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Kim seeks audit of Wal-Mart site plan process

Tuesday, December 5, 2006 by

Council Member Jennifer Kim has requested that City Auditor Stephen Morgan do an audit of the procedures used in approving a site plan for the planned redevelopment of Northcross Mall into a Wal-Mart Super Center.

In a letter sent to Morgan on Monday, Kim wrote that she wanted auditors to investigate "the quality and completeness of the site plan, application and review, paying special attention to the traffic impact analysis, neighborhood traffic impact analysis, drainage, utilities, and water quality, and to determine if a re-review is needed."

In addition, Kim asked the auditor to look at the process for approving the development's site plan, the completeness and timeliness of city responses to open records requests regarding development at Northcross Mall and requests related to the proposed big box ordinance.

Lincoln Properties, which owns the mall, has an approved site plan for redevelopment, including a 217,000-square foot Wal-Mart.

The Council is scheduled to consider an amendment to the Land Development Code that would require big box stores of a certain size to get a conditional use permit prior to site plan approval. That item is tentatively scheduled for the Dec. 14 Council agenda.

Kim also requested an analysis of the chronology of events related to the ordinance, including any delays in bringing the ordinance forward.

Morgan said his staff was in the process of developing an audit plan and that such a limited audit would likely take from two to six weeks. Watershed Protection and Development Review Department administratively approved the site plan and would be affected by the code amendment.

How long the audit takes "depends on how much data there is (and) how much digging we have to do," Morgan said. If city management has already gathered all the pertinent information, then the audit can proceed quickly, but if auditors have to do a lot of their own research, then it will take longer.

However, looking at the questions Kim is asking, Morgan said he did not anticipate a lengthy review period.

Asked whether she expected the audit to cause a revocation of the site plan, Kim said she did not. "Barring the discovery of any major flaws in the application or the approval process—they have an approved site plan—my guess is it would be illegal for the city to withhold a permit at this point without good reason," she said.

"I think any suspension of approval of the site plan without good cause would lead the city open to the potential of lawsuits," said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said, "What I'm trying to do is facilitate some meaningful discussions between neighborhoods and Wal-Mart." Since Lincoln is planning on developing the east side of the mall first, with all the tenants moved into the west side, then moving all the tenants into the west side while developing the east side—with the new Wal-Mart, there is plenty of time for the retail giant to get input from the neighborhoods, she said.

She said it is important that Wal-Mart have discussions with the neighborhoods on noise, lights, design issues, and environmental issues, such as water quality controls, she said. In addition, Dunkerley is discussing outreach to independent businesses in the area. "Many of them that would be impacted positively because of the draw," Wal-Mart will have, she said. In a Nov. 22 article, the Wall Street Journal reported that some malls are getting a real boost in customers from new Wal-Mart and Target stores.

For example, the manager of a mall in Hanover, Mass says mall occupancy has jumped from 78 percent in 2003 to an expected 97 percent in 2007 since Wal-Mart came in to fill a spot left vacant when another store closed. The company has 26 stores as part of malls, with 18 others adjacent and 10 more planned to open in the next three years, according to the article.

Regardless of the outcome of the audit, it is clear that Wal-Mart still has a public relations war to wage in the Northcross area. All of the Council members have received emails from members of the public weighing in on the proposed super center. They received one yesterday from Liz Clare, who complained about "an ugly and destructive development," which she predicted would reduce property values and increase traffic.

"In addition to the horrific effect it would have on traffic, I am deeply concerned with the crime that a 24-hour discount store would attract the area. (sic) Let's not kid ourselves. This type of store does not attract a good element. Wal-Marts are big dirty stores selling cheap junk at cut-rate prices to pack in people with little money or education, and no amount of cute advertising can change that," Clare wrote.

County awaits city's OK on joint road projects

Facing a tough year-end bond deadline, Travis County is moving forward with its public-private partnerships on roads, even though it continues to wait for the Austin City Council to approve a number of road projects that will require joint participation.

Last week, County Judge Sam Biscoe chafed a bit at the fact Commissioners Court approved the agreement on the joint Decker Lake Road project – about 2,700 feet of four-lane divided road between FM 973 and southbound SH 130 – before a firm approval from Council was in hand. Steve Manilla of Transportation and Natural Resources told the commissioners, however, that he did have the verbal approval from the head of the city’s public works department, even if he didn’t have the final approval.

