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EPA will not declare Austin a

Thursday, April 12, 2001 by

Non-attainment city for ozone

Central Texas leders agree on ozone reduction strategies

Austin will avoid federally mandated steps to reduce air pollution now that six cities and five counties in Central Texas have submitted a letter to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) and the Environmental Protection Agency. That letter details the cities’ and counties’ intent to take voluntary steps to limit the production of ozone in the area.

Austin, Elgin, Lockhart, Luling, Round Rock and San Marcos will participate in the Ozone Flex Agreement along with Travis, Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays and Williamson Counties. Officials from the various jurisdictions appeared at a press conference Wednesday to announce the plan, which includes help from a technical advisory committee. The committee includes more than 50 representatives of government, industry, academic and environmental groups and is charged with studying and recommending strategies to improve air quality. There will also be a process for soliciting citizen input on the proposals.

In return for the voluntary measures, the EPA will not list Austin as a “non-attainment” zone for air quality even if ozone readings exceed allowable levels. According to Becky Weber with the EPA’s Region VI office in Dallas, that measure is designed to give the voluntary efforts time to work. “Right now, Austin meets the current federal standards for the one-hour ozone air-quality standard, so the efforts put forth toward an ozone program will be to ensure that Austin stays and maintains this one-hour ozone standard,” Weber said.

The exact classification for Austin was the subject of some debate last year. The administration of then-governor George W. Bush recommended to federal authorities that Austin be listed as “unclassifiable” instead of being listed as a “non-attainment” zone. There was also a trucking-industry lawsuit challenging the EPA’s authority in setting tougher new standards for ozone, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the agency in February of this year.

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson believes the agreement with the EPA and TNRCC is a chance to prevent current air-quality problems from getting worse. “This step is a giant step toward cleaning up the air,” said Watson. “In addition, the agreement gives us the flexibility to develop local solutions. For example: a vehicle inspection and maintenance program may be appropriate for Travis county, but it may not be appropriate for some of our neighbors. The key here is to clean up the air, but do it in a way that is flexible.”

Other cities and counties in Texas that have been classified as “non-attainment” areas by the EPA have had varying degrees of success in their efforts to find solutions to their air pollution problems. While TNRCC Commissioner Robert J. Huston commended the Dallas-Fort Worth area as a model of co-operation, four separate lawsuits have been filed over TNRCC’s pollution-reduction plans for the Houston area. Brazoria and Montgomery Counties filed one of those lawsuits. Officials there claim they are facing unreasonable mandates to help clean up pollution generated in Harris County. Those mandates include lower speed limits, tail-pipe testing and more stringent vehicle inspection standards for automobiles and limits on the use of certain construction equipment. Some of those efforts, such as vehicle inspection or emissions standards, could be considered on a voluntary basis in Central Texas. Watson said, “I don’t think that there’s any question that we’re going to have to do something about cars in Central Texas or we’re not going to be able to clean up the air.”

So far, local government officials are presenting a unified front in the battle to limit ozone. Hays County Judge Jim Powers says his concerns have been prompted in part by the region’s population boom, adding that air quality is “something we need to look at . . . There are a lot of questions out there, but we want to be progressive and deal with those and try to get out on the cutting edge.” Williamson County Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein, who said that the next challenge would be educating his constituents about the complexity of the problem, echoed those sentiments. “This is not totally understood at the local level. That’s going to be our job as we negotiate these issues out with the TNRCC, we’ve got to work to translate that back to our local constituencies to make sure they understand where we’re trying to lead them and where we’re trying to take them.”

Zoning for off-site parking

In UT area meets resistance

Planning Commission recommends new zoning, not parking

The owner of a deteriorating University of Texas area boarding house who wants to demolish the structure to make way for a parking lot or an office building—or both—met resistance from the Planning Commission Tuesday night. Starlight, LP, represented by Mike McHone, proposed to tear down a 1960-era boarding house at 2303 Rio Grande and asked for a zoning change from MF-4 (multi-family) to GO-MU-CO(general office, mixed use, with a conditional overlay).

City staff recommended the zoning, with a list of 12 possible uses, including urban farm and off-site accessory parking. Chair Betty Baker pointed out that the property does not meet the minimum size for an urban farm, leaving 11 possible uses, including residential lodging house, business offices and off-site accessory parking.

Michael McGinnis, who said he is a “major owner of the property,” told the commission he also owns a property just to the north of this one. “My property went unused because of the nature of the structure,” which he described as “a hotbed of criminal activity and a rabbit warren.” When students occupied the boarding house, he said, they had no kitchen, cooked in their rooms on hotplates and used communal showers.

