Hold Your Horses: SOS Says Not So Fast on Bradley Settlement
For a while, it seemed as if the prevailing wisdom on the proposed Bradley deal was going to go unchallenged: that in the absence of certain victory in the Water Quality Protection Zone appeal, and in the absence of likelihood that the city would prevail in a legal challenge to the grandfathering legislation of House Bill 1704, the best Austin can do to protect water quality and contain developer Gary Bradley is to cut a deal. But now the challenges are coming. The Save Our Springs Alliance Board voted Monday night, "with unanimity," according to one source, to oppose the proposed Bradley settlement, for the following reasons:
Broad Exceptions: The proposed conservation easement has exceptions so broad that they effectively eviscerate the conservation easement.
And with that, the polite and nervous silence surrounding the future of the Bradley agreement has cracked. The Alliance has been careful not to fling about the kinds of innuendo that characterized the misbegotten disputes over the Forum PUD and the water deal with the Lower Colorado River Authority -- and heaven knows that if there was ever a time that SOS board members had material for such innuendo, it's now -- but umpteen hours of sober review have led them to the conclusion that they cannot support the deal as proposed.
The city's outside counsel, Casey Dobson, admits that all the Alliance's objections have validity, save for the last. That one, he said -- the argument that the agreement would ensure future conflict with Bradley -- "unhinged" him. "Would they rather be sitting in their lawn chairs while the bulldozers go by, not able to do anything about it?" he asked. In any case, Dobson says that he's working with Bradley to remedy several of the SOS concerns -- such as the one regarding pumping limits from the Trinity Aquifer -- and that he expects to make an announcement regarding new changes to the agreement at the City Council meeting today, Thursday, March 2.
Dobson also takes issue with the claim that the conservation easement has been "eviscerated" by exceptions regarding what type of land uses will be included in impervious cover calculations. Although Bradley originally requested that all public uses -- churches, schools, day care centers -- be excluded from impervious cover calculations, Dobson says, the city bargained Bradley down to excluding only 50% of day care center uses. Also excluded would be development resulting from city-instigated condemnations and construction, as it would not be Bradley development, and therefore should not count against him. Environmentalists point out, however, that it doesn't matter whose "fault" the impervious cover is, it will still result in degradation of water quality.
In Dobson's mind, the proposal's opponents are operating on the faulty assumption that if the deal is defeated, unsavory development like the recharge zone golf course will not take place. "We don't live in a perfect world. We live in Austin," says Dobson. He concedes that while some, including himself, may attribute perfection to our town, Austin does not exist in a vacuum. "We're still trying to implement progressive civic public policy smack dab in the middle of an extremely conservative state," he says. "If we're going to have a golf course, and I believe we are, I'd rather have one that has been radically redesigned by the city's environmental staff."
The SOS Alliance has designated board vice chair Mary Arnold as the spokesman for its new stance, partly in response to Gary Bradley's assertion in the Chronicle last week that "there are only two people who know everything that has happened in this conflict over the last 15 years -- Mary Arnold and myself." Arnold attributes his statement to the fact that, back in the day, when he was first selling his proposals for municipal utility districts over the Edwards Aquifer, she "followed him around" as he made presentations to various groups, making a set of presentations of her own that refuted his. Arnold says Bradley has also taken her on several helicopter trips over his domain.
Arnold says her experience with Bradley has made her skeptical that the proposed deal will be enacted as written. She draws on her institutional memory -- the same institutional memory that Bradley praised in last week's Chronicle -- to reel off a list of such failures, including, she says, the Circle C MUD contract. That contract, Arnold says, called for the dedication of 800 acres of undeveloped green space, and to this day, only 400 has been set aside. "Where is the other 400 acres?" Arnold wants to know. Council Member Daryl Slusher admits that "there's no question that the city has had a poor record of sticking to agreements and enforcing agreements" in the past, but that the Kirk Watson council doesn't want to conduct new business by those old rules. "If that were the case, I never would have run for council [a second time]," he says, because he would have been unable to effect change.
Slusher has released his own memo on the Bradley deal, albeit one that does not take sides ô la SOS. In it, he expresses his belief that he "has written more about Circle C than any person alive or dead," and takes the opportunity to lay out some of the political and legal history surrounding the Bradley development wars, while repeating his scolding of the Texas Legislature for thwarting Austin's repeated bids for local control. The memo serves more as a primer on Austin's development regulation history than as a position paper, though, and it provides few clues for anyone looking to handicap the support for the agreement of the council member most closely associated with the SOS Alliance. Slusher does opine that he believes that extending utility service to Spillar and Pfluger Ranches will "definitely help development to go forward," but, "The converse is likely not true -- denying the utilities is unlikely to prevent development from happening. It would almost certainly, however, slow things down." Slusher also notes that Circle C would not have been developed to the extent that it has had the city not granted it utility service to begin with.
