Thursday, September 7, 2000 by

Wednesday's Environmental Board agenda noted that the body would be discussing a water "irritation" project for a proposed office complex on Barton Creek. Although a typo had altered "irrigation," the slip summed up the feeling of almost everyone involved in this controversial development plan..

At issue is a Bradfield Family Partnership proposal dating back to 1986 to build two, five-story office buildings totaling 211,000 square feet at the southeast corner of MoPac and Highway 360. The Environmental Board voted 5-1 to recommend denial of the builder's request for a variance allowing an on-site wastewater system. Without the variance, the project is pretty much dead. The developers and their representatives were frustrated that their approved site plan was being rejected, even though they promised state-of-the-art water treatment and runoff protection. And city staff was just plain tired of dealing with a complex issue weighed down with 14 years of environmental vs. developer politics.

Phil Moncada, newly appointed to the Environmental Board in August, was the only dissenting vote, while Tim Jones abstained. Moncada indicated that if anything, the city should be supplying the development with sewer service, since the land has been in the city limits for so long. Jones had played a role in protesting the developer's application for a wastewater permit from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), so he recused himself from all discussion. The Planning Commission will consider the variance on Tuesday, and a no vote from that body would mean the developer would have to appeal to the City Council. The Commission previously declined to vote on the plan, deciding to wait for a recommendation from the Environmental Board.

New state regulations for treated wastewater effluent are the sole reason the project is facing obstacles. Although it's likely that the project will receive a permit from TNRCC for the effluent system, it needs a bigger field to drip it in. In 1987, when the site plan for the development was initially approved, its irrigation field met the current standards, about 7,500 square feet. But new TNRCC regulations allow only 10 percent of the effluent previously allowed in a given area. That means the allocated field was about 10 times too small. The only way the developer could put an irrigation field large enough to accommodate the needed effluent would be to place it in land classified with the water quality designation known as an "uplands buffer zone." The zones border creeks but lie above more environmentally fragile "transition" and "critical water quality zones." And putting a drain field in that upland buffer zone requires a variance.

"We're trying to accommodate the changed standards in (effluent) application rates," said Terry Irion, an attorney representing the developer. Irion pointed out that in addition to an approved site plan, the project had further history that pointed to its need for an on-site treatment facility. In the battle over whether projects would fall under the Save Our Springs or Composite Watershed ordinances, a 1995 lawsuit settlement "ratified" the Bradfield site plan, he said. Additionally, the City Council denied sewer service to the project after making a policy decision to prohibit further sewer utilities along the MoPac corridor near Barton Creek.

Irion and another consultant on the project, Sarah Crocker, reiterated that the only thing that had changed in the site plans since 1987 was the placement of the irrigation field. However, much has changed with regard to environmental protection. The buildings would use a high-tech wastewater treatment system that would produce water of "drinking quality," Irion said. "The technology has improved dramatically in wastewater treatment over the past 13 years," he said. Furthermore, top soil and vegetation would be brought in to ensure all effluent evaporated or water the plants, meaning no treated water would leave the site.

City staff recommended the variance because the treatment system proposed is far superior to the one originally planned, and because the developer agreed to build water retention ponds superior to those required by the water quality rules governing the plan. Since no runoff would impact the irrigation field, it should not be considered a water quality feature prohibited in the upland buffer zone, staff said. And they noted that the treatment system also had a several month storage capacity in case the pumps failed or needed repair.

The arguments didn't sway the Board or environmentalists in attendance. "To build these big office buildings there is not appropriate," said Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. Bunch said he knew of no other city-regulated projects allowed to do effluent irrigation in the recharge zone so close to Barton Creek. And he added a familiar refrain from environmentalists that the project should be governed by the water quality rules in place when the construction plans were presented, not the general site plan. That would put the project under the SOS ordinance instead of the Composite Watershed Ordinance.

