Page Two

The Hyde Park Baptist Church development may be legal, but it's wrong; and it's time for Statesman editor Rich Oppel to go.

Page Two
I'm a Hyde Park resident, and this is a story of my neighborhood.

In the 1980s, the Hyde Park Baptist Church, totally against the virtually unanimous will of its surrounding neighbors, but with powerful allies at the city, coerced the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association into a development agreement which was probably the best the neighborhood could do at the time, given the prevailing winds at City Hall. They did this using two main tactics:

  • They aggressively and repeatedly litigated against the city, whose legal department -- under the direction of assistant city attorney Andy Martin and, ultimately, a pro-growth council (headed for years by mayor Ron Mullen, now a deacon and spokesman for the church) -- was disinclined to fight back.

  • They purchased and demolished some 37 houses in the area, even though they had no particular use for many of those SF-1 lots. The last two were bulldozed -- needlessly -- right at the end of the negotiations, just as a warning to show what they could do if they didn't get their way.

    Against that background, HPNA and HPBC negotiated an agreement that designated a preferred growth zone, put other areas off-limits (areas which were already zoned single-family, and would have needed no such protection in today's political climate), and, specifically, gave the church the right to build another parking garage and an education building on the sites now under discussion (see Erica C. Barnett's cover story on HPBC).

    The HPNA/HPBC conceptual agreement included no specifics regarding those developments, and one might have supposed that they would have had to conform to development standards in place; but . . .

    The church and city -- specifically Martin and developer hatchet man Richard Suttle -- then drafted an NCCD (a questionable use of a legal tool intended specifically to protect existing neighborhoods from just such developments) that granted HPBC considerable variances from compatibility standards which prevail everywhere else in the city: such things as setbacks, height restrictions, traffic impact, streetscaping, etc. This was passed on an emergency basis, with little or no notification, let alone approval, of the neighbors or the NA. To say that the neighborhood approved the building plans as they now exist -- as HPBC would have you believe -- is not true.

    Closer to the truth is that HPBC holds its neighbors in contempt, and doesn't appear to care what anyone thinks about them. (Church spokesman Bob Liverman's quote about how friendly he is with the locals, as opposed to the Quarry folk, is astounding.)

    There is no way this development would be approved today, or that any similar development would be approved in any other existing residential neighborhood in the city.

    Moreover, HPBC should have a very hard time getting any further favors from the city, or approval for any further construction, unless there is another major shift in city policy direction.

    Be that as it may, HPBC does have specific permission, under its NCCD, to build just what it wants to build. The council could revoke or change the NCCD, which is a city ordinance like any other, but they would have to have a pretty good reason for doing so, because HPBC would doubtless challenge this in court, claiming that the rules were being changed on them in mid-stream. (On the other hand, there may be similar legal claims from the church's immediate neighbors if construction is allowed to go forward; damned if you do, damned if you don't.) Short of that, there may or may not be other ways to achieve marginal improvements in the plan -- either through the planning department's site plan process, or by shaming the church membership into being more responsible citizens.

    The bottom line, to me, is that this is an inappropriate development, by any reasonable measure -- especially the parking garage, which is clearly intended to accommodate future growth, not current use. It would not be allowed under today's guidelines, and it wouldn't have been allowed in the Eighties, except that the mayor and city leadership at the time were contempuous of the neighborhood, and the church has no social conscience. It may be legal, perhaps even unavoidable, but it's wrong. Surely that still counts for something.

    Rich Oppel, Its Time to Go

    Tomorrow, in the Austin American-Statesman, there will be a retraction of a key section of Rich Oppel's editorial column from last Sunday. What Oppel presented as a direct quote -- "on a tape" -- of environmentalist Tim Jones making self-incriminating statements to an attorney for the developer of Barton Creek Properties, was in fact a district attorney's (inaccurate) paraphrase of what she thought Jones had said two years earlier. We know this because Chronicle media critic Lee Nichols just got off the phone with Oppel, after calling him yesterday to ask about the quote, since it was clear from the tapes in question that Jones had never said what Oppel quoted him as saying. This misleading (at best) quote was at the heart of Oppel's inexplicably scurrilous attack on Jones in last Sunday's Statesman, and it could raise the stakes on what had been, until now, a mildly amusing little chapter in the Statesman editor's ongoing vendetta against the city's system of citizen boards and commissions.

