KUT and the Austin Monitor held a series of forums over the past few weeks with candidates running for Austin City Council. Not everyone can watch an hour-long forum, though, so we picked three big questions from the event and are providing text of the candidates' answers here.
There are seven candidates running for the seat in District 10, which represents West Austin: Robert Thomas, Alison Alter (the incumbent), Belinda Greene, Bennett Easton and Pooja Sethi. Candidate Jennifer Virden was not able to join, but answered these questions via email. The seventh candidate, Noel Tristan, did not respond to our invitation to participate.
We posed these questions to candidates in the order they appear on the ballot.
Thomas: I do not support Prop A. I do not believe that Prop A was well thought out. You know, I've looked at it extensively. I've researched it. I've read it. I've looked at all of the literature. I've been following it over time. And the reality is, once again, this is another version of the Red Line from Leander. The reality is that we were promised that the Red Line was going to be funded by federal dollars. That never happened. We were promised that it would be funded and maintained by its ridership. That has never happened. And in fact, I believe it was Kirk Watson that confirmed that the Red Line is now 233% over what it was projected budget.
There is nothing different about this Proposition A, this Project Connect. [It's] the same thing: The mayor is indicating that there is going to be federal funds that are going to be matching. That's just not true. You can't promise that. The bottom line is it does too little and is too much and is irresponsible.
Alter: So I voted to put Proposition A on the ballot for voters to choose whether they wanted to make an investment at this point in time in a comprehensive light rail and bus system. I was a late supporter for Proposition A. It took me about three years of working, many hundreds of hours on it, but I believe it provides the comprehensive system that the previous ballot initiatives lacked. It provides a financing mechanism that allows us to be transparent with a tax rate election, which will cost less than bonds. And I believe that this is a time to move forward, to address congestion, to address climate change, to be true to our equity goals and to provide jobs.
I think if we have a change in administration in January, there will be investments made in this type of infrastructure. And by having this initiative at this point, we are poised to be able to bring down those significant federal dollars to address a major challenge here. But it is up to the voters. And if the voters choose not to, then we will have to come up with another plan.
Greene: I do not support it. I think that it shows a terrible disconnect with our local government that they would even consider proposing a 24.5% tax increase during this time where so many of us are either out of work or not working as much due to COVID.
Project Connect does too little, is going to take way too much time. It's going to cost way too much money. You know, they say 45% of it will be federally funded. But that's not guaranteed yet. We don't know that it will be federally funded. Additionally, the 24% tax increase will never go away. That's going to stay with us forever. And that's something that adds up for all of us, whether you're a homeowner or a business person or a renter. You are going to experience that tax increase every single month, every single year.
I think in Texas, we are not as likely to ride somewhere from the bus and walk a mile in 100 degrees. We need better, safer, smarter roads.
Easton: I failed to let you guys know where I'm coming from. I said I'm an American, I'm a Texan, but I'm also a schoolteacher. I'm a writer. A freelance writer. I'm a philosopher. A little bit of a caveman, too, especially in the time of COVID-19. So I'm ready for the city to get back to work and to open up. I think the whole shutdown lockdown is absurd.
So I guess one silver lining to that the traffic is not as horrifying as it used to be. But soon, you know, the thin-skinned, way-over-careful people who are apparently running the show politically are going to open the city back up and the traffic will again be horrible. And I don't trust Prop A. No, I'm going to vote against it as a citizen and I wouldn't support it.
I don't trust a city bureaucracy that can't even keep e-scooters and bicycle bars down the street. If you want open transportation, then pay attention to the little stuff.
Sethi: I support Prop A. And I also support the opportunity this November to ask District 10 residents what they want to invest in — what we want to invest in as a district. And I understand for many of our District 10 residents to pay taxes for a system that doesn't fully run through the district is a tall order. But I also know that we need a transportation plan in Austin that gets congestion off of our roads and out of our neighborhoods and gets people to work, gets kids to school and gets our residents to health care.
As mentioned before, I'm also on the Austin Climate Plan Steering Committee, and we have aggressive goals to reduce our carbon emissions in Austin by 2040. And we're not going to get there if we don't have a plan that gets automobiles off our roads and out of our communities.
I also want to say that historically we have seen in Austin, when we do expand our roads, it doesn't reduce traffic. There's been just as much congestion. I've seen that personally. And I know many families across the district have also seen that. So I do support [Prop A]. And my family will be voting for it this November.
Virden (via email): I am vehemently opposed to the $7.1 billion "Project Connect" – an unconscionable 25% city tax increase, beginning now and being collected for 10 years – before it’ll carry its first passenger.
Proponents of “Project Connect” admit that 80% of that $7.1 billion (no federal funds are guaranteed) won’t service even 1% of our (pre-pandemic) projected mobility needs. Further, fixed rail is antiquated technology, which has already been proven in at least 10 major US cities to be a complete failure.
Putting it lightly, it is irresponsible for our City Council to preach about “affordability” but then propose a permanent tax increase like this, for an antiquated fixed-rail “Project Connect”. Also, renters - residential and commercial - need to understand that their rent will immediately go up by exactly that increase or more, because landlords do not “just absorb” increased expenses.
