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Council: Walking With the Dead

City Council repeals project duration, holds its breath

By Michael King, Fri., April 5, 2013

It's a little early to say much about the next City Council meeting (April 11, work session April 9), the last scheduled before budget season kicks off in earnest with the budget office April 18 initial presentation. The agenda won't be finalized until this Fri­day, April 5, and thus far there aren't too many lurking surprises. The third reading of the revised Downtown parking ordinance is pending – it's on the consent agenda unless somebody pulls it, and despite some Council misgivings about unintended consequences, it's likely to pass.

There will be a public hearing on the details of the Barton Springs Improvement Project, laid out at length last week in a morning briefing. Most of the proposed work is uncontroversial repairs and maintenance, but there is sharp public disagreement over certain details, including the amount of parking and impervious cover necessary, and a major redesign of the South Grounds, both for "aesthetics" and disability access. It's the reformers vs. the naturists.

Looking backward to last week, March 28 – the relatively brief public meeting featured a nearly four-hour executive session, and the secret was no secret: Council was meeting with outside counsel about the potential consequences of maintaining or repealing the development project duration ordinance, the subject of a lengthy and heated public hearing the previous week. Casey Dobson of Scott, Douglass & McConnico had been called in to supplement city legal, and the backroom session was then complemented by Dobson's very careful public testimony to Council.

In sum, Council was offered a choice to either repeal the ordinance immediately in accordance with state law – and in the shadow of threatened Lege actions – or else suspend enforcement pending a revision. Dob­son couldn't offer a legal opinion directly, so he tiptoed around Council questions, and in the end Council voted 5-2 to repeal (Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo dissenting), with the understanding that the attorneys will return in a month to six weeks with a new version of the ordinance.

Opinion remains split on what the vote will mean. Defenders say the ordinance had gone unenforced for nearly a decade with little consequence; opponents, notably Save Our Springs Alliance, describe the likely result as a "zombie grandfather" apocalypse, arguing that hundreds of long-abandoned projects will spring to life under less stringent development rules. "The action assures that these 'zombie grandfather' developments," said SOSA on its website, "will shape the future of Austin for decades – indeed forever."

Tovo and Morrison did manage to persuade a majority to endorse ordinance codification of the Downtown Density Bonus Program in advance of the completion of the entire Downtown Austin Plan. Despite some misgivings over prematurely yanking the bonus program out of the DAP process – and perhaps designing the bonus plan without the availability of full economic modeling – the proposal passed 4-3 (Mike Martinez, Chris Riley, and Mayor Lee Lef­fingwell dissenting), and staff said it hopes to return with a drafted ordinance within a couple of months.

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