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Engineer tells Aquifer Board Higginbotham

Thursday, June 29, 2000 by

Well may serve development, water companies

Hydrogeologist says well can produce 150 million gallons a year

Engineer George Murfee confirmed for the board of directors of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) Wednesday that the controversial well on T.J. Higginbotham’ s land was drilled on a speculative basis, for developer John Lloyd and water supply corporations under the direction of Thom Farrell. Farrell is mayor of Rollingwood, but works with a number of water supply corporations around the state, according to BSEACD Board President Craig Smith. Murfee said he paid for the drilling, and will be reimbursed by his clients. He has been quoted as saying that the well cost $100,000 to drill. Residents of the aquifer district have been trying to find out what Higginbotham would use the 50 million gallons for since the request came to public attention in April. (See In Fact Daily, June 13, June 14, June 2, May 30, April 26, April 13, 2000) Murfee said he represents Lloyd, Farrell, Greenhawe Ranch development and Huntington Estates. Higginbotham’s permit application indicated that the well would be a commercial one—not a public drinking water supply well. Higginbotham has repeatedly refused to state the purpose of the well. However, board members decided Wednesday they could take no action to revoke, suspend or amend Higginbotham’s permit because neither Higginbotham nor his attorney, Jimmy Alan Hall, had been officially informed that the item was on Wednesday’s agenda. In Fact Daily informed Hall of the agenda item on Sunday. Michael Thornhill, hydrogeologist and president of Thornhill & Associates, told In Fact Daily that tests of the Higginbotham well revealed good water quality. “We’ve done testing to see what the capacity would be and it looks to be a very favorable site. It could produce—we tested it at 300 gallons a minute—about 150 million gallons a year. But we have not finished our evaluation on water levels.” He said more evaluation needs to be done before his company can recommend a pumping rate. Murfee said he didn’t remember whether he had discussed with Higginbotham whose property would be served. He said the well could serve Greenhawe Ranch development, which is within the district, and Huntington Estates. Murfee said he did not realize that the district had rules regarding sending water outside of its boundaries until recently. That means it is unlikely the Higginbotham well can serve Rutherford Rim, which is outside the district. Murfee said at the time he told the City of Dripping Springs that Rutherford Rim would get water from Higginbotham’s well, he was not aware that the area was outside the district’s boundaries. He said his clients would not seek to transport water out of the district. Murfee said, “We prefer to be on surface water, but surface water’s not there yet.” Board Member Jim Camp pointed out that Higginbotham’s attorney, Hall, told the board that his client intended to use the water for an apartment complex or a commercial building on Higginbotham’s property. Thornhill described the process for making the well into a “public supply well.” The procedure is to design a well and then submit those designs to the TNRCC (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission) for approval. “The district would have to approve the construction of the well also,” he said. Then, before pumping is started, an application for that amount of pumpage would have to be approved by the BSEACD, he said. Thornhill said bringing the well up to TNRCC standards could easily increase the total cost of the well to $250,000 or more. “If you construct an expensive well, and then test it, and then provide your permit to the district, and say we want such and such amount of water—and the district says ‘No’—you have a well that you can’t use.” “It’s very common to go out and drill a well anywhere there’s an aquifer. In this instance, it’s just a temporary well. But it’s common to use those to see how much water you can get and the quality,” Thornhill said. Sam Braswell, who lives across FM 967 from Higginbotham, said he is very concerned about what will happen if the pumpage is approved. Braswell said he monitored his well during Higginbotham’s pump test. “In a four-hour test, we went down two feet,” he said. .

ROMA reveals development recommendations

To Town Lake Overlay Advisory Board

City Council briefing scheduled for today

ROMA Design Group of San Francisco presented its development standards for the Austin Town Lake corridor to the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay Advisory Board on Wednesday evening. The board, which had a generally favorable response to ROMA’s recommendations, represents a cross-section of interests, including property owners, developers, design professionals, area neighborhood associations, and parks advocates. ROMA was asked to formulate development standards to create an environment suitable to mixed-use development, while preserving the character of neighborhoods around the lake. In addition, consultants were asked to suggest regulations to prevent potentially undesirable development, and to enhance the city’s ability to take a more proactive role in facilitating development. Jim Adams of ROMA stated, “I think that we’ve reached general agreement on the structure of how the development regulations would be modified in the South Shore Central District. Adams recommended a two-tiered zoning strategy– base zoning, and redevelopment zoning that provides incentives for intensification– subject to inclusion of elements that achieve broader public objectives, including public access, internal streets, pedestrian orientation, and so forth.” The Design Group’s key findings include the following: (1) the existing Land Development Code regulations need to be updated to reflect current land uses as well as the waterfront-compatible uses proposed by the Town Lake Corridor Study; (2) specifically, regulations related to building density and height should be re-evaluated; (3) an increase in flexibility of the land use and setback provisions of the Waterfront Overlay Zone is recommended; (4) incentives should be offered to developers to contribute to public shoreline access as well as in the creation of shared parking facilities: and (5) streetscape standards should be established for major traffic arterials, which would include pedestrian walkways, bike lanes, street trees and landscaping. ROMA is scheduled to present its findings to the City Council at 3:45 p.m. today. Subject to Council approval, codification and implementation procedures can begin. Adams said, “The next step is for these planning recommendations to be translated into zoning language and zoning ordinances, and that is something we might be able to assist the city with.” Finally, Adams commented, “We love working with Austin because the citizenry is very committed to maintaining a high quality of life here and to maintaining a high standard, and that is exactly the kind of community we enjoy working with.” .