Craig Smith, President of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, said allowing the effluent system–regardless of how superior it is–would set a dangerous precedent for future projects. And he reminded the Board, "Whatever goes into the aquifer there would go into (Barton) Springs in 24 hours or less."

The Environmental Board bases its recommendations on findings from city staff to specific questions, which showed that the developer had no alternative design for the project other than the current plans that require a variance. However, Chair Lee Leffingwell and Board Member George "Buzz" Avery disputed that notion and said that the new state water quality rules restricted the applicant's ability to develop, not the city. Therefore, the developer could design a much smaller project and still meet the TNRCC guidelines for effluent irrigation.

Irion estimated that scaling back would mean constructing a 21,000-square-foot building, as opposed to 211,000 square feet–obviously not a viable option for the developer. The attorney noted that in addition to 14 years of total history, the current project has been under review for 14 months. City staff members added that even if the developer were to reduce the size, they likely would keep the same impervious cover while simply dropping the number of stories from five to one.

Avery made the motion to recommend denying the variance. He said the state effluent rules created the constricting situation for the developer, and that the Bradfield project is a bad place to try and figure out a resolution. "I don't think the banks of Barton Creek is a good place to test (them)," he said. He also said he didn't want the case to be a precedent for future development. And he was concerned with the possibility of effluent pumps and pipes breaking and contaminating the creek.

Leffingwell added a friendly amendment stating the developer did have a choice in design. Board Member Joyce Conner added friendly amendments stating that granting the variance would be considered a "special privilege" for the developer and that the plan could be harmful to the creek.

Irion said after the meeting that if the developer isn't allowed to build with the current plan, it would essentially be a taking of the property. Considering the time put into the project and the money invested, a lawsuit would be likely. (See In Fact Daily, July 20, August 16, August 21, 2000)

Circle C developer Gary Bradley has an open proposal to the city that would have him purchase the Bradfield property and donate it to the city to conserve as open space. In exchange, the city would drop a portion of its lawsuit settlement with him that prohibits a major employer on commercial development at Circle C. The proposal, however, has not been formally considered by the City Council.

Council members, public, express concern

Over settlement of Sand Beach Reserve

The fate of the Sand Beach Reserve, a small but highly attractive piece of property between W. Cesar Chavez and Lamar, could be decided by the City Council today but no one is taking any bets. The city sued Lumbermen’s Investment Corp. last November, asserting ownership of about two of the 5.13 acres that Lumbermen’s planned to develop as a 350-unit apartment complex. Attorneys for the city have been negotiating with Lumbermen’s lawyers for several weeks. (See In Fact Daily November 15, 1999)

Casey Dobson of Scott Douglass & McConnico, who represents the city in the suit, told In Fact Daily Wednesday that he could not comment on the matter. When asked if he would be at the City Council meeting on Thursday, Dobson said he didn’t know yet. City Attorney Andy Martin said last night it would be correct to conclude that negotiations were ongoing.

In the meantime, citizens who believe that the city should own the Sand Beach Reserve have become alarmed at the prospect of a settlement because they fear that the city will give up its claim to the much sought after property.

Cindy Debold, chair of the interim board for the Science and Technology Museum of Austin, wrote the following in an email to other museum backers: “Re-use of Seaholm, light and commuter rail, and Town Lake Park will all be greatly affected by this decision. Please ask the council to delay consideration of this matter to allow for sufficient public notice…and meaningful public input on a decision that will determine the fate of a piece of property that exists at the crossroads of Austin's past and Austin's future.”

Council Member Beverly Griffith said, “It is compelling that it be public property…for it to be the gateway to Town Lake. The hopeful thing is the interest from the private sector…There are business interests and individual interests in preserving Sand Beach as public land.” Griffith said she would oppose acceptance of a term sheet today because “we need to begin a public process before and not after a term sheet is approved.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she too believes Sand Beach Reserve should belong to the public. “It’s a really tangible part of Texas history and Austin history. I have never thought it was an appropriate place for multi-family building, even though it’s had that zoning for a long time.” She said the land has a great deal of potential for the city and for accommodating multi-modal transportation. Goodman said Lumbermen’s asking price for the property is $12 million. When she was told that the business community might be willing to step up to the plate, Goodman said, “I’m watching the plate.”

