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Neighbors skeptical of agreement covering state-owned land

Friday, November 30, 2012 by Michael Kanin

City and state officials Thursday evening defended a proposed interlocal agreement between the City of Austin and the Texas Facilities Commission. At a public meeting called to discuss the issue, Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole tried to mollify mounting neighborhood concern about the deal – an arrangement that would involve the city in a state-piloted study of Texas-owned land within the city limits.


The potential interlocal agreement, a reincarnation of a similar 2010 attempt, would have the city provide staff time, resources and money to assist the Facilities Commission in compiling a study of potential uses for more than 500 acres of land spread around the city (see In Fact Daily, Nov. 8, 2012).


“The way that we normally do things – our site development process, our development review process, the way that we accept applications – nothing that we are considering next Thursday is going to change that,” said Cole, referring to Austin City Council’s Dec. 6 meeting when it will consider the proposed agreement.


Cole joined George Adams and Jim Robertson from Austin’s Planning and Development Review department and the Facilities Commission’s Portfolio Manager Aundre Dukes at the public meeting held at One Texas Center. Each offered some version of Cole’s assurance. “There are concerns that the state does not have to go through the city’s development review process,” said Dukes, “that couldn’t be further from the truth.”


Though the City Council did not approve the earlier deal, it set aside roughly $200,000 in late 2010 for such a project. However, Robertson said that the cost could escalate this time around. “I can’t speak as to whether the state will submit a request to the city to participate in a more robust manner financially,” he said. “And I obviously can’t predict how City Council would react to such a request.”


Neighborhood worries over the current incarnation include such hyper-local issues as how or whether Austin zoning rules might be applied to the development of state-owned lands. The concerns also stretch to more over-arching issues about whether the city should be involved in a process that will be inevitably complicated by actions during the coming legislative session, and whether the Facilities Commission was even the right organization to conduct the study.


If mollification was a goal, it went unachieved. After the meeting, veteran activist Mary Arnold told In Fact Daily that she remains concerned that “there is not really any clarity about what authority the city has in terms of development on state-owned land.” She added that she did not hear anything Thursday night “that gives me any assurance, other than commenting, that we have anything to say.”


For her part, Cole told In Fact Daily that zoning “is not on the table.”


There are other issues. The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission recently produced what some have called a “scathing” report that identified a host of issues with the Facilities Commission, including the agency’s approach to public-private partnerships.


After likening the agency to “wayward children,” the report questioned the approach that the agency has to public-private partnerships. “While at the forefront of implementing (public-private partnership) projects, (the commission) has put the cart before the horse, stepping into these efforts without adequate guidance, planning, and resources needed to ensure protection of the State’s best interests.”


Adams would not directly address whether the proposed agreement was premature, given the sunset review. “It’s not really our call,” he said. “What the Council has asked us to do is negotiate an ILA (interlocal agreement), and to gather public input on what should be incorporated into that ILA, so that’s what we’re doing.”

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