Down to the Wire
City, SOS, Bradley Struggle for Consensus on Bradley Settlement
It's gut-check time for Austin environmentalists of all stripes. The city of Austin, Gary Bradley, and outside city attorney Casey Dobson have kept pounding away at the proposed settlement between Bradley and the city, slated for a vote at the council meeting today, Thursday, March 9, and they make a compelling -- though not airtight -- case for signing on the dotted line. Although many in the environmental community are skeptical about the proposal, behind the scenes, concerned Travis and Hays County residents are still working with the principal players in the settlement talks to secure the kind of changes that would, just maybe, allow them to support the deal. And the principals have listened to their concerns. Among those concerns is what Save Our Springs Board Chair Robin Rather has called one of the biggest sticking points in the deal for SOS: the need for a third-party guarantor for the conservation easement, which is designed to keep about 84% of Bradley's 3,076 acres in Northwest Austin undeveloped. On Tuesday afternoon, Dobson said that the city, Bradley, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center had reached a tentative agreement to allow the Wildflower Center to serve as a third party to the conservation easement. The last-minute agreement, according to Dobson, was the result of "doggedness, the mayor's leadership, and an extremely civic-minded response from the Wildflower center."
That "civic-minded" response did not come without some prompting: During last week's council meeting, George Cofer of the Save Barton Creek Association, accompanied by Rather, was overheard on his cell phone calling information for the home number of David Armbrust. The Real Estate Council of Austin frontman, Wildflower Center lawyer, and sometime SOS Alliance collaborator, seems to have come through, with the Wildflower Center making the clearly altruistic move of signing on to a deal in which it has no discernible stake.
In other new developments, pumping limits for the Trinity River Aquifer were added to the agreement, answering a major request of Hays County residents throughout the negotiations. Also this week, the city added another limitation: If the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and/or the city of Austin determine that irrigation of the golf course is having an adverse impact on water quality, they can force Bradley to decrease groundwater usage and buy water from other sources to the extent they deem necessary. Finally, there will be a 400-foot nature trail easement across the Spillar and Pfluger properties, with a 100-foot buffer on either side.
The third-party deal was the second major break in the Bradley settlement this week. At last Thursday's meeting, as the Hyde Park Baptist Church controversy raged in the hours before the Bradley hearing began, city attorneys learned of a "huge miracle" (as Rather put it): the settlement of Circle C's challenge of its annexation by the city of Austin. Needless to say, it substantially sweetened the pot for the council to have that "huge, festering sore" taken care of once and for all. The catch: The lawsuit settlement is predicated on the agreement being executed. And not just executed, but executed on March 9. How's that for an offer you can't refuse?
Bradley's Big Break
Of course, there are some in Austin who feel quite sure they can refuse it. As the settlement gained momentum this week, SOS firebrand Bill Bunch began to mount a counter-movement. Organizing a group to float another proposal, now known as the "citizens' alternative" to the Bradley settlement, Bunch suggested that instead of extending infrastructure service to Spillar and Pfluger Ranches, the city take the money and buy Bradley out.
Bunch and political consultant Mike Blizzard met with a small group Saturday outside Barton Springs Pool for the express purpose of crafting the alternative, the specifics of which Bunch and Blizzard say they're still working to piece together. Doing so will take time, they said, and that's why they're pushing council members for a two-week delay. Because the proposed agreement requires an ordinance change, it will require a supermajority of six votes for passage. So if Bunch and his allies can get two council members to refuse passage this week, they'll get the desired delay and, theoretically at least, the chance to develop and make their case for an alternative.
Let's Make a Deal
No council member will feel the pressure for delay more strongly than Daryl Slusher (though Bunch and Co. are also said to be putting the squeeze on Beverly Griffith, who's keen on public process issues and has shown she doesn't mind opposing the mayor on major votes). Slusher, who has long been considered the standout "SOS council member," vowed to seek a delay on the vote if all the documents related to the settlement were not published in a timely fashion. Although Slusher stated early on that a "good-faith effort" to publish supporting materials had been made, not all of the documentation is yet available even at this late date; so formally, at least, Slusher's conditions have not been met, and he can make it an issue if he so chooses.
