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Travis debates role in Austin Comprehensive Plan

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday voted not to appoint a county subcommittee to initiate county involvement with the City of Austin’s Comprehensive Plan. The city’s plan includes its 298 square mile corporate area and its 321 square mile extraterritorial jurisdiction. Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber made a motion for the county to appoint a subcommittee, but was only able to pull the support of Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt. The measure failed 2-3. 


City Council Member and chair of the Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee Sheryl Cole was in court Tuesday morning to represent the city. “We were taken a little by surprise by the item on the agenda,” she said in reference to the county’s agenda item to take action “regarding county participation” in the comprehensive plan. “I have not discussed in detail the item with any of my colleagues,” Cole told the court, “and it will also need to be vetted with our city manager and appropriate staff.”


Council is set to appoint a citizens steering committee of between 21 and 29 people on September 24. “That committee will also go on, later in the process, working with the consultants to engage technical subcommittees on some of the various issues that we talked about, transportation and environmental issues,” Cole said. A raft of constituent groups and would-be influencers see a chance to shape the city’s future on the committee.


Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis made it clear that he did not want the county to receive short shift when it came to the steering committee. “A comprehensive plan I think is just that,” Davis told Cole and the court. “Comprehensive, but inclusive. And, of course, being inclusive means to me that we have folks that reside in our ETJ that probably need to have the same say or the same amount of leverage, in my opinion, as significant as those folks that are being appointed by the city.”


Davis said he could abide by a delay allowing Cole to talk to her colleagues but cautioned, “a delay I can live with, that is correct. But I want to make sure that the message is taken swiftly back to your colleagues that …we’ll share equal weight.”


The city has already committed $1.5 million to the firm of Wallace Roberts and Todd as head of its consultant team to develop the comprehensive plan over the next two years. Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources Director Joe Gieselman noted in a memo to commissioners, “Not only is the majority of the city’s planning area within the unincorporated area of the county whose duly elected officials are the Commissioners Court, but the vast majority of new development occurs in the ETJ.”

Gieselman’s memo suggested that the county appoint “at least 5 members of a 21-member Joint City/County Citizen’s Task Force and those county appointment be residents of the unincorporated area,” and said that any plan for the ETJ should be adopted by both governmental entities. Gieselman also suggested commissioners budget $250,000 in FY10 and FY11 for the plan and that the county allocate staff resources toward developing seven different plan elements.


Cole tried to assuage some of the court’s concerns, “we have a matrix that was actually approved by a council which requires all type of diversity and it does include the ETJ and we are reaching out to people who actually reside in the ETJ,” she said. Davis was not satisfied to merely have county residents at a town hall meeting. “I do not want to see the county get into a position where it doesn’t have any teeth,” he said stressing that “it’s very important for us …have members that serve on its committee that’s appointed by this particular commissioners court.”


Cole told In Fact Daily, “The City Council has not formed a position…or taken official action as to the county’s participation. Included in the city’s comprehensive plan is an expression of an intent to work with the county as a major stakeholder.”


Huber, in making her motion for a county subcommittee called the ETJ issue “very critical,” and mentioned that she had spoken to Cole previously about an interlocal agreement that would bring the county into some kind of planning partnership with the city.


Cole said after the meeting, “We have not even begun serious detailed discussions about the county’s participation and work would have to be done. We have not even had a staff recommendation regarding the multitude of issues that could arise from official county participation. However, our interests certainly do overlap and we certainly should meet with them to see how we can either have their participation and/or accommodate their concerns.”

Judge Sam Biscoe deferred to the city, suggesting that the commissioners wait for a formal invitation to join the comprehensive planning process.

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