    If you've missed the first few chapters of this little melodrama, here's a refresher:

    On Nov. 9 and 10, the Statesman ran two front-page stories accusing Jones, a member of the city's environmental board, of asking the developer of Barton Creek Properties for a job and trying to use his board position for improper influence. In this space last week, we took the Statesman to task for misrepresenting the tapes and Jones' motives, which were, throughout, focused on furthering his work in monitoring the water quality in Barton Creek.

    Then, last Sunday, Oppel took the charges against Jones a step further, claiming, under the headline, "Tim Jones, it's time to go," that the board member tried to "shake down" and "blackmail" Foster, while "begging for a chance to cover up pollution for money." Specifically, here's the core of Oppel's attack on Jones:

    Here he is -- on a tape recorded in May 1997 -- promising John Foster, lawyer for Stratus Properties, the developer of Barton Creek, that if he's hired, he'll protect the developers from regulators and the scrutiny of fellow environmental activists.

    You've got to grin. Over at the Earth First treehouse, the knuckle-dragging wing of the environmental movement must be coughing up granola as they listen to Jones wheelin' and dealin' with the developer's man.

    "Hey, let me on," said Jones, begging for the chance to cover up pollution for money. "If I find something, I'll tell you, and it will be kind of below the radar screen. We'll work it out, and we'll never report it to all these government authorities."

    Hey, that's good stuff, eh? Funny writing, and you can almost see the spittle flying over the keyboard as Oppel fumes. There's one big problem, though:

    Jones didn't say any of that, anywhere on the tapes. Nor did he say anything remotely close to that. He didn't express that sentiment, and he didn't use those words -- not "under the radar screen," "we'll work it out," "government authorities," or any variant of those phrases.

    Even though Oppel unequivocally cites it as a direct quote -- he discusses listening to the tapes, and gives a visceral image of Jones' pleading -- it's a paraphrase which comes from court transcripts, crafted by a prosecutor who was trying to get Jones to incriminate himself. So now, after we caught him at it, Oppel is going to retract that "quote," in as limited and grudging a way as possible, but that doesn't even begin to address the underlying problem at the daily.

    What's really disgusting isn't that Oppel made a dumb mistake and got caught; it's that the whole premise of the editorial is dishonest, and Oppel had to know that. Tim Jones is lots of things -- naive, rambling, obsessed, incoherent by his own admission, and more -- in these two-year-old recordings of informal phone calls that were taped without his knowledge. But what he is bizarrely, single-mindedly concerned with throughout, at every single turn, is the water quality in his beloved Barton Creek. He does offer to work with, and, yes, even for, BC Properties -- in order to help them identify and control their runoff, and to keep their construction crews in compliance. Is that wrong? Is that "covering up pollution for money"?

    Anyone listening to these tapes, as Rich Oppel did, knows that Jones was not attempting a "shakedown," or "blackmail," or "using your office to seek favor" (though Oppel makes all those accusations), and that he never, ever, EVER said anything to suggest that he would "cover up pollution for money." These assertions, like much else in the column, are as false as the "quote."

    You can check this yourself. The recordings are available here. Oppel repeatedly refers in his editorial to things the public ought to hear on these tapes. Yet his newspaper, having obtained the tapes under a Freedom of Infor-mation request, has declined to allow anyone to hear them. Well, we got our own copy of the recordings from County Attorney Ken Oden (you can do this yourself); anyone wanting to hear them can find audio files on our Web site, attached to this column. We encourage you to listen to the recordings, re-read Mr. Oppel's characterization of them, and come to your own conclusions. end story

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