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EPA fails to produce response,

Thursday, August 23, 2001 by

So Bunch headed back to court

EPA decision apparently in violation of settlement agreement

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was expected to respond by Tuesday to a draft biological opinion by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on changes in local construction rules needed to protect the endangered Barton Springs salamander, has failed to produce a proposal. Instead, the EPA released a letter to David Frederick, supervisor of the local FWS office, stating that the agencies have agreed to meet on Sept. 5 in Washington, D.C. to “discuss the draft biological opinion and alternatives.”

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said that the EPA has thus violated the agreement signed by both federal agencies in settlement of SOSA’s lawsuit. Both SOSA and the Save Barton Creek Association sued because the agencies allow construction in the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer under the construction general permit. The general permit is a blanket permit and requires only that forms be filled out and mailed to an office in Washington, D.C. Enforcement is almost non-existent. (See In Fact Daily, July 25, 2001.)

Under that settlement agreement, the FWS was required to produce a draft opinion. After that, the EPA agreed to send comments on the draft to the FWS and the plaintiff environmental groups. The EPA’s deadline for response was Tuesday, the date of the letter from Jack Ferguson, chief of the EPA’s Permits Branch in Dallas. In addition to notifying Frederick of the September 5 meeting, the letter includes about 90 pages of comments from various groups and individuals.

Bunch said Wednesday, “We’ll probably be back in the courthouse pretty fast,” noting that the EPA “was supposed to respond to Fish and Wildlife by yesterday.” Bunch said the FWS, as an independent agency, does not have to wait for agreement from the EPA before issuing a final opinion on the effects of the construction general permit on the salamander.

Environmentalists say that discharges from construction of these areas is likely causing harm to the salamander. In a recent notice to the City of Austin and developers of Circle C, SOSA has said the organization intends to file suit because “discharges from construction of these sites will likely cause additional harm to the Barton Springs salamander. Pollution discharges after construction, including but not limited to eroded sediments, pesticides, fertilizers, heavy metals and petroleum aromatic hydrocarbons will also likely cause harm to the . . . salamander.”

Among those sending comments on the draft opinion to the EPA were Texas Capitol Area Builders’ Association (TxCABA), George Murfee and Phil Savoy of Murfee Engineering Co, environmental attorney David O. Frederick and two residents of the Goldenwood subdivision in Hays County.

TxCABA sent a lengthy document, which, as might be expected, attacked FWS’ assumptions as unscientific. For example, the letter says the draft opinion “does not contain scientific evidence that would establish a connection between the regulated activity (construction and pre-construction activities, such as clearing land) and harm to the salamander.” The letter also says the FWS “cannot recommend a ‘reasonable and prudent alternative’ that is beyond the scope of the acting agency’s authority and jurisdiction . . . (And the) EPA cannot require (FWS) approval before granting NPDES ( National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permit authorizations, and it cannot require the implementation of land use controls along the lines of those suggested by the Service’s ‘water quality recommendations.’”

Bunch, on behalf of SOSA, wrote to the EPA that “current conditions amount to ‘jeopardy’ (for the salamander) and thus, the EPA and other relevant federal agencies must move towards cleaning up from existing conditions, not simply mitigating or reducing yet more pollution.” A letter from Beth Blanchard of Hays County asked that the EPA “strengthen enforcement in our area, not only to protect the salamander . . . (but also to protect) our sole source of drinking water.” (For more history, see In Fact Daily June16, June 20, 2000, Dec. 21, 2000.)

Planning Commission blesses

Rosewood neighborhood plan

ARA Board has also given its approval

Additional time and some extra effort from city staff were enough to convince the Planning Commission to approve the Rosewood Neighborhood Plan last night.

Last night’s discussion was brief. The public hearing on the plan was closed last month, and some commissioners had left with questions about the level of local participation in the project. Commissioners also questioned the involvement of Capital Metro and city departments in the plan.

East Austin’s Rosewood neighborhood, long segregated, has endured some very difficult episodes. In the 1960s, the city’s Urban Renewal Agency called the area one of “urban blight” and relocated 360 families and 20 businesses from the neighborhood. Some of the Rosewood families left against their will. Many were compensated at slum sale prices, forcing them to move into the city’s subsidized housing. Only 70 houses were constructed at first to replace the 360 that were demolished.

“This neighborhood has not had a kind history,” said Commissioner Ben Heimsath prior the unanimous approval of the plan. “I really do applaud everybody coming together and recognizing the goals of this plan.”

Commissioner Sterling Lands, who had initial concerns that more community input needed to be included in the decision-making process, added that the decisions of the city had set the Rosewood neighborhood back at least a century. “Hopefully we’re rectifying some of that at this point,” Lands said. Lands, active in redevelopment in East Austin, added that the city must continue to guard against the displacement of long-term residents. A spirit of gentrification, Lands said, is affecting the area near I-35.

Approval of the plan by Austin Revitalization Authority’s board of directors on July 27 convinced Lands that local residents were satisfied with the planning process. Steve Barney of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department provided documentation to the Planning Commission outlining its outreach efforts, and noted front-page coverage in the Nokoa weekly newspaper featuring the zoning changes affected by the planning.

Planning area boundaries for the Rosewood/Chestnut neighborhoods are Manor Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the north and Airport Boulevard, Oak Springs and Webberville on the east. Webberville and Northwestern form a triangle on the south and Rosewood and Chicon streets border the area on the west. The Rosewood/Glen Oaks Neighborhood, McKinley Heights Neighborhood and Boggy Creek Neighborhood Associations are contained within the area.

