Point Austin: Beside the Point

Champions vs. Council, round 2222

Point Austin
The never-ending Champion zoning epic trumbles on, with City Council lending initial but still tentative rezoning approval last week to the three legendary tracts of Northwest land at Loop 360 and RM 2222. Another protracted legal battle dangled over the dais like the sword of Damocles – or in the case of the gray-coiffed, grandmotherly Champion sisters, a fasces of knitting needles. The more permissive zoning of the triptych of tracts would, if it is sustained through three readings, allow for up to 11,000 car trips a day to a proposed mixed-use development still in the design stages. Yet with hurdles to the final approval and a continuing neighborhood outcry, the Champions have yet to emerge fully victorious. (For recent background on the case, see "Another Round This Week in Champion Sisters Fight," Nov. 18; for a historical perspective, see "Swelling Up: The Long, Winding, and Ever-Growing Road," Sept. 10, 1999.)

The decision is but the latest in a long running legal struggle between the city and the sisters, whose family has owned the land since the 1860s. At issue in the proposed zoning changes – which allow for an amount of development neighborhood groups along 2222 and in the Jester neighborhood north of the intersection oppose – is a jump from 6,400 to 11,000 car trips, in what those groups call an already crowded area. Those citizens (mostly well-heeled themselves, in keeping with the territory) spent four hours ardently making their case against the rezoning, as well as what they see as a City Council unable or unwilling to implement any workable or realistic zoning limitations. The proposed trip allowance derived from a mediated agreement reached in August that suspended the Champions' latest lawsuit against the city, which claims the trip limit constitutes a breach of contract. Apparently not confident in the city's case – the details a matter for executive session only – city attorneys agreed to nearly double the trip allowance; if council doesn't concur, goes the thinking, the lawsuit resumes, with Austin risking a loss (thereby being forced to eat the Champions' likely astronomical legal costs). The litigious grannies brook no trifling – a 1996 settlement from their 1993 lawsuit established the grandfathered development and watershed regulations on the tracts, which abide by regulations from the 1970s.

Over Thursday's nearly four hours of testimony, public anger at the council's apparent impotence surfaced several times. "You asked if we wanted the city to be sued?" said the legal counsel for the Jester Homeowners Association, responding to a plaint from Council Member Jennifer Kim that "there's very little we can do, if anything" back in court, should a judge side with the Champions. "The city has already been sued," he responded. "It's a matter of an aggressive defense." He marveled at the city's reticence. "I keep hearing about … 'What if there are no trip limits?' Where would that come from? We're going to roll back to when they owned the land in 1950 and say there weren't any trip limits in 1950? I've never heard of a City Council not being able to put trip limits [in a zoning case]."

Indeed, the fact that no mechanism exists to responsibly control amount of trips in the Champion corridor, without losing the meager regulations on the tracts already, is baffling. Several folks argued that since the corridor can't in fact physically accommodate much more than 11,000 trips, the "limit" was really anything but. Raul Alvarez noted that this was his third time voting on the tracts in six years, and complained, "It seems like they're being allowed to develop to the maximum, and we are not really receiving anything."

Nevertheless, the first reading passed 4-2, with Kim joining Alvarez in voting no. More tellingly, the yes votes were less than enthusiastic; Lee Leffingwell halfheartedly supported the rezoning only as a first reading – buying time to further examine neighborhood complaints and mull the city's legal recourse. And an added wrinkle is a likely 6-1 supermajority needed on third reading, because a valid neighborhood petition against the zoning exists on one of the three tracts.

With Kim and Alvarez dissenting, and Brewster McCracken absent but in light of past ballots a likely no, the Champions and council each have a hard road ahead, if they hope to stay outside of the courthouse. Luckily for procrastinators (and their attorneys), council only reconvenes once more this month (Dec. 15) – with no time for Champions on the agenda. Just wait 'til next year.

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Champion SistersCity Council, city council, Champion tract, Champion sisters, zoning, 2222, 360, Jennifer Kim, Raul Alvarez, Brewster McCracken, Lee Leffingwell, city attorney

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