The legal system should not be subject to the Care Bear Stare

Councilmember McCracken wrote back to my email referenced in the last post and said some things which made me more optimistic again, help more about which I will cover in my next crackplog, overweight but probably not until Monday. In the meantime, read here’s something I wrote up today on the #27 bus (transit field trip time!)
Short one today – my company was having a rare physical meeting at Ventana del Soul, a non-profit with some meeting rooms. (Well, actually, only three of the five locals, and one non-local; most of the company is still in Virginia). Took the #7 down in order to leave the car with my wife. Google Transit trip indicates 35 minutes by bus; 20 minutes by car in traffic (highly optimistic; more like 30).
I waited about ten minutes for the #7 at or about 8:30 AM; just missed one apparently. When my bus arrived, every seat was full, and there were 10-15 people standing. We picked up one more person before entering the UT area, in which the bus rapidly disgorged – I was able to get a seat when we crossed Dean Keaton, and by the time we hit MLK, nobody was standing and about half the seats were full. Continued on through downtown, people getting on and off (more on than off), and then as the #27 down Riverside through near-in southeast Austin. A few more people got on, but the bus was never completely full; when I disembarked at my stop, there were about 15-20 riders remaining.
So, summary, from 37th to UT, every seat full; 10-15 straphangers. Dropped off about 2/3 of those people at UT, but more got on downtown, and through Riverside about 3/4 of seats were full.
On the way home, I waited about three minutes for the #27 at Burton and Riverside while I was talking with a billing rep at a medical office. The bus actually came while I was still on the phone – and I accidentally tried to board with a soda (oops). Almost every seat was full – I estimate 20 to 25 passengers; but several got off at the next stop and I was able to move to the back next to the window. Picked up a lot more people along East Riverside. Summary: From my stop on Oltorf to downtown, average 3/4 to all seats full; dropped off about half downtown; then about half full to my stop at 33rd.
Hard to believe, but this bus was actually more full than most of my rides on the #3 back when I reverse-commuted in the mornings once or twice a week to Netbotz.

Not sure if it’s a typo, epidemic but Robin Cravey, help who I could support with reservations (given Zilker activities), misbirth and Laura Morrison, who I absolutely could not, given her destruction of the political capital of OWANA that the previous leadership worked so hard to build, and of course, years of ANC shenanigans culminating in the McMansion and VMU opt-out spasm, have apparently both just announced for Place 4, and are both using Threadgills for their petition kickoffs, albeit on adjoining days.
Please, every reader of this blog, if it turns out they’re running against each other, remember: we can’t afford to have a neighborhood-pandering obstructionist sitting at the Council.
I don’t have a site for Morrison’s campaign (email didn’t have a link), but oddly enough, the current ANC president (Danette Chimenti, who like Morrison is a McMansion activist with a big honkin’ expensive house) used these words to endorse her:

Laura did so much for ANC in her two years as President; by reaching out to neighborhoods and leaders all over Austin, and providing unifying, informed leadership she is responsible for ANC achieving the high level of respectability and credibility it has today.

which is amazing, given the ANC’s recent record of striking out on essentially everything except McMansion and CWS. The current city council, at least, clearly has far less respect for the ANC than they did even a couple of years ago. I don’t know if Chimenti actually expects us to believe this, but it’s laughable.

