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Watson files bill on development rules for local state-owned land

Thursday, February 14, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Two actions at the Texas State Senate within the past week could have direct impact on the development of state owned land in and around the City of Austin.


A bill filed Tuesday by Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) would compel developers of public-private partnerships constructed on state-owned land to follow local zoning rules and regulations. If approved, the bill – SB 507 – could assuage local concerns over the idea that state agencies might not follow municipal development standards.


Meanwhile, news came Friday that Watson will serve on a special subcommittee chaired by Eltife. That body will examine the implementation of 2011’s SB1048, the document that – as of September 2011 – allowed for state public-private partnerships.


Questions over what the state will do with many hundreds of acres of land in and around the City of Austin – including Campy Mabry, the State Capitol Complex, and a sensitive region around Shoal Creek – have long rankled local groups. They resurfaced, together when the Texas Facilities Commission began a recent master planning effort.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole brought forward an item designed to get city officials “a seat at the table” as the Facilities Commission worked on its plans. However, the Commission itself remains embroiled in state level politics, where Senators Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and John Whitmire (D-Houston) have aired concerns about the extended reach of the organization in to the world of public-private partnerships.


Opposition from the offices of Council Members Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison, and Kathie Tovo surfaced and centered on the idea that the city should wait to do anything until the legislature took action with regard to the Commission and its purview. That may not come until September.


Proponents of the deal and the possible $400,000 price tag that goes with it argue that Austin’s participation in the process is worth the risks that surround it. “Collaboration with the state of Texas in an interlocal agreement to study and plan master development efforts protects our design principles and significantly increases the tax base,” Cole told In Fact Daily via email last month.


“The Facilities Commission and the City of Austin will work cooperatively to study and plan property located at the Texas Capitol Complex, Bull CreekAustin State HospitalCamp Mabry and Hobby Office Complex – a massive endeavor where we should not sit on the sidelines.” (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 31, 2013.)


There were also concerns about whether the Facilities Commission, if allowed to proceed with any development projects, would adhere to the City of Austin’s zoning regulations – and the sometimes strict environmental and construction limitations included therein.


At the December Council discussion of the pending interlocal between the city and the Commission, Bull Creek Road Coalition President John Eastman noted a call for the state to cooperate with the Imagine Austin plan. “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).” (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 11, 2012.)


If Watson’s bill – co-authored by Eltife – passes, that could change. It contains language that orders “qualifying project(s)” to comply with the zoning and land use regulations of whatever municipality they are hosted by. Some projects could be exempted under this rule if they use the building or land for the same purpose that it was used by the state.


Tovo told In Fact Daily that the bill “is very promising.” “I think it’s a great step,” she added.


In addition to that provision, Watson and Eltife’s bill places strict conflict of interest rules on government employees or their relatives who might financially gain from public-private development.


Economic Development Committee vice chair, Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-Fort Worth) will join Watson and Eltife on the public-private partnership subcommittee. Together, they will examine the implementation of the empowering bill. That action was initially an interim charge for the EDC.


State Senator Robert Deuell (R-Greenville) told LT. Gov. David Dewhurst in a Friday letter that the trio would now take that job. Deuell noted – by way of explaining that his recent interim report on the matter did not make any recommendations with regard to the topic — that he “felt additional information and study” about the bill “was needed.”

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