Richard Hardin, owner of the Hardin House, a boarding house for women which Hardin’s family has run for three generations, supported McGinnis. He said, “we house about 200 18-year-old female students who attend the University of Texas. As a nation we’ve become more affluent,” which translates as more cars than the immediate neighborhood can handle. Hardin said the area is poorly lit and the students must walk two to three blocks in the dark to get home. He said when he asked McGinnis about parking on his property, “I was overjoyed that he would offer to lease it for parking. We are not having a transient population of people coming in and parking by the hour.” He said Hardin House residents “need a line-of-site place to park,” adding that new street lighting and wider sidewalks would allow them to walk safely, but eliminate 24 parking spaces.

On the other side, Michel Issa, the owner of property at 23rd and Rio Grande, told commissioners he was opposed to “removing and tearing down student housing, of which we are in bad need on campus. We would be in support of just about anything except parking. That would change the whole look of that part of Rio Grande. I understand there is need for more parking (for) Hardin House girls, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of other residents of the neighborhood.”

Commissioner Silver Garza made a motion to accept the staff recommendation, deleting only the urban farm usage. Commissioner Ben Heimsath said he could not support the motion because, “This is a particularly critical site that we not allow off-street parking. Nothing will destroy the urban fabric quicker.” Only Commissioner Ray Vrudhula said he would support the motion. Then there was a motion to postpone the case, but that did not garner the required five votes either.

Finally the two who supported the owner, Garza and Vrudhula, gave in and voted to recommend that the City Council delete off-site accessory parking from the list of permissible uses. Commissioners Robin Cravey, Sterling Lands and Lydia Ortiz were absent.

Water Committee takes first

Step in defining its goals

City and LCRA agreed on committee in 1999

In October 1999, the Austin City Council and the Lower Colorado River Authority created a six-member Impact Committee to study how water supply decisions will impact the environment in Central Texas. Last month this committee met for the first time to both address its mission statement and articulate how best to submit regular reports to both agencies on its results.

The creation of the commission was precipitated by the LCRA’s decision almost two years ago to build a water pipeline out to Dripping Springs and made a part of the water sale contract between the two agencies. At a recent meeting at LCRA headquarters, commissioners decided they would not rush to narrow the commission’s scope, preferring instead to allow information to dictate the direction the new committee will chart in its study of regional water issues. Committee member include three representatives appointed by the Austin City Council and three members appointed by the LCRA.

One of the initial concerns of committee members, expressed by Southwest Texas professor Jim Kimmel, was that the Impact Committee would honor its name and have an impact on City Council discussions. With a broad array of boards and commissions, Kimmel said, the city already has a robust decision-making process. But as committee member Mary Arnold pointed out, this group will function to represent both city and regional water issues, giving the City of Austin a broader perspective on its future policy decisions.

Just what those policy decisions might turn out to be—especially in the tension between ever-expanding development and the desire for both land and water conservation—is already taking shape in the opinions of committee members. Comments expressed during the first meeting hinted that members would fall on both sides of the spectrum. Kimmel told his colleagues that under the right circumstances the input of this committee could ultimately determine Austin’s extra-territorial jurisdiction land development policies . Arnold added that one of the committee’s biggest tasks would be providing information to quell the community’s fear of the unknown.

Committee member David Eaton stressed the need to open the lines of communication on substantial issues. Coming to common ground on the EMS issue for Austin-Travis County was a two-and-a-half year process, even though the desire for common ground has been present for the last 21 years. An effort has to be made, Eaton said, to find common ground and articulate disagreements so that all parties can come to an understanding.

Commissioners chose to elect no officers at the first meeting, saying that it was an easier way to encourage discussion. Logistics of the meetings will be left to support staff from the city and LCRA. The commission’s first step at the end of this month will be to meet with city and LCRA staff to discuss what information is already available on the Internet, and to begin the process of compiling all public information for easier access.

Other members of the group include Andy Covar, Ken Manning and David Armbrust. The commission has decided to meet monthly, starting on April 25th.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Day off . . . the Austin City Council will not meet today and several Council Members are taking a break for Easter . . . Bradley to speak . . . The Buda City Council will host a Town Hall meeting tonight at 7 p.m. at the Upper Elementary School. Gary Bradley is scheduled to speak, presumably about the benefits Hays County might derive from his proposed development district . . . Blast from Buda . . . Buda Mayor Billy Gray put out a press release Wednesday blasting Austin for adding conditions to Austin’s release of 5400 acres from its ETJ to Buda. The conditions were not named, but Gray said they “killed the proposal.” Gray also criticized Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, for his remarks urging Austin to retain jurisdiction over the land. Gray invited the entire Austin City Council to attend a Town Hall meeting in Buda next Tuesday. However, Mayor Kirk Watson will be out of town. Gray told In Fact Daily late Wednesday that he planned to postpone the meeting until Watson can attend . . . Mueller bill moves forward . . . Rep. Ron Wilson’s bill to re-open Mueller Airport to general aviation was voted out of the House Transportation Committee Wednesday, sending it to the Calendars Committee, where it can be scheduled for House consideration.

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