal. I think that is not a policy that I agree with.”

Although Star Tran is technically a separate entity from Capital Metro, McCracken noted that the company receives all its funding from the transit agency and would respond to the board’s direction. “Star Tran is Cap,” he said, stopping just short of saying the full name of the agency. “I know legally it’s a distinct legal organization, but they’re the folks who work for Capital Metro. They wear Capital Metro uniforms.”

Other board members said they would certainly be willing to consider operating the rail system in-house, but only if they were able to stick to the previously-announced timetable. At one point, McCracken suggested delaying a vote on issuing an RFP until it was clear whether the Board wanted to even hire an outside firm, saying “my concern about having the vote on Monday, when we are this divided, is I don’t think it’s good for the organization. I believe it is better to make sure this organization is in a good going-forward position, even if it affects the opening date by a month or two.”

But Board Chairman Lee Walker quickly moved to block the idea of any delay. Both the budget for the project and the start of service, he said, had been critical issues in the campaign when voters approved the rail line in 2004. “The $90 million, it is non-negotiable as far as I’m concerned…because it was a promise that we made. And I think we promised that this would be underway in a timely fashion in 2008. When I hear about slipping into 2009…it’s principle meeting principle, it feels like we’re violating a promise that we made during the campaign.”

Going ahead with the RFP process, Walker noted after the meeting, does not preclude a separate process for preparing Star Tran or Capital Metro employees to operate the train. “A proposal is not a bid. We’ll probably get five or six different proposals. We’ll learn a tremendous amount from the market,” he said. “What we can do is take the best elements from different proposals and figure out how to put those together.”

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

Red light cameras return . . . Council Member Jennifer Kim said Wednesday she expects the Council to approve an ordinance creating a civil penalty for running a red light and an administrative process for appeal to the Municipal Court during next week's meeting. That ordinance would not replace the current criminal law making it a Class C misdemeanor to run a light but would supplement it and allow the city to assess penalties for those caught by red light cameras. It is necessary for an officer to witness a traffic infraction to charge a violation of the criminal law. "Once we do that the staff will issue an RFP or an RFQ. They're going to do a 60-day a test for two to three vendors to compare accuracy and technology," Kim said. That would allow vendors to show how their systems work before the city selects one for widespread use . . . Fun facts about the city budget . . . Each year Council Members are besieged with requests for fee waivers from the various organizations that use city parks, march on city streets and need other city facilities for their events. Many of those groups support worthy charitable and educational events. But every time the Council grants a fee waiver, the department whose facility is being used-generally Parks and Recreation or Public Works-gives up money it would otherwise be collecting to put in the revenue side of its budget. When fees are waived for extra police to be on duty, it costs APD money. Its little wonder that the departments hate fee waivers, said one aide. Those fee waiver requests have grown over the years, so in 2000 the Council decided to put a limit on the fees each office could waive. That limit is $6,000. But its still "faux money," says Jason Maurer, Executive Assistant to City Manager Toby Futrell. The money is not literally transferred from the Council budget to the departmental budget when fees are waived. Still, it seems like a long time from now until next Oct. 1 as hundreds of dollars of fee waiver requests come in each week . . . Meetings . . . The City hosts a reception for Police Monitor Candidates at the Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Rd. The first reception is from 1:30 to 5pm, and the second is 6 to 10pm . . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board of Directors meets at 6pm at district headquarters at 1224 Regal Row in Manchaca . . . Voting totals . . . Perhaps the rain kept a few people away from early voting Wednesday, but the numbers were still respectable. A total of 5, 737 ballots were cast Wednesday, with the Randalls on Research continuing to the top ballot box with 530 votes. Other locations that are drawing large numbers include Northcross Mall with 458; Randalls in Westlake, 397; Randalls on South MoPac, 366 and University of Texas, 347. Early voting ends on Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 7. More than 15,000 Travis County residents have voted so far. . . Katrina recertification . . . The Texas Interagency-Interfaith Disaster Response (TIDR) will host a Recertification Clinic for all Austin area Hurricane Katrina evacuees from 2 to 8pm today at The ROCK (Reflections of Christ's Kingdom), 5800 East MLK Blvd. All Hurricane Katrina survivors in the Austin area are encouraged to attend this clinic to recertify for rental assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to secure case management assistance, and to receive legal advice if needed. The Capital Area United Way Long Term Recovery Coordinator, Shawn Lemieux, will assist in securing documentation for identification. Austin Energy and WorkSource will also be available to provide information and assistance to the survivors. . . Special Tribute . . . The 2006 season of Live From The Plaza at Austin City Hall culminates on Friday featuring Miss Lavelle White from noon to 1pm. Her performance is in honor of blues club owner the late Clifford Antone . . . Volunteer honored . . . Meals on Wheels and More will present the prestigious Austin Community Keepsake Award to philanthropist Ronya Kozmetsky today. The presentation will be made at a reception in her honor at 5:30pm at The Four Seasons Hotel. Tickets to the event are $150 each. Mrs. Kozmetsky was the unanimous choice of the Board of Directors to be the 2006 honoree because of her unparalleled commitment to education, community, and health.

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