The Kyle Report

The Kyle Report

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

City takes first steps toward “skyscrapers”

Webster’s II New College Dictionary defines skyscraper as "an exceptionally tall building." So I guess what someone would call a "skyscraper" totally depends on your definition of the word "exceptionally." Except for Plum Creek and the Hospital District, Kyle, city ordinances restrict a building’s height in Kyle to just about four stories. Under those guidelines, a building 3½ times that tall, or 15 stories, could, by Kyle’s standards, be called "exceptionally tall" and thus a "skyscraper."

Assistant city manager James Earp appeared before the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission this evening seeking their input on whether the city’s staff should pursue ways to relax that four-story height limitation and possibly getting rid of height restrictions completely for certain commercially zoned areas of the city.

Earp quite deftly maneuvered the commissioners to think along these lines by saying it was unfair to have one set of rules for Plum Creek (whose seven-story limitation allowed the Kyle ACC campus to be located there), another (nine stories) for the hospital district, and the 4-story restriction for the rest of the city. Especially when, he teased, a major development could be in the city’s future, but only if these height restrictions are eased.

Then after seeing them nod in agreement to his idea of making the seven-story limitation citywide, he threw out the idea of eliminating height limitations completely.

The reason Kyle instituted the four-story height restriction really isn’t germane any longer, Earp said.

"Historically, the height restrictions were set because of the ability to address fire issues," Earp told the commissioners. "Forty-five feet was essentially the maximum height fires could be safely fought at with or without a ladder truck. Since that time, the city has adopted fire codes that force buildings over that height to be sprinkled and have fire suppression systems anyway." (Fire chief Kyle Taylor subsequently confirmed that when it comes to fires in buildings, the height of the building is largely irrelevant.)

"The other reason for having a height restriction in a commercial area is if you had a natural vista or view you wanted to protect and we don’t have that either," Earp said.

He said areas zoned neighborhood commercial or community commercial would not be exempt from the height restrictions. He also said multi-family structures would still be under the height limitation requirements, so I’m guessing that means we shouldn’t be expecting high-rise apartment buildings or condominium complexes, even if they are located on or relatively near the interstate.

But, he said, "Would some place along the interstate be an appropriate place for a 15-story office building? That’s just the type of thing we haven’t thought about for Kyle until recently.

"If there is a desire to see the height restrictions changed in some form or fashion, we’d like to gauge that rather quickly because that, in turn, determines the path we take with the economic development prospect," Earp told the commissioners. "Maybe we’re to the point in our town’s growth where it makes sense for us to take that (height) requirement away and start thinking bigger.

At first, Commissioner Mike Wilson expressed concern about tall buildings in retail areas, but when commissioner Dan Ryan correctly pointed out that just about any 30-, 40-story office building is probably going to have some kind of retail on the ground floor, even if it’s just a coffee shop, Wilson’s concern seemed to recede. Ryan also said he doubted anyone would want to build a 25-story warehouse.

"I have been to a meeting at the intersection of the tollway and 35 where they were talking about building tall, tall buildings right there," Ryan said. "And I think we should open up and be part of that. And I don’t know whether we need to limit that."

Earp said the city staff did not have "a preconceived notion on how we wanted to approach this. We wanted to receive feedback from you guys to get the collective thoughts because that gets a better product in the end.

"Look we can craft an overlay and say if you’re in this specific area you can go to certain heights. We can make it so all the retail can only go to 75 (feet [seven stories]) unless you get a special designation. We can create a true mixed-use zoning that would allow retail and office space to exist in the same footprint.

"There are all different ways we can slice the cake," he said. "It’s just a matter of whether or not there’s a desire to cut the cake.

"And since we have sensed there is a very real economic development prospect waiting in the wings, this is something that will be very real and very quick because these guys need to decide whether they’re coming to Kyle or not. And it all depends on whether they get the height restriction changed.

"It sounds to me what I’m hearing is that generally speaking there is a desire and support for this idea and how we implement it is still to be decided. But it sounds like I’m hearing you guys are saying we support the idea — at least support for unrestricted height in designated areas and not across the entire city."

