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Judge rules for LCRA in suit

Wednesday, May 2, 2001 by

Over environmental study

SBCA President says group should now support LCRA

Federal Judge Sam Sparks has ruled that the Lower Colorado River Authority may continue with construction of its water pipeline along Highway 290 to Dripping Springs, denying a request from three environmental groups to halt installation of the line. The Hays County Water Planning Partnership (HCWPP), the Save Our Springs Alliance and Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) sued the LCRA, the US Corps of Engineers and the US Department of the Interior to halt construction of the fourteen-mile pipeline until the Corps of Engineers and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had completed their “consultation . . . on all the affects of the project on endangered species” in the vicinity of the pipeline.

Sparks ruled that the environmental groups have not proved any of the facts necessary for him to grant the injunction. In making the decision, the judge said “while plaintiffs may disagree with the conclusion reached by the (FWS) biological opinion, they have not shown the court evidence that the opinion was arbitrary and capricious. Instead plaintiffs rely heavily on the argument FWS did not consider future developments that may be served by the water project, and even questioned whether the emergency action was even warranted. The defendants, conversely, argue that ‘cumulative effects’ of potential new development, were considered to the extent they were not based on speculative projects.”

In his ruling, the judge described the plaintiff’s arguments about the need for the waterline as “without merit, and wholly oblivious to the water emergency created by the drought-like conditions of summer 2000.”

“There is ample evidence of the declining supply of water in the wells in the areas to be served by the water pipeline, as well as the declining quality of the water as the drought continued,” Sparks wrote.

LCRA General Manager Joe Beal said “The ruling by Judge Sparks is a victory for clean water and a victory for the people of Hays County who are suffering from water supply and water quality problems.” Beal also noted that the agency is “continuing an extensive and public environmental impact study that will give us the most complete scientific data ever developed for this region. The study’s findings will enable us to ensure that the water quality guidelines for new development are sufficient to protect the environment by the time the line is built,” he said.

Hays County Judge Jim Powers said, “This is the biggest thing to happen to Hays County in 20 years, because it means that we can finally provide reliable drinking water to our citizens.”

Erin Foster, chair of HCWPP told In Fact Daily, “We lost when (the LCRA) put the pipe in the ground,” while waiting for Sparks’ decision. The case was heard in January, but the judge did not release his decision until this week.

Jon Beall, president of SBCA, said, “The judge ruled . . . against us on all four points: that there is not a substantial threat; that we are not likely to be successful on the merits; that the injury will not outweigh the damage and that granting the injunction would be a disservice. There was no equivocating about his ruling.”

“To the LCRA’s credit, they have held firm to their commitment only to provide water to existing development and to take into account the conclusions of the environmental assessment when it’s completed. And now we need to support them as much as we possibly can on their position,” Beall concluded.

On the subject of Cypress Realty, which is attempting to get legislation to create a development district on 2,700 acres of land over the recharge zone, Beall said he is confident that the LCRA has not yet agreed to serve the development. “It’s clear where they’re gong to get their water—but the LCRA has stood firm even on that project and made no commitments.” Representatives of Cypress told a large group of Hays County residents Monday night that they do not know where they will obtain water for the 2,700 homes they intend to build. (See In Fact Daily, May 1, 2001)

“We expect that eventually Cypress will get their water from the LCRA and we hope that Cypress Realty benefits the environment rather than hurts it. (But) I see no reason to make it easier to develop in any way. I don’t care if it happens all over the world. This place has special circumstances and developers should bear the full burden. If they can’t pay for the infrastructure themselves, then they should go elsewhere,” Beall said.

Judge Sparks is well known for his wit. In a footnote, he wrote, “The court notes the complete lack of evidence that the black-capped vireo habitat is found in the phase one field studies. This leads the court to believe either the vireo is more endangered that even plaintiffs realize, or more likely, that concern about the vireo is overstated.”

Planning Commission puts off

Action on Montopolis plan

Planners must come up with better-organized information

Members of the Planning Commission want more time to study the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan. After taking public input Tuesday night, the commission voted to postpone a decision on endorsing the plan until a work session later this month. The plan is scheduled to go before the City Council on June 7th. The public comment period will remain open at the urging of Chair Betty Baker, in response to a request from former Planning Commission member and PODER Director Susana Almanza.

