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Senate passes bills limiting public-private development of state land

Friday, April 5, 2013 by Kimberly Reeves

The Texas Senate, on a day when the House was embroiled in budget talk, passed two bills that could have a significant impact on Austin.


The duo of bills, Senate Bill 894 and Senate Bill 507, are the top chamber’s reaction to private-public partnerships to redevelop the Capitol Complex and sell off underutilized state land to developers.


Both these measures had support in the heat of the legislative budget cuts last session, but the reality of a 47-story condo tower next to the Bob Bullock Museum is something else. Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) was miffed to see the massive scale of the proposals to re-use pieces of property in and around the Capitol.


Of course, the Austin City Council wrestled with its own reaction to public-private partnership proposals, knowing it had no say in Capitol complex zoning. Watson helped revise that with the assistance of a subcommittee on the issue.


Senate Bill 894, filed by Whitmire, would stop the Texas Facilities Commission and General Land Office from declaring underutilized property in the Capitol complex for sale. It also stops the agencies leasing or selling off that land, as they did with property on the northwest corner of San Jacinto and 15th streets, where the former Nuevo Leon sat.


“No commercial development of any type to the private sector without coming back and asking for legislative approval would be allowed,” Whitmire insisted on a bill that had 27 co-sponsors and brooked no real arguments.


Watson’s Senate Bill 507, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), was a bit more complicated. Under the bill, land in the Capitol complex would not be subject to municipal zoning, but land outside the complex could be zoned by a municipality.


If unfavorable, that zoning decision could be appealed to a Special Board of Review, which is somewhat like the process on the development of the 22-acre mixed-use Triangle property back in 2003.


The Special Board of review would include state officials such as the land commissioner and an agency head over the property, as well as local elected officials such as the mayor and county judge. A trio of appointees also would serve on the committee, appointed by Senate, House and Governor.


Watson also set up a process for public-private partnership proposals, which will go to a request for proposal or an invitation for bids rather through an unsolicited bid process. Watson, a former mayor, called for a matrix to be constructed to weigh proposals on issues such as historic significance; environment impact and relation to surrounding property, rather than the highest bidder.


These proposals would be considered by a Project Advisory Committee, which would include top members of each legislative chamber, as well as various appointees. That body is expected to make further public-private partnership recommendations to the next legislature.


Under the bill, and in the sunset bill of the Texas State Preservation Board, Watson has required all construction to meet design guidelines and standards, a possible nod to a more comprehensive development of the area.


Watson also added an amendment to make sure public-private partnership proposals were available to the public under the Texas Public Information Act.


The Senate passed both bills on a unanimous vote. Those bills now go on to the House for consideration. Watson’s bill stipulates if Whitmire’s bill does not pass, a two-year moratorium still exists on Capitol complex private-public partnerships.

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