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Better tools also predict higher level for 100-year flood

Wednesday, May 15, 2002 by

The chances of a 100-year flood occurring on Lake Travis are twice as great as previously thought, according to a study the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) is conducting in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers. The same is true of the portion of Lake Marble Falls between the US Highway 281 bridge and Starcke Dam.

A 100-year flood is defined as a flood that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year. Preliminary information from the study indicates that there is a two percent chance each year of a large flood occurring on Lake Travis—and the water would reach a higher level than previously thought.

During a 100-year flood, water would reach 722 feet above mean sea level (msl) on Lake Travis, six feet higher than what was projected during a study done in the 1970s. Lake Travis does not have a “flood stage,” but the spillway is 714 feet, said LCRA spokesman Bill McCann.

The study also projects that part of Lake Marble Falls would reach 755 feet above msl, two feet higher than previously predicted. The latter is of less concern because the area is a canyon without dwellings, according to McCann.

“The new calculations are based on more accurate and complete data than was available” when the current levels were established in the 1970s,” according to Wes Birdwell, Manager of River Services for the LCRA. “This is the first comprehensive study of the entire lower Colorado River basin. The study and analysis tools—such as computer models and simulations, aerial and ground surveys and geographic information systems (GIS)—are more sophisticated, powerful and accurate than those used in previous flood studies.” He also pointed out that those working on the problem have an additional 25 years of flood and rainfall records, including the major floods of the 1990s.

The Corps and the LCRA started working on a study of the 473-mile lower Colorado River in July 2000 and expect to issue a report on their findings in October. Beginning in San Saba, working south along the Highland Lakes and downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, the agencies are gathering information that could ultimately be used to reduce loss of life and property damage during major floods. “It’s a key piece of the puzzle that will help in finding the right solutions,” said LCRA General Manager Joe Beal.

The total cost of the study is estimated at $7.89 million, with the possibility of adding another million dollars to include Wharton. More data, including similar data on possible risks and flooding levels downstream from Lake Travis, is expected within a few weeks. After all the information is compiled, the LCRA, the Corps of Engineers and the various cities and counties along the river will begin considering more definitive steps they can take to minimize future flood hazards.

Neighbors object to increased traffic, school crowding, etc.

Neighbors may have won a battle but lost the war in the fight against an affordable housing duplex project planned for Pleasant Valley Road.

Southwest Housing Development requested a variance that would reduce setback requirements on alternating lots in the Pleasant Valley Villas project at this week’s Board of Adjustment meeting. The project, located at 2800 Pleasant Valley Drive, near East Oltorf, meets the city’s Smart Growth requirements. The variance would allow the developer to cluster units in a four-plex arrangement. Engineer John Noell of Urban Design Group said the variance would help developers save as many trees as possible on the densely wooded 15-acre parcel and provide a more compatible use for the community.

Some neighbors considered the clustering to be cheating, getting a free ride to denser zoning under SF-3. An initial site plan by Southwest Housing Development did not cluster the units. A revised plan, said the developer, was created to save as many trees as possible and to address neighborhood concerns. Density has been reduced from 114 to 80 duplex homes.

A number of people filed initial letters of protest against the project, many of them objecting to issues not addressed by the Board of Adjustment: traffic on Benjamin Lane, flood control and local school capacity. A steering committee from the Burleson Heights neighborhood—which negotiated with the developer through much of last week—finally came to a neutral position on the variance, providing the developer agrees that Benjamin Lane not be extended through to Ware Road and thus avoid traffic congestion problems.

Southwest Housing Development offered written assurance to the neighborhood that it would not support the extension of Benjamin Road and would, indeed, seek a variance to stop that extension. If the city denied that variance, Southwest offered to step away from the project and withdraw its application for low-interest bonds from the state.

“We have some written assurance,” neighborhood spokesman Carl Braun told the board. “It’s not what we would like . . . it’s not something ironclad . . . but this is moving in the right direction. Therefore, as a group, some of our members are dissenting—and they have a right to dissent—but we would not oppose this. We don’t endorse, but we don’t oppose, the variance at this time.”

Commissioner Frank Fuentes was primarily concerned with the finding of fact. He wasn’t interested whether the developer could prove that the cluster arrangement would save trees. Fuentes wanted a tree survey rather than the aerial photograph that Noell presented. The fact that an aerial photograph had been provided on a similar variance for the Anderson Hill development did not appear to sway Fuentes or a number of his colleagues.