Commissioner Michele Christie said she would rather any proposed ordinance avoid overlay districts because "overlays make my head hurt. We have so many, one on top of another."

Wilson also insisted that any ordinance removing heigh restrictions also take into account parking so that the building’s are required to construct an accompanying multi-story parking facility with an "architectural facade."

"I don‘t want a 10-story building with surface parking everywhere," Wilson said. "I want a design element that improves the quality of the lot. It doesn’t have to be a plain old parking garage. That parking garage should be an architectural feature."

Earp concluded the discussion by telling the commissioners "Hopefully we can get something prepared and back before you pretty quickly so we can take the first stab at this proposal."

I’m guessing the commissioners could have something on their agenda within a month.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Educator wants to establish charter school in Kyle (and other things I learned about road projects, zoning issues and the city attorney’s wretched use of metaphors at tonight’s city council meeting)

Since its founders held an organizational meeting last month, I’m assuming most of those in the educational community were already aware of this, but I didn’t know until tonight, when Jewel Cournoyer spoke before the Kyle City Council, that she and her co-partner, Natasha MacNevin, want to open a tuition-free charter school serving grades K-3 somewhere in Kyle in August 2016.

It’s going to be called A.I.M. Charter School and the letters stand for Advocating for the Individual Mind. You can learn a little bit more about the school as well as about Ms Cournoyer and Ms MacNevin here.

She told me she is looking for a location that will house the at least 200 students she hopes to have enrolled by her opening date and the possibilities she told me include partnering with a church or finding a usable retail space.

She also said she needs to expand her two-person faculty to at least 12 "highly motivated" educators who will be dedicated to a system that features a year-around 10-hour school day with no public transportation to and from the school.

I also learned when construction will actually begin on the five road projects created by the $36 million bond proposal approved in May 2013 and how much the projects could cost homeowners. The Goforth Road project is scheduled to begin first, sometime in June, followed by Bunton in August, Marketplace in October (even though where that road will eventually go is still anyone’s guess), Lehman in March of next year and Burleson in October of 2016. Yes, that’s right. The North Burleson project will begin (not complete) construction, a full 3½ years after voters approved work on it. Why is it taking so long? I don’t have all the answers. Remember I’m new in town. But I couldn’t help but notice that the "preliminary engineering" on the five projects, something that should have been outside the scope of the bonds and should have been completed even before the bonds were proposed, is now scheduled to be finished on the fifth project late next month. So there’s that.

As for where Marketplace will intersect Burleson, tonight the council agreed on a contract that calls for the road alignment to deviate from what you see here on the city’s web site, which, as any bond attorney will tell you, is patently illegal, because, from what I gather the citizens voted for these alignments. Instead, tonight’s agreement would have Marketplace make a sharp left hand veer much more to the north. Negotiations with the property owner are underway (let me amend that, they will be underway as soon as the property owner returns from a cruise) to make the alignment featured on the map a reality, but we’ll just have to wait a couple of weeks to see how that goes.

So I guess now is as good a time as any to mention City Attorney Ken Johnson’s use of metaphors (to give him the benefit of the doubt I must tell you he said he was a little "off" tonight due to the fact he was trying to quit smoking). At one point, referring to the contract the council approved he publicly demeaned a significant (albeit non-voting) segment of the population by saying "It has undergone more changes than a teenage girl in a closet." Then later he said the contract had been "created more times than Frankenstein." I hate to break it to you, Mr. Johnson, but it was Dr. Frankenstein who did the creating. So there’s that.

And the costs of the road bonds to taxpayers? City Finance Director Perwez Moheet said the maximum should be 16 cents per $100 valuation. That means if you own a home valued at $100,000, your property tax will increase approximately $160 a year to pay the interest on these bonds he said will probably be issued all at one time.

