Naked City

Austin Stories

Think Hyde Park Baptist Church has crawled back under its pew? Think again. The central-city megachurch, which lost its bid to build a five-story parking garage in the middle of the historic neighborhood before the City Council last month, is back in court. The church's claims -- that neighborhood residents had no right to appeal its garage site plan, that the garage is legal, anyway, etc. -- have stayed essentially the same. But the church does have some new tricks to unveil: At press time, we've just heard that they've withdrawn their newly amended lawsuit from Travis Co. District Court, and filed instead in state court -- not against the neighborhood this time, but adding as defendants the five council members who voted against them. We haven't seen the new suit, but the recently withdrawn one had invoked the specter of "religious freedom," invoking the Texas Constitution and the recently passed Religious Freedom Act, which restricts the government's ability to regulate religious activity. Under the RFA, the city can't put a "substantial burden" on an individual's free exercise of religion, which is what the church claims will happen if they don't get their garage. But considering that the church's existing garage isn't even full during peak hours on Sunday, they're going to have a hard time proving "any burden at all," says neighborhood attorney Rachael Rawlins. Attorneys from George and Donaldson, who the city has hired as outside counsel on the case, will face off against church attorney Richard Suttle if the case ever makes its way to court …

What a friend they have in Chisum. Hyde Park Baptists -- who have long claimed their garage site is exempt from impervious cover limits and site development standards attached to its single-family zoning -- must have praised Pampa Republican Warren Chisum to the rafters when he filed HB 3548, which would require cities to "enforce only the least restrictive site development regulations of the least restrictive zoning district that allows religious assembly" on churches within their boundaries, a change that would give the church carte blanche to build its garage anywhere it wanted, no matter what the zoning. The bill goes on to define religious assembly as "organized religious worship," and the least restrictive site development regulations as including "education facilities or parking facilities." Neighborhood attorney Rawlins, who calls the bill's language "incomprehensible," says it would allow "structures of a size and scale that are not compatible with the surrounding buildings" in cities throughout Texas, not just Austin. City Governmental Relations Director John Hrncir says the city is opposed to the bill because "it infringes on the city's authority" to regulate land use. "The current law says churches can be built in any zoning category, but that doesn't allow all the ancillary structures like parking and schools," Hrncir says. Chisum's legislative aide did not return calls requesting comment …

The free speech fracas continues at UT. In the wake of the anti-abortion Justice For All exhibit, which sparked student and faculty protests in February, a new student group, Action For Abortion Rights, has announced that it will hold its own exhibit on the Gregory Gym Plaza, April 16-20. AFAR says its exhibit will include displays of information about abortion rights, as well as speakers on pending legislation in Congress and the Legislature.

For Thursday, April 19, students and faculty are planning a public event called "Amplified Voices," including an interactive panel discussion and performance pieces about women's rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and police brutality. The title refers to a UT policy that prohibits the use of amplified sound near Gregory Gym; when protesters tried to use a bullhorn in front of the JFA exhibit, campus police seized it and injured English professor Mia Carter. "Amplified Voices" will take place in Room 12 of the Flawn Academic Center (Undergraduate Library), near the UT Tower, from 6:30-9:30pm. For more info, contact Rosa Eberly at 471-8735, or rhosa@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

Various UT organizations have spoken out about the controversy, including the Center for Women's Studies, which in a recent letter to UT President Larry Faulkner, described the policies that allowed the JFA display as "incoherent, discriminatory, and damaging to women and the University as a whole."

Jeff Wentworth's "compromise" bike regulation bill, which removed some of the more onerous restrictions in his reviled SB238, hasn't exactly been greeted with open arms by cyclists, who say a new provision that would allow counties to keep bicycles off any road they deem "unsafe" makes the bill's latest incarnation worse than the old by half. "Basically, it would give every county in Texas the right to arbitrarily decide if they want to ban bikes from any road they choose," says Gayle Cummins, a spokeswoman with the Texas Bicycle Coalition. "I can tell you, we are totally opposed to this."

Meanwhile, another set of bike-related bills -- collectively referred to as the "Matthew Brown Act" and supported by many in Texas' vocal cycling community -- got their first hearings in the House, and their introduction in the Senate. The bills, named for a 10-year-old Plano boy who was killed by a driver while riding his bike, would fund bike trails, improve bicycle safety around schools, require the DPS to release accident reports on bike and pedestrian accidents, create criminal penalties for throwing objects at bicyclists, and create defensive cycling classes for cycling scofflaws so they won't have to sit through regular defensive driving. (There's more -- much more -- but let's leave it at that.) No word yet on which provisions of these rather heavily loaded bills will eventually pass out of their respective committees, but the Bike Coalition, which has spent the past three months promoting the bills, is optimistic about their prospects…

Austin ISD board president Kathy Rider created quite an awkward pause during last week's board meeting when she broached the subject of a fall bond election, which she dubbed a "health and safety" referendum. Rider says the bond election (which was not included in a list of priorities laid out by the board's budget subcommittee earlier this year) would be "very small and focused" -- used to pay for mold and asbestos removal that otherwise would sap more of the district's general funds. For their part, AISD administrative staff let out a barely perceptible groan when Rider's proposal surfaced: Nothing brings out the cudgels in this town faster than a school referendum, where it can take six months just to inventory the spending priorities that everyone agrees to fight over. On Monday, however, the board signed off on budget priorities for 2001-02 that include launching an "exploration" to see whether the election would be feasible this fall.

AISD Finance Director Larry Throm says bond issues have become an increasingly popular way for school districts like Austin, approaching the $1.50 state cap on property taxes, to prop up their maintenance budgets. Budget Subcommittee Chair Olga Garza says, however, that she doubts whether the district "could pull together all the financing options we would need to have in the community in that amount of time." But Rider says Austin voters will respond favorably. "It's not an easy sell, but I think people understand when you divert large sums of money out of maintenance and operation, that restricts your ability to … focus in on instructional programs."…

Amid all the voices clamoring for Intel to complete the concrete shell on its abandoned chip facility downtown, a few citizens -- specifically, the Concerned Citizens of Spicewood -- are applauding the company's decision to cancel its contract with Rainbow Materials, the concrete supplier for the building. In a rally this Saturday -- cheerfully themed "Thank You, Intel!" -- a group of Spicewood citizens will gather at the Intel site to call attention to the city's own $192,000 contract with Rainbow, which wants to build a concrete batch plant in the small village west of Austin. The citizens say the batch plant will pollute their air and water and be of no benefit to their community; they're calling on the city and private entities in Austin to stop doing business with Rainbow until the company agrees to move its batch plant elsewhere…

Preaching to the converted: We know you've probably all got your hands full brainstorming for our Intel design contest, but as long as you're in a creative mood, we're open to any ideas you have for what to do with those ubiquitous Jesus videos, which, by our count, had reached 175,000 Austin households at press time. The Jesus Video Project, which aims to send a copy of the video to every household in Texas at a total cost of $8.4 million, had less-than-stellar success at this writer's apartment complex, where (at last count) eight of the 12 videos received by tenants had been unceremoniously dumped in the return slot. Which got us to thinking: There's got to be a better way to dispose of/reuse/recycle these videos than sending them back to the JVP, which, incidentally, a) costs the post office, and thus you, money, and b) lets the Jesus Video People recycle them on to other unwitting citizens. Suggestions? Send them to "Austin Stories" at PO Box 49066, Austin TX 78765, or erica@austinchronicle.com.

-- Contributors: Kevin Fullerton, Michael King

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