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Recently elected chair of the City of Austin’s Environmental Board, Lee Leffingwell says, “I enjoy the work because we are involved in the oversight of at least one area of city government. We have an active role in the protection of the environment, which I think is the primary goal of everyone on the board.”

Monday, August 14, 2000 by

Leffingwell joined the Environmental Board in September of 1999 and was elected chair last month He says that as chair, he will try to keep the board focused on the tasks at hand.

Describing the role of the Environmental Board, Leffingwell says that it serves primarily in an advisory capacity to the City Council and the Planning Commission. The group also works closely with the city’s Watershed Protection Department. The Board recommends or declines to recommend approval for some council actions as well as certain requests for funding. “We try to act as a buffer between the citizenry and the city bureaucracy, and serve as an interface between the two,” he explained.

The board also recommends action on requests for variances to the Land Development Code. Specifically, it attends to areas relating to the environment such as impervious cover requirements, infringement in water quality transition zones, and cut and fill regulations (cutting away or modifying through addition of soil and rock the normal contours of terrain).

When asked about the city’s current challenges, Leffingwell says, “I don’t want to discount that water quality is a continual issue, but the emerging problems I see are pollution problems from traffic. We are developing environmental concerns involving transportation issues, especially with air quality."

He continues, “We have an expert on air quality on the Board, Dr. Ramón Alvarez, who works for Environmental Defense and I’m going to rely heavily on him. We’ve been holding hearings on the subject.”

The Environmental Board will meet today to hear about options for revising the city’s impervious cover assumptions. Leffingwell says, “If a developer comes in with a subdivision plat and he has a hundred lots with 6000 square feet each, no one is going to sit down and examine every blueprint on every house. The blueprints don’t even necessarily exist at that time. It is assumed arbitrarily that these houses are going to have a certain number of square feet of impervious cover based on the lot size.

“It is strongly suspected that these assumptions are too low. When a subdivision is planned, there is an expectation that the requirements are being met–for example, 20 percent net site area impervious cover according to the assumptions—when in actuality the impervious cover may be 25 percent or 30 percent. It appears at this point that houses are getting bigger and lots are getting smaller. Reconsideration of these assumptions may receive some resistance in some segments of the community.”

Pat Murphy, deputy environmental services manager, has been in charge of studying problems with impervious cover assumptions. A 1986 city ordinance assumed that a single-family lot of 10,000-15,000 square feet would hold a house of 3,000 square feet. A house built on the same size lot today is assumed to be 3,500 square feet, he said. Under current regulations, Murphy said, a house sitting on one to three acres of land is assumed to be 7,000 square feet. In 1986, the city would have assumed that lot would hold a house of 5,000 square feet.

However, those changed assumptions do not mean that the city has known how much impervious cover is actually being put down. That problem became an issue when the city was trying to reach an agreement with developer Gary Bradley. Although Murphy has met with the Real Estate Council of Austin, as well as homebuilders and environmental groups, the matter could be a contentious one for months to come.

Members of the Environmental Board can be expected to voice some strong opinions about how those assumptions ought to be changed, since the wrong assumptions about concrete may lead to wrong assumptions about runoff.

Leffingwell recently retired from full time employment as an airline pilot for Delta Airlines, a position he held for 32 years. He is currently restoring and remodeling an old home he purchased in Central Austin.

A native Austinite, he was born on October 13, 1939. He earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas, and became a Navy pilot after graduating from UT.

Leffingwell and his wife, Mary Lou McLain, have two children, son Frank Leffingwell and daughter Bonnie Callahan.

Residents want to preserve landmarks, greenspace

Proposed guidelines for development of the 2,300 acres surrounding Dell Diamond have distinct echoes of Austin's Smart Growth plan, though Round Rock city planners might not describe it with that term. Goals for this area, known as Palm Valley, have a familiar ring: the preservation of historic buildings; the melding of commercial and residential purposes; and a strong commitment to public amenities, along with plenty of pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly thoroughfares.

Last week, planners held the second of two public hearings regarding the Palm Valley plan. The 55-page document, written with community input, divides the land into eight distinct parcels of mixed-use development, referred to as "coherent neighborhoods," with both shops and jobs within walking distance of area homes.

The Palm Valley plan is unique in its integration of diverse existing landmarks, such as the Kenney Fort archeological site, historic Palm Valley Lutheran Church and Dell Diamond. Palm Valley is bisected by Old Settlers Park and straddles US Highway 79. Just to the east, the small farming town of Hutto is seeing explosive residential growth.

"I like to look at it like a mad planning professor who decided he could torment his graduate students by giving them a job with as many challenges as possible," says Joseph Vining, the city's director of planning and community development. "We have a U.S. Highway and a busy regional railroad here, a regional wastewater treatment plant and a historic church, a state archeological site and a 500-acre major city park–not to mention historic homes and creeks and other natural assets. I imagine him saying, 'How are you going to develop this and let all these items continue to be recognized as development takes place?'"

Surveys suggest residents have goals for Palm Valley that would warm the hearts of many Austin environmentalists: preserving the two creeks that run through the area; providing plenty of greenbelt space; and adding amenities without compromising the area's natural beauty. People want to be able to jog through the greenbelt to the local coffee shop.

The current plan was facilitated by Polygon South, Kent Butler & Associates, MC/A Architects and Concept Development and Planning. Such strategic coordination to shape development is not unusual in Round Rock, says Communications Director Will Hampton. Not long ago, the city leveraged the location of a regional water treatment plant offering retreated water as a catalyst to a new golf course community. At the time, the city was concerned the area lacked higher-end housing, Hampton says. Now, Round Rock has a number of higher-end residential developments.

The northeast corner of Round Rock is the last to develop, with serious plans already brewing for new residential developments north of Dell Diamond, despite the fact city projections said roads would not be necessary in that area for another seven years. Many say that the Dell Diamond–and the Ryan family's commitment to controlled development in the area–were a catalyst for the Palm Valley plan.

The city owns the staudium approximately 40 acres surrounding it. The Round Rock Express operates the convention center at the stadium. The city offered no tax incentives, but put up $8.25 million in hotel-motel tax bonds. The team put up the remaining $16.75 million,contrary to a previous report from In Fact Daily. We regret the error

Vining says the roots for planning in Palm Valley go back to 1980 and the Fort Kenney archeological expedition, when Vining hiked Brushy Creek and looked out over a vista that included some of the earliest Swedish development in the area. That was the moment when Vining realized the need to plan for an area "that was such a treasure."

In order to fulfill the vision for Palm Valley, the area must be annexed into the city and the current zoning ordinance must be amended to encourage controlled growth. Vining says the zoning code changes will likely come this fall, when the city plans to hire a consultant to rewrite Round Rock's entire zoning ordinance..

Linda Hewlett, Wimberley’s newly elected mayor, said Sunday that she and the five-member council will be sworn in at 10 a.m. Saturday. The event is slated to take place at the Winters Wimberley House, the oldest stone residence in the village. Hewlett said, “We had a good group of candidates. The voters made an outstanding choice.” The choice they made, of course, was to elect a slate of candidates, including Hewlett, who worked to get the village incorporated. Walter Brown, elected to serve as an alderman, told In Fact Daily, “The team that was elected has been meeting together on the issues. We were operating on the hope that we would all be elected.” Save Barton Creek Association has invited its members to attend a meeting at 7 p.m. tonight at the Filling Station, 801 Barton Springs Road, to hear what developer Gary Bradley has to say about a new proposal.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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