Naked City

Off The Desk:

A Sierra Club report released Wednesday, "The Dark Side of the American Dream," ranks Austin high on its list of 20 U.S. cities where suburban sprawl poses the greatest threat to the environment and quality of life. The report, based on information from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Highway Administration, examined factors including population density figures, the amount of time residents sit in traffic, and the amount of open space lost to development each year. Among medium-sized cities at risk, Austin ranks second most threatened. Kay Plavidal, Sierra Club-Austin Regional Group chair, says that while the City Council has taken positive steps to thwart sprawl, a more aggressive approach to its Smart Growth initiatives and a commitment to transportation alternatives such as light rail is needed to effectively curb the problem ...

Can little ol' Austin teach the Big Apple a thing or two? TheNew York Times seems to think so. Last Sunday's "The City" section featured Barton Springs in a piece titled, "12 Ideas From (Gasp) Out of Town." The piece called Austin's beloved swimming hole a model that New Yorkers can look to when planning their own freshwater pool in (gasp) the Central Park Reservoir. In its present state, the 106-acre reservoir — a notorious favorite of folks who do their "swimming" in cement shoes — is hardly tempting. No longer used for drinking water, the murky soup practically screams "flesh-eating bacteria here!" Needless to say, endangered salamanders will not be a chief concern. — L.T.

Scared by all this talk about bond debt? One of the Big Three bond houses, Fitch IBCA, has reaffirmed its 'AA' rating ('AAA' is as good as it gets) for the city's general obligation bond debt, citing local growth and the city's "effective fiscal policies." However, Fitch notes that Austin's debt-to-revenue ratio is "above average," and will be more so if voters approve the $339.7 million GO bond package in November. — M.C.M.

Verner Liipfert Berhard McPherson & Hand, the heavyweight law firm that employs former Gov. Ann Richards and former U.S. Sen. and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, is rolling in dough. According to an APstory, the firm received $7.1 million during the first half of 1998 from the big five tobacco companies — Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco, and U.S. Tobacco. — R.B.


The Plot Thickens

The Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) has entertained record crowds during its two-week run, but the hottest ticket in town was actually being played out behind the scenes. The high drama came to a head Tuesday when aGLIFF organizers were served with a lawsuit filed by Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier and four other plaintiffs. The dispute, which began unfolding when the festival kicked off Aug. 28, centered on the festival's plan — since scrapped — to screen Worthy Mothers Sept. 9 at the Dobie Theatre. The 1995 documentary tracks two lesbian couples through the adoption process. Frasier, a participant in the film, speaks with candor about her experience as an adoptive mother.

The "Jane Doe" plaintiffs in the suit allege they and their minor children would be irreparably harmed should Worthy Mothers play to an Austin audience. The suit further claims that filmmaker Jessica Bega, who is also named as a defendant, assured the participants that the film would never screen publicly and would be used solely for the filmmaker's personal portfolio. Yet a copy of an "appearance release" produced last week states that Bega owns all rights, title, and interest in the film "to be used and disposed of without limitation as [Bega] shall in its sole discretion determine." The release was signed by all four mothers featured in the documentary.

aGLIFF had decided to cancel the Wednesday screening prior to being served with the lawsuit Tuesday (the petition was filed Sept. 4). Pending a court hearing Thursday, Sept. 10, aGLIFF and Bega are forbidden to discuss the lawsuit or the documentary, according to a restraining order signed by District Court Judge Margaret A. Cooper. The gag order also bans the defendants from explaining "by comment, inference or implication" the reason the film was pulled from the festival programming. Frasier, who acknowledged Wednesday that the film feud and ensuing lawsuit is generating the very publicity she had sought to avoid, noted, "This is not what I wanted to see happen. It [the lawsuit] was the only way we thought our request would be honored." — A.S.


Busted

Normally it's unethical to read someone else's mail. But if it's the nuclear industry's e-mail, there's probably a compelling public interest to take a peek, as a couple of intercepted transmissions about the proposed Sierra Blanca radioactive waste dump amply demonstrated last week.