“I’m just a small-time contractor, but when you have the same square footage—whether you separate them or not—it’s the same square footage,” Fuentes said. “Essentially, to me, you are taking up the same square footage; but more importantly, you’re asking me to accept a hardship, but you’re not showing me the hardship.”

Saving the trees on the property was a major concern to the neighborhood. Noell said the trees on the property were too numerous to count. But one resident estimated that 50 percent more tree perimeter would be saved if the buildings were clustered.

After some discussion, opponents stepped up to outline further concerns about the project. The most important was that the neighborhood did not have enough time to hammer out firmer agreements with the developer. Noell pointed out that Southwest Development had contacted the neighborhood in March and that the project was on a tight timetable to receive state low-interest bonds.

Community Development Officer Paul Hilgers said the neighborhood’s concerns are legitimate, but he also stressed that the developer had made good faith efforts to address those concerns. He said his department would work to make sure the developer keeps his promises. He added that the variance was only one step where opposition could be lodged if an agreement could not be reached. The subdivision plat and variance for the closure of Benjamin, anticipated by the developer, would go through the Planning Commission. The City Council, as members of the Austin Housing Finance Corporation, would sign off on the funding application before it went to the state.

The bottom line, developer Cass Brewer told the commission, is that Southwest Housing Development would be forced to move forward with the initial plan, which would require no variance from the Board of Adjustment. That did not appear to sway commissioners. Fuentes moved to deny the variance. Commissioners Betty Edgemond, Barbara Aybar and Laurie Virkstis agreed. Chair Herman Thun was the only commissioner who voted against the denial, citing the potential to pick a more neighborhood-friendly plan.

“We don’t deal with schools. We don’t deal with roads,” Fuentes said. “But we do deal with findings of fact, and specifically toward the hardship in this case, I will not base my ruling today on an aerial photograph.”

City Council retreat today . . . City staff have arranged for a daylong retreat at Reicher Ranch, beginning at 10am. The ranch is on RM 620, far from the bustle of City Hall, or even the LCRA. Council Members are expected to make remarks about their expectations early in the day. Later, staff will provide more information on the budget and solicit input on various issues, such as how to handle an ending balance—assuming there is one—and how much money should be transferred from Austin Energy to the city’s General Fund . . . Familiar faces . . . Gloria Aguilera, who is currently working for Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman, will be rejoining her old boss, Betty Dunkerley, when Dunkerley returns to City Hall as a Council Member. Aguilera also worked for Mayor Gus Garcia during a prior term as Council Member. The newly-elected Council Member said she has asked Stephanie Beckett, who worked in her campaign, to be her executive assistant, at least for the time being. Beckett was lined up to be the campaign manager for an anticipated runoff in the absence of manager Chris Valentine, who got married and left on his honeymoon on Election Day . . . Almost unanimous . . . Travis County Commissioners did some finagling yesterday to try to get a unanimous vote on the authorization for $100 million in bonds that will be paid out to TxDOT the first week of June. Commissioner Ron Davis wanted to abstain because a member of his family works at First Southwest Financial Group. County Judge Sam Biscoe, however, wanted to break up the motion in order to have a unanimous vote. Biscoe made the point that Davis would approve the action if he could avoid voting on the participation of First Southwest. This vote, he argued, was on the bonds and not the team. Davis, however, decided it was best to continue to abstain, so the vote went down 4-0-1 . . . New leaders graduate . . . Mark Nathan, executive assistant to Council Member Will Wynn, and Patty Gonzales of the city’s Public Information Office graduated last night from the most recent Leadership Austin class. The group provides leadership training and education on a wide range of community issues to a diverse group of Austinites. Leadership Austin is currently recruiting for its 2002-2003 class . . . Gone to Mexico . . . John Breier and Charlotte Millard of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce are leading a delegation of business representatives from Austin to woo Mexican investors to Central Texas. The group is scheduled to leave this morning and will join delegations from other Texas cities in Mexico City. The trip is being sponsored by Texas Economic Development, which used to be called the Texas Department of Economic Development. “We plan to tell them about the favorable business climate in Austin and why it’s such an exciting place to be,” said Breier, adding that Austin serves as headquarters for 41 multinational corporations . . . You scream . . . Constable Bruce Elfant is holding his 10th annual Ice Cream Social this Sunday from 3 to 5pm at the AFL-CIO Auditorium, 1106 Lavaca. Admission is $15 and goes to the Capital Area Safe Kids Fund. Elfant is the only local elected official we know whose campaign holds annual benefits for worthy causes.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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