Naked City

Bradley Mistaken

With the Austin City Council lined up 7-0 against his proposal, Gary Bradley told council members on Tuesday that he would ask Dripping Springs Rep. Rick Green to withdraw legislation that would have created a special development district for Bradley's Spillar Ranch property southwest of Austin. In a letter to Mayor Kirk Watson and the council, Bradley expressed his chagrin that that the legislation -- whose alleged "purpose … was to create a taxing district in order to facilitate Lowe Enterprises Destination Resort Hotels [sic] desire to make a gift to the people of Central Texas" -- was so poorly received by the city.

Bradley's move came in response to a letter from Watson in which the mayor denounced the developer for failing to "comply with the terms of your contract" and asked him to withdraw the legislation. Bradley's agreement with the city last March, for which he received water and wastewater service to his property, required the developer to get the "prior written consent" of the council before moving ahead with any special districts. In the absence of that approval, Watson said in his letter, "I cannot support this legislation and will not vote to give permission to grant this district."

Although Bradley represented the district as a gift to the environment and schoolchildren of Hays County, in truth, it could also have been a tremendous boon for the developer, allowing the district to issue bonds, build roads, and condemn property even outside district boundaries. Some worried that the district would issue bonds to build Bradley's long-planned toll road extension to SH 45, which would give his developments easy access to I-35, MoPac, and the airport, which Bradley's land does not currently have. (The proposed toll road would run over at least one piece of property, the Heep Ranch, whose owners have steadfastly refused to sell, and who could have presumably been forced to do so under eminent domain.)

Bradley and Rep. Green say they're not concerned with those details, which Green says he'd be happy to excise from the bill. "All that is, is a boilerplate form for creating a [taxing] district," Bradley says. "Hundreds of [similar] districts across the state have those powers." More important, Green and Bradley say, are the revenues -- as much as $1.5 million a year -- that they say could go toward education and preserve acquisition. But those payouts, importantly, would be made only after the district paid off all its bonds and other obligations, making it unclear when, if ever, any actual money would have been distributed. Moreover, "all of that money would go to pay for drainage and environmental [cleanup] … and things they were going to have to do anyway" to comply with the SOS Ordinance, says SOS general counsel Bill Bunch, who adds that the environmental provisions are so broad they're practically meaningless.

SOS Director Mark Tschurr adds that "saying this special district is going to help the environment is like saying you have to kill something to save it" -- and he points out that without the existing agreement, which SOS (under former leader Robin Rather) supported, Bradley would have been unable to develop his land in the first place, making the question of environmental mitigation moot.

While Bradley has agreed to call off his lieutenant, Green himself has proved less compliant. Although he's said he would not pursue the bill in its current form, Green left open the possibility that he might still push for the creation of a similar district. Without word from the council, Green says, he sees no reason to pull back on the proposal. "I saw the letter that was sent to Mr. Bradley and I would like to see a letter addressed to me -- it's my bill," Green says. "I want to hear what the city has to say." If council members manage to "convince" Green that the district has a downside, he says, "then I'll pull it." That conversation may be a long time coming: On Tuesday, Council Member Beverly Griffith canceled a public hearing on the bill scheduled for this Thursday.

That still leaves open the question of whether the council will encourage Bradley to submit a new plan for a special district, which Slusher has said all along he would consider if Bradley worked with the council instead of over their heads. "We had talked at the time of the agreement about a district that would be able to charge a bed tax," Slusher says. However, he adds, "We never contemplated it would require the Legislature to get involved."

Meanwhile, the whole self-deprecating tone of Bradley's letter -- in which the developer calls himself "inept" and "sincerely apologize[s]" to both the city and Lowe Enterprises -- is so out of keeping with his previous actions and statements that many insiders are wondering whether Bradley has some other tricks up his sleeve. Given the developer's demonstrated willingness to fight Austin to the bitter end, city legislative staff would be smart to watch him (and Green) likehawks until the Legislature adjourns May 28.

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Gary Bradley, Daryl Slusher, Bill Bunch, Kirk Watson, Mark Tschurr, Rick Green, Spillar Ranch, Lowe Enterprises Destination Resort Hotels, Spillar Ranch, SOS Ordinance, Robin Rather, Beverly Griffith

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