The Inside Deal
Well, we sure didn't see that one coming. Less than a year after Gary Bradley signed his historic deal with the city -- agreeing, in exchange for city water and wastewater service to his hotel and golf course, to restrict the size of his empire in Southwest Austin -- the developer appeared to be back to his same old tricks, backing a bill in the Legislature that would form a special county development district for his Spillar Ranch development in Hays County. The bill, filed Tuesday as HB 3644, would allow the district to levy taxes, issue debt, build roads and exercise eminent domain -- even outside its boundaries. Think of it as Bradleyville, the Sequel: the Sequel.
But wait, you may be thinking, isn't that precisely the kind of thing the city signed the agreement to prevent? Well, yes -- but he's offering to spend a quarter of the district's tax revenue on environmental protection and mitigation, and 10% on education, and, and
Never mind that the agreement explicitly prohibits Bradley from forming special districts, including county development districts, without the City Council's "prior written consent" -- which, to the best of our knowledge, he doesn't have. (Council Member Daryl Slusher says that since Bradley "had to get written permission" before moving forward with any such district, his proposal is "inconsistent with the agreement.") And never mind that the intent of the agreement was to keep Bradley from asking the Legislature to intervene in city development issues -- or, as Slusher wrote in his March 2000 analysis of the agreement, to "[shield] the city from future legislation that might affect these properties." The real question is, how did we get to this point -- again?
For that, we have Dripping Springs boy wonder Rick Green to thank: He's steering the Bradley bill through the thorny halls of the Legislature, where Bradley cut his teeth convincing lawmakers to help him circumvent city regulations. Green says that, to the best of his knowledge, Bradley's district would not have to be approved by the city until after it passed out of the Legislature, but both Slusher and City Council Member Will Wynn say such districts must be approved before they can be proposed at the lege. (Green appeared confused about other aspects of the bill, including the provision that grants the district "the power of eminent domain even if located within the boundaries of the district," which he said he didn't believe would apply to the city itself, but only to its ETJ.)
Environmentalists were quick to raise a hue and cry over the proposal, which they say not only violates Bradley's agreement, but "directly contradict[s] this Council's declared policy to discourage development in the Drinking Water Protection Zone," according to a letter to the mayor and council written by Bill Bunch, general counsel for the Save Our Springs Alliance. And on Tuesday, the Save Barton Creek Association, which supported the Bradley agreement, voted unanimously to oppose the district because it would promote development over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, something the deal was designed to limit. Although sponsor Green calls the proposal "a tremendous opportunity to create funds for conservation and set aside money for environmental purposes," environmentalists say it's just another sweet development deal that benefits Gary Bradley at the expense of -- as usual -- the environment. Enviros also point out that Bradley would have had to abide by SOS guidelines at Spillar Ranch anyway. "Making environmental improvements to the property was not conditional upon the creation of any special district to pay for it," says Craig Smith, vice-president of the SBCA. "That's [Bradley's] problem." Moreover, environmentalists note, the environmental improvements specified in the bill would be "subordinate" to any other obligations, including bonds and other expenses.
City Council members say they were blindsided by the proposal, which they received on Monday. After taking a look at the bill, Wynn said that although he's willing "to address [the issue of written consent] as quickly as possible," it would take "some very strong arguments " on Bradley's part and "some obvious benefits to the city" to convince him to vote in favor of extending Bradley's fiefdom. Slusher echoed Wynn's reluctance, noting that although he would "consider [the district] at Bradley's request," the "special districts" provision was meant to cover districts that would be approved by the city of Austin and Hays County, not special development zones sanctioned by the Legislature.