Other issues continue to percolate:
There are questions not only about whether to provide utilities to Spillar and Pfluger, but how. SOS sources are also questioning the need for a middleman, Mid-Tex Utilities, to provide retail water service to the two tracts. Word is that Mid-Tex was the company set to work with LCRA when the Hays County water line was set to proceed apace before an Environmental Impact Study slowed things down a bit. When Bradley started talking to the city, the rumor goes, LCRA figured that since major water customers Spillar and Pfluger were now in doubt, there would indeed be time for the Environmental Impact Statement that environmentalists in both Travis and Hays counties had sought. Critics say that adding another layer of bureaucracy in between the city and the utility customers will add increased uncertainty into an already uncertain situation, though the agreement says that Mid-Tex cannot expand utility service outside the area covered by the agreement without the city's say-so.
The Planning Commission weighed in on the agreement on Tuesday, as per council's request. With a small group of citizens and attorney Casey Dobson in attendance, SOS attorney Grant Godfrey complained that the impervious cover calculations used in the agreement were inadequate, and that they would result in more development than intended in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction. The city's impervious cover guru, Pat Murphy, told the commissioners: "We have been grossly underestimating impervious cover that is being built." However, he said, the impervious cover calculations in the agreement are "substantially the same as the Smart Growth proposal we have out there."
Godfrey also predicted that other groups with substantial claims to 1704 grandfathering would turn up "the very next day" after council's approval of the Bradley agreement, requesting their own special deal. Council Member Slusher agreed with Godfrey, but implied that such a scenario might conceivably be more desirable than letting Stratus Properties (formerly FM Properties) proceed unhindered in grandfathered development over the aquifer.
Responding to citizen concerns over the effects of growth in the area as a result of the agreement, Dobson told the Planning Commission that as an additional concession to mitigate the effects of pressures on the school system due to growth in the area, he is pressing Bradley to donate a site for a new elementary school to serve local schoolchildren. He reminded those present that although the proposed settlement would result in 3,050 new single-family housing units, under Water Quality Protection Zone standards, that number could rise to as many as 6,800 homes.
The Planning Commission decided to delay a recommendation on the proposal until its next meeting, March 7, pending completion of the attachments to the deal. The commission could feasibly take action in time for the council's scheduled vote on March 9. But in his original motion to schedule the vote for March 9, Slusher also incorporated a clause that if all the relevant supporting documentation were not available in time for council and public review, the decision would be postponed until March 23. Slusher earlier this week said he's still uncertain as to whether to push for a delay. He noted that he didn't want "delay for delay's sake," but that he does want to ensure adequate time for study.
Opinion on the proposed settlement clearly varies "among people of good faith," as they say on the presidential campaign trail. But in large part, it boils down to one's perspective on what the alternatives are. Is the alternative unfettered grandfathered development, or is it a take-no-prisoners legal challenge that would result in more comprehensive, regional protection for the Barton Springs zone? Mayor Watson has long indicated his belief that litigation is not the answer, and the SOS Alliance has continued to surmise that perhaps it is after all. Beyond suing to overturn 1704 (and assuming Austin wins the WQPZ suit), no participant in the debate has yet to elucidate any other way out of the Bradley mess besides an agreement. And the time to do so may be running out.
The council will not, as has been rumored, consider a proposal to build a hotel and golf course on dedicated Eastside parkland near Walter E. Long Lake. The council doesn't have authority to approve the item; only to send it to Austin voters for the potential release of their dedicated parkland to the hotel project. The item will likely go before council on March 9, since the item would have to be approved for the ballot 45 days before the election, and that deadline is coming up fast.
This Week in Council
This week's meeting -- at LCRA headquarters, 3701 Lake Austin Blvd. -- will include a council vote on whether to continue the ongoing hold on development on the Hyde Park Baptist Church property, which ends today, Thursday, March 2, for another 30 days. The council will also continue its Bradley settlement hearings, as well as a possible upset over minority contracting at the CSC project (which broke ground this week; see "Off the Desk"). Expect council members, including Gus Garcia, Willie Lewis, and Beverly Griffith, to introduce a resolution today addressing the minority contracting issue at a special-called meeting at 6pm.