By Tom Linehan
Melissa Zone at her District 7 City Council kickoff last Sunday positioned herself as a tough urban planner who would champion neighborhoods, while addressing challenges like affordability, transportation, safety and the environment.
“If we’ve ever needed an experienced urban planner on City Council, it is now!” Zone told a gathering of 30 people at Big Daddy’s Burger Bar at 183 and Burnet Rd.
Zone, a native of Cleveland, moved to Austin with her husband Phil from Florida four years ago. She has a B.A. in Urban Studies and a Masters in Public Administration. She currently works as a senior planner for Travis County’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department. A resident of Crestview, she has been active in that neighborhood’s fight to get a neighborhood park.
Allandale resident and supporter Donna Beth McCormick introduced Zone.
Rapid growth and the city’s rewrite of its Land Development code is why “we need a council member who understands land development regulations and will protect the interest of the community,” Zone said.
She touted her transportation experience with the county and as a member of the CAMPO Technical Advisory Committee.
Zone, who attended a community meeting last week regarding a proposed planning process for Burnet Rd, said she has experience conducting corridor studies. She said she would meet individually with neighborhoods, soliciting their input on the pros and cons of development along those corridors. She would then gather all of the information and bring the neighborhoods together as a group.
Asked how one might save small local businesses along Burnet Rd, Zone noted there are initiatives that can be pursued including working with local banks, perhaps offering city-backed loans to help small businesses. If elected she would work to make sure the small businesses stay.
Zone noted that many of the concerns in the southern part of District 7 are shared by those in the northern part of the district as well. That especially applies to traffic along Burnet Rd, Lamar, I-35, Mopac, and Anderson.
With regard to housing affordability, Zone acknowledged there is no simple answer. Creating a compact city, which is part of the Imagine Austin vision, is shifting household spending from high transportation costs for those that live further away, to more expensive housing in the central city. “It doesn’t make it any more affordable,” she said, “because you are simply shifting your money.”
There are other areas to look at to help address housing affordability, Zone said. She would explore ways to ease homeowners’ property tax burden. One way to do that, she suggested, is for the City to require sales price disclosure on commercial properties. Knowing the actual transaction price of a commercial property would mean commercial property owners would be required to pay taxes on the true value of the property, which in many cases is significantly higher than what they pay now. It would shift more of the property tax burden to commercial property owners.
She also proposed that the city enact dedicated transportation impact fees on developers to offset the costs of transportation improvements that result from new developments. This would reduce the reliance on bonds to fund those projects and ultimately lower property taxes.
With regard to light rail, Zone said that when you look at the numbers, the proposed route along the east side of Downtown and UT to Highland Mall does not serve the population density areas of the city. She acknowledges there is a need for rail but does not agree with the proposed route. “If you are going to start somewhere, you should start where the demand is, because that is what deflates the costs.” she said.