Council Takes Long Day's Journey Into Night

illustration by doug potter
illustration by DOUG POTTER

The stamina of Austin city councilmembers was tested again last week with another long night of policy-making. From billboards to landfills (see "Solid Waste Land," p.26), it was an endurance test for all parties. Love them or hate them, the councilmembers may well have earned their 30-grand-or so salaries just by seeing these meetings through to the bitter end.

The council's dance card was so over-full that one of the agenda's most notable items -- the city's settlement of its lawsuit with Longhorn Pipeline -- was mentioned only briefly. The city has been working for months to force an environmental impact study on the activation of the pipeline, which would extend 700 miles between El Paso and Houston. The matter took Mayor Kirk Watson to Washington, D.C., to lobby the powers there against joining in the dispute on Longhorn's behalf. And on Thursday, that work paid off.

The environmental assessment -- which will be presided over by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety -- was a big victory for the city, as 20,000 Austin residents live within 1,000 feet of the line. Their fears about the pipeline's safety were not allayed -- nor were Longhorn's arguments against the need for an impact study bolstered -- by last year's pipeline explosion near a Houston-area elementary school.

The four-month environmental assessment will include public hearings in Austin, Houston, and El Paso (where residents in the economically strapped border town were paying top dollar for gasoline last summer), as well as two other cities designated by the Lower Colorado River Authority. Though Austin and Longhorn are not the only litigants in the case, known officially as Spiller v. Walker, the other involved parties are expected to sign on to the settlement soon.

Billboard Mitigation

The council revisited the future of Austin billboards in a particularly excruciating, meeting-lengthening discussion on how the fine print of the ordinance should read. The new ordinance, approved 6-1 (Willie Lewis voting no) will allow the replacement of existing billboards (at a reduction in size of 25%, instead of the 20% that was previously on the table) by anyone with whom a landowner chooses to contract, as well as a three-for-one replacement deal, whereby a company could put up one new billboard in a location of their choosing after taking down three old ones within a given period of time (perhaps 90 days). The ordinance would also declare billboards non-compliant with all zoning designations, meaning that any zoning change would force the removal of any billboards from that property.

With this ordinance, the council hopes to achieve what others have tried and failed to do: In 1983, the Ron Mullen administration instituted the non-replacement ordinance, thinking that without maintenance, all existing billboards in Austin would be retired within 15 to 20 years; in other words, right about now. That might have happened, except that in 1990 the state legislature enacted a law allowing sign owners to spend up to 60% of its original cost to repair a given billboard, effectively allowing perpetual and piecemeal replacement of the signs. The council then responded with the reduction-replacement plan. Since then, the fight about who has the right to replace a billboard has raged, with councilmembers being lobbied within an inch of their lives by people trying to protect their livelihoods.

The small billboard companies were the biggest winners, getting the right to compete for the leases currently held more or less in perpetuity by billboard kingpin Reagan National Advertising. Their case was pleaded effectively by hired gun and former mayor Mullen, who again told the council he believes the reduction plan is the quickest way to rid the city of billboards. Though he was paid for his appearance, Mullen insisted his motives were pure: "If you question my heart, don't. Like you do, [I want to get rid of billboards]."

If that's really so, Mayor Mullen, meet us at midnight along Hwy 290 and I-35. You bring the chainsaws, we'll supply the flatbeds.

Condo Conflict

Between the billboards and the landfill issues, the council approved on first reading the development of a seven-unit condominium building on North Lamar, just south of 24th Street and the Caswell Tennis Courts.

The landowner's original request, a 10-unit apartment building, was opposed by neighbors on traffic and public safety grounds in a barn-burner of a public hearing two weeks ago. But the neighbors' logic was confusing: If the applicant were denied his apartment zoning, an office building would be the next likely project. How would a concentrated stream of traffic, at morning and evening rush hour, be safer than the more evenly dispersed traffic that apartments might provide? One likely explanation for neighbors' resistance to the apartments was the threat of (horrors) students moving into the neighborhood. Though there are some unsavory factors that accompany living next to a herd of undergrads, the owner was only asking for 10 units; and this is, after all, a neighborhood that's within spitting distance of the university. And they don't want students living there?

