Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., July 2, 2004
Quote of the Week: "Often, when adolescents rebel against their parents, they make mistakes. But they learn from those mistakes." Ralph Nader's spokesman Kevin Zeese, whining to the press after the Green Party rejected Nader and chose Texan David Cobb as its presidential candidate. See "Cobb Gets Greens' Nod."
Before getting the hell outta Dodge for the annual summer break, the City Council gave its blessing to incentive deals for Samsung and Home Depot (see "Austin@Large"), to Mueller (see below), and to doing ... something about big-box retail, which does ... something to the Austin economy. See "Big-Box Study Gone Bad?."
Much cooler than Home Depot would be an econ-dev deal involving Gamesa, the Spanish wind-turbine maker (and supplier to the beloved West Texas wind farms that provide Austin Energy with green power) that Will Wynn and other city topsiders have been wooing for more than a year to open up shop in Austin. The firm's final decision was reportedly imminent at press time; tune in next week.
The Texas Academy of Excellence fell far short of excellence in its accounting, fiscal, and ethical practices, the state says; it's trying to get at least a little of its charter-school money back. See "Charter School Earns an 'F'."
Happy Fourth of July. Don't get drunk and blow off any fingers. Instead, think about what it means to be an American in these parlous times, and what it should mean. Then go out and make it happen.
Flight attendants, prepare for landing: The City Council last week gave first-reading approval to the massive Mueller zoning, setting the stage for the transformation of Austin's shuttered municipal airport into a 700-acre mixed-use urban village. The council did heed the calls of Mueller neighbors, the city's prospective partner Catellus Development, and others to reverse the earlier Planning Commission decision to eliminate "construction sales and service" (read: Lowe's) as a permitted use in the "regional retail" center envisioned for Mueller's northwest corner. However, council members, particularly Daryl Slusher, did express interest in seeing further tweaking (like a big-box size cap and strict design standards) put in writing before the council gives its final approval and, around the same time, signs a final deal with Catellus later this summer. M.C.M.
There's at least one downtown institution who thinks Great Streets ain't so great: Cynthia Perez, co-owner of Las Manitas, came to City Council last week to blast the city's Second Street project, designed to make the area a more attractive, ped-friendly destination that can support unique Austin-flavored businesses like ... well, like Las Manitas. Perez is no big fan of the Great Streets design, with its extra-wide sidewalks, but was more aggrieved by losing 11 scarce on-street parking spaces to the project, which is using Third Street as a staging area and has rerouted traffic near Las Manitas. Perez's complaints that city staff gave her little warning were reinforced by Mayor Will Wynn, who himself decried staff's "unilateral actions" on Third Street. Expect more fallout to come. M.C.M.
On June 21, the board of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District voted to lift the "drought declaration" that has been in place for about 10 months. Last August, the board declared a Stage 1 (alert status) drought, asking residents to reduce water use by 10%, then raised to Stage 2 alarm status in October (requiring 20% reduction in pumping by permitted well owners). The status was dropped down to alert in January, and recent rains have recharged the aquifer above drought stage. Board members cautioned that even with drought status lifted, residents should continue to use conservation measures, particularly as summer heat intensifies. Michael King
The Travis Co. Sheriff's Office has received a $25,000 grant to help fund its efforts in a coordinated national crackdown on drunk driving. Beginning last Monday and running through July 11, TCSO and other area law enforcers will be out in force rounding up the inebriated. "Remember, if you feel 'buzzed' you most likely are impaired. If you are impaired, we are looking for you and you will most likely get arrested," says the TCSO. "So plan ahead or plan to get arrested." Don't say you weren't warned. Jordan Smith
On Tuesday, the Save Our Springs Alliance filed suit in Travis Co. district court against the Lazy 9 Municipal Utility District, formed to service a proposed development on the 2,000-acre Lazy 9 Ranch on Highway 71 in Western Travis Co. (aka the Davenport or Sweetwater Ranch). The SOS pleadings charge that the development threatens Bee Creek, Lake Travis, and Little Barton Creek. The suit charges that in enabling the MUD, the Legislature failed to give sufficient public notice and unconstitutionally delegated legislative powers including annexation and eminent domain to private landowners. SOS is asking for an injunction against any further action by the MUD and that it be declared "unconstitutional and void." M.K.
All the rain we've seen this spring means no county burn ban this July 4. So in the unincorporated areas of Travis Co. it is legal to possess and use fireworks, according to the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office. But that still doesn't mean you can go off half-cocked. For example, according to state law, it is illegal to "explode or ignite" fireworks within 600 feet of a church, hospital, or child care center, or within 100 feet of a place where flammable liquids or gases are stored and dispensed, or near a motor vehicle. Violations are Class C misdemeanors, punishable by a fine of up to $500. J.S.
The tide turned quickly against residents of the Northfield neighborhood late last Thursday night, as the City Council all but overturned the Planning Commission's denial of a conditional use permit for Up To Me, a transitional-housing agency that seeks to open a facility for female ex-felons on Lamar near 51st Street. Up to Me already operates a men-only facility in Brentwood and has been looking for years for another site; the abandoned commercial space on Lamar was suggested to the nonprofit during the North Loop neighborhood planning process, but without the knowledge of the immediate neighbors. The Planning Commission had agreed with neighbors that the facility would be too intense for the space, but the City Council was not very impressed particularly when Up to Me's agent Mike McHone offered up a restrictive covenant after the neighbors had spoken their piece. Officially, the case was postponed until late July, but Northfield neighbors are convinced it's a done deal. M.C.M.