Almanza urged the commission to adopt the plan and criticized the extensive deliberations of the commissioners. “I’ve seen other neighborhood plans come up—they have not been digested and analyzed and I don’t think that this plan should be either. It should be ‘go ahead’, and look at what the recommendations are that the community has made,” Almanza said. “Right now, we need to adopt the plan.”

Other neighbors expressed concerns about the planning process and vented their frustrations about the lack of opportunities for citizen input. Estella Fabian told commissioners she wasn’t satisfied with the series of planning meetings that helped craft the document. “We have learned that at some of these planning meetings, that some people felt pressured to agree with more commercial zoning,” Fabian said. “Not by the city staff, but by others that attended these meetings.” Fabian and other speakers also took the opportunity to speak out against the possibility of a horse-racing track in the area. The Austin Jockey Club already has a state permit to operate a track and an option to buy 100 acres of land in the neighborhood (see In Fact Daily, Feb. 23, 2001). “Montopolis definitely does not support the building of the race track,” Fabian said.

After hearing the public testimony, commissioners indicated they wanted more time to review the large amount of information presented to them. That included data about the plan suggested by the neighborhood, modifications recommended by city staff, and special requests from individual landowners to either be included or left out of the plan.

Commissioner Robin Cravey was one of those requesting a simplified format for the information, suggesting city staffers put together a checklist outlining the differences between the neighborhood plan, the staff plan, and requests from individuals. “In any case where there’s a difference between those three,” Cravey requested, “that tract on the list could be numbered and referenced and the differences noted.”

Commissioners were also dealing with an agenda item on zoning changes. Robert Heil with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department made the staff presentation, telling commissioners “we’re bringing forward the re-zonings, which would implement the land use parts of the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan. It’s the first time those have been brought forward together.”

One item of special interest to commission members was a map showing a possible new zoning overlay related to noise generated by flights out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. According to Assistant City Attorney David Petersen, federal rules are designed to limit residential development in areas underneath the flight path for planes taking off from the airport because of noise considerations. “There already is an airport overlay ordinance. Periodically, these overlays have to be updated because traffic changes,” Petersen said. A new ordinance could be brought to the commission within the next month. That may include a suggestion for not only prohibiting schools and residences within the zone, but also within one-half mile of the zone. “One of the things that we are seeing nationally,’ Peterson said, “is as soon as a line is established, development has a habit of coming right up to the line.” By expanding the area now, the airport will be able to avoid expensive land acquisition or noise mediation programs in the future, when flight paths change.

The commission will take up the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan again on May 22. At that time, they should have access to improved maps representing the differences between the plan submitted by the neighborhood and the staff recommendations. Those maps should also include the various special requests. “We’ve got the information,” said Heil. “The commissioners are giving suggestions on how to organize it. This may help standardize the way we present it for other neighborhood plans.”.

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

Public can meet City Hall architect . . . The city is hosting a reception on Thursday to allow the public to meet architect Antoine Predock and other members of the City Hall design team. The reception will be from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Austin Convention Center, Ballroom C. The new schematic design will be revealed earlier Thursday at the City Council meeting in the LCRA Board Room . . . But they’ll have to do it without the Mayor . . . Mayor Kirk Watson is scheduled to speak in Houston Thursday and will miss the unveiling, plus the hearing on the Bennett Tract . . . Texas celebrating National Tourism Week . . . Our state is the second most popular travel destination in the US, and the Tourism Division of the Department of Economic Development is celebrating. Visitors spent more than $100 million every day in Texas during 1999, according to Jeff Moseley, executive director of TDED. Moseley and Rep. Bob Hunter will kick off National Tourism Week with a press conference today at 2:30 p.m. on the south steps of the Capitol . . . Cargo coming here too . . . Austin-Bergstrom International Airport reports that air cargo set a new record in March, totaling more than 40 million pounds, an increase of 42 percent over last year. International cargo, at 2.9 million pounds, is up more than 1000 percent over last year, ABIA reports . . . Going west . . . SkyWest has announced it will begin non-stop service between Austin and Salt Lake City beginning June 1.

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