Case Study: Hill People Page in 1997

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[. . .] And unlike the Park West site, the Ivanhoe site was home to an endangered bird.

We had to buy Ivanhoe," Plumner said, who had spent seven years trying to find a way for the city to do just this. "Ivanhoe was the most important macro site for the Golden Cheek Warbler in the entire Bull Creek Watershed. It was also more important for protection of water quality in Bull Creek. If we didn't buy Ivanhoe, thousands of homes were going to be built there and that would mean goodbye Golden Cheek Warbler. Also, residential development leads to more traffic than offices, which is what Cypress was going to build on Park West."

Junie was good at her job, so good in fact that she had been offered higher-paying real estate jobs in the private sector many times, but she liked working for the good guys. She put her heart into her work and she felt good that she could help make it possible for an entire species to continue its existence on planet earth. "How many people get to make that kind of contribution?" she always asked herself.

A teachers' retirement fund in Canada owned Ivanhoe. They had bought it as an investment before the 1980s land bust in the region, and when the bottom fell out of the economy, unlike most other speculators, they had diligently continued to make their payments on Ivanhoe. As a result that didn't lose their land back to the bank as did many other investors. Over the years, the retirement fund had sunk hundreds of thousands of additional dollars into Ivanhoe, waiting for the economy to rebound. They expected a solid financial return on their investment, and the fund managers didn't care one iota about endangered species or clean water in Austin, Texas. They cared about teachers in Canada and their ability to retire comfortably. Just to negotiate the appraisal on Ivanhoe had taken Junie six months, but she had finally negotiated a price. Now, with the sale of Park West to Cypress Realty, and the federal grant for $1 million, she had found a way to come up with the money to buy Ivanhoe.

The city of Austin had bought Park West originally intending to dedicate it as permanent preserve habitat for the Golden Cheek Warbler, the Black Capped Vireo and four cave invertebrates -- all of which were federally listed endangered species that live around the Balcones Fault area. In order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the city was required to create a habitat plan, based on good science, that would set aside enough habitat for the seven endangered species to survive. When Park West and the other tracts were purchased, over 100 local politicians, environmentalists and government officials held a press conference to celebrate the purchase. Jake Pickle, Austin's congressional representative at the time, was on hand to comment:

As a people, we have dedicated a certain portion of our environment and heritage for all time and for our children. We must remember that this is just the beginning."

Elements of Conflict

The conflict that developed over this proposed sale in some ways mirrored the long-standing conflicts in Austin between development and conservation, but it also involved a number of other dynamics, including the politics of neighborhoods - in which no one wants their own neighborhood to be affected by congestion, pollution, etc.

The Ivanhoe tract was an essential element of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP), a habitat acquisition plan by the city of Austin to save endangered species that had three basic components. First, it laid out the absolutely critical pieces of land (i.e. Ivanhoe) that needed to be purchased fee simple by the local government partnership for protection. Second, it identified areas where there endangered species may live, but that could be developed if the landowners were willing to donate a portion of their land to the preserve as mitigation for the impacts of the development. Third, if a landowner outside the critical areas had endangered species on their property and they wanted to develop it, and they did not want to set aside acres for preservation, they could donate cash to a mitigation fund to be used to buy the critical pieces of land to be bought.

The BCCP was basically a policy engine designed to protect approximately 30,000 acres of endangered species habitat as quickly as possible.

Until the 30,000 acres were set aside for permanent protection, the federal government was threatening to restrict all development on private property anywhere any of the seven species were known to possibly live. As the economy began to recover in the early '90s, this threat from the federal government to block development created tremendous tension between top city officials, who had to make land-use decisions every week at city council meetings; local developers who were ready to start making money again, landowners who were ready to take up arms to protect their property rights; and the Fish and Wildlife Service officials who were under constant pressure from their higher-ups in Washington to make the Endangered Species Act at least look like decent legislation.

To diffuse all this tension around endangered species, the city was working double-time with county officials and the Fish and Wildlife Service to buy the 30,000 acres they needed to complete the BCCP. The parties involved were working so fast in fact, that the city bought the Park West land in 1993 before doing the scientific study to determine where the birds and the bugs really lived. After the biologists studied the actual nesting habits of the warblers, Park West was found to be low-grade habitat compared to many other pieces of land in the Balcones Fault area. The Ivanhoe Tract was far more important to the BCCP, and it was also a more important tract to preserve clean water in nearby Bull Creek. Park West was 92 acres of low-grade habitat with less importance to Bull Creek. Sell 92 acres. Buy 942 acres. More land saved. Better habitat for the birds and the bugs preserved. Cleaner water. No additional tax dollars needed.

The only remaining issue to finish the Park West deal was for the city council to approve a zoning change on the 92 acres. The city attorneys had advised Junie not to get too involved in the zoning case. By law, the city council had to make the judgment on zoning, and because the city was both the applicant and the granting authority, an unbiased process had to be assured. If it wasn't unbiased, it could be construed as the city engaging in contract zoning, which would be a conflict of interest and could be against the law.

It was at this point in the process that the carefully constructed deal began to unravel.

And the group most responsible for helping to unknit the plan was the association of homeowners living along Highway 2222, such as Howard Chalmers. Chalmers remembered watching the mayoral campaign closely. As a marketing consultant who had done public relations work to help large-scale developers get their projects through city bureaucracies, Chalmers was not a self-described environmentalist. However, as a resident with a beautiful view from his back porch, Howard Chalmers liked Kirk Watson's neighborhood and environmental friendly message, as he describes below:

listened to Watson's campaign with interest. He believed a lot of what needed to be fixed in the city was neighborhood based and I agreed. I had never known of him before he ran for mayor. If there is one word that I remember thinking it was 'reasonable.' He seemed reasonable, but at the same time, I wondered if it was for real. I had to overcome my natural bias against trial lawyers.

For a long time there was no development along 2222. Between the endangered species issue and the economic dive of the 1980's, new development in the area had been essentially at a stand still for a long time. We hadn't seen a building go up for almost ten years, and we took it for granted that it would stay that way. None of us were active in local politics. Most people out here couldn't even have told you who their mayor was.

Meanwhile, during the real estate bust, dozens of speculators had been quietly gaining zoning approvals for huge development projects along the 2222 corridor.

They caught us sleeping. Then, when the economy began to pick up and the bird issue started to get resolved, suddenly we were besieged by major construction projects, huge traffic delays and disappearing views. You better believe that people started having an opinion. Most people moved out here to be away from the city and suddenly the city was coming to us.

To make matters worse for Chalmers and his neighbors, the zoning approvals along 2222 that had been granted during the downturn were based on the planned construction of a six-lane highway that, according to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Hill People Page in 1997.  (2003, June 26).  Retrieved June 20, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/hill-people-page-1997/8280883

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