Coincidentally (or not), former Northfield Neighborhood Association President Jay Reddy and North Loop Planning Team Chair Matt Hollon were also both appointed to the Planning Commission at last week's council meeting. In a flurry of board-and-commission filling, the council also reappointed Queen Betty Baker to the Zoning and Platting Commission; named recent ACC candidate Rodney Ahart to the Urban Transportation Commission; and retained a bunch of other venerables, including Parks Board Chair Rosemary Castleberry and Environmental Board stalwarts Mary Ruth Holder and Lee Leffingwell, for further civic service. M.C.M.
On Monday, the AISD board of trustees approved a new district policy that defines the procedures to be used in granting property tax abatements under a state law enacted in 2001. Under the policy, the district will charge an application fee of $75,000 for all projects involving property with an appraised value up to $300 million that is, for corporations sniffing out tax deals, which will be managed and negotiated on the district's behalf by Moak, Casey & Associates. The AISD announcement notes drily, "There are no applications pending ... at this time. It is possible, however, that The Home Depot may file one soon." (A little birdie over at the City Council must have told them.) Where's the Depot's money gonna come from? From "recapture" funds the state allows school districts to take money otherwise destined (via "Robin Hood") for property-poor school districts, where it is desperately needed, and give it to corporate mendicants in property-rich districts. When this was tried before, it was called "feudalism." M.K.
The line forms to the right: After the new Travis Co. hospital district finds its feet, rounds up enough cash to fund care at Brackenridge and the clinics, and gets into revenue-sharing mode, St. David's HealthCare Partnership would like a call. The city's other big hospital chain (along with Seton Healthcare Network, which operates Brackenridge) announced this week its intention to seek funding from the hospital district, whenever that becomes feasible, to defray its own charity-care expenses, which have ballooned (as have Seton's) in recent years. St. David's CEO Jon Foster noted that, while the chain which includes South Austin Hospital, North Austin Medical Center, and Round Rock Medical Center, along with the Central Austin flagship campus has no plans for major layoffs, the partnership (even with the corporate backing of partner HCA Healthcare) cannot sustain another two years of spiraling unreimbursed costs without outside help. M.C.M.
Beyond City Limits
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday halted the execution of Texas death row inmate Mauro Barraza, who was 17 when he murdered a 73-year-old woman in 1989. Barraza's attorneys asked the high court for a reprieve until the court decides whether execution of murderers who were juveniles at the time of their crime is considered cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. The court has accepted a Missouri case and will hear arguments in the fall. J.S.
Congressman-almost-elect Henry Cuellar went back to court on Monday, asking the full 4th Court of Appeals to overturn a ruling from last week by a three-judge panel that almost-defeated incumbent U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez can in fact have his day in court on his allegations of illegal voting in the CD 28 Democratic primary. The two Democratic judges on the seven-member court sided with Rodriguez, but in an unusually aggressive dissent, Justice Paul Green, a Republican (and come November the presumptive replacement for Steven Wayne Smith on the state Supreme Court), insisted that the lower court was correct in ruling that Rodriguez had missed his chance to address illegal voting issues when the lawsuit was first filed. Rodriguez won the initial vote, but a recount turned up enough mysterious ballots in Cuellar's home county to reverse the result. The whole court rarely agrees to accept appeals over one of its panels, but should it do so, the balance is 5-2 Republican, odds that favor GOP favorite Cuellar. M.K.
Gubernatorial appointments are generally rewards for party loyalty, placeholders for potential candidates, or both and rarely raise political eyebrows except when they reflect flagrant conflicts of interest. According to state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, Gov. Rick Perry's latest choices for the Texas Radiation Advisory Board Lawrence Jacobi, Mitchell Lucas, and Bradley Bunn nicely fit that bill. Jacobi is a consultant for Waste Control Specialists (which desperately hopes to open a radioactive waste dump in West Texas); Lucas works for TXU, owners of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant (aka "Where We Gonna Put This Glowing Stuff?"); and Bunn is on the Andrews Co. Chamber of Commerce, which has been earnestly whoring for an Andrews dump as potential "economic development." Commented Burnam, "The fox isn't just guarding the henhouse, he's working the door. This is like appointing Ken Lay to oversee the electric utility market." Kenny Boy is also in the news this week meeting with federal prosecutors to see if he can persuade them not to indict him. M.K.
The Clean Air Trust reports that a new analysis by state regulators indicates that proposed changes to the "new source review" process at the Environmental Protection Agency would bring about huge pollution increases, hamstringing the agency's prior attempts to limit the ability of companies (like Austin's neighbor Alcoa) to massively retool their plants and increase air pollution without being subject to new regulation and modern pollution controls. The study, by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (bronze.nescaum.org) examines the administration's giant "routine maintenance" loophole. A federal court has frozen the rule change pending resolution of a lawsuit against it by various states and environmental groups. (For more air-quality news, see "Texas Air: Dirty, Dirtier, Dirtiest.") M.K.
The monthly meet-up of Democracy for Texas, the organization that sprang out of (Howard) Dean for Texas, will be held Wednesday, July 7, 7pm, at Scholz Garten, 1607 San Jacinto. For more info, call 323-9086 or e-mail email@example.com.
Also on July 7, IE Inc. will open The Warehouse, a new thrift store located at The Compassion Center, 2302 Western Trails Blvd. in South Austin. The operation will "help support the efforts of ex-offenders to achieve personal and economic stability as productive community members."