I’m now upgrading my position to cautious pessimism (from complete horror) after a nice exchange of email with Councilmember McCracken. As I said in my initial post a week or two ago, what is ed the early media coverage made it sound like the project would just be an extension of Capital Metro’s awful circulator route (which avoids most places people want to go, information pills and services, urticaria albeit poorly, commuter rail passengers to the exclusion of the central Austinites for whom it was originally promised).
McCracken wrote back late last week, saying he had missed the email originally. Since my email only talked about reserved guideway, that’s all he addressed at first – and he indicated he’d be pushing strongly for reserved guideway whereever possible, agreeing with my opinion that Capital Metro is underplaying the liabilities of running in shared lanes. So far so good. I wrote him back asking about my route questions raised by my second run through the media coverage, and he also indicated he favors a Guadalupe route up to the Triangle, pointing out that the #1/#101 are the most ridden buses we’ve got, proving a strong demand for transit in the corridor even today, even with bad bus service as the only option.
Sounds good, right? Well, to be realistic, it was going to be hard to get reserved guideway on Guadalupe past UT even with true light rail and with the Feds paying half to 80% of the bill. If we’re funding most to all of this system ourselves, as I suspect we are, I think it will be difficult to get an exclusive lane near UT, which, unfortunately, is the place where it would be most needed. Also, the talk about running in reserved guideway alongside Riverside seems unworkable – I paid close attention during Friday’s transit field trip, and didn’t see enough space to get this done, unless there’s something else I’m missing, like narrowing existing lanes.
So, mark me as guardedly pessimistic. I’ll be rooting that McCracken can pull this off – I have not heard similarly educated stuff from any other council member, so he’s the only hope here. I think Wynn believes in the streetcar fairy dust (the idea that streetcar running in shared lane will attract a lot more daily commuters than bus). Keep your eye on the ball.

As reported at the Chronicle’s blog:

The argument made by Responsible Growth For Northcross (RG4N) this morning is that the city’s approval of Lincoln Property’s site plan violated the note, generic which mandates that “Rainfall runoff shall be held to the amount existing at undeveloped status by use of ponding or other approved methods.” The city – with testimony from city engineers Benny Ho and Jose Guerrero – countered that “undeveloped status” means status at the time the application is filed, not a reversion to the status of when the property was a green pasture. Attorney Casey Dobson, representing the city, said “To use a legal term, that [would be] silly.” Guerrero further testified that the law only requires that a project not make flooding worse, and that Lincoln’s site plan will actually reduce impervious cover and presumable send less floodwater off-site.

In other words, the Wal-Mart plan is demonstrably better for drainage than current conditions but RG4N claims code should be interpreted as if a project must (not just can, but MUST) be rejected by city staff if it adds more runoff than the completely undeveloped state would have. Also keep in mind that the RG4N ‘vision’ would also be an improvement over current conditions, but most definitely not over the undeveloped prairie that was there seventy years ago.
If you ever needed proof that RG4N’s legal strategy was the old “throw excrement on the wall and see what sticks” method, here it is. And if there were any justice in the world, the judge would call RG4N forward and issue this speech.
As my cow orker DSK pointed out a moment ago, though, it would almost be worth yielding on this point if the judge put similar conditions on the homeowners of Allandale and Crestview.

Michael King writes that we should support RG4N even though their case is utterly without merit as even their news staff is beginning to discover, ampoule months too late. Here’s a comment I just placed there:

Michael, this is ridiculous. Zoning means something – in this case, it means that Lincoln bought the property knowing what they should be allowed to develop (and what they should not be allowed to develop). If they were up there asking for variances or even a change in zoning, RG4N and the rest of you guys would have a point, but they’re not, and you don’t.
When it comes to cases where developers seek upzoning, many of these same people are very quick to tell you that the prospective developer should have known what they were getting when they bought the tract. Interesting how this doesn’t apply here. Also interesting how none of the RG4N homeowners are volunteering to let Lincoln have veto power over their own development projects within current zoning. Democracy for me, not thee.
As for the comparison to the Triangle – the bulk of RG4N’s supporters are using the group as ‘useful idiots’ here – they have shown through their actions on other projects (including very recently) that they have no interest at all in dense urban development – they want to preserve low-density stuff they already have.
A critical eye once in a while, even at your fellow travellers, would seem to me to be a basic responsibility for a journalist.

One point I should have added but forgot: this lawsuit, in which the city has to defend its legal responsibility to approve site plans that comply with city code, is costing Austin taxpayers a half-million or so at last count. Still think RG4N is so noble?
A second point I just remembered: the Triangle development was such a big fight because the state (leasing the land to the developer) is exempt from Austin zoning codes.