And finally, dear Ms. Debra Britt, who came before the Planning and Zoning Commission last week to beg them not to isolate 280 homes in the Southlake Ranch subdivision, lost her zoning battle on first reading with the council tonight. But the truth of the matter is, she and two compatriots she brought along with her, wussed out. Instead of centering their argument on the public safety issue, and to a lesser extent the convenience issue, of extending Onyx Lake Drive to Goforth, they took on the type of zoning, a battle they could not possibly win with a pro-developer council. Now she must make sure the site plan for the development does whatever it can to protect the subdivision and a representative of the development said it would do just that. But then someone at the city one time told Ms. Britt they would look into her request for the Onyx Lake Drive extension and we’ve seen how far that one has gone. So there’s that.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

P&Z shows its pro-developer bias

Virtually any planning and zoning debate — regardless of the size or the location of the city or town in which the debate takes place — boils down to an argument between those who align themselves with developers against those who identify themselves as pro-existing neighborhood. And the city government — depending on those elected to public office — will be steadfastly on one side or the other. It really doesn’t matter what the particular issue is, the elected officials are either always going to come down on the side of the developers or always on the side of neighborhood issues. Any many times I’ve seen one of those sides, who become tired of always coming out on the losing end, suddenly coalescing into a mighty force in which they throw out those currently running things — be they pro-developers or pro-neighborhood — and replace them with those who will vote the opposite point of view.

I have lived in Kyle long enough now (granted, that’s all of three months) to realize the powers-that-be here are pro-developer, especially those seven individuals serving on the Planning & Zoning Commission. Tonight’s commission meeting was a perfect example of that. Two different developers, who probably are in cahoots (and I’ll tell you why in a second) sought the commission’s approval to rezone two adjacent plots of land on Goforth Road across from Lehman High School from Agriculture to one that would allow them to build one of those mini-strip malls. The reason I’m convinced they are in cahoots is that they appear to want to develop the two separate properties into one mall. A couple of folks from an adjacent subdivision, Southlake Ranch, took the time to come to the commission with a legitimate gripe. If you look at this map of the area, the subdivision in question is bounded roughly by Onyx Lake Drive on the west, Sapphire Lake Drive and Spillway Drive on the east and Goforth on the south. There is no northern egress from the division; Goforth provides the only access residents have to the rest of the world. The problem is there are only two links to Goforth, one the Sapphire Lake Drive eastern border and the other two blocks west at Lake Washington Drive. That leaves four additional blocks to the west where residents must use Lake Washington to get in or out of the subdivision. Onyx Lake comes oh so close to joining up with Goforth, stopping what looks like about a quarter of a mile, perhaps less. Not only would extending Oynx Lake to Goforth make sense for public safety as well as residential convenience reasons, it would also become an extension of and provide direct access to Lehman Road.

One of the residents of that subdivision, Debra Britt, told the commission "It was our understanding" and "we were led to believe" it was possible that Oynx Lake Road would be extended to Goforth. In other words, she and a couple of her neighbors probably talked to someone in City Hall who told her "Sure, sure, be a good girl now and go home and we’ll look into it" and we all know what that means and where that leads. Britt told the commission that last year a "rollover" occurred on Lake Washington Drive that blocked that access to Goforth so all the residents had to go to the street on the eastern edge of the subdivision before they could finally begin traveling west to get to wherever they needed to go, (This is just I guess, but I would be willing to bet big bucks that at least 95 percent of all drivers traveling on Lake Washington Drive turn right on Goforth.) Ms. Britt said there are 359 homes in the Southlake Ranch subdivision and when this particular incident occurred, the residents of 79 of those homes could get out via Lake Washington but those living in other 280 homes "could not leave the subdivision."

But because this is a pro-developer, anti-existing neighborhoods planning and zoning commission, it promptly voted 6-1 to approve the zoning change. But wait, you may be shouting, at least there’s one pro-existing neighborhood voice on the commission. How else do you account for that one nay vote? Well, not exactly. Commissioner Mike Wilson cast the lone vote against the zoning change but not because he favored extending Oynx Lake Road through the 1-acre 1435 Goforth property; he simply wanted a slightly more restrictive commercial zoning in place. He told me after the meeting that, for all practical purposes, those living in Southlake Ranch would much prefer having their access blocked by something like a beauty salon than something far more onerous like, for instance, a gas station. That’s not exactly my definition of an existing-neighborhood activist, but everyone else is free to draw their own conclusions.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

New city manager wants to transform Kyle into a destination

Less than a month ago, Scott Sellers resigned his position as city manager of Kilgore, Tex., the home of the world famous high-kicking, white-Stetsoned Kilgore Rangerettes, to become the city manager here in Kyle, the home of the world famous … er, the world famous … Come to think of it, what exactly is Kyle famous for?