The Rosewood neighborhood plan has four primary goals:

• Make the Rosewood Neighborhood Planning Area a more attractive, cleaner and safer place to live. Objectives under the plan included making alleys safer, removing debris, increasing effectiveness of law enforcement and upgrading streetscapes. The Rosewood planning team suggested almost two-dozen locations for new or improved streetlights.

• Promote affordable housing options in the neighborhood, while reducing the number of vacant lots. Objectives include working with the Austin Housing Authority to promote additional housing options. Rehabilitation of existing housing should be encouraged, according to the plan’s recommendations.

• Create a transportation network that allows all residents to travel safely through the neighborhood. Objectives included safer and better-connected sidewalks, additional safe pedestrian crossings on major roadways and the inclusion of a light rail station if rail is approved by the city. Improvements to Airport Boulevard by the Texas Department of Transportation should be compatible with the neighborhood’s goals and plans, according to the recommendations.

• Promote commercial uses that serve the needs of neighborhood residents. Objectives include the promotion of infill on vacant commercial lots, the creation of a small business incubator in the area and the encouragement of small neighborhood-oriented businesses. Various zoning changes were also made along the neighborhood’s major arteries.

Commissioner Jean Mather encouraged the city to add the four-way stops that were recommended under the plan. A recent attorney general’s opinion allows for city traffic measures in areas where neighborhoods have raised safety concerns. “You don’t have to wait for children to be killed,” said Mather, encouraging city staff to work with the neighborhood to address the traffic issues.

Planning Team Chair Dusty McCormick told commissioners that a significant number of questions had been answered by staff, enough to allow the ARA to sign off on the plan so it can be presented to the City Council. The Council is scheduled to consider the Rosewood neighborhood plan on Sept. 27.

Water budget approved with

1st rate increase since 1988

Commission to study debt/equity ratio

This year’s proposed $281.5 million budget for the city’s Water and Wastewater Department would come with an additional $52 million in revenues. A portion of those additional revenues—$13.2 million—would be coveredthrough the first water and wastewater rate increases since 1998.

The Water and Wastewater Commission signed off on the department budget during a special-called session last night. Their recommendation will now be forwarded to the City Council. The proposed budget represents an average 7 percent rate increase for water services and 4.5 percent rate increase for wastewater.

Vice Chair Lanetta Cooper made a last-ditch attempt to lower the debt/equity ratio but her motion failed for lack of second. Cooper wanted to defer the use of a portion of the capital recovery fees in this year’s budget. Her goal was to avoid a rate hike, but city staff argued that deferring the use of recovery fees as a down payment on capital projects would not reduce rates. In the proposed budget, almost $30 million in capital recovery fees paid by developers to defray the cost of infrastructure would be used to pay down the cost of capital improvement projects and avoid additional long-term bond debt.

After a somewhat complicated discussion of how capital recovery fees could be used, Commissioner Jim Haley suggested that the commission study the debt/equity issue over the coming months with the intention of making some type of recommendation for the 2002-2003 budget.

A number of variables differ between the 2000-2001 approved budget and the 2001-2002 budget. For one, this summer’s hot weather has already earned the department an additional $15.6 million. They may have to figure out how to generate $15.6 million for next year’s expenditures if—unlikely as it sounds—next summer turns out significantly cooler.

Other additional costs anticipated this year include $12.1 million in personnel and energy costs, $8.9 million in debt service, the net $13.8 million transfer to capital improvement projects and a $900,000 increase in transfers to the general fund and the city’s Sustainability Fund.

Most of the questions from commissioners center around four issues the group agreed to discuss in future work sessions, including the accuracy of billing for water and wastewater customers, which is handled by Austin Energy. At least three of the commissioners at the table have tangled with the city in recent months over the accuracy of their bills, including Chair Darwin McKee.

Cooper also questioned a couple of on-site septic permit fees that were charged by the Health and Human Services Department. Those services are now handled directly by the water and wastewater utility. The cut-over and annual fees, Cooper argued, duplicated charges that were already covered under tap fees. Commissioners agreed to review the fees at a future meeting. The group also agreed to put performance criteria for customer service on a future agenda.

The budget was approved, with the only opposition coming from Cooper. Commissioners voting in favor of the budget included McKee, Haley, Dacio Marin III, Chien Lee, Michael Warner and Aida Berduo Douglas. Commissioner Michael Wilson left the meeting early and Commissioner Kim McPherson was absent.

After the meeting, assistant director Perwez Moheet of the Water and Wastewater Utility said the department had stretched its current rates as long as possible. The last rate increases, in 1998, had gone to pay $65 million in watershed land purchases approved by voters, annexation, operating costs and system improvements. The last increase was 5.4 percent for both water and wastewater services.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Clean Campaign signatures turned in . . . After six months of collecting signatures, “Clean Campaigns for Austin” turned in its petitions for campaign finance reform at the City Clerk’s office Wednesday. The group is claiming 28,000 signatures. Only 20,000 are needed to get the proposal on the ballot. If the City Clerk’s office verifies the signatures, the group’s campaign finance rules could go to the voters as part of a city charter amendment election in May of 2002. Council Member Danny Thomas has placed a resolution on today’s Council agenda asking the City Manager’s office to study the legal and fiscal implications of the proposal and report back within 45 days . . . Subdivision ordinance on agenda today . . . Dave Sullivan, a former, and probably future, Planning Commissioner, is hoping there will be a big turnout today for an ordinance that would shorten block lengths and minimize dead-end streets. The Council has already closed the public hearing on the matter, but is scheduled to choose between a voluntary and mandatory ordinance . . . Other hot items for today . . . The Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan and the Hyde Park Baptist Church plan, a contested rezoning for 618 Tillery Street in East Austin and a possible battle over the “Villas at Exposé” are all on the City Council agenda.

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