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Struggle over SH45SW continues

Monday, October 30, 2006 by

By Mark Richardson

Of all the new roadways planned in the Austin area, perhaps the most controversial is the southwest leg of State Highway 45, which will run roughly along the Travis-Hays county line between MoPac Boulevard and FM 1626. The right-of-way for the four or six-lane parkway, which will eventually connect with SH 130, runs through an environmentally sensitive area that includes creeks, caves and other critical environmental features.

It also runs though the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, which has a consent decree from a 1990 court case giving its board approval over much of the roadway plan, particularly in the areas of drainage and water quality protection.

That makes the district a player in the final alignment of SH 45, along with the Texas Department of Transportation, the City of Austin, and the Lower Colorado River Authority. TxDOT is the main planner of the roadway, with Austin and BSEACD each seeking to uphold their respective watershed regulations in the area. The LCRA is planning to construct a high power line parallel to the parkway.

BSEACD board members heard an update last week from consultant Don Rauschuber on the status of the project, on which construction is expected to start in July of 2008. Rauschuber said one of the major issues is the level at which runoff from the roadway will be treated.

“TxDOT says it is following Best Management Practices in planning the project, based on TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) regulations,” he said. “Those regulations stipulate that at least 82 percent of runoff be treated. The City of Austin’s standards, however, stipulate that 87 percent of the runoff be treated.”

Rauschuber said TxDOT is willing to meet the city’s standards, but only if the city is willing to kick in the extra $650,000 it will cost to treat runoff at the 87 percent standard. As of last week, no agreement had been reached.

Another issue involves the path for the LCRA’s high-voltage power lines. Flint Ridge Cave, a critical environmental feature, sits on the north side of the project’s right-of-way, and would be protected from runoff by a 500-foot berm. But there is some dispute, Rauschuber said, over whether the LCRA’s line would be able to run over the cave, or if it should be routed to the other side of the roadway.

For its part, the BSEACD plans to have a say in what kind of filtration systems engineers use to handle the runoff. According to district staff, the consent decree states that the “best available technology” should be used. At the time it was signed, sand filtration was the state of the art, and that is what TxDOT is proposing for the roadway. However, other technologies have been developed in the intervening years.

“We signed the agreement to have the best available technology used when the roadway is built,” said Vice Chair Jack Goodman. “What we need to say to them is ‘Live up to your agreement.’”

Some members of the board were concerned that TxDOT would not live up to the agreement unless the district takes action to enforce it. Rauschuber said he would work to set up a meeting with TxDOT to discuss the issues and report back to the board at a future meeting.

The separation of church and state is a longstanding Constitutional principle, but it certainly complicated a zoning case that has made one appearance and is scheduled to return to the City Council.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church owns an 11-acre tract in East Austin, on which it plans to build a new sanctuary, and eventually an entire church campus. The initial problem facing the church is that the tract it owns is right in the middle of a planned Transit Oriented Development zone (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 14, 2006). Church officials said they did not plan to use the entire tract, and would dedicate three to four acres on the south portion to a mixed-use development that would fit the requirements of the TOD.

While several people from the surrounding neighborhood argued against the church’s initial request to build its sanctuary to a height of 60 feet – something Council Members agreed with on first reading – another wrinkle developed: the church’s tax status.

“Ultimately, that part of the property may have to be sold,” said Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley. “Otherwise, it could jeopardize their tax exemption. They are going to have to find a way to legally segregate that portion of the property.”

The church could not also be in the development business on the same tract of land where it builds its sanctuary, she said.

Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry said the city has had a longstanding policy of allowing churches in all zoning categories.

“There are federal statutes that address modifications to religious uses,” she said. “The city must prove that there is a significant paramount use in such cases.”

The tract, which stretches between MLK Boulevard on the south and Manor Road on the north, would abut a proposed trolley car stop on Manor Road, and a Capital Metro Rail Station on MLK. City plans for the TOD include mixed-use affordable housing and other commercial properties near the planned MLK rail station.

Council Member Brewster McCracken said there are possible joint uses between the church and other building on the property, such as shared parking or child care services.

“TOD codes would affect all of the properties in the area,” he said. “That would include Great Streets standards for sidewalks and street trees.”

Mayor Will Wynn said he was convinced that a compromise could be worked out to allow the church to build on the site and still have a thriving TOD.

“We need to make sure there is some mixed-use property with residential on the site,” he said. “It seems as if the church doesn’t need all the land it could be sold. Any action we take tonight does not preclude any of the possibilities we’ve discussed.”

McCracken moved to approve the 60-foot height variance, with other conditions, such as adherence to the interim TOD codes and the city’s new design standards, on first reading only. The Council left the public hearing open on the case for further discussion on second and third readings, scheduled for Nov. 16.

The measure passed on a 6-1 vote with Council Member Kim voting no, saying she did not believe the TOD was an appropriate place to locate a church.

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

Tit for tat . . . Although supporters of the seven city bond propositions have been diligent in promoting the proposals on the November 7 ballot, there has been little debate over the need for the bonds since the Council adopted them last summer. Only a handful of property owners have voiced objections. On Friday, the Travis County Libertarian Party announced its opposition to all seven items, opposing even what will probably be the top vote-getter, Proposition 1–$103 million for street reconstruction and building new sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure. The opposition to that item according to a press release from the TCLP is that "the city has wasted money on frivolous programs," and should direct more of its existing funds to street needs rather than issuing bonds. Taking a swipe at both the city and the state, Wes Benedict, TCLP chair, said, "This authorization for wasteful spending would seriously increase the burden on local taxpayers. Most homeowners' tax bills already went up this year. We don't need a tax increase from the city on top of the fake tax cut the state just gave us." The press release went on to enumerate reasons for voting against each of the bond propositions, including a favorite of many arts supporters, Proposition 4, which will provide funding for the Zachary Scott Theatre, the Mexican American Cultural Center, an African American Cultural and Heritage facility, the Asian American Resource Center, the Austin film studios, and the Mexic-Arte Museum. The Libertarians said, "Ironically, the city harasses private businesses like flea markets and mobile taco vendors that serve tens of thousands of average Austinites. Shutting down these genuine cultural centers and replacing them with a tax-funded Mexican American Cultural Center is ridiculous." Funding for the new Central Library downtown was the subject of perhaps the most scorn, with the Libertarians saying, "This is the most wasteful project of them all, a bad use of funds, and primarily serves the ego of Mayor Will Wynn, who is looking for a monument to his legacy. This is truly a luxury project that serves the contractors who will be paid to build it." Asked to respond, Mark Nathan a spokesman for 7 Steps for a Better Austin and a campaign consultant to Mayor Wynn, said, "Extreme fiscal conservatism is one thing, but it's hard not to recoil in horror when someone suggests that flea markets and taco stands should suffice to serve as Hispanic cultural centers in Austin. That's just plain offensive" . . . Meetings . . . The Austin City Council will hold a public hearing on annexation at 6:30pm at Hope Presbyterian Church, 11512 Olson Dr. . . . The Day Labor Advisory Committee meets at 9:30am at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Center, 2515 South Congress. . . The Capital Metro Board of Director meets at 4pm at 2910 East Fifth St. . . . Early Voting . . . The polls were busy this weekend, as the ranks of Early Voting jumped to 41,207 ballots. That's 7.42 percent of Travis County 555,579 registered voters, with five more days to go. The Randalls on Research has been the busiest, with 4,012 votes cast there. Other busy locations are Northcross Mall at 3,349; Randalls on South MoPac, 3,066; Randalls in Westlake, 2,935; and the University of Texas, 2,740.

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