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Then There's This: The Power of Threats

Lege's bullying tactics have winning record at City Hall

By Amy Smith, Fri., Aug. 30, 2013

It's safe to say that our City Council has historically gone weak in the knees whenever the Legislature threatens to undo city development codes and environmental regulations on behalf of an influential group of developer lobbyists. This year, of course, was no exception, thanks to a heightened sense of the-sky-is-falling urgency from staff and Council's apparent unwillingness to put up much of a fight.

In March, for example, Council dutifully agreed (on a 5-2 vote) to repeal the city's development project duration rules rather than risk Austin-bashing lawmakers taking the repeal matter into their own hands. Council members, to their credit, at least brought in outside counsel to advise them on the seriousness of the threat. The city-hired attorney presented them with two options: either repeal the ordinance in one fell swoop, or just suspend enforcement of the rules until staff could come up with a revised ordinance. Council decided to take what they believed to be the safest, albeit most radical approach, and repealed the thing immediately while directing staff to revise a new ordinance.

Critics warned that such a move would allow old, abandoned projects to spring to life anew, causing even more development to take shape under less restrictive rules, and thus defeating the purpose of environmental control regulations in the watershed.

Today (Aug. 29) Council will consider another development deal derived from a legislative threat (this one reportedly made in the form of a backroom arm-twisting of staff, which is recommending approval). A proposal brought by the children of landowner Eli Garza (Item 39) seeks a variance to the Save Our Springs Ordinance to allow for the mixed-use build-out of the remaining 34.6 acres of Southwest Austin property of what used to be vast ranch land that the Garza family has owned since the Twenties. The city has a long, sordid history with the Garza family, played out in courtrooms, in settlement negotiations, and of course, at the Lege.

The Lowe's Connection

Many readers will recall the long, drawn-out battle involving the construction of a giant Lowe's store on Garza-owned property on Brodie Lane, during the contentious era of big-box fights over the aquifer in the early Aughties. Lowe's and the Garza family got most of what they wanted, and the city got some mediation money out of the deal. (Lowe's, incidentally, was represented by lobbyist Bruce Todd, who's now serving as an interim Travis County Commissioner while still juggling his lobby work for clients.)

Fast forward to this past spring, when lobby agents for the Garza family teamed up with agents for San Antonio billionaire Red McCombs, who had a proposed office project in the works along Southwest Parkway. The two lobby forces convinced staff and some members of Council that the city would have hell to pay at the Lege if their deals, both in need of site-specific amendments to SOS, failed to win staff support and a subsequent vote from Council.

Fast forward again to last Thursday, Aug. 22, when Council considered the two Garza-McCombs proposals, both of which required a super-majority of six votes. The McCombs deal was deemed the worst of the two and it died immediately; Council Member Bill Spelman moved to deny the proposal and everyone except Mayor Lee Leffingwell followed suit. The Garza proposal also failed to secure six votes (Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison voted no). Normally that would have been the end of the road for a proposal requiring six votes, but Council decided to bring it back today (Aug. 29) for second and third readings because Morrison signaled that she might switch her vote to yes once she had some questions answered to her satisfaction. At press time, there was no word from Morrison's office on which way she she'd swing.

Momentum Picks Up

Bill Bunch, who heads the Save Our Springs Alliance, says he and others learned of the Garza-McCombs Lege threats toward the end of the regular legislative session. "That's when the [development proposals] started getting some momentum, and that's when we got wind of it and filed open records requests," he said. "We didn't know much of the details at all, other than, 'we have to do this or the world was going to end.'" According to Bunch, staff dragged its feet on responding to the open records request, but finally released the documents this week on Tuesday morning, and the other SOS members were still poring over the paperwork for any red flags that could potentially work to delay, or maybe defeat, today's vote.

Opponents of proposals like this one do allow that the Garza plan offers one bright spot: a land easement that would provide a piece of the property puzzle needed to complete the Violet Crown trail. But as environmentalist Steve Beers put it last week, there should be some way of guaranteeing that the easement for the trail would be more than "just a sidewalk between two parking lots." Bunch adds that, given the city's troubled history with the Garza family, the city already has "one or two alternatives for the trail," and it might be safer to rely on one of those back-pocket alternatives than a promised easement from the Garza family.

And, he adds, the Lege doesn't exactly have a history of laying off Austin whenever the city waters down existing development rules in response to threats from the lobby crowd at the Capitol. "You're not reducing the Austin-bashing threats, you're just increasing them," he said. "You're inviting others to make the same threat."

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