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More Smart Growth changes in pipeline for developer incentives

Thursday, February 3, 2000 by

Will market follow the signals to build in the Desired Development Zone?

The City Council will soon be dealing with another big bundle of Smart Growth incentives to nudge development away from the Drinking Water Protection Zone (DWPZ) and into the Desired Development Zone (DDZ). Last night the Water and Wastewater Commission voted 8-0 to forward a recommendation for the City Council to set a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would incorporate one batch of incentives into Chapter 25-9 of the Land Development Code. The council is scheduled to take up the recommendation today and set the public hearing for 6 p.m. on Feb. 17 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

"The goal is to provide incentives for development in the DDZ and not to provide incentives for development in the DWPZ," Randy Goss, director of the Water and Wastewater Department, tells In Fact Daily. Goss notes that the council approved a change to capital recovery fees about six months ago that made them higher in the DWPZ and lower in the DDZ.

The Water and Wastewater changes proposed for the Land Development Code are as follows:

• No mandatory sewer–Eliminates the requirement to connect to an organized wastewater system if the tract is within 100 feet of a wastewater line. Goss says in reality this provision has been rarely enforced, except for reasons of health and public safety. Not forcing hookup will aid the city's new policy of encouraging alternative wastewater systems, says Craig Bell, integrated water resources manager for the Water and Wastewater Department.

• Decentralized plants allowed–Provides for approval of small wastewater treatment plants of not more than 5 million gallons per day. Effluent must meet Type 1 reclaimed water standards. Storage facilities are disposal areas are required. Within the development area served by the plant, reclaimed water distribution mains and serve lines are required to serve each residential lot. The changes would define a decentralized wastewater system as one not connected to the city's Govalle, South Austin Regional or Walnut Creek Wastewater Treatment Plants. This would include on-site disposal systems, cluster systems or small wastewater treatment plants.

• Service extension information–Authorizes the director to stipulate requirements for information to be submitted with service extension requests (SERs).

• Fixes approval process–Makes permanent the provision for administrative approval of service within the full-purpose city limits and DDZ without cost reimbursement or participation, and requires City Council approval in all other cases.

• Eliminates open-ended approvals–Provides for expiration of SER approvals in 120 days unless the city has accepted or approved a corresponding development approval application, after which the approval expires when the development application expires.

• SER changes required–Requires that if the development changes substantially after service is approved, an amended SER may be required.

• Stops tap sales–Eliminates the transfer of service commitments.

• No city payments in DWPZ–Eliminates cost reimbursement and cost participation for wastewater facilities in the DWPZ. "This doesn't mean you can't get service," Goss says, "it just means the city won't put it in."

• Faster payments in DDZ–Shortens the reimbursement period for facilities in the DDZ from three equal annual payments beginning March 1 of the second year after acceptance to a single payment on March 1 the second year after acceptance. Commissioner Lanetta Cooper was concerned about the possible fiscal impact of accelerating payments in the DDZ. But Goss tells In Fact Daily it's impossible to predict the impact because no one knows what development will occur in say the next five years.

• Slower water payments–Increases the reimbursement period for water facilities in the DWPZ zone from three annual payments to four.

The cumulative effect of this system of incentives and disincentives may tend to reduce the pressure for development in the DWPZ, which is generally west of MoPac Expressway in the more esthetically desirable Hill Country. Or it may not. Mike Wilson, an engineer who is on the Water and Wastewater Commission says he shows clients the incentives being offered by the city to develop in the DDZ "and they still go where the market is–west and northwest." Wilson said property he owns in the southeast area even with incentives gets no takers because of the perception of problems in the area, such as crime in area neighborhoods.

The council will also consider setting public hearings today for Feb. 17 at 6 p.m. for the following other matters related to Smart Growth:

• Incorporating the Smart Growth Master Planning Guidelines as an amendment to the Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan as an update to the goals section of the plan.

• Amending Section 25-8-42 of the City Code relating to administrative variances for cut and fill in the DDZ.

• Amending Section 25-8-65 of the City Code relating to the inclusion of roadways in impervious cover calculations.

• Amending Chapter 25-8 of the City Code relating to construction on slopes in urban watersheds.

• Amending Title 25 of the City Code relating to impervious cover calculations and assumptions.

• Amend Chapter 25-6 of the City Code to provide consultation with neighborhood planning committees regarding traffic impact analyses and waiving traffic analyses for Smart Growth corridors and nodes.

LCRA's promise of Environmental Impact Study proving hard to keep

Public input sought on protecting environment when building Dripping Springs pipeline

Last December 22, less than a month before Mark Rose departed as general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), he gave environmentalists an early Christmas present by promising that the agency would not build a pipeline to send treated surface water to Dripping Springs without first performing an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) (See In Fact Daily Dec. 22 and Dec. 23). The LCRA board confirmed that commitment Jan. 19, authorizing up to $500,000 for the study and an integral public participation process for stakeholders (In Fact Daily Jan. 20). Now the agency is grappling with how to live up to that promise.

A stumbling block has been hit. Because the EIS is voluntary, no federal agency seems to want to sponsor it. Given that reality, the LCRA held its first stakeholder meeting yesterday to lay out what it sees as three options for satisfying environmental concerns before the pipeline is built, and to get stakeholder input on which of these options is preferable.