The Water and Wastewater Commission postponed giving its blessing to the proposed settlement between the city and developers of the 4,200-acre Steiner Ranch last night, but not because of concerns over water and wastewater. While City Attorney Andy Martin directed his brief presentation to the water agreement, commissioners were more focused on issues such as parkland and SMART Housing. The proposal would make wastewater service available to Steiner Ranch through a wholesale contract with WCID No. 17 or Steiner Utility Company. (see In Fact Daily, August 25, 2000)

Vice Chair Lanetta Cooper was most concerned about Austinites' access to Steiner Ranch's proposed parks. Richard Suttle, who represents the Steiner Ranch developers, promised complete access to the master-planned community's parks, which will be maintained by the local homeowners association. Steiner Ranch will also set aside habitat for the federal Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan.

Cooper suggested the city add a restrictive covenant that would give Steiner Ranch's parkland to the city when the area was annexed. Suttle, an attorney with Armbrust Brown & Davis, agreed that arrangement was a possibility, but Martin quickly pointed out the city has no current plans to annex the area. "That's about six steps ahead of our analysis," Martin told Cooper. Cooper responded that it is better to prepare early.

Commissioners also wanted to see affordable housing in Steiner Ranch's plans. Instead, developers have promised to put $100 per platted residential unit toward the city's SMART housing objectives. Houses in Steiner Ranch community are expected to cost between $165,000 and $475,000.

The majority of the 6,000 on-site septic systems (OSSF) located in Austin and its surrounding extra-territorial jurisdiction are in close proximity to centralized city collection lines, a city official told the Water and Wastewater Commission last night.

In his presentation to the commission last night, Mario Seminara, manager of environmental health services in the city's Health and Human Services Department, promised to bring staff proposals for amendments to proposed OSSF regulations to the Water and Wastewater Commission by the week of Sept. 25.

Seminara's presentation focused on maps prepared by his department, showing existing on-site septic systems and existing sewer lines. The frequent proximity of two is encouraging news, he said. "What this is telling us is that homeowners with on-site systems may have some choices to make should their systems fail," said Seminara.

The city is still in the data collection stage and some questions posed by commissioners remained unanswered last night. Vice Chair Lanetta Cooper pointed out new demand on the system could mean new lift stations. And Commissioner Michael Warner, whose chief concern is the pricetag on the conversion, asked if current wastewater line capacity could handle the increased load and whether the cost to homeowners had been calculated.

Ongoing discussions on the issue have been a tug-of-war between environmentalists who consider the proposed guidelines to be too lenient and certain homeowner groups, aligned with segments of the regulated industry, who say the city should simply adopt the standard guidelines written by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.

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

Fresh applicants… The City Council has new applicants to consider for the Planning Commission today. One of those is architect John Nyfeler, vice-president of Aguirre Corp. He has served on both the Environmental Board and the Downtown Commission, as well as numerous other community groups. Nyfeler was chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce local issues committee last year and is a professional member of the city’s Green Building Program. Another likely choice is Marc Rodriguez, a government relations consultant, who has served on the city’s Urban Transportation Commission. Rodriguez holds a master’s degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs. According to his resume, Rodriguez was a planner and intergovernmental relations manager with the City of San Antonio prior to coming to Austin in 1994. Marvin Molberg, a retired educator and coach, has also applied for a commission appointment, but his application states he is applying for “Environmental, Building, Planning,” so he seems to be flexible on the question of which appointment he is seeking… That time of year…The City Council is scheduled to hear about alternatives for controlling algae at Barton Springs Pool today.

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

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