And that’s exactly the question Scott Sellers wants to find the answer to.

"I think it will be safe to say the citizens of Kyle don’t want to become just another community," Sellers told me during an interview in his City Hall office earlier this week. "There’s a heritage here, a history. There is a pride for Kyle that should not be diluted.

"We don’t want to be just a bedroom community. We want to be a destination, a leader in Central Texas and in the state.. We want to put together programs, services, and policies that are looked upon as being innovative and forward thinking and set us apart from other communities."

Sellers referred to something he called "The Primary Lure Concept," which, as he describes it, answers the question "What is the primary lure that your community has that no other town, no other city, has within, say, a hundred miles? Why would somebody make the trip to Kyle for something they can’t get in their back yard?

"So as we develop Kyle, we need to have that focus in mind, that singular attraction."

If Sellers has any sort of inkling what that attraction might be, or even what form it might take, he didn’t share that secret with me, except that he liked the idea of a place where people would feel safe "to gather." He did appear, however, to be shying away from staging anything that might remotely be described as "a festival."

"Every city has a festival," he said. "But does anybody know, for example, Kilgore is the home of the Oilman’s Chili Cook-off? It brings over 10,000 oilmen to Kilgore to cook chili for a couple of days."

But, he emphasized, that’s not what Kilgore is known for. "Even with a festival that large that almost doubles the size of the population, it didn’t put Kilgore on the map, by any means. The Rangerettes did."

Sellers said Kyle could capitalize on its location and its proximity to San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos and Austin as well as its geographical, topographical and physical attributes. But, that, too, comes with a caution, he said.

"I noticed driving into town there’s a sign that says ‘Gateway to the Hill Country.’ I don’t want to be the gateway to something else. That means you’re going to drive through here. I want to be the destination, I want Kyle to be the destination. And getting to that point is exciting. It’s fun."

And then he returned to that recurring thought of "a gathering place."

"If you look at the cities that are on the map for a reason, start to think about what they all have in common. San Antonio is known for the River Walk and the Alamo. Maybe Six Flags and the Spurs. I mean what else is San Antonio known for? The Alamo being the historical part of the city, the river walk being the place to gather and hang out. It’s a feature where people feel comfortable.

"It’s typically congregating areas that attract people to communities. New York is known as the Big Apple but most people, when they think of New York, they think of Times Square or Central Park. So here we have two places that New York is really known for that are gathering places, where people are excited to be and interact.

"It’s the human side that puts you on the map, You’re talking about the gathering place, the interaction that draws people together. And I don’t know if that’s it for Kyle — if we need to build this huge town square and do something fun in it. I’m not saying that. But there are a lot of commonalities among cities that have done it right. And we’re going to do it right. I just don’t know what that looks like yet."

One of Sellers first priorities, he told me, is to conduct a citizen survey that will, one, help him prepare his first budget for Kyle, but also, hopefully, to collect ideas on the citizens’ dreams of the city’s future.

"Let’s start talking about ‘Who are we. What do we want to be? What’s that unique attraction, that primary lure?’ It’s going to take time. Something like this doesn’t happen overnight. And I think the role of government is to send the ship sailing, if you will. But if it’s not a community-led effort or community-adopted effort, it will die. You sometimes have really good ideas that sail away because they weren’t adopted by the community. You have other ideas that are really great that are killed by the city council.. So I think it needs to be a collective community undertaking."

Sellers comes across, at least to me, as one tenacious individual who is determined to achieve what he sets out to achieve, regardless of the obstacles placed in his path. That wasn’t his intention when he told me the following story, but it illustrates the point.

