April 19, 2007
The Senate on Wednesday gave its blessing for Austin to create development districts and governing boards directing growth alongside the new Texas 130 toll road on Austin’s eastern frontier.Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, author of Senate Bill 1688, repeatedly tweaked the bill in recent weeks to get the support of developers, homebuilders and property owners in what would be the first district of it kind in Texas. Two amendments added Wednesday made a number of significant changes to help secure the 29-1 vote for passage.The “transportation infrastructure districts” would be initiated by the Austin City Council, and the city would get instant zoning authority in a narrow band along Texas 130. But an election would be required for the districts to issue debt to build roads and utility lines to tax residents to pay off that debt and to give the city zoning powers throughout the districts.”This is the single biggest development tool Austin has ever had, if we do it right,” Watson said. “This is a very exciting moment to be in a position to try a new tool to help us plan better.”Watson’s bill now moves to the House, where Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, author of a twin bill, said he is optimistic that it will pass with only minor changes. The bill, Krusee said, is a major signpost in the easing of mutual hostility and suspicion between city officials and the development community.”In the past, this cooperation has been rare, but Mayor Will Wynn has been engendering this kind of trust for the last couple of years,” he said.Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, whose district includes Williamson County and the northern stretch of Texas 130, voted against the bill.Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who voted against the bill in the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, commended Watson on Wednesday for addressing a broad array of concerns.”This is a new building product we’ll all be watching,” Shapiro said on the floor. “This may be a better way than (municipal utility districts) for handling these issues.”Still pending in a Senate committee are two companion bills by Watson that would give counties and small cities along Texas 130, such as Georgetown and Pflugerville, greater powers to regulate development.When Watson’s bill was heard in committee March 28, representatives of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin and the Texas Association of Builders said they had problems with it.By Wednesday, they were on board as well, as evidenced by a letter they sent to Shapiro.The amendments approved Wednesday made a number of significant changes. But the amended bill would meet the City of Austin’s chief goals of having zoning authority along Texas 130 and a shot at getting tax revenue to pay for roads, water, wastewater and drainage improvements.”Even with the changes that were made, this legislation represents one of the most significant opportunities we’ve had to plan for growth in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction,” said Laura Huffman, an assistant city manager with the City of Austin.Among the changes approved Wednesday:
“It’s substantially better, I’d say that,” said Ed Wendler Jr., a developer who had criticized Watson’s bill in an American-Statesman op-ed article. “To me, it just never seemed democratic, in the governance sense of that word.”Wendler said he remains concerned that the city seemingly would continue levying the district tax (in addition to the city’s property tax) once a district is annexed by the city.Huffman said she has been assured by legislative drafters that the bill would not allow both taxes to be levied on district property holders.