Texas House kills local review of public-private projects

The Texas House has killed a provision, at the urging of Gov. Rick Perry, that would have required public-private development projects on state land to go through local zoning.

State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said he stripped out the provision because he and Perry were concerned that the state was giving up sovereignty over the use of its lands.

“The state should be encouraged to work along with cities in terms of developing state lands,” Dutton said. “But, at the end of the day, the state ought to have the absolute, unfettered right to move forward with a project that the state deems appropriate and necessary to conduct state business.”

The zoning language had been in a bill related to the future of the Texas Facilities Commission and also is in Senate Bill 507 by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. John Davis, R-Houston.

A coalition of Austin neighborhoods have encouraged the additional local review after the Facilities Commission last year received an unsolicited proposal from a developer to build homes and shops on 75 acres of state land along Bull Creek Road in North Austin.

“The legislators I talked to don’t want a state agency bullying into their communities without consulting local folks,” said Sara Speights with the Bull Creek Road Coalition, a group that represents about 7,500 households. “When we work together, we get better development.”

The issue is statewide, but Austin has more state land that could be developed than other Texas cities.

Wednesday’s action on the zoning language sets up a possible standoff between the House and Senate over their different versions addressing the future of the Facilities Commission. It also raises the specter of a showdown in the House over Watson’s separate bill — or even of a gubernatorial veto.

“Even if it passes, the governor is probably going to veto it because it still changes the balance between the state and municipal government and its ordinances,” Dutton said of Watson’s bill.

Lucy Nashed, a Perry spokeswoman, said the governor would reserve judgment until a final bill reaches his desk.

Watson said he was disappointed by Wednesday’s action but vowed to press ahead. He said no one had raised the issue of state sovereignty with him.

“I don’t think that’s a real issue since we already have in statute the kind of program this (bill) was mirroring,” Watson said.

He was referring to the Triangle, a development with residences and shops on state land near North Lamar Boulevard and Guadalupe Street, that is under control of the General Land Office. A law that applies to the General Land Office — but not the Facilities Commission — allows more local input but ultimately has an appeal process dominated by state officials.

While Watson’s bill would require local zoning, the state could appeal if a city turns downs a project. A panel with a majority of state officials would have the final say.

“By going through local zoning, it assures a thoughtful, planned approach as opposed to just being able to throw a public-private agreement at the neighbors, ” Watson said. “It has worked in the past.”

Besides striking the zoning requirement, Dutton’s amendment also exempted a developer’s proprietary information and work product from the state’s public records law.

Conferees from the House and Senate must work out the differences in Senate Bill 211 that would continue the Facilities Commission. If the Senate persuades the House to put the zoning language back in the bill, the governor would face the dilemma of vetoing the agency’s sunset bill just to strike the zoning language.

Supporters of Watson’s separate bill have their own dilemma. They must make a tactical decision before bringing Senate Bill 507 to a floor vote.

On Wednesday, the House almost transferred certain real estate transactions from the General Land Office to the Texas Facilities Commission that is led by one of their own — former state Rep. Terry Keel of Austin.

The 40-page amendment attracted 81 votes Wednesday, but it needed a two-thirds vote of the 150-member House because the legislation was being debated on final passage.

That amendment giving Keel’s agency broader authority could reappear if Watson’s bill comes up for a floor vote. It would only need a simple majority at that point.

Over the past two years, the Facilities Commission has had a mixed record as it has tried to initiate public-private partnerships as a means to develop underutilized state land without spending tax dollars or issuing bonds.

While the Bull Creek Road Coalition has objected to a proposal for its neighborhood, the Austin City Council was on the verge of giving money to the Facilities Commission to help plan commercial development in the Capitol complex, including integration of the state complex with the University of Texas and a future medical school.

The City Council postponed sending money, pending the outcome of the Legislature’s review of public-private partnerships and the continuation of the commission.

Many lawmakers also objected to any commercial development in the Capitol complex, in particular an unsolicited proposal to build a 47-story tower for a planetarium, residences and shops. Although the Facilities Commission hadn’t approved the tower, the unsolicited proposal fueled a backlash from some legislators.

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