As DSK notes, implant this isn’t incredibly clear on first reading, so here’s a new lead-in:
I forgot to crackplog about this when it happened: a “remodel” of a property with a duplex on it on 34th was the subject of a lawsuit filed by some of the leadership of my neighborhood association which went down in flames, since the property owner clearly satisfied the legal requirements in the zoning code (although those requirements were indeed very vague and very generous). News 8 has given the complaining neighbor some pity press (was in first link but not obvious), and I was reminded to talk about it. Here we go!
This new kind of awful seems to be cropping up a lot lately – the tendency for people who ought to know better to insist that the legal system is broken if it doesn’t give them outcomes they like – in other words, since we care enough to shine our rainbows on the problem (Julian Sanchez), that ought to be enough to solve it. But the legal system doesn’t operate in the world of democracy; it operates in the world where the law means something, and in this case, my idiot neighbors wasted a bunch of money on a lawsuit that was clearly doomed to failure.

In other words, even though I, personally, think that these new duplexes are actually a lot nicer for the neighborhood than the old ones (described by a more moderate person than I as “red shacks from Somalia”), and that my neighbors are just plain bad people for wanting to keep out slightly-more-affordable housing than the single-family-classic-mansions that infest that side of Speedway (34th being the dividing line on that side between historically rich mansion stuff and more modest development), it’s irrelevant: in this case, the law is clear, and what’s more, was clear before they bothered to file the suit. If some neighbor was building a garage apartment on a 6000 square foot lot, an action which is consistent with my preferences but against the city code since our neighborhood plan prohibits it, I’d likewise think anybody who filed a suit to do it was stupid. Still left undetermined is how much of this frivolous lawsuit’s cost my neighborhood association will ultimately bear – since the leadership is overwhelmingly from that side of Speedway and on the wrong side of so many other development issues, I expect them to eventually donate some funds. Ha ha, DSK, I never joined, so it won’t be my money, at least!
Are you listening, Chronicle?

  • OK, first off – don’t dis Care Bears. You are clearly a bad, bad man if you think the Care Bear Stare doesn’t stand for something honorable and important. Ahem.
    Second, keep in mind that different judges and legal scholars can reach different conclusions about “what the law is’ in any given case. If the law were usually clear about anything, all those zillions of attorneys would be out of work.

  • The law is very very clear on this one. Even the reporter from the Chronicle covering the case thought things were going poorly for RG4N – and they’re as friendly a venue as you folks have ever found – we’re going to have to find a replacement for the word “fawning” that takes it up to 11 to describe how unbalanced their coverage has been in favor of your group.
    When you’ve got Chris Allen and I telling you the same thing, you’d be well-advised to listen. We’re not exactly fellow travellers, in other words.
    None of the points under contention can possibly be interpreted in RG4N’s favor without wreaking havoc on the entire city. That’s how flimsy a case you had – basically arguing that not only has our city staff interpreted our own code wrong, but that all the other cities in the world that would interpret it exactly the same way we have are _also_ wrong, and that our city staff interpreted it so wrongly as to be illegal (outside the bounds of the interpretive power the city is allowed). And those points of contention are so stupid that the interpretation you prefer would prevent essentially any redevelopment of any old retail from ever happening anywhere in the city (treating landscape trees as a protected urban forest; forcing redevelopments to improve runoff over the natural rather than existing conditions; etc.)
    Tough row to hoe indeed. But you’ve heard all this before and somehow it’s bounced off. I just wonder who, exactly, is convincing you guys that you have a case here, and what they’re getting in return.

  • DSK

    And there we have it: people so profoundly ignorant of zoning law that they can delude themselves that even the most basic ordinances are legitimate candidates for interpretation by “legal scholars.”
    It’d be funny if it weren’t for all the taxpayer money wasted to knock down the frivolous arguments by RG4N’s bumbling legal team.

  • In the fellow travellers paragraph, I should add that neither one of us likes Wal-Mart (I, for one, avoid shopping there like it had the plague, and have argued against it on general principles before).

