‘Donor in­tent’ might not help UT hang on to Muny

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ralph K.M. Hau­r­witz rhau­r­witz@states­man.com

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.”

STEPHEN SPILLMAN / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2016

Lions Mu­nic­i­pal Golf Course is on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places.

RALPH BAR­RERA / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wi­chita Falls, wants Muny to be pre­served as is for green space.

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