Naked City

Council Watch: Stratus Status

Naked City

Plans by Stratus Properties to build a 4,000-acre project -- including 1,400 homes, 4,700 apartments, 6.5 million square feet of commercial space, and a golf course, all in the fragile Barton Springs Watershed -- will get their day(s) in council over the next two weeks, at public hearings currently scheduled for 6pm on Thursday, Nov. 30, and Thursday, Dec. 7.

Although prominent environmentalists, including Mary Arnold, the former SOS Alliance vice chair and current SOS board member who has long been one of the most powerful and eloquent advocates for Barton Springs, have come out solidly against the settlement, many fear that a conciliatory City Council will approve the complicated deal rather than go back into court, where the city has already spent $2.5 million battling for its right to regulate water quality over the past eight years.

The potential tangible benefits of negotiating a new deal with Stratus can't be discounted. They include limits on the amount of impervious cover Stratus could build at Circle C Ranch and on Barton Creek; assurances from the developer that it will provide public access points to Barton Creek from two different locations on its property; a guarantee that Stratus will give the city an option to buy 46 acres in the watershed; and a promise that 20% of the apartments on Stratus' Lantana site would be affordable to low-income residents. Moreover, Stratus has an important bargaining chip: It can, according to City Council Member Daryl Slusher, already build much of the development it wants under earlier regulations, thanks to last session's House Bill 1704, which allows landowners to build under the laws that existed when they first filed their development plans with the city.

All of that is sure to be hotly contested at the upcoming council hearings, as will a proposal -- pushed by Slusher and Council Member Will Wynn -- to trade land or development rights at the city-owned Robert Mueller Airport for land Stratus owns on Barton Creek. Among those opposed to striking any deal with Stratus is Council Member Beverly Griffith, who released a statement this week calling for a postponement of the hearings and proposing that the city conduct a study to determine what kind of restrictions it needs to put in place in order to protect the aquifer. "The Stratus proposal covers over 4,000 acres, and if built out under current regulations will take many years to start and could extend over decades. There is no immediate crisis to address and we should not be hurried in this deliberation," Griffith's memo says.

Last week, Slusher sent out a memo urging his fellow council members to debate the future of the Stratus settlement in public -- rather than in executive session, which is the more common setting for the council's legal discussions; a majority of his colleagues, including Wynn, Griffith, and Mayor Kirk Watson, reportedly back Slusher on this.

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