Two committees to take up Decker Golf questions
Friday, March 6, 2015 by Jo Clifton
After raising numerous questions about the deal it is being asked to approve for creation of two high-end golf courses at the Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park in far East Austin, City Council voted 9-1-1 Thursday to send those questions to two Council committees.
District 1 Council Member Ora Houston voted no, and District 4 Council Member Delia Garza abstained. However, their colleagues agreed that sending the questions to both the Open Space committee, led by Council Member Leslie Pool, and the Economic Development committee, led by Council Member Ellen Troxclair, would help resolve the issues.
Barbara Scott, president of the Colony Park Neighborhood Association, which has consistently supported creation of the PGA-style courses by Decker Lake Golf LLC, was one of about a dozen people sitting in the audience at City Hall holding signs urging Council to approve an agreement that would give the company a 50-year license agreement with the possibility of four additional 10-year terms.
The project’s backers want Council to approve the license agreement and say that the golf courses and accompanying resorts and restaurants would be catalysts for creation of jobs in the area.
Following the vote, Scott told the Austin Monitor, “I’m disappointed that we have so many people on the Council that can be swayed by so many outside entities that don’t see the real picture of what we’re talking about, which is economic development. It’s not about golf.”
Although city staff explained that they have found a way to allow development of the golf courses on city-owned parkland without violating the charter or state law, both the Austin American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle have opposed the license agreement, with the Statesman saying the city should not alienate parkland without a public vote. The Chronicle is just flatly opposed.
Council Member Don Zimmerman had questions brought up by the very generosity of the proposal. Zimmerman noted that when he was looking through the contract, he found a section that would allow the city to revoke the license agreement at any time for no reason. He found it suspicious, “because no investor in their right mind comes up with $20 to $30 million and puts in improvements that can be lost for no reason.” That stipulation, together with the 90-year contract, made the idea seem implausible.
Later, under questioning from Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, Assistant City Attorney Gregory Miller explained that although Decker Golf had initially asked for some safeguards in the contract, those safeguards would have turned the agreement into a lease. Since the city is not allowed to lease parkland, it declined the developer’s request.
Council Member Sheri Gallo, a real estate agent, wanted to know the appraised value of the parkland. She also questioned whether golf is the best use for the property, because she noted, as others have, that golf is becoming less popular. She wondered as well why a public golf course would be charging $120 or more for a round of golf.
City golf division manager Kevin Gomillion said Austin already has plenty of lower-priced golf courses. He said the PGA wants to come to Austin, and this would be a good spot for them.
Toward the end of the conversation, Mayor Steve Adler weighed in, echoing Gallo: “I question whether this is the best use of this asset.” However, he seemed not to be taking a definite position, as opposed to Pool, Tovo and Garza, who seem firmly opposed.
Adler told his colleagues he wants them to return from their committees with answers by the end of April.
Houston read a lengthy statement at the end of the discussion. She said, “We have wonderful and weird people, and yet no one can deny that there is a marked difference in the way our assets are treated in one part of our community compared to the far reaches of East, Northeast and Southeast Austin. Our parkland has been neglected. Our neighborhoods have been neglected. And neither industry nor small businesses have been offered incentives to locate here.
“Item No. 28 is not about the environment, natural resources, flora or fauna. Item No. 28 is about people, opportunity, economic development and hope. From the point of view of a member of the community, homeowners and renters have lived east of Highway 183 since the ’70s, faithfully paying their property taxes, directly or through increases in rent, and living their lives with limited or no services or amenities,” she said.
Houston continued, saying citizens living east of US 183 “have been waiting patiently for the city to get serious about employment opportunities. We now find ourselves in a situation where many people see the public/private partnership to create golf courses as the way to get the jobs, financial resources and community benefits that are needed, before another 15 years passes.”
Houston noted that 15 years ago, then-Council Member Willie Lewis supported constructing a golf course and other amenities on the same parkland. However, on Nov. 7, 2000, voters narrowly rejected a proposition to allow a contract for development of the park as a golf course.
Houston said whether the item passes or fails, she expects the city to create strategies to build more infrastructure and attract additional employment to the area.
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