Council Watch

Accepting Terms? Details of Proposed Bradley Settlement Are Laid Out for All to See

Council Watch
By Doug Potter

So the Bradley deal is finally all out on the table, in all its glory. What do Austin's dedicated environmental activists think of it? Though the atmosphere surrounding this deal remains eerily quiet -- with no formal statements yet from the SOS Alliance or the Hays County Water Planning Partnership (HCWPP) -- off-the-record reactions from the local environmental sector are starting to trickle in. The reason for the reticence has been the deadly seriousness with which environmentalists are taking this agreement -- they're looking before they leap and choosing their words carefully. As SOS Board Chair Robin Rather put it this week, "It's more important to have depth of thinking than to satisfy everybody's appetite for, 'will they or won't they'" support the deal. The council meeting today (Thursday, Feb. 17) should provide the first public airing of Bradley-related laundry, with SOS and HCWPP expected to put in an appearance at the 6pm public hearing. Word is that SOS's top priority is the introduction of third-party accountability to the deal, someone like the Nature Conservancy or the Trust for Public Land, who could jointly hold the conservation easement with the city as further insurance that the state Legislature -- or future councils with less environmentally friendly policies -- would not undo the agreement.

Such third-party accountability was reportedly sought by the city and refused by Bradley, so to get it -- if it's possible at all -- would likely require further trading on the city's part. So far, in fact, one of the most interesting commentaries on the deal has come from Bradley himself, in the form of a written response to last week's SOS memo, which outlined the group's vision of an aggressive regional conservation plan. In addition to agreeing to end his aquifer activities, he also indicated his support for all the broad strategic goals outlined by SOS (except one: He will not oppose the extension of SH 45 to I-35).

And check this out, Austin: Bradley has written to SOS agreeing, as a part of the settlement currently pending before the City Council, to cease further development in the aquifer. The very thing that this column urged readers not to hold their collective breath over could, apparently, come to pass. Bradley wrote that he would "end all of my business activities within the Barton Springs Recharge Zone" in return for the Alliance's "active support" of projects he undertakes in the desired development zone.

Bradley's letter refers only to the Barton Springs Recharge Zone, but partisans are pushing to extend the commitment to all of the Barton Springs Zone. While this may or may not be a big sacrifice on Bradley's part, it certainly is a psychic boon to battle-weary enviros, and a further assurance that this deal may really put an end to the fighting.

All this is not to say that we should cheer with joy at the advent of this settlement. Though it will allow the city to place environmental controls where it otherwise could not, the Bradley settlement will still mean another sizeable development along MoPac, and more upscale housing and another golf course on the aquifer. As SOS supporters have lamented in recent years, though the community has spoken, development in the Southwest quadrant just keeps on coming, by hook or by crook. But we mostly have the Texas Legislature to thank for that; and what's done, according to city leaders including Mayor Kirk Watson, is all but impossible to undo.

Outside city counsel Casey Dobson agrees. "Without this agreement, and if we lose the Water Quality Protection Zone case, our entire range of municipal authority will vanish for all of these 3,076 acres," he said at the public hearing last Thursday, "and even if we won, we would still have the (House Bill) 1704 problem." The city could keep tilting at the twin windmills of the Texas legislative and judicial branches, but doing so is costly, the logic goes, and it's better to walk away from the table with something rather than risk it all and wind up with nothing.


Where's the Outrage?

Speaking of the first public hearing, the first public vetting of one of the most important agreements in Austin environmental history, it was almost a total bust. A grand total of one private citizen showed up -- Robert Singleton, who was clearly concerned that the city was getting hoodwinked by all the lawyers and, of course, by Bradley himself.

Everybody else was at home cramming, it seems, since the all-important conservation easement was so freshly published that the ink was still wet. SOS e-mailed its supporters Thursday, explaining that "the SOS Alliance will not participate in tonight's hearing because the City has only just now provided a complete copy of the agreement for our team to review. We feel that it would be imprudent to comment before we have even had a meaningful opportunity to review the proposal." The e-mail urged supporters to educate themselves on the agreement and get involved in the process.

For those who did find themselves inside council chambers for the hearing, Dobson's presentation to council contained few surprises. One notable development was the revelation by the Bradley Interests that they do not control all of the Pfluger Water Quality Protection Zone, which was set to be dissolved as part of the agreement.

A homestead of a few dozen acres, it seems, is owned by the Pfluger family for whom the tract is named. But because WQPZs must have a minimum number of acres, the settlement basically renders the Pfluger WQPZ useless. To make double-sure, however, Bradley agreed to transfer whatever WQPZ rights he has to the city, so that Austin would have clear legal standing before the TNRCC in the event of any legal dispute.

