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County moves forward on conservation ordinance

Thursday, November 2, 2006 by

Travis County ’s conservation development ordinance has yet to please all the stakeholders, but county staff has made enough progress for commissioners to instruct its legal department to begin the work of drafting the ordinance in code language.

Travis County is on, yes, the 16th draft of the conservation ordinance, and Joe Gieselman, executive director of Transportation and Natural Resources, told commissioners it was about as good as it was going to get, unless the court had further direction.

Stakeholders continue to have concerns about the ordinance, Gieselman told the court. Landowners prefer protections from encroachment rather than incentives. Groups such as the Blackland Prairie Concerned Citizens want to minimize urban encroachment, with the same protections across the county, both inside and outside the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction. And the Real Estate Council of Austin would like to see an equal profit yield for subdivisions under, and not under, the conservation ordinance, which Gieselman admitted would be hard to do.

RECA also would like for additional set-asides from the ordinance. For instance, if land is located in a flood plain, a developer typically gets credit for 50 percent of that land being considered “open space,” Gieselman said. RECA would like for 100 percent of that land to be counted as open space, he said.

“We explained that there may be instances where going in with the conservation development ordinance and a standard subdivision ordinance would really make no difference because there would be no net gain in open space because so much of a property would be in the flood plain,” Gieselman said. “If they have 100 percent credit for that land, there would really be no benefit for having this ordinance. There’s no net gain for us, especially if there’s incentives being given to them. Why would the county provide incentives, particularly financial incentives, for setbacks required under federal law?”

Gieselman estimates a loss of between 20 and 40 percent of lots in subdivisions that apply the conservation development ordinance. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out, as she has in past discussions, that the value of such lots in conservation development subdivisions should rise in value, given that such subdivisions would guarantee homeowners would be surrounded by nature preserve in perpetuity. That adds value, both to the subdivision and to the county, which needs to gather land, Sonleitner said.

“Some subdivisions are very successfully saying that you can guarantee beautiful views that will always be there. Steiner Ranch is successfully doing that. Lake Pointe is, too, and so are a half a dozen more subdivisions up in Williamson County,” Sonleitner said. “The whole idea is to that you want to have open space bundled together. I mean, you might wind up with the same amount of open space, but if it’s all fragmented – to use our word in the BCP – then it doesn’t have as great of a quality as it could.”

The county would pay an initial $600 per conservation acre Gieselman also noted that conservation development pushes clustered building, which should reduce the cost of some infrastructure – like roads – in the subdivision.

In the meantime, owners of part of the Peacock Ranch, the Huthnance family, are willing to negotiate with the county under the conservation development ordinance. Gieselman admitted the owners had no immediate plans for development and would set aside only 500 of 1,500 available acres. The land is especially attractive to the county because the stream on the land feeds Hamilton Pool, which crosses over into the county-owned Reimers Ranch land.

Consultant Joe Lessard, however, noted even 500 acres could give the county a good idea of the ordinance’s results. Most subdivisions that come through the county process are somewhere between 60 and 70 acres in size.

Gieselman noted that even different landowners have different incentives to participate in the ordinance. Those families with long-time land holdings in Travis County, who have held land for generations, may have a greater incentive to preserve that land than a developer that has recently purchased acreage at market value and is looking to turn a profit with development. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he expected only a handful of property owners – maybe only two or three – to participate in the ordinance, but even at those low numbers, it would be worth it.

Right now, the county estimates it would pay about $600 per conservation acre. Financially, Gieselman expects the conservation development ordinance to function much as the county’s sub-standard roads ordinance does. Some years the county will draw down more money than others. The amount of money that is put aside – along with the contracts with developers – will always be the final decision of the court, Gieselman said.

Sonleitner said she would like the ordinance to done before she left the court. Commissioners gave Gieselman and Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols a month to come up with the ordinance, the manual and to begin negotiations over the possible land to be brought in under the conservation development ordinance.

Christy Muse of the Hill Country Alliance says she favors the conservation development ordinance but will be watching the Huthnance negotiations carefully, mainly because of the county’s proposed construction of Reimers-Peacock Road alongside the property. The road has yet to be added to the regional road plan.

Muse has argued that the construction of Reimers-Peacock Road, which would connect Hamilton Pool Road to Highway 71, serves no purpose but opening up the area for development. It does not relieve any perceived traffic congestion in the area and is not in concert with regional road planning efforts by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to concentrate development in activity nodes, rather than building roads out to areas where development is expected to occur.

Such a proposition – a new road combined with a development incentive – could be just the combination to tip development in the area. That’s a prospect that the Hill County Alliance is likely to watch carefully, Muse said.

ACLU sees red over red light cameras

Council to take step toward starting program today

The Austin City Council today will vote on creating a new civil penalty for running a red light, an offense that previously has been only a criminal violation. Allowing for the imposition of a $75 civil fine against the owner of the vehicle, rather than the driver, is a necessary legal step for the Council to take in order to clear the way for the possible installation of red-light cameras at more than a dozen key intersections. Running a red light will continue to be a criminal violation but only when an officer observes the act will a ticket be issued.

