News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
How can it be that City Council candidate Laura Morrison, in return for complying with rules limiting run-off candidates to spending $50,000 or less, was then rewarded more than $66,000 in city funds to spend with no limit? That's the irony at the heart of the Austin Fair Campaign Ordinance. "If a candidate has entered into one of these agreements and at least one of his or her opponents has not, the code excuses them from complying with the limits," says City Attorney Jenny Gilchrist. "In addition, it means they're still eligible to get to funds that are in the account." So by dint of being the only candidate in the Place 4 run-off to agree with the ordinance (rival Cid Galindo did not), Morrison receives the entire $66,543 in the city's Fair Campaign Finance Fund (made of lobbyist and candidate registration fees) – without having to abide by the spending limits they professed. Says Gilchrist, "If [the candidates] all are not playing by this contract, then the person that did sign it no longer has to comply." Bizarre? "It's a large loophole," she says, noting, "What I've observed is that some campaign managers are aware of this, and some are not." – Wells Dunbar
The Planning Commission voted 6-3 in favor of rezoning a private park on 5908 Manor Rd. on Tuesday, despite widespread opposition from the surrounding East Austin neighborhoods. Community Partnership, an affordable-housing developer, requested the zoning change from higher density single family homes to Mixed Use, in order to build an affordable supportive housing complex with 110 efficiency units. The development would serve residents earning less than $25,000 per year and formerly homeless people who have proven their stability in transitional housing or in treatment programs. The surrounding Windsor Park, University Hills, and Pecan Springs neighborhoods argued that the zoning is out of character with the surrounding communities and the area has too much crime to serve vulnerable populations. Neighborhood representatives also reiterated that their community is already overrun with supportive housing. While Planning Commission members said they regretted opposing the neighborhood, they nonetheless voted for the rezoning because of the desperate need for affordable living options in the city and because of their confidence in Community Partnership's project. "I never want to go against neighborhood recommendations, but as a commission, we have to look at the needs of the city as a whole," said Commissioner Tracy Atkins. – Lydia Crafts
Oak Hill residents were stunned to see dozens of old-growth trees razed at a construction site in their neighborhood a couple of weeks ago – and enraged to find it was in violation of the law. City of Austin arborist Michael Embesi says that none of the trees, including 143 greater than 8 inches in diameter, should have been cleared. Embesi said Cadence McShane Corp., the contractor working on the Bee Caves Apartments, reported the violation itself after a subcontractor mistakenly cleared an area that was not part of the site plan. Under the city's tree protection ordinance, removal of trees greater than 19 inches in diameter could net a fine of up to $2,000 per tree. Embesi said that no fines are being assessed at this time but that the city will enforce a mitigation plan, most likely requiring planting of many new trees. "It was apparently done in error, but nonetheless, it is not acceptable," Embesi said. City environmental inspector Paul Roberts reportedly called it "the worst tree kill" he'd ever seen. Cadence McShane President Neal Harper had not returned our call as of press time. – Lee Nichols[Correction: Neal Harper actually did get back to the Chronicle before press time, but due to oversight, his comments were not added to the article. Harper said, “This was an unfortunate mistake. Our subcontractor got into an area where they were not supposed to be and our guy had left. We’ll work with the city to make up for it. We’ll be replacing the … trees that came down, and try to do the right thing.” The Chronicle regrets the error.]
According to the latest crime reports compiled by the FBI, crime in Austin increased last year, with violent crime up 5.9% over the previous year and property crime up 9.3%. The FBI numbers, compiled from stats submitted from local police, revealed a murder rate that jumped by half, from 20 murders in 2006 to 30 in 2007; robbery also increased by 7.3% to 1,457 incidents last year. Burglary was up 7.6%, to 8,031 incidents, and auto theft spiked 16.4%, with nearly 3,000 reports in 2007. – Jordan Smith
Passenger travel at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport dropped 3% in April compared to the same month last year. That's Bergstrom's first drop and probably the initial sign of an economic downturn at the airport, the Austin Aviation Department's Shane Harbinson told the Airport Advisory Commission Tuesday night. Going into the next year's operating budget, Harbinson said, the airport anticipates that airline mergers could also lead to a loss of four gates under the worst-case scenario. Despite that, the airport still anticipates that revenue will be up 2% next year. – Kimberly Reeves
[Correction: Passenger travel at ABIA actually went up 3% compared to last April rather than down; that's still, however, considered a decline for Bergstrom, which has seen steady year-over-year gains of between 5% and 8% most months. The Chronicle regrets the error.]
*Oops! The following correction ran in the June 20, 2008 issue: In last week's "Naked City" report on the massive tree kill in Oak Hill, we mistakenly wrote that Cadence McShane Corp. President Neal Harper had not returned our call as of press time. In fact, Harper did call back, but due to oversight, the quote did not make it into the article. As for Harper's comment, he said: "This was an unfortunate mistake. Our subcontractor got into an area where they were not supposed to be, and our guy had left. We'll work with the city to make up for it. We'll be replacing the ... trees that came down and try to do the right thing." Also in "Naked City," we wrote that passenger travel at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was down 3% in April compared to the same month last year. In fact, it was up 3%, though that number still represents a decline for ABIA, which has seen steady year-over-year gains of between 5% and 8% most months. The Chronicle regrets the errors.