"We're like a square peg in a round hole, in that nobody has ordered the LCRA to do an EIS," said Robert Cullick, executive manager of communications and corporate strategy. "We need public input on the path to select. There are three options today. There may be more in the future." Cullick said if the path chosen involves hiring an outside consultant, stakeholders would be consulted for more input.

The three options identified at this point are:

• Option A–LCRA does an independent EIS with input from stakeholders to be sure it is adequate. Cullick defined independent to mean that it would be done without a federal sponsor, although federal agencies would be consulted, with actual work being done by a consultant.

• Option B–LCRA does the EIS and applies for a Section 10-A-1-B permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).

• Option C–LCRA pays for the U.S. Corps of Engineers (USCOE) to do the EIS, either with in-house resources or contracted out to a consultant.

In addition to the employees of the LCRA and hired mediator Sheri Kuhl, the stakeholder meeting was attended by Dave Frederick, Austin field supervisor for the USFWS; Matt Lechner; aquatic biologist with USFWS; Jon Beall, president of the Save Barton Creek Association; Jim Camp, communications chair for the Hays County Water Planning Partnership; and DeDe Stevenson of Sunset Canyon, near Dripping Springs. She was on the regional planning committee headed by Hays County Judge Jim Powers, which met only once.

Lynn Sherman, chief legal counsel for the LCRA's WaterCo, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and USCOE have nationwide permits for the types of projects that tend to recur, such as building water pipelines. Under that permit, "We need only look at direct impacts," he said. "The 290 pipeline does not have a significant impact. They don't feel there's a major action that would require them to be a sponsor," Sherman said of the EPA and COE. "For the project we're doing we don't need an EIS." Working with the USFWS might only require an Environmental Assessment (EA) and not an EIS, he said.

Frederick said either an EA or an EIS might satisfy requirements for a Section 10-A-1-B Permit, and either one would be required to go through a full public process, including publication in the Federal Register and a period for public comment. Frederick said that a 10-A-1-B permit process would be quicker than a full-blown EIS and might be accomplished in 12 months if done with an EA. He said such a process would focus on the impacts of the project and require mitigation to the extent practical of all those impacts. "The 10-A-1-B is a partnership between the government and the applicant to work out the impacts," Frederick said. "I'm always going to err on the side of the species."

Frederick went on to say that he is most concerned about the impacts of the water line within the contributing and recharge zones of the aquifer, including the secondary and cumulative impacts. He noted that an EIS alone is merely a guide and not a "decision document," but for a 10-A-1-B Permit the EIS would be a decision document. "It's part of the permit (which says) thou shalt do this."

There may also be a legal benefit of applying for the 10-A-1-B Permit, Frederick said. "Under a permit action, USFWS says, 'You've complied with federal law.' If it goes to court, we will defend not just the permit but LCRA's actions." He said not one 10-A-1-B permit had been overturned in court, "and there's 300 to 400 of them."

Beall said an independent study would tend to cut through assumptions and emotional arguments and improve debate concerning the water project's impact. "I personally feel more comfortable with the public process and a guarantee of USFWS involvement," he said. "I do quite a bit of work with the USCOE and their mission is to build huge projects," Beall added. "They probably are not as oriented to environmental concerns."

Stevenson said that Hays County residents are experiencing problems with their wells and will be in a crisis if there is an extended drought. She questioned the wisdom of conducting an EIS that might take 18-24 months. Cullick reiterated the LCRA's intent not to build a water line until the EIS was completed.

Frederick said, "In a drought of record, public health and safety comes first. We've got to keep water lines filled for people to drink, and keep fire hoses filled," he said. "The endangered species is your early warning system."

Camp noted that an EIS could assure the 45,000 people who depend on the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer that the impacts of the water line would not adversely affect their drinking water.

Frederick summed up his position, saying, "I'm extraordinarily pleased with the LCRA right now; they want to go the extra five yards. It's extraordinarily expensive and time consuming and they're holding public meetings for input. It will be up to us to be sure the public input is looked at."

Two more stakeholder meetings are scheduled to continue gathering input on the options available to the LCRA, as follows:

• Feb. 4–In the LCRA board room at the Hancock Building, 3700 Lake Austin Blvd., from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

• Feb. 10–In Room S-433 on the 4th floor of the Shapiro Building, from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

Please RSVP to Delinda Treviño at 473-4093 if you plan to attend.

Anyone with questions about the stakeholder process should contact Bob Williams, manager of regional development, at 473-3247, e-mail bwilliam@lcra.org.

Information about the proposed water line project to serve Dripping Springs is also available on the LCRA web site at www.lcra.org. Look in the column headed Water, and click on "Regional Issues, Hays County."

Longhorn pipeline assessment…At yesterday's meeting at the Lower Colorado River Authority concerning the agency's project for a water line to Dripping Springs, Dave Frederick, Austin field supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, gave his opinion of the Environmental Assessment (EA) done for the Longhorn Partners Pipeline. Noting that the EA was "court driven," Frederick said, "To give somebody six months to put together a document with that many impacts–I've always been blunt–was horrific. My hat's off to them for trying."

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