“This is not the actual vote about whether we’re going to install these cameras,” said Austin Mayor Will Wynn. “This is just a confirmation that the city ordinance would be changed in such a way that this would be a civil penalty, not a criminal penalty.”

But the resolution on today’s agenda also includes direction for the city staff to issue a Request for Qualifications for firms interested in installing cameras at key intersections as part of a pilot project. Under that test program, the city would monitor data from those cameras for 60 days. No citations would be issued during that two-month period. The vendor chosen for the test project would be responsible for covering the entire cost of installing and, if necessary, removing the cameras. At the conclusion of that study, staff could recommend that vendor or a different vendor to the City Council for a five-year long contract.

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union are concerned that today’s vote is a de facto endorsement of the cameras, noting that once they go up they will not necessarily come down. “This type of program has been done in cities throughout the United States, and has been a failure in terms of increasing safety and decreasing collisions,” said Debbie Russell. “There are privacy statues at stake here, there are due process issues at stake…which is one area the ACLU has already won on in court in other states.”

One of Russell’s primary concerns is that car owners ticketed by a machine do not have the same rights in court as drivers ticketed by a police officer. “Unfortunately, the civil charge has the most punitive aspects of the criminal charge with none of the protections,” she said. “You don’t have access to a court-appointed lawyer and it is much more difficult to defend yourself in court. As far as due process goes, we are very concerned with not being able to face your accuser at any level.”

The ACLU’s legal concerns are not slowing down municipalities interested in adopting red-light camera systems. Several suburban cities in north Texas have installed the cameras, including Garland, Plano, and Denton. Dallas and Houston both have red-light camera systems, and Georgetown city leaders are considering installing cameras in their city. State legislators are also taking notice of the increasing amount of money being generated by civil fines for running red lights. While the state gets a percentage of traffic fines, cities and the red-light camera vendors get to keep the money generated by civil fines. Last month, the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations held a hearing on the revenue issue, and Texas lawmakers could re-visit that issue when the legislature returns in 2007.

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

And robo-calls all around. . . Former President Bill Clinton has been heard on tape recorders around town urging Democrats to get out and vote for Chris Bell for Governor. Council Members Sheryl Cole and former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco have also been calling to spur increased turnout by African-Americans for the bond election. Cole said she was surprised by the number of calls generated by her appearance on KAZI Radio talking about the bonds Wednesday morning. "You can't measure our participation or our concern," by turnout in East Austin, Cole said, because African-Americans are dispersed throughout the city. Also making the taped calls to encourage participation in the bond election are Council Member Mike Martinez and former Mayor Gus Garcia . . . Busy polls and busier pols. . . Consultant Mike Blizzard, who was hired by the supporters of Propositions 2 and 3, bonds for parks and open space, was pleased to hear that nearly 10,000 Travis County voters had turned out to cast ballots yesterday. The total when the polls closed last night was 67,244 or more than 12 percent of the county's registered voters. "The bonds benefit from a high turnout;" he said. There's a myth that city elections attract environmentalists and liberal voters in particular, he said. In reality, it is white, conservative homeowners who most often vote. A higher percentage of voters means greater participation from younger voters, renters, and minorities, "all of that helps the bonds. The big question is how many people are scrolling all the way to the bottom of that electronic ballot and voting in that election;" Blizzard said "In these last days the biggest job of the bond advocates is to make sure people vote on those bonds" . . . Early voting ends Friday. On Wednesday, more than 900 people voted at Northcross Mall and Randall's on Research Boulevard. UT also saw its heaviest participation so far, with 669 ballots cast yesterday . . . Unity PAC, which was formed to support all seven propositions, this week reported spending more than $135,000 in support of the bonds . . . Expect the best . . . Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley is out of town and Council Member Brewster McCracken will be leaving before 4pm today, so the Council meeting is expected to end fairly early. Charles Heimsath will paint a presumably rosy picture of downtown Austin's future when he discusses the downtown circulator study at 2pm. A few zoning cases, such as the future of Southpark Meadows, could draw a crowd, but the 6pm public hearings are not apt to keep anyone up late. . . . Gang violence roundtable . . . US Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and former Texas Attorney General, will be in town today to hold a roundtable with local law enforcement officials, school administrators and other leaders on efforts to address gang-related violence and crimes. Cornyn will provide an update on his efforts to advance federal anti-gang legislation in the Senate aimed at providing law enforcement agencies with new tools and resources to combat gang-related crime. The roundtable is planned for 10:30am at AISD's Carruth Administration Complex, Building B-100, 1111 W. Sixth St. . . . Hazardous waste collection day . . . Williamson County has contracted with Philip Reclamation Services Houston, Inc to manage a half-day, county-wide household hazardous waste collection from 9am to 1pm on Nov. 18. The site of the collection will be the parking lot at the Williamson County Central Maintenance Facility, 3151 S.E. Inner Loop, in Georgetown just south of SH 29. The event is free and open to all county residents. Household hazardous waste items accepted include: insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers with herbicides, paint, paint thinners, solvents, swimming pool chemicals, mercury containing items, photographic chemicals and florescent bulbs. This is a household collection, so no commercial, industrial, or agricultural hazardous waste will be accepted. For questions, call 352-4111 or 238-2110 or e-mail questions to flimmer@wilco.org.

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