ECT Envisions the Legislative Session

Will the Lege grant more regional planning authority to local communities this time around?

"We need legitimate county authority in the Hill Country this next session," declared state Rep. Patrick Rose, speaking for the interests of Blanco, Hays, and Caldwell counties at the 2009 Legislative Forum held Nov. 10 by Envision Central Texas. That position had the sympathies of the Travis Co. delegation present – Rep. Donna Howard, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and Sen. Kirk Watson. Before an impressive power-luncheon crowd, the panelists teed up hot policy topics – transportation, water, air quality – that need increased regional planning attention. But the question remains whether Texas legislators at the next session, which begins in January, will be ready to allow an increased level of regional control.

Watson made the case that since the state is no longer funding "the big stuff," it needs to hand off to local communities the planning tools and powers to get major projects planned and funded by voters. Referenc­ing the updated 2035 plan he's overseeing as chair of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Watson said: "We can't put roads into our transportation plan that don't go to efficiently planned development. We can't do that anymore."

Concurring that the state needs to empower regional planning was retiring Rep. Robert Cook, whose district covers Bastrop and five other rural counties. He expressed the most concern about water resources: "Nothing happens without water," he said. Like Watson and others, he made a plea for bipartisan and rural-urban cooperation on big-picture planning.

"I'm feeling outnumbered up here," quip­ped Rep. Dan Gattis, the lone Republican, who agreed that sound water policy required statewide planning but made the predictable pitch for private property rights. "Any zoning authority we give to counties takes something from someone else: landowners," he warned. "I'm not sure that's something I want to do in the state of Texas."

"In the urbanizing counties, it's also important to balance individual rights with community interests," countered Travis Co. Com­mis­sioner Sarah Eckhardt. "The market is always thinking about today. It's not thinking about 10, 25, 50 years from now – that's our job."

Rose said counties need the power "to deny development rights to a big, dense development when there's not water under the ground to sustain it." He agreed with Watson that roads determine growth patterns; given the shortfall in Texas Department of Transportation funding, he suggested this Legislature should vote to redirect all gas-tax dollars to roads. Rose also spoke of the need to move freight rail in Central Texas in order to free up the existing urban rail corridor for mass transit: "I think we need to have a real frank discussion to relocate that rail."

Water planning also concerned Howard, who posed for the group a question "of extreme interest" to her constituents: "How can we work with [the Lower Colorado River Authority] to ensure it makes decisions in a way that is of greatest benefit for regional planning?" She agreed with Wat­son that new air-quality policy will be "imperative" for this session, and Rodriguez called for legislative action to "make Central Texas a leader in renewable energy." Noting that "a lot of development is happening in urban areas that are water poor," he said, "we need a statewide water conservation policy."

In closing, ECT board Chair Jim Walker said: "All of you touched on the interconnectedness of things. How do we sustain this 'working together' mindset as the hard legislative work gets done?" In response, he got some hard advice for ECT: Hammer out a short list of unanimous ECT goals, get all of the region's mayors and county commissioners to sign on, then bring the list to the Legislature. Advised Gattis: "Don't try to fight it out on the House floor."

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Regional Planning
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Katherine Gregor, April 9, 2010

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Envision Central Texas, Patrick Rose, Donna Howard, Eddie Rodriguez, Kirk Watson, Dan Gattis, Texas Department of Transportation, Jim Walker

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