Quote of the Week
"That greenfield site has been kind of elusive, just like the butterfly. You can't grab hold to it as it flies away from you." – Commissioner Ron Davis on BFI's inability to find a site to replace its northeast Travis County landfill
Tuesday, Nov. 6, is Election Day – your last chance to be among the tiny minority of Texas citizens voting on the latest mix-and-match batch of proposed constitutional amendments. See the lukewarm Chronicle endorsements.
City Council meets today (Thursday) with a fairly light ordinance agenda but the usual brace of zoning hearings. See "Beside the Point."
Williamson Co. commissioners voted to maintain the contract with Corrections Corporation of America for the operation of Taylor's T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, a detention facility for immigrant families – after CCA promised the county free legal defense and a $250,000 indemnity against liability. See "WilCo's Latest Snafu."
The proposed land swap between Austin Energy and Crestview Station LP is off. AE owns property adjacent to the Capital Metro commuter-rail station being built at Airport and North Lamar, and its current use as a pole yard is the exact opposite of the dense, transit-oriented development city planners desire near transit hubs. Its proposed use as a needed electric substation didn't fit the bill either, so AE considered trading the land for a property farther north on Lamar owned by Crestview Station, the mixed-use development planned on the former Huntsman Chemical property. However, Cheryl Mele, AE vice president for electric utility development, said the city's power company decided to keep the pole yard and just buy the Crestview Station land outright for its substation after the Electric Utility Commission raised concerns about timing of the transaction and whether it was the best deal for the utility. This still leaves unresolved the eventual use of the property – while some neighbors support goals outlined in the city's Transit Oriented Development Ordinance, others have noted there are no public parks within the Crestview neighborhood and would like the property converted to green space. – Lee Nichols
Dumping once and for all an agreement that would OK a 75-foot vertical expansion at Browning-Ferris Industries' Northeast Austin Sunset Farms landfill, the Travis Co. Commissioners Court voted 3-2 to junk the expansion proposal – heavily opposed by nearby residents. BFI was offering a 2015 closure date for the landfill – notorious for scattering windblown trash and noxious odors throughout the surrounding neighborhoods – in exchange for the county's agreement not to oppose BFI's application at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which will decide on the expansion next year. County Commissioner Margaret Gomez cast the deciding vote. "It became clear today that we need landfills but that they mustn't be so obtrusive to the community," she said. "The residents said the agreement wasn't doing enough, so I said, 'OK, it's time to cut bait and move on.'" She added that the TCEQ should look at the length of a landfill's life before it becomes incompatible with its surrounding area but said the commission hasn't decided whether it will join residents and Texas Campaign for the Environment in opposing BFI at the state level. TCE's Robin Schneider said, "In five to 10 years, this could be a watershed moment in pushing the region to do much more to achieve its zero-waste goals." – Daniel Mottola
The courts may have to be the place to sort out the damages and cleanup costs for large amounts of sediment dumped into the once pristine Hamilton Creek. Attorney General Greg Abbott's office, on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, filed suit in district court on Tuesday against contractor Rodman Excavation Inc. and developer Coldwater Development Ltd. in connection with damages to the creek that appear to have come from construction runoff from the newly built Ranches at Hamilton Pool. Travis County is also party to the suit. Coldwater Development has claimed he followed all Hays County environmental regulations. Travis Co. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he'd like the case to be resolved before it reaches court but that county officials are still awaiting a report that will further define the sources and amount of the damage. The problems with Hamilton Creek led to the county's new water-quality ordinance, but Daugherty said that ordinance is only as strong as the county's enforcement powers and noted the runoff issue started in Hays Co. and then flowed into Travis County and Hamilton Pool. – Kimberly Reeves
The Downtown Commission already has called for the reconstitution of the city's Waterfront Overlay task force. At a work session this week, the Planning Commission took up the same issue but stalled before making any particular recommendation. Members Tracy Atkins and Saundra Kirk both commented they didn't want to approach decisions on the Waterfront Overlay project-by-project in a piecemeal fashion, but commissioners were still undecided on some key issues, such as whether the ordinance needed a complete overhaul and which commission would be best to review it. Members requested an executive session briefing to review the recent litigation over the ordinance, a dispute with Save Town Lake over whether a rewrite of the Waterfront Overlay Ordinance in 1999 actually intended to delete height limitations. In the meantime, agent Richard Suttle has appealed the Planning Commission's rejection of CWS' Riverside high-rise project to City Council. – K.R.
The next big high-rise tower passing through city commissions – 800 West Ave. – has offered plenty of fodder for discussion. This development, an attractive 250-foot tower fronted by a park or row houses on West Avenue, would sit on a deep lot right in the middle of the Old Austin neighborhood. Can height and homes coexist? It might be right for Downtown but not so right for the edge of Downtown, commissioners have agreed. At Design Commission last week, Commissioner Richard Weiss coined a potential name for a new zoning category for such development: "CRD" or central residential district. And Chris Riley, who represents the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, suggested it might be time to create an overlay for that first outer ring of Downtown – those places just outside the clear urban core where density is wanted but where projects must peacefully coexist with their neighbors. – K.R.
The Dawson neighborhood is questioning just how permanent the zoning on neighborhood plans can be if council continues to approve plan changes, as it did last week on the tracts for the proposed Fort Magruder development on Ben White Boulevard. Neighborhood leaders, who completed one of the first neighborhood plans 10 years ago, want the land to remain low-density residential. But agent Ron Thrower, who has cobbled together about 15 lots along Ben White between Congress and South First, would like to see a higher-intensity mixed-use development. Cynthia Medlin, who led the Dawson opposition, called the proposed project "commercial creep" into the Dawson neighborhood. Council, still not fully satisfied with the Magruder plans, approved neighborhood plan amendment changes on two of the three tracts, sending the third back for further negotiations between Thrower and the neighborhood planning team. – K.R.
