The 1704 Sword

Forum Fallout?

From the reaction of legislators to the Austin amendment, it seems that the risk the council took in approving the Forum PUD may have been in vain. In retrospect, the city may have granted too large a development over the aquifer for too little stroke at the Capitol. (In her statement before the House, Austin Rep. Sherri Greenberg more than once cited the Forum PUD approval, calling it "a major development ... over an environmentally sensitive area," to little appreciable effect.) S.O.S. Alliance member and former Austin city councilmember Brigid Shea said such bad trades have been common since her days on the council. "I think absent the legislative session they would have voted differently," she said. "They weren't so much making a wise policy choice as much as what they thought was a political protection choice, which didn't turn out to protect them at all." Shea said the city can't expect to make too much headway in the field of legislative relations, since "it's hard to make a whole lot of progress in a giant cesspool."

The cesspool was certainly in rare form Tuesday. Despite an admirable performance from the Austin delegation, the contempt with which their efforts -- and those of the SOS/RECA/GACC coalition -- were regarded was palpable. Austin's House delegation pointed out that Austin has not changed its environmental regulations since 1992, that the interim 1704 ordinance passed by the city approved grandfathering for 90% of those that applied under it, and that it was in this regulatory atmosphere that Fortune magazine rated Austin the #1 American city in which to do business. In closing, Greenberg asked that although Austin had made mistakes in the past, "Let's not punish the children for the sins of the father." Hoots from much of the assembly, which went on to reject Austin's local control amendment by a vote of 108-33, signaled that they intended to do just that.

Greenberg's testimony was followed by a disturbing dialogue between Democratic Reps. Ron Lewis of Mauriceville and Ron Wilson of Houston, in which the extent of their acrimony for the city was fully displayed. Lewis insisted that the state's intervention in city development regulation was needed because city rules were "destroying people's lives," and "bankrupting families. ... You're defending Austin as your city," he told Austin Rep. Eliott Naishtat, but "Austin, Texas, is our city." He cited state ownership of the Capitol and other state facilities. (The jibe had special resonance for those familiar with Wilson's bill calling for Austin to be turned into a state-ruled District of Travis, which is due for a committee hearing this week.)

Prospects for the Austin amendment don't look too much better in the Senate than they did in the House. But even if the Legislature rejects Austin's pleas, Shea said, the city can use other tools -- most notably zoning -- to achieve its goals. Furthermore, the coalition will remain committed to its goal of acquiring 50,000 acres of undeveloped green space over the aquifer.

This Week in Council: The Council will not meet this week or next. Take advantage of the breather to reflect on Austin's place in the world following the recent rush of development developments, including CSC, the Forum, the mitigation policy, and the S.O.S./RECA agreement. And don't forget to vote in the City Council races for Places 1, 3, and 4. Early voting is underway now, with election day Saturday, May 1.

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Save Our Springs Alliance, S.o.s., Sb 1704, Hb 1704, Greater Austin Chamber Of Commerce, Real Estate Council Of Austin, Sherri Greenberg, Kirk Watson, Forum Pud, Lege, Capitol.

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