Going Whole Hog

City Vows to Pare Down Pohl's PUD

illustration by Doug Potter

Even after getting butchered at the Williamson County Courthouse last week, the City of Austin hasn't given up its fight to skewer the Hog Farm. And it looks like both the State of Texas and Bill Pohl might finally join them at the table. The 446-acre tract known to everyone as the Hog Farm, but formally as the Leander Rehabilitation Planned Unit Development District, lies northeast of the intersection of U.S. 183 and RR 620, just within Austin's city limits (it was annexed in 1994) and across the Williamson County line. Since the days of the Texas Republic, the property has been owned by one state agency or another, serving first as the state's hog and dairy farm, then as an MHMR facility, and now a big vacant lot controlled by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which has tried to sell it, on and off, for years.

They will succeed in doing so - maybe - on Friday, January 23, when the Texas General Land Office (GLO), representing TxDOT, has set closing for an $18.6 million deal with Madron Investments, a primarily European investment syndicate represented (and created) by Bill Pohl of Pohl, Brown and Associates, the Northwest Corridor's biggest land baron, which already controls thousands of acres within a mile of the Hog Farm. Pohl's vision, as detailed in the zoning request the GLO filed on his behalf, is for between 11 and 18 million square feet of mostly high-intensity commercial development - to be built by someone other than himself, over a 15- to 20-year period - which would make the Hog Farm both bigger and more dense than Austin's central business district. (The plan is short on specifics, like how much of what is to be built by whom and when, which is why the city is so opposed to it.)

Although city staff and the Planning Commission, with noses firmly held, both approved the Leander PUD zoning, the city council recoiled in horror and shot it down late last year, 7-0. This kicked in the now-notorious provisions of Senate Bill 478, in which the state, through an ad hoc board dominated by its own officials, can overturn the city council's decisions and impose the zoning of its choice on land that it owns - even land that it's already under contract to sell. This is exactly what happened in Georgetown on January 14; all four state officials on the six-member panel, along with Williamson County Judge John Doerfler, delivered their votes in Pohl's favor, with only Mayor Kirk Watson voting in the city's favor.

Despite this drubbing of the city, the Hog Farm story is far from over. Both the GLO and Pohl, Brown are contorting themselves to proclaim their continued willingness to work with the city, address its concerns, and come to mutual agreement. "Nobody wants this to be an ongoing fight between the city and whoever ends up developing these projects," says Pohl spokesperson Cindy Rugeley. "The best thing to do would be to figure out now what everybody wants. Ideally, we would have done it before now. I can't imagine why the city wouldn't want to sit down at the table."

Councilmember Bill Spelman
photograph by Alan Pogue

These last two sentences illuminate the great divide between the city and the state; both Pohl and the GLO have complained mightily about the city's unwillingness, in their view, to negotiate. "The [SB478] process can always be improved, but the City of Austin process can stand some improvement as well," says GLO spokesperson Ron Calhoun. "If we'd known they wanted more of this or less of that [in the PUD request], we'd have worked with them. [Land] Commissioner [Garry] Mauro sent a letter to the mayor to that effect months ago, and they chose not to get back with us." Pohl, Brown likewise says that it has tried to meet with members of the city council for months and hasn't gotten its calls returned.

From Austin's perspective, though, if Pohl, Brown and the GLO really wanted to cooperate with the city and create a development consistent with Austin's goals and needs, Pohl would have filed for zoning himself, after closing, and taken his lumps like any other property owner, instead of relying on the state's SB478 ace-in-the-hole. It's this subversion of local control - usually treated like holy writ in Texas - as much as any specific danger posed by the Hog Farm, that has the city in a fighting mood.

As far as the Hog Farm itself goes, "I would feel a more pressing need if I thought Bill Pohl could possibly build this in the near term," says Councilmember Bill Spelman, the council's point man on the project, pointing to the huge infrastructure costs Pohl or prospective developers would have to pony up front before putting a single stick in the air. "But we've all been rolling over and playing dead for years, and there are other cities in Texas that are in the same situation we are. This is the first time we've ever fought the state's doing what it darn well pleased."

Whether in response to the city's fortitude, or in fear of repeating the Hog Farm fracas at even higher volume with Central Austin's controversial Triangle Square project, or in recognition of the importance of Austin's Democratic votes to his gubernatorial campaign, Garry Mauro has apparently blinked. This past weekend, the Land Commissioner met with Watson to discuss an interlocal agreement wherein the city and state could, hopefully, avoid SB478-spawned battles in the future.

This may in turn serve as a prelude to discussions between the city and Pohl, Brown, which may end up delaying the closing of the Hog Farm sale - already delayed once at Mauro's request. "If the mayor called and said `Let's reach an agreement,' we'd see if there was any flexibility on closing," says Rugeley. "It's all iffy because we wish they had done it sooner. And we would go from there and work with them to change the project."

The prospect of a Hog Farm deal also delays, perhaps permanently, an almost inevitable lawsuit, in which the city - and perhaps other Texas cities - would challenge the legality of SB478. However, Spelman emphasizes that "our legal rights won't vanish if we enter into an agreement with the state," and he adds that the bill's transfer of what, under Texas law, is a legislative function - land-use regulation, performed by local legislative bodies, i.e., city councils, in home-rule cities like Austin - into an administrative one is a clear violation of constitutional separation of powers. A similar case in Florida overturned that state's equivalent of SB478, and Spelman sounds confident that that victory could be repeated here: "If we sue, we will win."

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