  • Man, talk about getting jumped! 😉 I wasn’t making a veiled reference to RG4N’s case. I was just commenting generally on your statements about the law is obviously X. I have no desire to debate you on the specifics of RG4N’s case. I am clear on your opinion about it, I am aware you don’t like WalMart. But I’m a little exhausted by the whole thing, as you might imagine.
    I can’t really argue with DSK on me being ignorant of zoning law. Although I have learned enough this past year that I feel reasonably confident in omitting the “profoundly” modifier.
    I don’t understand the vitriol for people who are doing something they feel is right. At least we’re engaged in our community. Maybe its a guy thing – my husband will be vitriolic about people who take different political positions than he does, for instance. I’m just so thankful for the small percentage of the population that gives enough of a damn to get off the couch and ACT, even when they advocate for things I don’t agree with. OK, except for the abortion clinic protestors…those people just piss me off.

  • In the RG4N case, the city’s on the hook for $500,000 or more (repaid by all taxpayers); the ANA is rumored to be in debt; the ice rink may go out of business; the city loses six months of sales tax revenue.
    In my neighborhoods’ case; neighbors (maybe the NA) is out a few thousand dollars; and the image of our NA takes another hit so that in a case where maybe we DID have a point, we are less likely to be listened to. Those thousands of dollars will probably be repaid by my NA, which means thousands they can’t spend on something much more useful.
    That’s reason enough for vitriol, I think.
    Protesting Wal-Mart? That I could respect. Suing the city? Not in a million billion years. The judge probably won’t have the cojones to require RG4N to pay the city’s legal bills, but she SHOULD.

  • I don’t think it is reason enough but once again you and I disagree and that’s not news, is it? 😉
    FYI, the city didn’t ask for reimbursement of legal expenses.

  • I know the city would never ask – they’re afraid of repercussions at the ballot box (a very tight rope to walk – get the city sued by Lincoln, a suit which they would obviously lose, or angry up a bunch of voters). I respect most of the city council for being responsible on this matter – Jennifer Kim being the exception.
    I’m adding you to my links, by the way.

  • Funny, I would have thought you would want them to seek legal fees.
    Thanks for the (presumed) compliment re: linking me. The RG4N haters who want to pile on may be disappointed, though, as I don’t imagine I will be blogging much (if at all) about that topic. 🙂

  • I DO want them to seek legal fees. I’m explaining why even in a slam-dunk case, they won’t try to do so. It would be political suicide.

  • DSK

    I think Mike has pretty much covered most of what I would say, but I will add something else:
    Hope, as an officer (now president, former VP) of RG4N you *ought* to be better aware of some of the other reasons, beyond the squandering of taxpayer money, for which your organization has attracted criticism.
    Rather than recite a laundry list, I’ll simply retell the event that convinced me that RG4N’s approach was too fanatical:
    Roughly a year ago, officers of your organization and a lawyer employed by your organization, came to a neighborhood meeting in my neighborhood. The officer attempted to have neighborhood money budgeted for neighborhood schools (as a Chrismas donation) redirected to RG4N. This attempt failed.
    The lawyer admitted that RG4N had no case, but that RG4N’s approach was to use a lawsuit, and the threat thereof, to pressure WalMart, rather than negotiating in good faith. The RG4N officer and lawyer then requested that those in attendance not speak about what had been discussed during the meeting. I’ll note that the lawyer at this meeting was not the lawyer representing you at trial; I don’t know if she’s still part of your team or if she bailed when you actually filed suit.
    I, for one, did indeed discuss this all on the ANA list, and gave additional reasons for concluding that RG4N and their strategy was not part of a productive plan for the neighborhood and Northcross redevelopment.
    Unfortunately I have not yet been shown to be wrong (to the contrary, events have unfolded in a manner that a clear-eyed evaluation would predict), and I strongly suspect that forthcoming court rulings will further cement the result.
    Ignorance, close-mindedness, and a propensity for spin. That is a large part of why RG4N is so unpopular.