The North Lamar case was an example of the increasing incidence of neighborhood groups exercising their ever-increasing power in city government. The case put Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and her "never-vote-against-the-valid-petition-because-it's-the-only-strong-tool-the-neighborhoods-have" policy in the toughest spot yet. But she was ultimately bailed out by her friends on the council, who arrived at a satisfactory compromise with the landowner, and voted 6-0 for the condo zoning, with Goodman conveniently off the dais.

Land, Ho!

The long awaited "plain English" Land Development Code rewrite was adopted by the council last week, and will become effective onMarch 15. In the works for over 10 months, the revision shortens the code by about a third. Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell, who presided over the rewrite, said the new code is easier to read and less intimidating. "We tried to get rid of things like 'whereas, therefore' so someone could pick it up and read it without having to hire someone to interpret it for them," she said.

Futrell's team has also been working on substantive revisions to the Land Development Code and the city's neighborhood-and-master-planning processes, and those will be road-tested in coming months before neighborhood and other citizen groups. A citywide public meeting on city planning issues is slated for April.

The council also approved the field-tested, city-approved Smart Growth Matrix, which rates the city-funded infrastructure-incentive worthiness of developments in the desirable zone.

The Chestnut Plan

The Chestnut Neighborhood became the third to submit its vision for the future of its little corner of the world, under the city's new neighborhood planning pilot program. The presentation of the plan came with a plea from the neighbors: more police protection for more crime-ridden streets. Chestnut neighborhood planner Scottie Ivory expressed disappointment in the city's still-new but highly touted community policing program. "We have done our part ... identified the crack houses, where the gambling is taking place, we have walked the neighborhood at night," Ivory said. "The way it was done on paper, it was beautiful. In action, it's not working. We have been begging for help. Nothing's being done." (The previous two neighborhood planning teams, East Cesar Chavez and Dawson residents, are reportedly both pleased with how community policing is playing out in their neighborhoods.)

The plan includes enacting mixed-use zoning for the neighborhood, creating a nonprofit organization to promote new housing and business investment, cleaning up vacant lots and installing sidewalks, developing a pocket park, rebuilding a strong neighborhood watch program and police/neighborhood partnership, and locating a police substation within the area.

Despite the troubles the neighborhood has had with crime, Ivory said there's more to Chestnut than some people think. "Do you not know we've got doctors over there?" she said. "Retired deans from Huston Tillotson College? Teachers? We are somebody."

This Week in Council: While we're thankful that the words Barton Springs don't automatically mean all-nighter public hearings any more, some of you will likely want to comment on the latest developments in the entanglement of the S.O.S. ordinance, the Barton Springs Salamander, the Endangered Species Act, and Barton Springs Pool. The public hearing, at 7pm in the council chambers, is your golden opportunity. There's also the possibility of the city closing the pool down during the month of April for maintenance and other salamander-related cleanups. Swimmers argue there should be laws against closing a pool during 80-degree weather, but we'll see what happens.

Another hot ticket will be the consideration of a $286,302 contract with Caton Services Inc., to provide registered nurses and surgical technicians to ensure that reproductive services continue at Brackenridge Hospital, and at the same time get Seton out of Dutch with the Vatican. The contract would have 12-month extension options, for a total contract amount not to exceed $1.581 million.

Starting this week, the council adopts the new procedures approved at last week's work session: The council will no longer consider action items at its Wednesday work sessions; they will instead be reserved for briefings by city departments, boards, and commissions. City staff has also committed to having the following week's council agenda ready by 5pm the preceding Friday, instead of "about midnight Friday," as one council aide put it.

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