Wal-Mart, Always

Low Taxes (and Lawsuits) Every Day

While Mayor Will Wynn considers the possibility of offering financial carrots to woo Wal-Mart off of the aquifer, a coalition of big-box opponents are considering moving forward on another time-honored strategy: filing a lawsuit.

The Save Barton Creek Association and neighborhood groups are set to take separate votes this week on whether to pursue legal action to overturn a 1996 City Council-approved settlement agreement covering development rights on a 43-acre tract at MoPac and Slaughter Lane. The agreement allows for much higher impervious cover limits than are sanctioned under the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Wal-Mart has an option to buy a portion of the property to build a 200,000-square-foot, 24-hour Supercenter. Although zoning is already in place, the site's critical environmental features have prompted city staff to recommend certain setbacks that, if enforced, could substantially reduce the project's size.

Last week, Wynn found himself on the wrong side of a public outcry over his suggestion that tax rebates -- under the same state-law provision behind the city's $37 million deal on the Domain project in North Austin -- might be one way to stop Wal-Mart from building a Supercenter on the environmentally sensitive land. Endeavor Real Estate Group, also the developer at the Domain, controls the Wal-Mart tract now and would still control 14 acres after selling the retailer its piece.

Wynn, along with Jackie Goodman and Betty Dunkerley, announced in a statement last week a plan to bring Wal-Mart to the negotiating table in hopes that the retailer would downsize its proposal or yank it altogether. But the ink had barely dried on the press release when Goodman and Dunkerley -- and the rest of the council -- learned that financial giveaways might figure into those negotiations. The tax rebate idea, groaned one Wynn supporter apologetically, "was just an idea that became a headline." Nevertheless, the notion drew immediate fire from anti-big-box forces. In a press statement the next day, Liveable City board Chair Robin Rather called the idea "expensive and divisive," while SBCA President Jon Beall expressed dismay that Endeavor or Wal-Mart would even consider "taking advantage of the city when they know [that a] big box over the aquifer is inappropriate."

One alternative proposal gaining steam is a draft ordinance that would limit commercial development to 50,000 square feet over the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer. Brad Rockwell, an attorney for the SOS AlIiance, says several local attorneys have reviewed the proposal and found it legally sound. Raul Alvarez is expected to carry the proposal, if it ever makes its way onto the council agenda. Dozens of other communities have imposed square-footage limits to thwart big-box retail, ranging from 30,000 to 150,000 square feet.

In another development growing out of the tax rebate furor, Wynn's former aide, campaign manager, and outside consultant Mark Nathan has decided to resign from his role as a paid consultant to the Circle C Homeowners Association, one component of the coalition fighting the proposed Wal-Mart. Nathan said he is still committed to the cause, but his work toward that end -- such as maintaining the saveaustin.com Web site -- would be done on a voluntary basis.

Wal-Mart's big-picture plan for Austin -- nearly a dozen new Supercenters -- is certainly no more popular than the tax-rebate plan. The Zoning and Platting Commission voted last week to delay indefinitely a decision on zoning for a proposed Supercenter on Ben White near I-35. But that vote may be moot; after some apparent backroom arm-twisting, the ZAP will hold a special-called meeting this Wednesday (Oct. 8) to rethink the Ben White zoning case. Meanwhile, a ZAP-appointed task force continues to negotiate sticking points of the proposed Supercenter at I-35 and Slaughter. The Park Ridge Homeowners Association, which opposes that project, has thus far enjoyed the support of the larger coalition fighting Wal-Mart over the aquifer.

Park Ridge HOA President Aron Wisneski believes ZAP's initial willingness to delay a decision on the Ben White store could also bode well for his neighborhood when the I-35/Slaughter case returns to the ZAP agenda this month. "What it meant to us is that all of these Wal-Marts are interconnected. The question comes down to how many of these darn things we really need in our city."

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