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Council OKs deal to work with state over property development

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 by Michael Kanin

A split Austin City Council approved a controversial agreement with the Texas Facilities Commission late Thursday. The deal will offer the commission city staff, resources, and up to $400,000 to land the city a “seat at the table” as the state figures out what to do with roughly 500 acres of Texas-owned land in the city.


Council approval came on a 5-2 vote despite continued opposition from some local residents as well as Council Members Laura MorrisonKathie Tovo and Mike Martinez, who eventually voted in favor of the agreement. Opponents expressed concern that any agreement with the facilities commission was premature based on what seems to be certain state-level action.


Council Member Chris Riley initially appeared ready to vote for a delay in the agreement, but he got on board. The final vote also included a “yes” from Martinez, while only Morrison and Tovo voted against it.


The stakes could be high. There are open questions about whether development on state land can be held to city zoning restrictions, and whether the facilities commission will be open to input from the city.


Bull Creek Road Coalition President John Eastman pointed to the resolution that accompanied the agreement, a document that includes a call for the state to comply with the city’s new long-range plan, Imagine Austin. “That sounds good,” Eastman said. “Unfortunately, despite the efforts of your staff, the (interlocal agreement with the state) does not deliver on that goal. The (facilities commission) has no obligation to consider, take in to account or even acknowledge … communication (from the city).”


Resident Sara Speights, who has lobbied government at both the federal and state levels, told Council members that facilities commission Executive Director Terry Keel “is trying desperately to rush ahead and get ahead of the Legislature to somehow prove that he can do this.” Republican Keel is a former state representative and Travis County sheriff.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole has served as a driving force in deal negotiations. She continued to stick by the notion that early, immediate involvement in the process was the city’s best bet.


Martinez suggested that the city shouldn’t have to sign an agreement – and, by extension, provide up to $400,000 – to get in on the facilities commission’s process. Martinez noted that no movement on the study was expected without consultants, and these consultants would likely not be in place until February.


He then suggested that, even without the agreement, it would be difficult to believe that the city would ignore a request for help from the state. “If the (facilities commission) were to call over today and ask you for assistance on something, I don’t think we’d shut the door and say, ‘sorry, we can’t do it,’” Martinez said.


Early last week, Morrison called for a delay in the agreement until September. She wanted the deal to wait until after possible action by the Legislature, which is expected to respond to a highly critical report from the state’s Sunset Commission about the facilities commission. (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 5, 2012.)


By last Thursday, Morrison was ready to accelerate the date to March. Riley, who expressed worry on both sides of the argument, wondered if Morrison would be OK with a mid-February date. When she responded that she was, it seemed Riley might vote for a delay.


In the end, however, he couldn’t justify delaying the action on the agreement. “I think we’re going to need to be at the table at some point,” Riley told his colleagues. “I thought it was worth discussing whether we could put off that commitment for some time, but I feel certain that we will need to be playing that part at some point.


“Given the concerns that have been expressed, I’m fine with going ahead and making that commitment now, and making sure that we are at the table as the process gets underway.”

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