Saturday, December 15, 2007

Interview: Joel Burns

Back on Election Day in November, I ran into Joel Burns outside the polling place at Lily B. Clayton Elementary. Although I have had issues with the tone of his campaign, he said that it was really a misunderstanding -- he's really not a bad guy. After listening to his explanation of the URL issue and checking out his side of the story, I came to believe that I had been unfair to Joel on this issue. Joel asked for a second chance and I believe he deserved one.

And I have been pleased with the way he has run his campaign in the runoff. I believe he has tried to run on the issues and I applaud him for that. Joel was gracious enough to respond to an e-mail interview of this campaign's important issues. So take a few minutes to read Joel's responses before going out to vote on Tuesday.

The Caravan of Dreams: The District 9 campaign has been as bitterly contested a race as Fort Worth has seen in a while. Are there any aspects of the race that you would have done differently if you had to do it again? Also, if you win, how do you propose moving forward and mending fences with any wounded parties?

Joel Burns: All and all I am very happy with the campaign. I’ve tried to keep my campaign focused on the issues on which I think the voters are most focused – safe neighborhoods, quality economic development, and improved transportation. Obviously I regret anything that has taken the focus off of those issues and the early distraction surrounding the domain name is one I regret.

Though I moved on it immediately when I found out, I regret not being more aggressive about being in communication with Bernie to make sure he knew it was a regrettable mistake and not out of any malice, intentional, etc. When taken to task by the blogger community, sometimes inaccurately, I regret that in an effort to not appear the whiner, I let those inaccuracies go unanswered. I think I’ve mended fences with Bernie and am very proud of and honored by his endorsement. It’s my hope that by being forthright in this interview and other conversations with Steve and others that I send a message to the blogger community that I’m the pro-new urbanism, pro-mass transit, pro-Fort Worth good guy that they can like and support.

As for others in the race and their supporters, I’ve had numerous great conversations with Jim Beckman, and he and his wife Marlene, as with Bernie and Victoria, have truly become our friends in the last couple of months. I have reached out to Mr. [Chris] Turner and his supporters and will do the same with Mr. [Juan] Rangel and his supporters. My reputation while Chairman of the Landmarks Commission and on the Zoning Commission has been one of someone who will bring people of opposing viewpoints to the same table and work out solutions that benefit all.

That is the same kind of consensus-building that you will see from me after the election. From the very beginning of this race I have said again and again that I will represent all of this district – north, south, east and west – regardless of race, income … and even who they support in this election. I still feel that way and that sentiment will be observable in my actions as City Councilman.

TCoD: If you win the District 9 seat, one of the first issues you will face is urban gas drilling as the city reconstitutes the gas ordinance task force. How do you hope to approach this issue and what to you think you can accomplish for the voters in District 9?

JB: My concerns are about safety and increased public participation related to gas drilling operations. Until now, most urban gas operation activities have focused on leasing and mineral-holders’ desires to get royalties. Many District 9 neighborhoods are now as much as 80-85 percent leased and our focus as a city is shifting from the leasing phase of this boom to the infrastructure phase.

With that change, our focus should shift to a Planning and Land Use perspective. We have many large infrastructure changes ahead – wells, pipelines, waste water disposal, etc. And with those pending infrastructure changes, we have to ask ourselves how those changes interrelate to our Comprehensive Plan (in which the City invests a great deal of time and financial resources annually).

I would like to see increased public participation, better urban planning (land use planning) and better city planning (how the departments work together regarding gas operations). State law dictates much of where and how these infrastructure changes will happen, but the citizens and the City should be involved in guiding these decisions.

TCoD: Gas transmission pipelines are becoming a larger issue in the city because they run through some city parks, and gas companies have begun applying for permission to build pipelines close to neighborhoods. Because state and federal laws make it difficult for cities to regulate pipelines, how do you propose the city approach this issue?

JB: Gas operators can acquire pipeline right-of-way either through easements through public property or through condemnation of private land. Easements through public, city-owned property are actually the hook by which we can influence pipeline routing and other measures (including improved safety provisions).

The City of Flower Mound recently passed a new gas drilling ordinance. I understand that ordinance is in compliance with state law and allows Flower Mound to direct the routing of gas transmission pipelines, mandate the materials from which they are constructed, and gives the City the right to inspect those pipelines. I would like Fort Worth to explore Flower Mound’s example.

TCoD: As gas drilling moves into the neighborhoods, the issue is becoming more contentious. Do you believe that 600 feet is an adequate setback requirement? Do you believe in high-impact variances to allow drilling operations within that 600 foot limit? Are there other things the city should do to protect the safety of its residents and the environment?

JB: Again, safety and increased public participation are two of my main concerns. I have said during this campaign that I do not support variances to the 600 foot set-back requirements. When the current ordinance was written, most gas drilling operations were in the outlying periphery of the city. Now that operations have moved into the urban core, it is time to (in addition to the provisions outlined in the previous question) look at other provisions of the permitting process. I would like to explore special hearings – not unlike the public hearings we now have for Zoning cases – to be held in determining the appropriate locations for well sites.