Simply put: every time Council votes to increase taxes for any reason, it decreases affordability for everyone, and it's bad for business. Therefore, I do not support Prop. A (or Prop. B)!
Thomas: It's easy. We've needed to have a revised land development code since the '80s. It was a disaster when it was created and it's only been made worse. But the process that the City Council followed, ramming down incredible density into the very heart of all of District 10's charming neighborhoods and communities is absolutely irresponsible. It does nothing to fix the enforcement and code issues. It does nothing to fix the affordability issues. And instead, it was absolutely directed and designed to hurt the existing communities at the expense of the existing communities.
The reality is we should have followed the Imagine Austin plan to the T. I supported the Imagine Austin plan. The land development code as it exists purports to follow the Imagine Austin plan. But they stopped taking the guidance and feedback from the local communities that needed to be included. So a land development code rewrite is necessary, but it's not going to be the panacea, particularly if it destroys our communities.
Alter: So I've opposed the proposals — CodeNext and the land development code proposals that have become before council again and again and again. I opposed it on the second reading because it was deeply flawed and Austin deserved better.
That being said, our land development code is old and we can revise it. We have a fabulous plan in Imagine Austin, which calls for compact and connected, but calls for the density along the corridors in the centers. I believe that we could have achieved the revisions to land development code two and a half, three years ago if we had stuck to Imagine Austin and not tried to go deep into the neighborhoods, not tried to unleash a large amount of density through upzoning single-family areas where the capacity would not have benefited and where there was a lack of planning.
We need to move forward with a planning process and a constructive approach that recognizes the property rights that people have. And we can achieve consensus if we try.
Greene: So I think the current LDC does need some work. Y'all heard me say before, but it is a beast. And even my realtor neighbors in our community have a hard time digesting each section of it. It does need some work. I think the most important part of it is private property rights. That's what we need to really focus on, preserving private property rights.
If I owned a property and I want to remodel or tear down and totally rebuild, I should not be required by the City of Austin to build a fourplex or twoplex. If that is not what I choose and it is my property. So that would be my main focus when it comes to that, just preserving our private property rights.
Easton: I've heard that it's 1,800 pages, so that right there tells you that it's written, I don't know, by idiots or by lawyers or bureaucrats. That's an absurdity. It should be 30 or 50 pages or 100 pages; 1,800 is ridiculous. If that's true.
So the second thing I want to say is I'm very wary of a city council or a bureaucracy or any kind of authority downtown who is going to be in charge of overseeing the building code rewrite or refinement. If they can't even figure out what belongs out in front of City Hall right now, it's littered by by ugly tents. So there's not private property — I agree with Belinda about private property being of extreme importance. But what about public property? What about my right and your right to being able to see the river without having to look at a bunch of ugliness? So that needs to be removed immediately.
Sethi: Yes, I support — we need an updated land development code. My vision for Austin is one that is more accessible and affordable for our teachers, our first responders and our city workers to be able to live here. I am a vast believer in transit-oriented development. I think that as we move forward on a transit plan for Austin, we need to build up density where appropriate around our transit.
And I believe that any land development code that we have moving forward needs to prioritize this. We need multifamily, mixed-use housing with access to transportation to support our low- and middle-income households.
Through my work as a commissioner, I've also led for the land development code to be simpler, translated into multiple languages and have more community engagement. I would also advocate for a land development code that maintains our green spaces and is greener and stops displacement of our families.
Virden (via email): I hope it's well known by now that I am opposed to the LDC rewrite that was called CodeNEXT. To be clear, CodeNEXT lost in District Court and is now being appealed by the city to the State Court of Appeals, and I hope the city loses that appeal. Going forward, I have red lines when it comes to any potential future LDC rewrite:
- I am opposed to increased density in District 10, other than considering allowing the addition of one accessory dwelling unit (ADU) per single family lot. The COA zoning of SF3 throughout most of D10 allows for an ADU, but in the majority of our D10 subdivisions, the deed restrictions (which supersede zoning) do not allow for ADU's. It is irresponsible for the City to propose new zoning that is contrary to existing deed restrictions, when it's the individual homeowners - and NOT the City - who are responsible for bearing the legal expense to enforce the deed restrictions (which are intended to maintain the character of the neighborhood). The City and the Council should not be operating in that cavalier of a manner at our expense.
- I am opposed to any decrease in the parking space minimum requirements. Presently in our area, the minimum number of parking spaces required on SF3 properties is two spaces, but CodeNEXT went so far in most cases to reduce that parking space minimum requirement to zero on-site. Anything that would exacerbate street parking or cause parking in the yards is a non-starter for me.
- I am opposed to comprehensive rezoning of the whole city all at once. Further, the City Council should absolutely never try to pass a comprehensive new LDC AND a new city-wide zoning map at the same time.