"When I first started as an intern in Lehi, Utah (March 2005) I was in the Finance Director’s office and my job there was to create a budget document for the city of Lehi. There’s an organization called the GFOA — Government Finance Officers Association — and every year they give awards for budget documents. It’s called the Distinguished Budget Presentation award. The city of Lehi received that award eight or nine years running and they had it down to just a science. Every October they would get a new intern and that intern would sit down and craft out the next year’s budget document and then submit it and get the award.

"As I became familiar with their budget document, I tried to add my own personal touches. I had to go around and meet with all the department heads to talk about updating capital improvement plans, getting strategic plan elements, updating the budget message, etc. It was a really good experience that kind of set the standard for getting my next job when I went to Centralia, Illinois (as assistant city manager in June 2006). I showed them this budget document and they said ‘Great We love this. We don’t have anything like this. Will you build this for us?’ I said ‘Sure. It’s going to take me a little while, but I’m going to build it.’ And, in addition to the (main GFOA) award I learned there were two special recognitions you could get on top of the base award. And actually there was a third — from ICMA (International City/County Management Association) for performance measurements. I said ‘Well, heck, if I’m going to build this from scratch I’m going to get all the awards.’

"The next year I built a document myself from scratch for the city of Centralia. I did the whole thing in Excel (a spreadsheet application by Microsoft). I became very, very, very proficient with Excel. I used to tell people I could make Excel sing and dance. But after submitting that I still didn’t get either special recognition award. So the next year I looked at every budget document I could get my hands on that did receive these special recognition awards — and there really weren’t all that many. Out of over 1,000 cities that submit for the award, less than 10 get the special recognition awards. I wanted both of them. And I tried to incorporate everything I could find and in the next iteration I got both special recognition awards and the ICMA award for performance measures. So I felt I had arrived as a human being in my career."

There are as many approaches to preparing a budget as there are individuals preparing those budgets. One of the most common is cost-based budgeting, in which the budget is designed around projecting how much it will cost to run the city effectively during the next fiscal year. But more and more municipalities are shifting toward a theory known as Budgeting for Outcomes in which the budget is designed to answer the question What is the most efficient way to spend our projected income in a way that will allow us to achieve the goals we have set for our self as a city?. In other words, you budget for results, not costs.

Sellers says he plans on combining a number of different approaches as he prepares Kyle’s FY 2015-16 budget, but he said, his approach might be different than ones taken by his predecessors.

"A good budget process is going to have citizen input, which is why I am going to do the survey," he said. "It’s going to take a holistic look at the community. And it’s not going to hide things. I want to make sure that the city council knows the full picture. You need to have the whole picture that you’re looking at so that you can prioritize. I don’t know if we’ve really done that here in the past."

But, he emphasized he does believe in budgeting for outcomes, a process that basically involves answering these five questions

  • What is the price citizens are willing to pay for their government?
  • What results matter most to citizens?
  • What are the government priorities government will deliver to its citizens?
  • How much should the city spend to achieve each result?
  • How can the city best deliver the results citizens expect?

Sellers told me he hopes his citizen survey as well as priority setting from the City Council will lead to the answers to those five questions.

" I plan on having a retreat with the city council earlier on, in April or May," he said. "But I want to have to have my survey results back from the citizenry having the whole picture as part of that retreat and then ask the council to prioritize for me. The council will take all the information I have given and they will set the priorities for me and then it’s my job to fit the highest priorities into the budget.

"It’s my job to present the budget that has as many high priority items in it as possible while still maintaining day-to-day operations. When the council can see dynamically that adding this piece of equipment is going to add one penny to the tax rate it changes the way they start marking decisions. So that’s how we’ll do the budget process this year."

Although he hasn’t reached any firm decisions as to the when’s and how’s just yet, Sellers is toying with the idea of having additional council sessions reserved for presentations or briefings, either from staff or such other outside entities as the Pedernales Electric Co-op, which presented a briefing to council late last year. Although such meetings would invite and encourage citizen input, no items would be included on the agenda for these sessions which would require council action.

"I used to have a council meeting every single week," he said. "On the off week it was a briefing session; on the other week it was an agenda meeting.

