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Commissioners approve new hires, land use division

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

In a split decision, Travis County Commissioners voted 3-2 to spend money from this year’s allocated funds to hire two full-time employees that would head up a new division within the County Attorney’s Office concentrating specifically on county land use authority. While the state of Texas has for decades stood out nationally for the lack of zoning or land use authority it gives counties, the recent TXI decision to mine a gravel pit in the heart of residential communities in Hornsby Bend has brought even more focus on this issue.

 

County Attorney David Escamilla told commissioners the expected staffers would add some $200,000 to the annual payroll, though this year’s pay would only cover the last months of the fiscal year. He told the court he expects to hire a lawyer and personal assistant within 30 days of the court’s approval.

 

Later in the day, Assistant City Attorney Tom Nuckols told In Fact Daily that he would be the lawyer hired to fill the new position. Nuckols used to be with the county attorney’s office.

 

Escamilla told In Fact Daily that a second lawyer would likely be transferred in from a similar department such as Transportation and Natural Resources. He told commissioners, “We’ve identified over the number of years a growing need and an increased activity of the court in this … trying to maximize the influence the commissioners could have in the development in the ETJ.”

 

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis and Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber, both of whom voted to deny TXI the permit despite the risk of legal challenges to the county, were supportive of having additional staff focused on this issue.

 

Huber said, “The opponents of more county land use authority say, ‘You’re not using the authority you get.’ If we had a good, solid person on board working with us who knows the law, who knows the options, who can brief those who are making testimony, then we can position ourselves better for getting that land use authority in the next legislative session.”

 

Escamilla said citizens who call the commissioners about land use issues often follow up with his office to inquire about the specific legalities. “Usually when that question comes in we have to get learned up on it and retroactively come back and be able to give you our thoughts on it,” he said. “And sadly, as you know, sometimes that can take some time while the citizens are waiting and wondering what we’re doing.” He also alluded to the embarrassment of a citizen finding a legal loophole for stopping TXI, rather than the county.

 

Intergovernmental Relations Director Deece Eckstein said state law includes a “patchwork of exceptions” for county authority, with some counties along the border possessing enhanced authority for management of unincorporated areas known as colonias, while other exceptions have been given to coastal counties or counties hosting military bases. 

 

Judge Sam Biscoe opined that hiring consultants could be a better option and that adding the jobs to the budget at this date would be outside the process.

 

Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez was skeptical that staff changes alone would advance the county’s agenda in the ETJ and unincorporated areas. “I’ve been working with Travis County since 1973 pursuing this very land use authority,” she said. “The commissioners courts, all of those years, have worked on this issue … and in those 30 some-odd years, you know, I haven’t seen any real progress.”

 

She told Eckstein, “We were hoping that you would help us make progress in that area, but it’s obviously not something that I can do or you can do singly or even sometimes collaboratively.”

 

Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt pointed out that Eckstein’s office has a host of responsibilities including lobbying the state and that this new legal division would enable the county to further maximize its current powers rather than specifically advocate for legislative change. “The way I’m reading it is, what legislative authority do we have now?” she said. “Have we explored every nook and cranny of that legislative authority that we currently have?” To which Biscoe retorted, “You can spend $50,000 and find out,” to which Gómez added, “And 30 years.”

 

Davis, Eckhardt and Huber voted for the positions, with Davis saying that incongruous development has a history of being placed in his precinct.

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