TCoD: One gas drilling issue that I am concerned about is the fact that the TCU gas drilling well will be going in 1,000 to 1,200 feet from my daughter's elementary school -- Alice Carlson. I don't like something that dangerous going in so close to a place where my daughter spends a third of her day, but it appears that the parents at the school will have no say. If you were the City Council representative for District 9, how would you handle this?

JB: Again, I would like to see full and vigorous public participation and for the voices of the District's citizens to be heard in a public process that creates transparency and better results.

Until we re-work the current ordinance, situations like the one you describe above will arise. I believe that the most direct approach would be to facilitate a public and open forum for concerned parents like you to meet with the drilling company before operations begin. As we saw in the Trinity Trees effort this year, sustained citizen involvement combined with ongoing dialogue can drive protections and changes.

Drilling is going to present new challenges to all neighborhoods. Dealing with these challenges is going to require people to become aware early on and work with their neighbors to provide a sustained citizen voice to the issues.

TCoD: What is your position on the Trinity River Vision project? Do you believe that the cost of the project is getting out of hand? Do you favor any spending caps?

JB: While I have concerns about TRV costs, I want the city and other jurisdictions to not be hamstrung in their future decisions about this important, visionary effort that will forever change Fort Worth … literally and physically. I support the project and do not support spending caps.

TCoD: Regarding crime and fighting gang violence, is the situation in Fort Worth really that dire? This hasn't been an issue that has been in my consciousness. What am I not seeing?

JB:Not all criminal activities impact all neighborhoods the same way. For example, abatement of “nuisance properties” isn’t the issue in Berkeley that it is in Fairmount or South Hemphill Heights.

Gang activity is up, as is “tagging” in neighborhoods throughout the District. I support anti-gang education efforts like the “Comin’ Up” program in many City community centers and Boys and Girls Clubs. I also support increased resources for anti-gang efforts like the Police Gang Unit.

TCoD: Right now a moratorium exists on new injection wells in this city of Fort Worth. Do you believe that injection wells can be safely operated in the city? If not, do you have a position on disposal of wastewater from the fracking process?

JB: I am not convinced that waste water injection wells are failsafe in not contaminating our limited ground water supplies and for that reason I support the continuation of the existing injection well moratorium for now. I also have concerns, though, about the environmental and economic impact of continual 18-wheeler traffic on our existing roadway infrastructure.

I would like the input of independent, outside expertise on the safety and efficacy of potential waste water pipelines as well as to advise the City on the use of recycled frack water for refracking as technology improves.

TCoD: Recently, Chesapeake Energy purchased 26.74 acres in various parcels between Montgomery Plaza and the Trinity River in Fort Worth. Because this land is so close to downtown, the river and the 7th Street corridor, are you concerned that this could disrupt the development going on in this area?

JB: I am very concerned because this parcel is in an area where a great deal of private investment – as well as City investment – has occurred. And I want to see the success of that investment.

I would immediately meet with Chesapeake to work out uses that are compatible with surrounding development.

TCoD: What is your position on tax incentives and special tax districts being used to entice businesses to relocate and/or expand in Fort Worth? In a few cases, these incentives have gone to businesses (Cabela's for example) which can more than afford to operate without them, thus costing the City much needed tax revenue. Will you continue this practice?

JB: I have consistently supported public-private partnerships to bring new economic development activities that help fund future city services and lift the tax burden from existing tax-payers. From the Downtown and Near Southside Tax Increment Finance Districts to the “380 Agreements” that have allowed for sweeping renewal along the now-bustling West 7th corridor to Neighborhood Empowerment Zones like those along Magnolia, Hemphill, Berry and others, you can see the positive impact these economic development tools have on this District.

I’m not sure if I would have supported the Cabela’s deal. A better example of the kind of public-private partnerships that I would support is the La Gran Plaza redevelopment. The City of Fort Worth negotiated a deal where for every $12 invested by the developer, the City contributes back to La Gran Plaza $1 in new sales and property tax revenue. That’s a great ratio. The city required investments in excess of $70 million (I think that is the correct number – I need to verify that) from the developer. The City partnered with the developer to use increases in property and sales taxes coming from that property to help supplement of the cost of the redevelopment efforts.

The offshoot of that isn’t just that the former Seminary South/Fort Worth Town Center is now generating significant tax revenues for the City, where before it was not. It also has spurred the incubation of more than 100 locally-owned small businesses in the Mercado (in the former Dillard’s space). That is an amazing economic benefit that can help make or break the economy of the surrounding community. If you haven’t been in La Gran Plaza on a Sunday afternoon, I encourage you to go check it out – you’ll be amazed by activity.

This is the kind of successful public-private partnerships I would love to see throughout the District. It’s a “no-brainer” to support these kinds of economic development efforts.

TCoD: What is your position on the development of commuter and light rail in Fort Worth? If you support this, what are some things that you believe that you can do to facilitate that development?

JB: I whole-heartedly support improved mobility through expanded commuter rail and new light rail in Fort Worth – it has been a keystone issue throughout my campaign (see my most recent mail piece attached). For issues of reduced traffic congestion, improved mobility, improved air quality, sustainable development and quality of life, we have no choice but to aggressively pursue every funding option to create a forward-thinking plan for light rail. Efforts are already under way by private citizens to identify starter line. The City should pick up from its citizens’ lead. And we have decades of planning and funding resources to draw from.

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