Bunch and Blizzard surmised that buying out Bradley's land was a possibility: Bradley's option to purchase the Spillar and Pfluger properties will run out in coming weeks, they argued, and if it did so before the city could grant utility service, a window of opportunity for the city to buy the land would open. (Bradley has assured the Chronicle through Dobson, however, that he will act this week to extend his options for several more months.)
Bunch said the agreement is a "replay of the Circle C MUD deals of 1984, [in which] Austin agrees to extend public utilities and roads to speed development in return for an unenforceable promise to protect the environment. ... This deal repeats so many mistakes of the past, it's hard to list them all."
But is the "citizens' alternative" too little, too late? Naturally, the negotiators of the settlement are skeptical about someone claiming to best their efforts at this late date. Outside attorney Dobson says that since Bradley would be paying for the utility service he gets from the city, the money to buy him out at market rates is simply not there. "Wouldn't [a buyout] be wonderful?" Dobson asked. "No doubt that would be wonderful." However, Dobson said, "If any citizen wanted to undertake a private, Prop. 2-type effort, the time would not be 48 hours before the vote."
And there's another thing: Bunch has the dubious distinction of being, apart from city attorneys, the person most likely to have brought up the legal challenge to SB 1704 that might have made this entire Bradley deal unnecessary. Bunch said this week that the reason he didn't take up the fight against 1704 was because it would be an uphill battle, and one that, without the support of the city (which Bunch most definitely did not have), might not have been winnable. Though Bunch said an lawsuit by SOS "hasn't been ruled out," he added that the battle is "one that the city should fight. That's why we worked so hard to elect these people in the first place. It's a lot more winnable if the city's on our side, and not standing with Bradley and (Jim Bob) Moffett," said Bunch.
What About 1704?
But whatever the reason, SB 1704 remains unchallenged in the courts, and Gary Bradley remains blissfully unencumbered by the SOS Ordinance. And those who have toiled for over a year in the trenches of Austin's slow movement toward compromise -- chief among them Mayor Kirk Watson and Rather -- aren't likely to appreciate Bunch's insinuation that he can do better than them, or that they haven't explored and exhausted the much more desirable buyout scenario.
How will all this shake out, and where will the environmental community stand when it does? Will SOS and its friends embrace the city's realpolitik, or will the prospect of supporting high-density development over the aquifer be more than they can stomach? There have been implications from some in the SOS camp that, this time at least, standing up for a hard-won compromise may just be the boldest thing to do.
Then again, it may not. As SOS Board vice-chair Mary Arnold says elsewhere in this issue, third-party involvement without certain assurances may not be enough to push the deal over the enforceability hump for the SOS Board and the Bradley Review Team. And the opponents do have history on their side, with a depressing list of broken promises and dishonored agreements and the dreadful consequences thereof.
You might surmise from all this that the council has put a hold on dealing with any business other than the Bradley settlement, but not so. In last week's morning session, the council heard presentations from four architecture groups vying to design the new city hall and public plaza -- one of a number of important issues that's been partially eclipsed by the Bradley hubbub (see "Naked City").
Later on Thursday evening, a daunting array of issues faced the council, with partisans in the Regents/Travis Country dispute, the Hyde Park Baptist Church/neighbors dispute (see "Naked City"), and the minority contractors/CSC dispute clogging the makeshift council chambers inside the Hancock Building at Lower Colorado River Authority headquarters. It looked like a sit-in, as folks squatted in the floor spaces and lined the walls as the hours ticked by. People wearing "A Child at Regents Loves Me" mingled with those who'd adorned themselves with admonitions to "Save Hyde Park." The super-short rundown goes like this: CSC got no end of grief from some minority contractors for failing to include them in their construction plans; and the council sent Regents and Travis Country back again to settle their differences among themselves, and learn to play nice.