City Auditor Helen Niesner to

Retire after 23 years with city

She will continue community service for hometown

Austin’s award-winning City Auditor, Helen Niesner, is retiring from the city on Friday, after 23 years of service. She began her career in 1977, after graduation from the University of Texas, as one of only five auditors in the Office of the City Auditor. At that time, auditors reported to the City Manager. In 1990, then City Manager Camille Barnett appointed Niesner to be the director of the department. The following year, voters approved a charter change, placing the office directly under the City Council. The Council appointed her to continue as City Auditor at that time. Last year, Niesner won the Knighton Award for Best Audit of 1999, sponsored by the National Association of Local Government Auditors. She served as president of the National Association of Local Government Auditors for 1999-2000. Niesner characterizes her work at the city as “a challenging and rewarding adventure.” Sometimes it was a less than pleasant adventure, certainly, although Niesner likes to emphasize the positive. “Our mission statement is the best way to state (the duties of the office),” Niesner said, “to make Austin city government better and more accountable.” When city employees, especially managers, hear that an auditor is coming to look at their organization, the initial reaction is often negative. Niesner says she and her assistants take that into account. She said she tries to make sure everyone on her staff has a caring attitude. “That’s one of the things we’ve tried to do, because auditors are not really welcomed with open arms. You have to show when you go out (to do an audit) that you really care. You’re not just there in terms of ‘I gotcha!’” Neisner reports, “One of our managers came back from a meeting (that) started out with the person (being audited) coming into the room saying, ‘I hate these things.’ The auditor asked, ‘Are you referring to us?’” Niesner, of course, would have known better than to ask. Independence is an important factor, Niesner said.“The independence issue is one that gets a lot of discussion. I was just working on a response to a preliminary view state. We follow standards and the standards say your organization should be organizationally independent. But there are so many different structures in government, that the independence term is somewhat relative—because you can achieve independence in a number of ways. The way a lot of people think of it is—you don’t really want the auditor reporting to the person who’s responsible for the entity that you’re auditing, because they may have a personal interest. So, it did give us that next level of independence, so that we could be objective and independent in auditing all the functions that the city management is responsible for.” One of the greatest challenges the office faced during her career, Niesner said, was at the Austin Police Department, where producing change was, at least in the beginning, “like bending granite.” But that challenge also became one her proudest achievements, she says, because the audit work “helped to improve management systems which support the officers in the delivery of their services to the community.” Particularly rewarding, she said, was a presentation to the City Council from the police department on improvements to recruiting and training. Niesner said her audit group’s work was able to streamline departmental process, getting 10 more officers back on the beat and also getting the department up to full strength. Niesner also points with pride to work the Auditor’s Office did during construction of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, which was “credited with helping that project achieve a successful opening—unlike Denver,” she said. Nieser started school at Southwest Texas State University, where she was a math major. After her sophomore year, she married husband, Jack, and moved to Austin with him. When she got to UT, she changed her major to accounting. “I’ve always like puzzle-solving,’ she says, “and having a bottom line to come back to.” However, she says “the bottom line” in a financial sense may not be the most important information her office tries to report. Niesner, who is old enough to retire– but too young to look like she should—is the mother of two sons, age 11 and 15. She said she plans to do some gardening, spend some time with her children and continue to work with her family’s foundation. She said her uncles, who owned a toy airplane company, left money to be used for the benefit of Schulenburg. Niesner and three other family members administer the trust, she said, which has sponsored 170 college scholarships for Schulenburg students. In addition, the foundation is assisting Texas A&M University’s rural health care program in that community.

General manager in hot water?…Stovy Bowlin, general manager of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, had to tell his bosses, and the public last night, that he didn't get a notification letter out to T.J. Higginbotham, giving the landowner the required 72-hour notice that his well permit might be amended. So, the board could take no action.This could be the last straw for some board members, especially the newly-elected Jim Camp, who has made no secret of his unhappiness with Bowlin's policies… Several people will be honored for service to the city today, including Jessica Christie, who has served for eight years on City's Environmental Board. City Auditor Helen Niesner and Tim P. Ramirez of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office will also be honored as they retire. Proclamations and music begin at 5:30 p.m., with music by Stars over Texas. All this will be at the LCRA building, as now is usual for the City Council.

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