Dobson said that all parts of the November terms sheet have been manifested in the agreement. "What we said we would get is exactly what we got," he said, with the deeding of the groundwater as an added bonus. He again reassured Austinites that the agreement was backed by "an unequivocal promise to stay hitched to something regardless of what happens at the Legislature. Does that mean this is Legislature-proof? I can't guarantee that; no lawyer could. [But] it is going to be much more difficult to take the benefits of this agreement away from us" than it has been for the Lege to undermine Austin's other water quality initiatives.

Another way the city will thwart legislative malfeasance, according to Dobson, is in the area of developer reimbursables, which the city owes to Bradley due to the annexation of Circle C. The right to collect the statutory penalties instated by a 1999 law (which Dobson termed "Draconian" and which could have cost the city over a million dollars) has been waived by Bradley.


Conservation Complications

The conservation easement, the document which details what methods will be used to preserve water quality, revealed the following: All property under the agreement will be subject to 1992 (read: post-SOS) regulations, and the definition of impervious cover in the agreement will be the same as that in city code. (That definition is not, as it turns out, identical to SOS's, but that's a story for another time.)

It also contains an intricate mechanism to monitor the amount of impervious cover allowable on a given tract, even as it is subdivided and sold. ("It's complicated," said Dobson, "but the bottom line is, it needs to be complicated.") The Spillar, Pfluger, and Slaughter 100 tracts will be limited to 15% impervious cover. The Jan Yates Tract, which is slated to be the location of the big retail in the deal, will be limited to 50% impervious cover.

So will all this be good for Austin? The mood of cautious optimism alluded to in last week's "Council Watch" still prevails. Though it's too soon to tell for sure, if having the right enemies is any kind of indication of its value to the city, the Bradley deal just might be one worth seizing. Rumor has it that the business and development powers that be down in Hays County are hopping mad over the deal, fearing that their plans for big buildings and wide roads (and maybe even the LCRA water line that will help those things get built) will be jeopardized by this deal. And jeopardizing big growth and big development in Hays County is just what environmentalists have been looking to see happen.


Spelman Steps Down

Council Member Bill Spelman surprised many council watchers this week by declining to run for another term on the Austin City Council. In a press conference Monday, Spelman said that progress had been made toward the three goals he laid out at the beginning of his term: fighting urban sprawl, community policing, and increasing the availability of capital for small businesses. He added that he was leaving the council in "exceptionally good hands" while he went on to focus on other things.

Spelman said he looked forward to spending more time on his duties at UT, adding that his family would like to see him once in a while, too. In addition to his course load at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Spelman will spend time working with the Texas Institute for Public Problem Solving, a federally funded police training institute. After the press conference, Spelman said he also had "a couple of books to write," one of which would be a management case study based on his experience as a council member and the political challenges it entailed. Spelman said the book would, for its chapters, borrow monumental episodes in Austin public policy, including the CSC and LCRA water deals.

More Shakeups in Store

Another surprise was the announcement that Spelman's aide, Kristen Vassallo, will be joining Mayor Kirk Watson's staff. The mayor's office has seen a lot of turnover of late, with the departures of aide Larry Warshaw, scheduler Jackie Mayo, and of chief of staff Jill George.

In praise of Vassallo, Spelman said that "about half of the good things that have come out of Place 5" have been the work of his aide. "While I was up on the dais making the speeches and taking the credit -- she was getting the deals done," Spelman said. Vassallo's switch to the mayor's office will be effective immediately; assisting Spelman for the remainder of his term will be LBJ School of Public Affairs student Corey Stokes, whose studies have focused on urban policy.

The crowd that gathered to hear Spelman's announcement was small, but chock-full of City Hall regulars. Among those present were lawyer types Richard Suttle and Jeff Howard, council members Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith; political consultants Mark Yznaga and Todd Main (Willie's campaign guy); and health care activist Gus Peña.

After the press conference, the consultants huddled together for a confab. They talked shop, with Main predicting that although support seems to be coalescing around former Downtown Austin Alliance Chair Will Wynn, the race for Place 5 will be a wild one. Main said he expected to see 10 candidates in the race by the filing deadline (neighborhood activist Clare Berry is reportedly mulling a run for the seat, as is businessman Manuel Zuniga, who ran for council against Spelman in 1997). Most of all, though, the trio lamented Spelman's loss. When asked about the differences that members of the SOS Alliance have had with Spelman in the past, Yznaga called the spats "miniscule compared to his value to the city."


This Week in Council

It's public hearing time again for the proposed Bradley settlement, 6pm at the Bergstrom Airport council site (off the Cargo exit off Hwy. 71). Public hearings will also be held for a spate of ordinance changes that seem to have "Smart Growth Task Force" written all over them; i.e., they concern amending development regulations within the Desired Development Zone. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Gary Bradley, SOS Alliance, Hays County Water Planning Partnership, Robin Rather, Kirk Watson, Texas Legislature, Barton Springs Recharge Zone, Casey Dobson, Robert Singleton, Pfluger Water Quality ProtectionZone, Bill Spelman, Kristen Vassallo, Larry Warsh

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