On a lighter note, at his State of Downtown Address last week, "Best of Austin" Mayor Will Wynn described how "attractive cites" like ours attract talent "frankly, at the expense of less attractive cites." Now Mayor Eligible's found more grist for the attractiveness mill: An "America's Favorite Cities" poll conducted by www.travelandleisure.com and CNN Headline News lists Austin as one of the Top 25 vacation destinations in the country. The ATX also places high in several categories, including live music, nightlife, clubbing, happy hours, vintage shopping, athleticism, "wild weekends," and – you guessed it – attractive people. While receiving a "singles scene" first place, Austin's "ease of getting around/public transportation" score strikes out in 18th place. The write-up is in the November issue of Travel + Leisure. – Wells Dunbar
Mayor Wynn also spoke to the importance of live-music venues during his State of Downtown Address. For entertainment events like South by Southwest, it's crucial to have "venues by the dozen" – a daunting prospect if, as he put it, several clubs are "hanging on by their fingernails." Under that cloud, maybe it's not the best time to revisit the sound ordinance and decibel limits, but Wynn, simultaneously striving to attract thousands more residents Downtown, has inadvertently forced the issue. Now you can have your say. The Austin Music Commission has called a town hall-style meeting for Monday, Nov. 5, 7pm, at Momo's on 618 W. Sixth, immediately following the commission's monthly meeting at City Hall. Topics include possible expansion of the sound ordinance, lowering its decibel level, outdoor-music permits, current laws, and a Q&A session. – W.D.
Beyond City Limits
The departure of San Antonio lawyer Mikal Watts from the U.S. Senate race seems to have cleared the field for Houston state Rep. Rick Noriega to be the challenger to GOP incumbent John Cornyn. Any race for a statewide office brings speculation, however: Will former Comptroller John Sharp run? We asked Sharp himself, and the answer is no: "Man, I have never made a comment one side or another on that. I guess where they got that from is [New York Sen.] Chuck Schumer came through about six months ago, and he talked to me, and he talked to Kirk Watson, and he talked to Ron Kirk and every other living person that's ever been on the ballot as best I can tell. I don't have any plans like that." Are there any other races that might interest him? "I miss it. I'd love to be back in public service, but I don't see anything right now on the horizon." Perhaps he's too busy with another political project: being the state co-chair of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's presidential campaign. – L.N.
According to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, identity-theft scammers have dusted off an old (but, apparently, effective) scam in an effort to steal Social Security numbers from unwitting victims. The "jury duty scam" goes like this: You get a call from a supposed "court officer," who tells you you've failed to show up for jury duty and are now the subject of an arrest warrant. While you're adequately flummoxed, the scammer asks you to "confirm" your SSN and other personal information. Once you've complied, the scammer tries to assuage your worry by informing you the entire matter can be "instantly dismissed" by paying a fine – all you need to do is provide a credit card or checking-account routing number. "By the time the call ends, the scammer has all the information necessary to open lines of credit under the unsuspecting victim's name," reads an AG consumer alert. "This ploy is particularly effective because it causes victims to react immediately out of fear, rather than taking the time to reflect about the information being requested." But don't be fooled: Legitimate court officers "would never leave threatening messages on someone's voice mail to demand personal information and immediate payment of a fine." If you think you've been had by a "jury duty" scammer or for info on identity-theft scams, call the AG's Office: 800/252-8011. – Jordan Smith
Retired teachers will be getting that one-time 13th check promised by the Lege. The Teacher Retirement System was recently notified that investment returns are strong enough to issue an extra check next year – up to a maximum $2,400. Executive Director Jeri Stone of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association praised the bonus and said TCTA would monitor future investment returns with the hope that a permanent increase in retirement benefits might be viable. The TRS board is expected to approve the extra check Nov. 9. Retired teachers haven't seen an increase in benefits since 2001. – K.R.
Last week the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality handed down more than half a million dollars in sanctions to 69 businesses across the state for violating commission regulations and environmental statutes. Companies ranged from mom-and-pop dry cleaners to heavy-duty refineries; while most fines were for minor infractions, petrochemical manufacturer DuPont was hit with a $130,000 penalty for illegally discharging hazardous waste. Last October, TCEQ staff found the company released nearly 5,000 gallons of acrylonitrile – a chemical used in making plastics – into a marsh near its plant in Jefferson County, resulting in a fish kill, according to the commission. The base fine of $40,000 was multiplied because of DuPont's less than squeaky compliance record, according to TCEQ documents. – Justin Ward
Joining the popular opposition to impending Department of Homeland Security plans to construct a 70-mile Texas-Mexico border wall, the Lone Star Sierra Club last week joined Defenders of Wildlife, a number of nearby community groups, U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, and the mayors of Eagle Pass, Laredo, Brownsville, Rio Grande City, and El Paso in decrying the wall. Sierra Club state Director Ken Kramer said, "A wall along the Texas-Mexico border would undermine decades of work to establish a vibrant wildlife corridor on the Rio Grande" and "devastate" local ecotourism business. The Sierra Club is calling on the DHS to complete a comprehensive environmental impact statement and fully assess impacts on wildlife habitat, migratory birds and other species, river flows, livestock management, and local economies. The group also wants a better public process, improved coordination between federal and state agencies, and consideration of border-protection alternatives. The Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife won a temporary restraining order to halt wall construction in an eco-sensitive portion of Arizona, only to have it overturned by the DHS, which invoked the 2005 Real ID Act, which grants the authority to waive all U.S. laws in constructing border barriers. – D.M.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the November 9, 2007 issue: In a News bullet last week about BFI's Northeast Austin Sunset Farms Landfill, we misspelled Browning-Ferris Industries.