County voters approved $1.5 million for the Decker Lake Road project in 2005, with the understanding that both city and county would participate. In the case of the Decker Road project, the county and developer would split the costs of road design evenly, then the city, county and developer would each put up a third of the construction cost.

It would have been Biscoe’s preference to have both agreements in hand last week.

“We do have a letter from them, but we don’t have approval the City Council,” said Biscoe about the current terms of the deal. “So we are operating on the grounds this will happen, but there’s always a chance until City Council does approve it that they may not come forward with the funds.”

Because more projects than funds available for those roads proposed for public-private partnerships – and there was no guarantee that developers would participate — the county divided those projects into Tier I and Tier II projects. TNR agreed to open negotiations, initially, with the developers of the Tier I projects. The initial inter-local agreement between the developer and the county must be signed by the end of this year, or the county must move on to the developers of the proposed Tier II projects.

County officials admitted the process has not been quite as smooth as hoped. Instead of pushing a number of projects through by this time, the department is putting four deals before county commissioners before the end of the year. Three additional deals – on sections of Wells Branch, Braker Lane and Slaughter Lane — will be up for a vote on Dec. 12.

County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said it was clear – when the projects were presented to the voters back in 2005 – that the city’s participation was a deal breaker for Decker Lane. The project was never proposed as an even cost split between the county and developer. Too many other projects are waiting in line for funding, Sonleitner said.

“My assumption always was if the Council chose not to get involved, (the cost) would go back to the developer,” Sonleitner said. “One of the reasons that this one got in there was because it was in the near-term annexation area so, flat out, we thought the city was going to be a participant in this. I never thought that the county was going to go back to 50 percent because that’s not what we told the voters.”

As Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols explained to the commissioners, the bond package requires the county agreements on Tier I projects to be approved by the end of 2006. Agreements with the city do not have to be approved until the end of 2007. The intention is to give the developer some certainty to begin design, Manilla said.

In the case of the Decker Lane project, the bonds that are tied to the project will not be disbursed until March 2007, giving the county plenty of time to back out of the deal, or renegotiate with the developer, if necessary.

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

Belterra protests . . . Protests continue each weekend outside the gates of the Belterra Subdivision in northern Hays County over plans by the developers to dump wastewater directly into Bear Creek. The Hays Water Control and Improvement District (WCID) No. 1 has a permit pending before the Texas Commission on Environment to dump up to 500,000 gallons a day of effluent into the creek, which eventually runs into the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. The Save Our Springs Alliance is leading the battle against the developers, while the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is using the case to attempt the get the TCEQ to change its rules, permanently banning the direct discharge of effluent into creeks or streams. The permit is still pending before the TCEQ. . . . Meetings . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Chambers at314 W. 11ths St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am in the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . .The Hays County Commissioners Court meets at 9am at the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos . . . The Council Health and Human Services Subcommittee meets at 3:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. . . . Lake Travis levels reach record . . . According to the LCRA, the last time Lake Travis was this low in December, a Texan was in the White House, the United States was involved in a war on the other side of the world, people were talking about the latest James Bond movie, and the Rolling Stones were touring the country. The Texan was Lyndon Johnson, the war was in Vietnam, the James Bond movie was "Goldfinger," and Rolling Stone Mick Jagger had fewer wrinkles. And on Dec. 4, 1964, the level of Lake Travis was 643.4 feet above mean sea level (msl) – a little more than half a foot below the lake's Dec. 4, 2006, elevation of 644.1 feet msl. The lake's current level is exceptional for this time of year. Lakes Travis and Buchanan are the water storage reservoirs of the Highland Lakes and are the primary sources of drinking water for Austin and many other basin communities. . . . TFN adds to lobby team . . . The Texas Freedom Network has hired two new people for its lobby team. Jo-Hannah Whitsett is TFN's new political director. She most recently worked as a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE). She also served as an aide to former state Sen. Bill Haley. Valerie Benavidez has agreed to become TFN's outreach and field director. Benavidez is currently alliance and advocacy director and generational alliance director for the national League of Young Voters. From 2002 to 2004, she served as executive director of ProTex, which focused on social-justice issues such as health care, criminal justice reform, tax justice and workers' rights in Texas. Benavidez officially comes on board Jan. 2.

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