"I’m also used to doing what is called a pre-council meeting on a Friday morning before the next Tuesday council meeting. Yes, some sort of pre-meeting can also be used for presentations so we’re not prolonging the actual council meeting until 11 or 12 at night. That will be an idea I will present to the council.

"I have asked prior councils that question and some say ‘No, we trust you. We run expeditious meetings and don’t feel like we need a separate meeting.’ It is not uncommon, however, to have a meeting that runs very late into the night, and people don’t want to sit there that long. So finding ways to shorten the meetings are appropriate. And this is a good way to do that."

Although the role of city manager seems to fit Sellers perfectly, he is still somewhat unsure of what is expected of him in some areas. For example, exactly what his role will be in economic development.

"But when I learned the city had an Economic Development Department in-house I was very excited," he said. "Economic development is a passion of mine. I say it’s a passion but one thing you’ll learn about me is that every facet of local government is a passion of mine. I just really enjoy building communities. It’s fun."

He said one of the tools he would likely employ in his economic development efforts are the creation of Tax Increment Finance, or TIF, districts, in which the property tax increases that will come about because of that particular development are used to subsidize current improvements.

"I have used TIF districts many times in the past," he said. "What I will say to the citizenry is they do work.

"The neat thing about a TIF is that (in most cases) there is this ‘but for clause’. And I have carried that with me throughout my career. When think of a TIF I always think of the ‘but for clause,’ which is ‘but for the tax increment financing would we have the development that is there?’. And I have seen proven time and time again that devoid of the TIF nothing has happened. But for the TIF there has been major, major development.

"So I try to look at it with that ‘but for’ in mind. Under that parameter, TIFs are great to incentivize development. They are also used to remediate blight, but we don’t have that in Kyle because we’re so new. But for the TIFs, would we have the same development and I believe the answer is most cases is ‘no’."

Before we ended our session I had to ask the new city manager if he thought Kyle needed to be part of a regional transportation plan.

"That’s a loaded question, an extremely loaded question,’ he said with a smile. "Transit oriented development is a wonderful opportunity for citizens.

"With our proximity to other job markets where citizens of Kyle do work and considering the current state of I35, I believe additional transportation options are very appropriate to explore. Whether they come in the form of commuter rail vs. ride sharing vs. expansion of the interstate, I don’t know the best answer right now. But connectivity and transit oriented development are very, very important for this area."

My first impressions: Sellers is just the right fit for Kyle. On the other hand, the man could be incisive enough to size me up immediately and give me the answers he figured I wanted to hear. But I don’t think he did that. That assumes a certain degree of deviousness that, in my observation, he doesn’t possess.

Of course, time … and whatever our "destination" turns out to be (and I will share some thoughts on that at a date in the not-to-distant future) … will be the best judge of that. Watch this space.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

…but the next one could be a doozey

Nothing much to report from tonight’s Kyle City Council meeting. Council members, during the obligatory open mike session, heard from a couple of homeowners with what seemed, at first glance, legitimate concerns that their abodes may soon be swallowed by giant sink holes. They extended a gracious welcome to new City Manager Scott Sellers. They unanimously reappointed someone to the Civil Service Commission, passed on first reading a non-controversial zoning change for a small plot of land (10.111 acres) on the east side of town, approved a resolution to authorize the Police Department to submit a grant application next October for money to partially cover police overtime that may or may not occur in the next fiscal year, and passed a resolution supporting legislation that will help a Municipal Utility District northeast of the city limits.

That was it. Pretty simple. The whole thing took a grand total of 47 minutes. See what happens when the council manages to avoid an executive session.

But there was this: Mayor Todd Webster said he wants the council to receive at its next meeting "a comprehensive update" on the city’s major road projects including a complete report on the Marketplace right-of-way "progress," which, I guess, means how successful the city has been in talking land owners to turn over their property to the city so Marketplace can be extended, hopefully in a relatively straight line, to Burleson Road. That means the Jan. 20 council get-together has the earmarks of being far more lively than this one was.

Oh, and someone, I think it was councilman David Wilson, reminded the mayor they just might want to put this whole sink hole business on the agenda as well.

So there was that.