The Austin Chronicle

Place 3 War of Words: Historic Zoning, WTP4

June 10, 2011, News

With early voting under way for the Place 3 run-off and lots of ground to make up, embattled incumbent Randi Shade has apparently settled on her closing arguments against general election front-runner Kathie Tovo – her challenger's Planning Commission vote in a controversial historic zoning case and her statement that, had she been on council at the time, she would have voted against Water Treatment Plant No. 4.

The weekend before the Monday start of early voting, Shade emailed supporters a video describing Tovo's role in the Bradford-Nohra saga, a contentious historic zoning case initiated against owner Helen Nohra's wishes that spanned three years and included a trip to the courthouse. As the Chronicle has reported over the years, the case was a comedy of errors that saw shifting staff recommendations and a court case that threatened to upend several other board and commission decisions for not complying with super­majority requirements required in a board and commission clean-up. (See "The Battle Over This Old House," June 12, 2009, and "Bradford-Nohra Ruling Leads to Sequel," Aug. 27, 2010.)

The Shade video fast-forwards to Tovo's work on the Planning Commission in Janu­ary 2011, when (the video says) Tovo "led an effort to force historic zoning on Nohra's house against the family's wishes." It also quotes Nohra's nephew, real estate attorney Jim Nassour, as saying Tovo "felt strong[ly] enough to displace a 99-year-old woman out of her home on information that she didn't even have," and other family members thank Shade for her assistance in leading a council vote to deny historic zoning.

However, the Tovo campaign posted a response over the weekend, noting that it was Shade who initially made the motion for historic zoning on the site the first time it came to council in 2009. Without directly addressing the Helen Nohra angle, the Tovo campaign writes that, despite Shade's initial approval: "Almost two years later, when Shade was running for re-election in January 2011, the winds had apparently changed. Shade then abandoned her earlier position and voted against zoning the same property as historic, despite pleas from prominent local architects and historians to preserve the home. In short, Shade was for historic zoning before she was against it." The Tovo response also notes that initial decisions in the sprawling case predated Tovo's appointment to the Planning Commission.

Shade hits on an older campaign theme in a new TV spot, the first negative clip of the race (unless you count Tovo's earlier, Formula One-allergic ad): Water Treatment Plant No. 4, which, during the general campaign, Shade endeavored to turn from a negative into a positive.

In interviews with the Chronicle and elsewhere, Tovo has declined to offer a definitive answer as to whether she would act to stop construction of the plant if elected. The Shade clip plays up Tovo's original stance against the plant, intoning over grainy disaster footage that "in the midst of one of the worst Texas droughts ... Tovo would leave Austin dry and dangerous." (It's worth noting, however, that the drought, and its effect on Lake Travis, is one of the reasons WTP4 opponents cite for objecting to the plant.) Shade adds further claims that Tovo's potential opposition to completing the plant could cost the city the millions already invested in construction, plus legal fees resulting from any stoppage.

Online, Tovo continues to stand by her WTP4 response in a section of her website called "Setting the Record Straight." Reiterating that she would not have voted to build the plant, she continues: "However, the City Council did vote 4-3 to proceed ... and construction on the project has already begun. The City has now spent more than $115 million of taxpayer money on this project, and I will protect the taxpayers' investment. ... Should the question come before the City Council again, please be assured that I will evaluate all information and seek to understand the full economic and legal implications before casting any vote."

The allegations raised by Shade, who trailed Tovo by 4,300 votes and more than 13 percentage points on election night, are indicators of her search for support outside the neighborhood factions that can dominate local elections, especially in an off-year, non-mayoral contest like 2011's. In the text that accompanies the Bradford-Nohra video online, Shade quadruples down on her anti-neighborhood-association rhetoric, under the assumption those votes are likely lost to her anyway, running against former Austin Neighborhoods Council leader Tovo. "What happens if it's your home that you need to modify to care for an elderly parent, or welcome a new child?" Shade asks. "Will my opponent listen to your needs, or will she put a neighborhood association's wishes above yours, without even allowing you to make your case?"

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