The Backroom Is Open

Under a new law awaiting the governor's signature, cities will be able to hammer out backroom deals with landowners wanting to develop property within a city's extraterritorial jurisdiction.

So what else is new, you ask? For residents living in Dripping Springs' sprawling ETJ southwest of Austin, the legislation -- HB 1197 -- simply legitimizes what the city has been doing all along. Now, thanks to the bill's GOP sponsors, Round Rock Rep. Mike Krusee and San Antonio Sen. Jeff Wentworth, cities can broker development deals with no public input at all until the deal shows up, already cooked and ready for swallowing, on a City Council agenda. "It's a terrible bill," said Rob Baxter, president of the Friendship Alliance, a coalition of northwest Hays Co. neighborhoods. "It removes the opportunity for citizens to be involved in the process."

The bill itself did not get a lot of attention; most ETJ citizens affected by the legislation were unaware that it was quietly wending its way through the Lege. "We didn't know about it until it hit the Senate," Baxter said. Dripping Springs City Council members also said they had been unaware of the bill. Yet Dripping Springs city attorney Rex Baker III, who negotiated two major development deals now being challenged in court by the Friendship Alliance and Save Our Springs Alliance, testified in favor of HB 1197 at a hearing in March before the House Land & Resource Management Committee. "This bill will give us flexibility in dealing with developments in the area," Baker told House members. "If the city wants to do it and the landowner wants to do it, then we feel as though we should be given the power to do that."

Though Baker referred in his testimony to Dripping Springs' deals with MAK Foster for the Foster Ranch project and Cypress Realty for Rutherford Ranch, he did not mention the lawsuits by SOS and the Friendship Alliance, which claim that Dripping Springs violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and the state constitution. In effect, HB 1197 will allow municipalities to do legally what the lawsuits claim was illegal.

Michael Marcin, an Austin attorney representing the Friendship Alliance in its suit, says his reading of the legislation would make ETJ development agreements retroactive, but it would not necessarily favor the city in this particular lawsuit. "The city had no authority at the time to enter into those agreements," he said. Marcin added that the bill could cause serious repercussions in small municipalities, such as Dripping Springs, which are welcoming new developments without a master plan in place, thus placing a fattened tax base ahead of logical planning. "There's no political check. It gives carte blanche to the city and the developer to do anything they want," Marcin said. "We think it's a bad idea for governments to lock in future governments in this manner."

Meanwhile, Dripping Springs-area residents turned out in force Tuesday night to oppose yet another big project -- the Howard Ranch, near the intersection of FM 150 and Highway 12, alongside Onion Creek and in a critical water-quality zone. Dripping Springs officials had been friendly to the project because the developer would give the city 16 acres to build a new wastewater treatment facility on the site. But the developer was denied a variance for a high-density build-out, which residents and engineering professionals say would pose a number of environmental and flood-related concerns. Widely respected environmental engineer Lauren Ross provided Dripping Springs officials with her analysis of the negative impact on water quality. Residents also spoke in opposition to KB Homes' proposed Estancia development at Highway 290 West and McGregor Lane (County Road 187), situated at the headwaters of Blue Creek, a tributary of Onion Creek, but that project won preliminary approval.

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