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Despite concerns, Commissioners to call for cooperation on Imagine Austin

Wednesday, December 8, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin’s Imagine Austin comprehensive planning effort comes with an implicit question: Even if the city arms itself with that roadmap for future development, will its limited regulatory authority — specifically in the regions outside of its official boundaries, where much growth is expected — render portions of it useless?

That was the question before the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. As the county’s elected representatives discussed whether and how Travis should be officially involved in Imagine Austin, they broached a handful of topics that served as something of a cold-water bath for city officials.

In the end, the court voted to have their retiring executive manager of transportation and natural resources draft a position statement for the county. Early indications are that it will call for broad cooperation between the two jurisdictions.

Still, there are divergent issues. Gieselman described for the court why he preferred some combination of the so-dubbed “crescent” and “centers” growth scenarios put forward by the city. “Given the momentum that we have from the past — in terms of (where) the county has tried to encourage investment — we believe probably either the crescent (approach) in some combination with city centers is one where the county would have the most affinity with the city in its growth strategy,” he said.

According to city plans, the crescent scenario would encourage development in a banana-shaped swath in the eastern portion of the city and county. The centers scenario would have the city looking to encourage development between MoPac and SH130 clustered around mixed-use activity centers.    

Though the city’s Garner Stoll insists that planning officials there have no preferred scenario, public input has indicated that area residents prefer a development plan that would direct future construction back toward the center of the city. Stoll also told the court that the crescent scenario had drawn some interest from the general public.

Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols reminded both the city and the county of the limits of their power. “The issue of limited (legal) ability of both the city and the county is a huge factor here,” he said. “Regardless of what preferred scenario the city adopts, the city and the county have limited ability to keep the market from sending growth wherever the market wants to send it. If the market wants to send growth into the (extra-territorial jurisdiction) in the (SH) 130 corridor, the city and the county are not going to have the ability to say, ‘No that’s not our preferred scenario.’”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt was also concerned about their collective powers. “I am a little concerned about managing expectations,” she said. “I do fear, as I look at the growth scenarios that are being entertained, that, in some regard, there may be an expectation for what we can do in the (extra-territorial jurisdiction) — both of us, the city, and the county — that simply is not possible under our current regulatory authority.”

After the hearing Stoll told In Fact Daily that the city and the county have only a handful of tools they can use to direct development. “Local governments, as everybody has been talking about, exercise very limited powers in extra-territorial jurisdictions,” he said. “We have some regulatory powers. They are somewhat weak: We have the ability to spend money, we have the ability to do limited zoning for a limited period of time, we can annex property, and we can enter into collaborative agreements.”

He classified the former option as “the most important to implement a plan.”


Still, Stoll said, the effort was worth it. “We have to first decide what you want, (then) you start talking about how you get there, and obviously the discussion of how you get there needs to be realistic in terms of the mechanisms that we have,” he said.

The city’s ETJ extends five miles outside of its incorporated boundaries. The eastern portion of this area, along the SH130 corridor, is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.

For its part, the county is responsible for all unincorporated areas within its boundaries. It’s expected to begin its own comprehensive planning process at some point in the near future.

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