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County PID project hits yet another snag

Thursday, July 21, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council Member Ora Houston urged the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday to tap the brakes on a proposed massive project in far East Austin.

Houston personally visited the court’s regular weekly voting session to tell the commissioners that she had been kept in the dark about WildHorse Ranch, a project that could bring thousands of new homes to the fringes of her District 1.

“So I’m here asking as the duly elected representative (of District 1) if we could kind of put a pause someplace so I can get briefed on what’s going on and see what the issues are,” Houston said.

Houston’s request adds another wrinkle in the ongoing drama of WildHorse Ranch. Currently, its developers are asking the county to create its first ever public improvement district (known as a PID) to help finance infrastructure projects such as roads, parks, pools and flood mitigation within the development.

The developers originally approached the city about creating the PID before deciding last year to try partnering with the county instead. That required the creation of a formal PID policy by staff. The developers also had to agree to provide higher labor standards for workers on PID-related projects.

Meanwhile, former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire has publicly opposed the PID. One of the key issues he raised in a recent email to the commissioners centered on the fact that the project is wholly within city limits. That gives Council the right to veto the PID’s creation within 30 days of the court’s vote.

Without Houston’s support, that scenario could become much more likely to happen.

Commissioner Ron Davis, the PID’s strongest advocate on the court, told Houston, “It’s hard for me to believe nobody at the city level was contacted on this PID process.”

Houston explained that while her office had not been looped into the discussions, county staff had been in contact with city staff, a fact that Davis had her repeat several times during a back and forth that drew a light rebuke from County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who worried that his inquiry could threaten the county’s relationship with its city partners.

“I’m not trying to embarrass anybody, Judge,” Davis told her. “I just don’t want it to go across as if the county had been negligent in contacting city officials.”

“Commissioner Davis, let me be perfectly clear,” clarified Houston. “There have been contacts with the county and the city staff. There has been no contact with me as the duly elected representative of City Council District 1 regarding the public improvement district. None.”

“Commissioner Davis, let me repeat for emphasis,” Houston said. “There has been communication between county staff and city staff. Yes, there has been communication. There has not been any communication with my office or me on this public improvement district.”

Eckhardt said that the court won’t take any vote to authorize the creation of the PID until after the ongoing public hearing closes on Aug. 9. She pledged also to withhold action until “after we have assured the mayor and his Council that they have had adequate time and information to review” the PID.

Map courtesy of Travis County. 

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