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In Fact Daily

Monday, July 30, 2001 by

Pat Murphy, City Environmental Officer

By David Ansel

Pat Murphy, serving as the Environmental Officer for the recently formed Watershed Protection Division of the Development Review and Inspection Department, is responsible for overseeing environmental regulations dealing with development. He basically serves as an environmental middle linebacker. He supervises the defense and calls the plays, but also involves himself wherever help is needed anywhere across the division. Murphy deals with special ordinances and variance requests to environmental regulations. His expertise on impervious cover makes him a valued addition to policymaking processes as well as to land deals such as the Bradley and Steiner settlements.

Murphy grew up near the ship channel in blue-collar Houston, where all his relatives worked in the refineries. To pursue his interest in nature and wildlife, he studied forestry and wildlife management at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. After a short stint in the tree care business, he went back to SFASU for graduate school. He moved to Austin in 1984, managing a tree care company. He soon met then- City Arborist Les Brewer while working on the Arboretum project. He was inspired by the tree-oriented intention behind the development and decided to make a career change. He went to work under Brewer as Assistant City Arborist in 1985. There he began to develop an expertise in the tree and landscaping regulations of the city.

After the Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance of 1986, which extended water quality protection to watersheds that do not provide drinking water, he found work as part of the City’s Environmental Review Staff. There he started learning and enforcing environmental regulations. He soon became Supervisor of Environmental Review. “I learned from working with the trees that everything is connected, so the first thing I did was consolidated tree, landscaping and environmental review, and cross-trained the staff.” In 1997, Murphy catapulted from Supervisor to Division Manager. After the department was reorganized this year, Director Mike Heitz appointed Murphy as Environmental Officer to preserve his involvement with the city on watershed issues.

Murphy has developed a reputation as a facilitator of solutions. “What I’m best at is problem solving, mediating solutions to things that can’t be resolved. I’ve got a strong environmental and resource management background and I know the regulations, but I’m best geared towards implementation.” He notes that the passion of the environmental camp often does their cause harm. “I can see the big picture. I’m able to emotionally detach from the issues, allowing me to see how to resolve them. I find that in most cases, people are too emotionally involved in an issue to see a way to agreement. I’ve got the trust of the scientist and environmental people, but also the respect of the development community because they know I’m going to be fair and reasonable and consistent.”

Now Murphy comes to the great challenge of his career: the successful implementation of the Watershed Protection Department’s Master Plan. The goal of the Master Plan is to inventory existing watershed problems and gauge the impact of future urbanization over the next forty years. The department hopes to optimize existing resources by identifying and prioritizing the most vital watershed problems, recommending capital infrastructure projects, operating program enhancements and regulatory modifications that will best address those problems. “The city has had a history of spending money on watersheds based on the squeaky wheel. One neighborhood gets flooded; so all the money is spent there. The whole idea of the Master Plan is to bring credibility to spending on watersheds, to make it rational and efficient. Obviously, we can’t go out and fix all our problems at once. A consistent, well-funded effort is needed to reach a point where we’ve stabilized the state of our waterways,” Murphy explains.

Staff and contractors have performed a prodigious number of field inspections in order to profile the initial thirteen watersheds. Murphy describes the process of inquiry, saying, “We ask, ‘Where are the erosion problems, where are flooding risks, what is the state of the creek relative to its natural state and what is the state of the creek at fully developed conditions in the future?’ To project to 2040, we look at impervious cover, future buildout and the nature of stormwater runoff.”

The final Master Plan document has already been submitted to the City Council and approved. But the work has just begun. “We’re currently developing recommendations on regulations. For example, we need to protect headwaters. In the Master Plan, we spell out why they’re important, why setbacks are important, but there are no specific recommendations in the Master Plan itself. We have to do additional research, using work from other jurisdictions around the country. The Master Plan just says ‘This is how we’re going to go forward with identifying and prioritizing,’ but there are no specific recommendations. It’s a tool you use to establish how you’re gonna do what you’re gonna do.”

Murphy is very hopeful about the direction of Austin’s environmental policy. “Swings in politics seem to drive everything. We’ve seen a lot of changes. We’ve seen an education by the community. All of our environmental protection has been fueled by the citizens and the grassroots movements that started in the early eighties. That causes environmental concerns to continue to be pushed as the utmost agenda of the city. As a result, we’ve continued to have support of regulations and the ability to protect the environment despite developers and the Legislature. Once (Mayor Kirk) Watson came on board, that has been the most dynamic amazing period I’ve seen in Austin. The mayor has taken Austin further than anyone has ever done, bringing problems into focus and to a close. The continued community effort has reached its peak under Watson, and will continue to be a mandate by citizens.”

