City Hall Hustle: Bam! Pow! Crash! Holy Reactivated Permit, Batman!

Controversies real, invented, and in between

Every City Council agenda has its own issues. The question is how deeply they're buried below the surface.

The surprise about the Thursday, April 8, meeting is that they're in plain sight. For some, they don't come more culture-war ready than Item 27, requiring information disclaimers for crisis pregnancy centers – pseudo-medical facilities for pregnant women that are long on anti-abortion proselytizing but short on medical attention. The measure, as Jordan Smith reports ("Making 'Pregnancy Centers' Tell the Truth," p.16), would require CPCs to post language outside their offices that they don't "offer or refer for abortion or comprehensive birth control services." Council has portrayed the measure as a consumer protection, with sponsor Bill Spel­man stating in a press release, "We are simply requiring limited service pregnancy centers to disclose what is factual and true about the services they offer. ... This is a consumer awareness measure, that helps women make safe, healthy, informed, and responsible decisions." Whether that heads off heated public debate before council remains to be seen.

Sadly, an issue that would seem to have been settled long ago in The Gay Place could conceivably draw additional derision. Item 34 from Spelman, Laura Mor­ri­son, and Randi Shade would make the city an annual co-sponsor of Austin Pride events, in the form of waived fees, much as the city does for other public events, including South by Southwest. The event has been co-sponsored by the city in the past, but that hasn't prevented the issue from becoming topic du jour in the erudite realm of talk radio or "TV news stations deciding it was the news of the day," says Morrison. "It's a celebration of diversity in the gay and lesbian community here in Austin, and that diversity is something we embrace."

Pity the poor Mexican free-tailed bat, for even the fuzzy little bloodsucker has turned into a political prop. Item 28 would name him and his 1.5 million buddies nesting under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge the "official animal" of our fair city and in celebration, designate the first Sunday in June of every year as the Night of the Bat. (This year, Adam West, the weird dude from Family Guy, will be in attendance.) When word got out, the Statesman thought it had caught Mayor Lee Leffingwell in a contradiction, as he had previously voted against the separate, privately run Bat Fest taking over the same bridge ... all weekend long. The Statesman editors neglected to note the difference until halfway down the story, when Leffingwell's chief of staff Mark Nathan pointed out, "There's a difference between shutting [the bridge] down three hours on a Sunday evening for a free event versus the whole weekend for an event that charges admission." Chalk it up to wingspan envy from the Batcave.

A more organic controversy seems to be bubbling up around Item 54, part of a series of adjustments to building and development codes up for public hearing and possible adoption. The tweaks to "permit application and expiration requirements" sound arcane enough, but a widely circulated posting from Austin Neighborhood Council President Cory Walton on the ANC listserv makes the case that language "reactivating" construction permits could be detrimental.

Under the rules, lapsed permits could be reactivated once, for 180 days, by submitting an application and a fee. "Such an ordinance opens up a can of worms, is sure to be gamed, and is bound to produce undesirable results," Walton writes. "Let's say for whatever reason, a builder, developer, [or] contractor doesn't get the variances or zoning changes he was betting on so his site plan isn't approved. And a half year, a year, or two years later, he reactivates those building permits and claims he's been working on that project all along – just ran out of time. He still doesn't have an approved site plan or the variances he needs – yet he's got tacit approval from the City to continue building an illegal project. Or contrarily, codes and ordinances have changed and what may have previously been an approved site plan is no longer code compliant. If he's allowed to re-activate those earlier permits, what do you think the chances are that an already overworked City review staff is going to check the site plan against current code?"

While the language requires "evidence demonstrating that substantial work" occurred on the project before the permit expired, it still has put some aficionados on high alert. Morrison says the ordinance, intended to dispel permitting issues, "seems to have opened up all sorts of other arrays of other potential problems." So will we see some potential revisions? "That's something you could put some money on, if you're the betting type."

City Council will convene at 10am Thursday, April 8, at City Hall, 301 W. Second.

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