  • Doug and Brad are the only lawyers we ever hired. Maybe you mean Liz – she was part of the initial group that got RG4N going. But she got pregnant and then moved out of the neighborhood. She also was never on the board. I think by January she was no longer active with us.
    In any case, I wasn’t there so don’t know firsthand what was said. Besides, it would be pointless for me to try and debate you on it because nothing I could say would budge your well-established opinion of the group.
    I will, though, go out on a limb and disagree that RG4N is “so unpopular”. There are those who don’t like us, yes. But there are LOTS that do like us. RG4N has literally thousands of members, contributors and general supporters.
    As to your other comment – I am far from ignorant (in general), I work as hard as anyone at being open-minded, and spin is the word people use to describe someone else’s interpretation of reality.

  • DSK

    To be clear, the officers were Mary Matus and Brigid Shea.
    I don’t remember the lawyer’s name, but if she was very explicitly acting as RG4N’s council, whether she was “hired” or not. There’s that spin! Same goes for the non-denial of “I wasn’t there” and “debate would be pointless.” Whether you were there was irrelevant: surely you asked your lawyer what she thought of your suit’s prospects? If you didn’t, that does not reconcile very well with your claims of non-ignorance and open-mindedness.

  • hope

    Mary has never been an officer in RG4N or on the board. No, Liz wasnt acting as our lawyer, just an involved neighbor.
    If I tried to argue with you about what was said at that meeting, I feel relatively certain you would counter with “I was there, I know what they said, and you weren’t”. Am I wrong about that?
    Look, lawsuits cost a bunch of money and fundraising is not the most fun way to spend your time and energy. The idea that we didn’t think our lawsuit had a good basis is, to me, ludicrous. I wouldn’t have wasted this much time and effort if I thought there wasn’t something pretty solid to hang my hat on.
    With all due respect – I don’t see any point to continuing this exchange, do you?

  • DSK

    You say “the idea that we didn’t think our lawsuit had a good basis is, to me, ludicrous”, but note that is not what I said. I am most certain you convinced yourselves, through close-mindedness and willful ignorance, that you were Doing the Right Thing. But what I said that you had explicit advice from your lawyers that you would not win your lawsuit (and you *were* receiving legal aid from these “neighbor” lawyers). But you and your organization chose, to the detriment of the city and its citizens, to put on your blinders and convince yourself that a suit would act as some sort of arm-twisting on the developer. THAT was your ignorant “good basis.” But you *were* warned that you did not have more than the flimsiest legal leg to stand on. Do you deny that any RG4N hired lawyers and/or lawyer-members told you, at any point, that your suit would likely fail?
    The ultimate point is that you essentially asked here “why do people criticize poor poor RG4N?” Now that M1EK and I have supplied with reasons (let alone all the others that have been communicated by citizens to RG4N). Rather than acknowledge those reasons (which you haven’t outright denied, but just tried to spin), you have chosen to close your mind and put your blinders back on.
    Choose not to “continue this exchange” if you wish, but stop acting surprised that many people of Austin find your group to be ignorant of law and close minded to reason. Nor should you feign shock that your organization’s tactics garner criticism.

  • giallar

    Mike, just curious if you have a take on Home Depot moving in to the Mueller development:
    http://www.statesman.com/business/content/business/stories/realestate/11/28/1128homedepot.html
    See if you can find the home depot in this picture:
    http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/mueller/vision.htm
    Is there no hope for our cities if we can’t do better than what has happened to the Mueller development after all that thought? What went wrong and can we fix it?

  • I’ve commented on the Home Depot from the other direction – the fact that the municipal court is moving into their old location is a Bad Idea:
    http://mdahmus.monkeysystems.com/blog/archives/000451.html
    As for Mueller, I’m becoming a skeptic. They’re so intent on ignoring all the problems with HoA’s and waving their hands whenever somebody points out yet another chink in the armor that I think they’re hopeless.
    They always planned big box retail along I-35, which I always thought was a huge mistake, but that means that this isn’t really a change.

  • giallar

    Man that is depressing. As I look back at more recent news, I find you are correct about the planned big box retail along I-35. Since the First Workers day labor center will now be across the street from Home Depot I will be curious to see how this plays out. Will First Workers actually get employer traffic now or will all the workers hang out at Home Depot? I am hoping for the latter just to piss off Home Depot. I also agree with you about the new municipal court although I live here and it will be more convenient for me – hopefully I won’t need to go there, though.