Referring to his role, Murphy states, “I think the Environmental Officer job has not been clearly defined, but I’m hoping to bring to that job the ability to really resolve and represent the city in the manner the job was intended.”

Murphy lives with his wife, Sarah, and their two sons, Jack and Ryan. He embraces the Austin traditions of spending his free time in the outdoors, playing guitar, landscaping and doing artwork..

Commissioners wary of new

Buildings, check fine print

Emergency center technologically complex

Travis County Commissioners are pouring over the agreements on the region’s new emergency communications center, making sure it won’t be a repeat of the Criminal Justice Center quagmire.

Even though the City of Austin will be the managing partner on the Combined Emergency Communications and Transportation Management Center, Travis County Commissioners spent the better part of an hour last week discussing their obligations and liabilities on the regional center. Commissioners approved an interlocal agreement with the City of Austin on construction services, professional services and a 100-year lease agreement on the $23 million facility.

The communications center will sit on 13 acres at the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport property. The county will contribute $3.28 million to construction of the project, far less than the contributions of the City of Austin. The Texas Department of Transportation and the Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority also are participating in the project. Travis County’s share is 14 percent of the project, or roughly a fifth of the floor space in the 80,000 square foot building.

Participating agencies began negotiations on the center in 1996. Commissioners were so cautious about guarantees and safeguards—such as air-tight verification that work had been completed on the project—that Assistant County Attorney Gordon Bowman felt compelled to address it directly.

“This will be a different process than the downtown jail,” Bowman assured commissioners, alluding to the multi-million dollar overrun on the Criminal Justice Center complex. “We have a stronger general contractor and their company is on the line to keep track of the construction schedule and construction budget.”

TRW, Inc., has provided professional services on the project. Bartlett Cocke was awarded the construction contract. Bowman explained that the project is so complicated and technologically advanced that TRW and Motorola will each have a construction manager on site. The CAD system and radio dispatch requires sophisticated wiring and cabling, far beyond most construction projects, Bowman said. Under the agreement, the city’s public works department will be supervising the project and the building’s architect will also be on hand.

“There’s probably more oversight on this project than you will ever see on another county-city joint project, unless we get involved in something even more complicated,” Bowman told the commissioners. To which Commissioner Ron Davis replied, “We just don’t want to get burned.”

Austin owns the land where the regional communications center is being constructed. The original plan was for each partner to own a percentage of the land, which was appraised at $1.1 million this year. Instead, the partners eventually decided to sign long-term leases with Austin. Travis County has signed an initial 50-year lease, with two automatic 25-year renewals. The lease total for 100 years is $115,995, or annual payments of just over $3,093 per year, Teresa Reel of the county’s justice and public safety division explained.

The groundbreaking on the facility is tentatively set for August 13. When it’s completed in 2003, the center will serve as the hub of the region’s 911 system and the control center for the new trunked radio system. The new computer-aided dispatch system will also allow communication across emergency agencies.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Billboard battle continues . . . The Planning Commission’s committee on codes and ordinances is scheduled to meet at noon today in Room 500 of One Texas Center. The chief matter the group will consider is revision of the city’s billboard ordinance. Reagan National Advertising, which owns about half the city’s billboards, is supporting a change to the ordinance that would require owners to give up two or three billboards in order to put up one new one. Other industry representatives say the city should keep the ordinance it has, which requires replacement billboards to be 25 percent smaller than the signs they are replacing. Any proposal for changes must go through the full Planning Commission before being considered by the City Council . . . Remembering Jay Johnson . . . Funeral services for former City Council Member Jay Johnson will be at the Visitor Center of the State Cemetery, 7th & Navasota Street at 10 a.m. today . . . More on historic preservation . . . In response to our story last week on the Historic Landmark Commission’s refusal to allow a couple to move the historic Gustave Johnson house from West Austin to Hyde Park, Kent Collins of Post Properties reacted: “What a sad commentary on the unbending rules of some preservationists. As a former executive committee member of Preservation Dallas, former Main Street project Manager, preservationist and historic building owner, I am ashamed. Did anyone notice that the building had been vacant since 1964. What a travesty!”.

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