- Rezoning cases need to continue to be considered on a case-by-case basis, and any LDC rewrite must not take away proper notice to surrounding owners or take away property owner’s or nearby property owners’ legal right to protest. We should always aspire to preserve the unique characteristics of each neighborhood and to preserve the charm of our city. I’m FOR maintaining our property values and property rights, and I’m for maintaining the precious green space that we have left “inside the loop.”
Thomas: Well, when I served as the vice president of the Northwest Austin Civic Association six, seven years ago, eight years ago, we started working on this very issue. It was fundamental. We started pushing the city to get assistance for clearing out the brush and all of the areas that we saw, as you saw as wildfire raised from the canyons in River Place several years ago. It was very, very scary.
The reality is that I have worked extensively with the Austin Fire Department, talking to them about these kinds of issues. And I've watched the fire department themselves — nobody else who can take credit for it, they may try to, but they can't, having spoken with them — that they've led the initiative to try to help make sure that we start removing the wildfire risk and danger. And likewise to make sure that we take care of our environment from that perspective.
Alter: So I've made wildfire prevention one of my top priorities, and I was recognized today by the Austin Firefighters Association with their endorsement because I've been a strong advocate for us to address that. I've increased funding within the fire department, but also activity among Austin Energy, Austin Water and PARD to mitigate our fire risks. I helped to pass the wildland urban interface code, which will harden our buildings, and I secured a commitment for a new fire station in District 10 in one of the highest risk areas.
Wildfire is a top priority. We are we're working both to prevent wildfire and to be prepared in the event that we have one. On climate change, I've been a leading advocate on environmental issues. We need to pass our climate plan, which focuses on some things that I've led on, like electrification of transportation and greening of buildings and a number of other things. I declared a climate emergency and this allowed us to accelerate our ability to achieve some of our net zero and our zero waste goals.
Greene: So the wildfire situation actually has been a conversation on our street very recently because at the end of our street, there's this great greenbelt that stretches across — the kids called The Woods. And as our kids gotten older, they play there every day. And as we go in there as adults, when they show us what they've built, we're all talking at once ourselves about how it looks like a wildfire waiting to happen right next to our homes.
So we've actually communicated that among ourselves to try to clean it up ourselves, but also to Alison's credit, working with the fire department and actually building the resources to help this situation is very important, obviously, it's you don't really think about until it's literally in your backyard and can be a fire raging next door to you before you know it.
Easton: So, you know, the danger of wildfires is extreme, it is wildfires waiting to happen. Austin will have one, if not several. I've been waiting for a big one to happen for the last 10 or 15 years. I'm astounded and one hasn't come yet. And that's wonderful. That's lucky. So I think about this a lot. I was once involved in a fire. Some friends of mine accidentally started a fire. I didn't. But I was right there. And it was very scary and it's terrifying.
So I believe in remote sensors. I believe in spending — a new fire station. Fantastic. Let's build three. Let's hire more firemen and firewomen and have more trucks. But let's also have remote sensors with the new technology of drones and just a pole with a camera sitting on it and a thermometer and infrared. We can much more quickly detect a fire and get the fire department there sooner. And I believe in putting water tanks at 10 or 20 or 50 spots so that the fire hydrants won't run out of water.
Sethi: So I did have the opportunity to join the Austin Fire Department that invited me to join them earlier this year into our West Austin neighborhoods to discuss our risk of wildfire with firefighters from California. And some of the many things that we have as we have way too many homes in our district right next to flammable vegetation. If on council, some of the things that I would expand on are working with PARD, Austin Water, Austin Energy and our Austin Fire Department to create better and more cohesive land management planning and working towards opportunities for more prescribed burns in areas with dense vegetation.
I would also partner with non-profits and organizations to create better community engagement, to create fire-adapted communities. And once we get a land development code back, if I was on the dias, I would make sure that our land development code is working and does not contradict the recommendations of the wildland urban interface code. And last, we need to work better with our communities to establish safe zones ahead of time in case fires do occur.
Virden (via email): The short answer is to follow the Community Wildfire Protection Plan developed jointly by the City of Austin and Travis County after the 2011 wildfire disasters, and utilize the five strategies recommended in the CWPP:
- Increasing wildfire awareness through public education to engage the community in personal responsibility by creating a fire-adapted community, a fire-resilient landscape, and providing a safe, effective, and efficient firefighting environment;
- Development of local-level CWPPs to provide the framework for translating strategic principles into tactical solutions and community action;
- Detailing a Home Ignition Zone (HIZ) mitigation strategy that Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) homeowners can implement to protect life and property;
- Further detailing hazardous fuel reduction, as a companion to the HIZ discussion, because this mitigation strategy contributes significantly to minimizing wildfire impacts. This detailed section builds into Section 6.2.7 and introduces the Wildfire Mitigation Strategies Builder (WMS Builder) found in Section 5.6, a tool to determine appropriate structural hardening and fuel reduction treatments for specific site conditions. And,
- Coordinating codes and regulations across all jurisdictions within the planning area to accomplish a balance between each respective entity’s mission and needed wildfire mitigation.
Regarding the city’s role in addressing climate change going forward, anything the city does in this regard needs to make financial sense for us taxpayers.