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Council to consider Villa Muse release from ETJ

Thursday, January 31, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The Austin City Council today will consider a resolution instructing the City Manager to begin discussions with the developers of Villa Muse, a proposed film studio and mixed-use project in eastern Travis County. Council Members Mike Martinez, Sheryl Cole and Mayor Will Wynn are sponsoring the item.


The developers of the project are seeking to have their land removed from the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ), but at least one Council Member is not convinced that a release would be in the city’s best interests.


Developers say they should be released from the city’s land use regulation and taxing authority in order to save the city the expense of extending utilities to the site. “The Villa Muse property is 4.5 miles east of the city limits, so we’re at a point where Austin right now is not in a position to provide basic services . . whether it’s water, sewer, fire, schools, basically all the stuff we pay taxes for in Austin,” said Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, the company’s Vice President of Strategic Development.


“What we’ve asked for is a release from that ETJ so we can move forward and build out that private infrastructure ourselves at our cost, so Austin and the Austin taxpayers don’t have to…and we can get this done sooner rather than later,” he said.


After the project is completed, Alvarado-Dykstra said, the developers would be open to the possibility of having the property brought into the city limits. “At the end of the day, after we’ve created this new tax base, then Austin will have the option to annex it and capture that tax base at basically no cost to the city or the taxpayers,” he said. “We see it as growth paying for itself, in contrast to a lot of other projects that have required incentives or rebates. We’ve really tried to work hard to do this in a way that does not mean that the taxpayers of Austin need to shoulder any kind of burden.”


But Council Member Lee Leffingwell told In Fact Daily he is not convinced the project should be released from the city’s regulatory authority. “There are two basic reasons they want the release: They don’t have to pay Austin taxes…and they don’t want to be encumbered by our development process, including our environmental regulations,” he said, adding that neither of those would be a sufficient reason to release the property from the ETJ. “I feel comfortable that I’m not going to be able to support the ETJ release.”


Leffingwell pointed out that the Council had established a policy last October governing such requests, “and they don’t meet the threshold criterion, which is before we release land from our jurisdiction, it has to be a piece of land that we don’t ever plan to annex,” he said. “Obviously this can be annexed, it’s on the SH 130 corridor and will be a valuable part of our tax base. As I told one of the people who’s backing this project, I think it would be an abrogation of my fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers just to cede that land when we know it’s going to be very valuable as a tax base.”


If the Council does eventually decide to pursue a release, there is a procedure laid out in city policy. The proposal would have to go before both the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission before returning to the Council for a final vote.


“It’s very environmentally sensitive,” Leffingwell said of the Villa Muse site. “A large part of it is in the flood plain…and as I understand it, they’re talking about huge flood plain modifications, and that’s something that I would not like to see the city lose oversight of. We don’t want to give up our environmental controls.”


Leffingwell plans to offer some additional language to the resolution posted on today’s agenda. “The resolution is going to say we want the city to begin discussions with them to see how we can accommodate their goals, but with the idea that they remain in Austin’s jurisdiction,” he said. “I think it is a good project.”


Developers hope to have a report back to the Council on those discussions by early March, in time to make an announcement about the project during South by Southwest. “There are obviously things they want to look at regarding the kinds of things we want to do,” said Alvarado-Dykstra. “That’s the kind of stuff we’re looking forward to providing assurances about.”

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