‘Donor intent’ might not help UT hang on to Muny
When it comes to philanthropic contributions, University of Texas System officials often emphasize the importance of respecting “donor intent” — in other words, using the money or gift as the donor instructed.
It remains to be seen whether that principle will cut much ice with state lawmakers when it comes to 141 acres of system-owned land in West Austin that the city leases for Lions Municipal Golf Course. After all, the UT System itself hasn’t always honored the intent of the man who donated the land and adjacent acreage in 1910.
State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wich- ita Falls, introduced legislation last month that would transfer Muny, as the course is known, to
the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department without compensation to the university. UT System and UT-Austin officials are privately citing donor intent as a prime reason to oppose the measure, Senate Bill 822.
George W. Brackenridge, the longest-serving regent in UT’s history, conveyed the deed to 503 acres along the Colorado River — including
the portion later leased for the golf course — “in trust for the benefit of the University” and “with the request
merely on my part that it be never disposed of but be held permanently for such educational purposes.” “I think the Legislature
has a perfect right to transfer one asset from one state agency to another,” Estes told the American-Statesman. “I don’t know that any compensation is needed or justified. I think people that bequeath things to institutions of higher education can rest easy. I don’t think this would be a trend at all.”
Estes said he has met with Paul Foster, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents,
and Gregory L. Fenves, pres- ident of the Austin campus. The senator said he told them he would have no problem with the university’s plans for a major mixed-use development on other portions of the Brackenridge Tract.
But Estes, who said he is “not much of a golfer” and
played Muny about a year ago, wants to keep the course undeveloped to preserve green space, golfing opportunities and a civil rights icon. The federal government added the course to the National Register of Historic Places last year because it was one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated, if not the first to achieve that distinction.
“They’ve got resources other institutions could only dream about,” Estes said of the university officials, referring to a multibillion-dollar endowment. “In this one space, let’s not be greedy.”
Brackenridge wanted the university to move from its original Forty Acres to the land he donated. University leaders tried to arrange that but were blocked decades ago by lawmakers and the business community.
Selling off portions
Despite Brackenridge’s expressed intent that the land “be held permanently,” the UT board has sold off portions over the years. In the 1990s, for example, the board sold 90 acres on the west side of the river — 78 acres for resi- dential development and 12 acres to the city of Austin as a conservation area.
In fact, the Texas Legisla- ture — at the regents’ behest — passed a measure in 1967 that authorizes the UT board “to sell any part or all” of the Brackenridge Tract. The property now encompasses 350 acres, including Muny.
The UT board cited another principle, “fiduciary duty,” in 2011 as a reason for its unanimous vote, with one abstention, to let the city’s lease for Muny expire in May 2019 rather than exercise renewal options. A fiduciary duty is a legal or ethical responsibility.
In this case, the thinking went, the fiduciary duty came down to money.
The city was paying $414,720 a year in rent. The UT board has long contemplated leasing the Muny tract for residential and commercial development. That sort of mixed-use development could fetch the UT System at least $5.5 million a year in lease payments, according to a 2011 estimate by the system’s executive director of real estate.
Officials have not offered an updated lease estimate. The city’s current lease rate for Muny is $497,664. Lease payments benefit the Austin flagship.
A major mixed-use development on the Muny land no longer seems feasible as a result of the National Register listing. Bulldozing an important site in the civil rights movement hardly seems like a step that the university and its governing board would relish after prevailing last year in a U.S. Supreme Court case chal
lenging the use of affirmative action in admissions.
Indeed, Fenves offered in January to extend the city’s Muny lease beyond 2019 provided the city is willing to pony up lease payments closer to market value. Mayor Steve Adler has said he wel
comes the opportunity to work with the university to find a way to preserve Muny. He has also thanked Estes “for trying to save this iconic part of Austin.”
SB 822 has been assigned to the Senate Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee, which Estes chairs.
“We’ll have a good and full hearing,” he said. “I think it’s got a good chance of passing. I’m confident we’ll have someone in the House who will be pleased to carry the bill.”
Lions Municipal Golf Course is on the National Register of Historic Places.
State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, wants Muny to be preserved as is for green space.