Watson and Krusee team up
Watson launches long-shot bid to allow cities and counties to manage growth in toll road corridor.
March 08, 2007
By Kate Miller Morton
Central Texas counties and cities along the Texas 130 toll road would have more power to control and influence development in the fast-growing corridor under legislation soon to be proposed by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.
Watson plans to file three bills Friday. The most ambitious would allow Austin to create a special district around the toll road where it could impose its development rules and collect sales and property taxes to pay for roads, streets and utility improvements in the district without being required to provide city services for years.
"It's a combination of two very significant tools," said Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman. "One, it gives the city the ability to do land-use (planning), and the other is it gives the city a revenue stream in order to invest in infrastructure. One without the other wouldn't work."
Watson is also proposing that counties along Texas 130 be granted zoning authority and the ability to levy impact fees and that cities near the toll road be allowed limited-purpose annexations regardless of their size.
The Legislature is notoriously stingy in granting new land-use or taxing powers to cities and counties, and the chances of all three bills passing is far from certain.
A 25-mile segment of Texas 130 runs through Austin's designated future growth area, surrounded by about 174 square miles of the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction, an area nearly 60 percent of the city's current size.
City officials and environmentalists view the area as highly desirable for the type of mixed-use, high density development needed to accommodate the area's rapidly growing population. But the mostly rural area lacks the water, wastewater, and road and utility infrastructure to support that type of development. The city fears the area will be built-out with sprawling, resource-draining suburban subdivisions if the city is not granted land-use controls and funding mechanisms currently unavailable for land not fully annexed into its jurisdiction.
The city estimates that it would cost $2.4 billion in capital improvements to fully annex the 174-square-mile area.
Even a less ambitious annexation of the 42 square miles the city thinks will be developed first would cost an estimated $570 million for water, wastewater, drainage and roads. That estimate assumes Travis County would invest in the major roadways and does not include the cost of providing services such as fire and police protection, libraries and parkland.
Huffman said the cost is driven largely by the distance Austin's services will have to be extended, leapfrogging undeveloped areas closer to the city. The special district would only include the 42 square miles likely to develop first.
The bill has the support of Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, who said he supports the idea of creating a special district because otherwise it will be impossible for Austin to keep up with the infrastructure that is needed to plan for growth around the toll road.
Texas "130 is a special circumstance," Krusee said. "Usually it takes the state decades to build a road of that magnitude that has that sort of impact, and so local governments have time to keep up with construction and to keep up with infrastructure. But when we put over 50 miles of road on the ground in less than five years, the city simply can't keep up with (the growth) under current annexation laws."
Krusee said he knows of no other transportation service districts in the state but also knows of no other case in which so much road has been built in so little time.
"This is a new method of building roads that has been an enormous success for our region. And just as the road building and financial model was different, I think that following up with water, wastewater and local transportation infrastructure also has to be different," Krusee said. "It's important for us to realize that this is a new way of developing."
Krusee said he is open to the idea of allowing other cities to set up their own special districts similar to the one proposed for Austin, but he is reluctant to expand zoning powers to counties that are unprepared for it.
"Right now, I don't see granting zoning powers to counties," Krusee said. "I don't think my county would be interested in taking on that cost burden of hiring staff and gearing up on zoning expertise."
Special Austin district in the Texas 130 corridor:
•Would allow Austin to create an infrastructure district within 5 miles of Texas 130 and within its extraterritorial jurisdiction.
•Would give the city limited purpose annexation authority over the district, including land-use powers and tools that maximize development potential.
•Would allow the district to collect sales and property taxes to pay for utilities and infrastructure within the district.
•Would forbid any taxation within the district until residents there can vote in at least one City Council election.
Limited purpose annexation for small cities in the Texas 130 corridor:
•Would allow small municipalities to do limited purpose annexation if any of their incorporated territory is located within 15 miles of Texas 130 and of Austin.
Zoning powers for counties in the Texas 130 corridor:
•Would grant counties zoning power exclusively in an area that's within 15 miles of Texas 130 and of Austin.
•The bill would have no effect outside Travis and Williamson counties, nor could it pass over Austin's city limits to affect growth in areas of Travis County far from Texas 130.
•Would grant counties the ability to regulate height, the percentage of a lot that may be occupied, population density, land use and building construction standards.
•Would permit counties to levy impact fees within the 15-mile zone unless cities are already imposing an impact fee there.
© 2007 Austin American-Statesman:
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