First, as reported in the Sept. 4 Austin American-Statesman, employees at the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant near Dallas were caught sending illicit electronic messages to the commissioners of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, which is currently considering approval of the license for the West Texas dump, of which Comanche Peak would be a primary customer. Comanche Peak operator Texas Utilities is a party in the contested case hearing over the license, which means that any communication between them and the TNRCC must be conducted in the light of day, and made available to all involved parties. Addressing the commissioners directly, as TU vice president Jim Kelley apparently urged his employees to do in a memo (in which he gave out the commissioners' personal e-mail addresses) is a big no-no. TU spokesman Eric Schmitt told the Statesman it was an "honest mistake." TNRCC general counsel Geoff Connor was equally apologetic, claiming it was the first time under the Bush administration that the commissioners had received illegal communications.

A few days later, Rick Jacobi, executive director of the state agency in charge of building the Sierra Blanca dump, sent out an e-mail to the Radsafe Network, a large group of nuclear industry professionals, advising them of an Austin American-Statesman Web poll currently underway on the Sierra Blanca dump. Jacobi urged them to make their voices heard in the poll, which simply asked: "Should nuclear waste be stored near Sierra Blanca?" His e-mail message (a copy of which was obtained by the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund) did not go unanswered. Mike Dupray, formerly of the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant near Sacramento, Calif., writes in a response (also obtained by SBLDF) to Jacobi about similar phone polls held in Sacramento during the debate on whether to close the plant. "When there was a phone poll, those of us at the (Ranch) would hit redial and vote a hundred times or more to keep the plant open," Dupray wrote. Though the "Ranch" ended up being shut down, Dupray still loves a good poll. "I voted 10 times already and plan to vote some more," he told Jacobi.— N.B.


Triangle Congruence

There's light at the end of the Triangle tunnel, after Berkeley architect Peter Calthorpe's Sept. 3 presentation of his firm's visions for a new, mixed-use, primarily residential development on the controversial north central Austin site. What Calthorpe — one of America's most highly regarded "New Urbanist" architects — proposed closely resembles the plan advanced by Triangle neighbors last winter, during their abortive negotiations with Cencor Realty, the leaseholder on the Texas MHMR-owned parcel between 45th, Guadalupe, and Lamar.

While two of Cencor's three original anchor tenants — Randalls and Barnes and Noble — are still in the plan with sizable stores, in Calthorpe's renderings the rest of the Triangle would be occupied by "Main Street-style" retail, limited but well-developed open space, and apartments and townhomes to be developed by Dallas-based Post Properties.

At the Sept. 3 community workshop, Calthorpe presented two alternatives with visible — but not enormous — differences, and then asked the 200-plus in attendance to mix-and-match. While most everyone in the room found something they didn't like, the general consensus among the Triangle "stakeholders" was that Calthorpe's basic concept got the green light.

Ultimately, however, many of the decisions that will make the Triangle a New-Urb showpiece are not Calthorpe's to make. Deciding who the remaining tenants are, or what the buildings actually look like, will likely fall to the developers. Post's Kent Collins notes that "it makes me nervous when people talk about this being 'over, finally.' For us, it's just beginning."

After processing the community's input, Calthorpe will come back at the end of September with his final recommended site plan, which goes back to the state special board of review, composed of state and local officials and chaired by Land Commissioner/Aspiring Governor Garry Mauro. If they accept it as expected, the political saga of the Triangle will, indeed, be over by the end of October.— M.C.M.


Dire Predictions

It is sold to voters as a common-sense tool for encouraging parent-teenager communication about life-changing issues. But the unintended consequence of parental consent and notification laws is that vulnerable teens who fear violence, rejection, or disappointment from their parents will seek more unsafe, illegal abortions, agreed panelists at a recent Planned Parenthood forum on mandatory parental involvement laws.

Panelists at the Aug. 27 forum at UT's Thompson Conference Center included Peggy Romberg, executive director of the Texas Family Planning Association, who said the mandatory notification legislation, with its benign family values veneer, will likely stain Texas' law books during the upcoming legislative session.

Austin state Rep. Dawnna Dukes agreed, recounting how pro-choice advocates dodged the parental notification bullet during the last legislative session. The Senate had already passed the mandatory consent measure and the necessary House votes were all lined up. But a clerical error was discovered (records of a committee hearing on the bill failed to list the groups represented by witnesses) and the bill was killed on a technicality. Even then, there was an attempt to attach the measure to another bill, but that effort ultimately failed.

Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, predicted the upcoming election will not add any more pro-choice votes to the Legislature. And, assuming Gov. George W. Bush plans to run for president in 2000, Slater said, Bush will be pushing two things during the next Legislative session: a school voucher program and a parental notification law. — N.K.

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