Naked City

Boxed out

Despite warnings of dire economic consequences, the City Council last week stood united on a big-box ordinance, voting 7-0 to keep mega-retail developments out of the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer. The action was opposed by business and development interests -- namely the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Real Estate Council of Austin, and the Statesman editorial board, but only RECA's Tim Taylor spoke against the measure prior to the council's vote.

At city staff's recommendation, the council approved the ordinance as a Barton Springs Zoning Overlay District and exempted those tracts with existing settlement agreements in place. That exemption, the staff pointed out, includes the Maple Run tract (aka the Monaghan tract) at MoPac and Slaughter, the former battleground of a nixed Wal-Mart Supercenter. Since Wal-Mart's departure, the landowner has sued the city and another nearby landowner, Stratus Properties, claiming the two conspired to force the retailer off of the property, costing the landowner a sizable sum of money due to the lost sale. Depending on the outcome of the lawsuit, the site could provide the stage for another battle over big-box development.

As approved, the ban would limit stand-alone retail stores to 50,000 square feet and groceries to 100,000 square feet. The Save Our Springs Alliance and the Sierra Club supported the proposal but asked the council to reduce the limit for grocery stores. Pat Murphy, of the city's Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, told council members that at least 20 tracts in the affected area could handle a development in excess of 50,000 square feet.

Council Member Daryl Slusher, the lead sponsor of the ordinance, pointed to a city map to show that there are still vast areas available in Austin that are better suited for big-box developments. "And that's consistent with around 30 years of city policy ... to steer intensive development into these areas here," he said, pointing to desired development areas of the map.

The ordinance goes into effect immediately following the expiration Wednesday of a moratorium on big-box development over the aquifer.

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