Last Call for Lowe's? Council Ready to Split

It's still 4-3 and holding as the controversial big-box deal goes up for final approval

Sunset Valley Mayor Terry Cowan
Sunset Valley Mayor Terry Cowan (Photo By Jana Birchum)

As past development agreements for environmentally sensitive lands have shown us -- the Stratus deal, the Bradley settlement, the Forum PUD -- the City Council's acceptance is typically preceded by endorsements from key enviro "moderates" like George Cofer, Robin Rather and Brigid Shea, or the Save Barton Creek Association. But the newest arrival on the deal scene -- the city's proposed settlement with Lowe's Home Centers -- may win the City Council's final round of approval without a single endorsement from ... well, anybody. Or at least anybody with a track record in the kumbaya business. The council is scheduled to vote tonight (Thursday) on the settlement deal, following a 6pm public hearing.

In fairness, Lowe's did make a bit of an outreach effort several months ago when its local lobbyist -- former Mayor Bruce Todd, no stranger to development-dealing during his tenure -- tried to bring Cofer and Rather to the table. But the biggest obstacle to citizen acceptance of the Lowe's proposal -- 40% impervious cover in the Barton Springs Zone -- was a non-negotiable item for the big-box retailer, so there hasn't been much progress to be made since.

Last week -- after taking nearly an hour of testimony even after postponing the "public hearing" until this week -- the City Council voted 4-3, again, in favor of the Lowe's deal. Opponents of the proposal vowed to redouble their efforts to persuade at least one of the four -- either Jackie Goodman or Brewster McCracken -- to switch to a no vote this week.

On Monday night, the Save Barton Creek Association leaders (including Goodman's husband, Jack Goodman) voted unanimously to oppose the Lowe's agreement and were expected to outline their opposition in a letter to the council. The settlement has also failed to win support from the city's Environmental Board and the Planning Commission.

Many enviros believe that Goodman and especially McCracken know that Lowe's proposal is not a great deal for the city, so those two have faced an onslaught of lobbying, formal and informal, from high-profile supporters like Shea and Rather. (Nobody seems to think Betty Dunkerley or Mayor Will Wynn are likely to change their vote.) But so far, the anti-Lowe's forces haven't been able to overcome Goodman and McCracken's apparent fear of what the Legislature would do to Austin if the council rejected the deal.

As they see it, the Lege already cleaned the city's clock with an amendment to HB 1204 (by state Sen. Jeff Wentworth) that gives Travis Co. jurisdictional control over the Lowe's site on Brodie Lane, which lies between Austin and Sunset Valley but is part of neither city. The amendment was an attempt to end-run around Sunset Valley's decision -- without exactly asking Austin's consent -- to release the site into Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction and thus make it subject to the Save Our Springs Ordinance. (The 40% impervious cover proposed by Lowe's is what would have been allowed by Sunset Valley's regulations. SOS would limit impervious cover to 15%. Travis Co. has no impervious cover limit.)

Given the lay of the Lege, Goodman and McCracken believe the city has little choice but to negotiate the best deal possible to get some water quality measures and to secure some money from Lowe's for acquiring mitigation lands elsewhere over the aquifer. Before last week's vote, McCracken indicated he hadn't budged from his earlier position as he rather nervously recited his rationale for supporting the proposal. "Given the range of possible outcomes we could face," he said, "and given the law facing us in this case, and our prospects of winning or losing this lawsuit ... this is the best settlement we can get on a project that we have tried to turn down and have been sued on."

Those words, of course, stand in sharp contrast to McCracken's aggressive campaign pledge in May to fight big-box developments over the aquifer. "Brewster's position seems to be that settling with Lowe's is more important than fulfilling his campaign promise to the community," observed Rather, one of McCracken's strongest supporters in his bid for the Place 5 seat. Rather and others have made it clear to McCracken that a "yes" vote on Lowe's could carry serious repercussions. A vote for the Lowe's deal, Rather said, "is a barometer of how much we can or can't trust him in the future ... [and] it will dog him the rest of his career as someone who doesn't live up to his promises." Earlier this week, Goodman, too, was feeling heat from a who's who of longtime supporters, who signed a letter urging her to oppose the settlement agreement.

Meanwhile, Sunset Valley Mayor Terry Cowan says that if the council rejects the deal, his city is prepared to write a check to Austin for $600,000 -- the same amount Lowe's is offering as mitigation funds -- to help fund the purchase of preserve land in the Williamson Creek Watershed. Cowan said earlier this week that Sunset Valley is willing to do whatever it takes to protect the Edwards Aquifer, since much of his city sits on top of the recharge zone and relies on the aquifer for drinking water.

"If Austin decides to go forward [with Lowe's], then we still have an overriding issue, and that's that our kids drink this water," Cowan said. "Not only that, but we know that if something happens to Lowe's, then 30 hours later Barton Springs will be polluted," he said, referring to dye trace studies showing how quickly pollutants can move through the aquifer's network of nooks and crannies.

Apart from Todd and other Lowe's representatives, and landowner Eli Garza, the biggest backer of the deal has been the Austin American-Statesman, which has portrayed Garza as a small landowner who -- despite his generous donations of land for roads, rights-of-way, and green space -- has been dealt an unjust hand by both Austin and Sunset Valley. But court documents and other material provided to the press last week paint a very different picture of Garza -- as a litigious, large landholder who, like most developers, has won and lost millions through a series of booms and busts.

Longtime Austinites may also remember Garza as an active campaigner against the Save Our Springs Ordinance back in 1992. (He was featured in an anti-SOS TV commercial that came up short on veracity, according to KVUE's "Truth Test" at the time.) He was also a plaintiff in the first lawsuit against the city over SOS, and before that, he was part of the team that, with former Mayor Ron Mullen, lobbied for the construction of South MoPac.

Cowan takes issue with those who believe Garza and Lowe's were mistreated, noting that Sunset Valley had previously negotiated and approved a multifamily development, with protected open space, for the tract Lowe's now wants. "But then Lowe's came in with [a proposal for] 40% impervious cover, and that's when we decided to release the land to Austin," he says. That transfer -- and the resulting Lowe's imbroglio -- has put a strain on the relationship between Austin and Sunset Valley, but Cowan believes that tension is slowly giving way to reason. "I feel like Austin is going to do the right thing," he said.

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