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Operators want to expand, extend northeast landfills

Wednesday, May 29, 2002 by

The fate of existing solid waste landfills in Northeast Travis County was the major topic at a marathon session of the Travis County Commissioners Court yesterday.

Commissioners heard almost four hours of testimony from both landfill operators and neighborhood activists. Much of the discussion revolved around whether variances or contracts should be used to negotiate with existing landfill operators.

Commissioners voiced no opinion on the topic, but landfill operators called the use of a contract between the county and existing operators a “win-win” situation. Commissioners would get the control over landfills they wanted, said landfill representatives. Landfill operators would get a non-political guarantee that if they met contract standards, they could continue and possibly expand their operations.

It was probably no surprise that neighborhood groups did not greet such a compromise with open arms. John Hutchison, president of the Walnut Place Neighborhood Association, told commissioners that existing landfill operators Waste Management Inc. (WMI) and Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) had failed to meet past promises and could not be trusted to meet the terms of any negotiated contract.

Other neighborhood activists agreed with Hutchison and scorned recent additions like a security fence around the landfills as a “too little, too late” tactic to try to win favor with the county. Many neighbors expressed no faith in the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission ( TNRCC), saying the county was the best way to regulate existing operators. However, the county has been given little power by the state to dictate day-to-day operations of landfills.

After a late-afternoon executive session, County Judge Sam Biscoe directed staff to draft language with two subsections dealing with existing landfills. One subsection would address variances for existing landfills and the other would consider contracts. Commissioners will pick the direction the county intends to go at next week’s meeting.

WMI and BFI both made team presentations to the court. The content of those presentations was not a reflection on the proposed ordinance but a list of concessions landfill operators would agree to meet if the county would sign off on each existing landfill’s expansion.

Attorney Paul Gosselink joined the team from BFI and told commissioners the company had been intending to expand the Sunset Farms landfill for the last 18 months, but put the plan on hold during the negotiation of the current landfill-siting ordinance. Gosselink claimed that the landfill, despite contrary claims by detractors, had made significant progress treating odor problems.

Gosselink said BFI would agree to extensive restrictions from the county in exchange for a one-time lateral and vertical expansion of the landfill. The Sunset Farms landfill is seven years from the end of its useful life. Consultant John Worrell presented the plan for a two-tiered landfill that would add another 65 feet to the landfill’s height and another 11 years to the landfill’s life span. That’s less than the maximum TNRCC would allow, which could add another 25 years and 190 feet to the site, Gosselink said.

Compliance issues BFI agreed to address included odor, dust and litter control, as well as additional monitoring wells and extensive landscaping from all sides. The height of the landfill would be pushed to the back of the landfill, away from surrounding neighborhoods.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner expressed some skepticism that BFI would stop with one expansion. Gosselink said the contract would be “an enforceable agreement” for the county. The dimensions of the landfill would be clearly outlined under the contract and limited by county ordinance and state law.

“The difference between a variance versus a contract is enforceability,” Gosselink said. “If you have a contract, both parties’ obligations are set out clearly, and each gets to enforce the other party’s obligations through whatever vehicle the contract determines.”

That could include fines against BFI, Gosselink said. A variance does not provide that opportunity and does not set specific performance criteria for the landfill operator. Gosselink also agreed to Biscoe’s request for regular status reports on the performance of the landfill.

“From the company’s point of view, there’s a certainty associated with a contract,” Gosselink said. “A variance is a political decision that could put everything everyone has worked for into doubt.”

WMI, led by attorney John Joseph, presented a similar, though less detailed, proposal. Worrell also presented WMI’s landscape plans for the 290-acre Austin Community Landfill along Giles Road. The operator would agree to vegetative buffers along the south and north property lines in exchange for an additional 65-foot vertical expansion. That would create similar heights for both the BFI and neighboring WMI landfills.

A contract, with terms similar to BFI’s, would create definitive limits and create certainty for the landfill operator, Joseph said. It would give the landfill operator the ability to plan effectively and the county the authority it needs to regulate the site. The county, under the contract, would be given regulation authority similar to that of TNRCC, Joseph said.

Neighborhood representatives want zoning put on hold

Over two dozen neighborhood activists, environmentalists, city staff and members of the Zoning and Platting Commission gathered Tuesday evening for the first meeting of the ZAP Stratus Task Force Subcommittee. The topic of discussion was the proposed rezoning of 14 tracts owned by Stratus in South and Southwest Travis County. While the proposed rezonings and the city’s proposed settlement with Stratus have both been discussed before the full ZAP (see In Fact Daily, May 09, 2002), Tuesday night’s meeting was designed to allow commissioners and citizens to delve into the specific details of the issues surrounding each tract.

John Larkin of the Cherry Creek on Brodie Neighborhood Association, who requested putting a hold on zoning cases, questioned the duties of the task force. “We’re looking at this as a precedent-setting case,” Larkin said. “This is a one-time shot for us as far as Southwest Austin goes, where we have the ability to impact master planning. What you do here is setting a precedent for all future zoning cases in this area. We’re really wary of it, and would prefer to have a master plan in place and lot-by-lot traffic impact analysis done before we move forward.” There has been some study of traffic issues in the area, but not to the level of detail requested by Larkin and other neighborhood representatives.

ZAP Chair Betty Baker attempted to find some common ground for all parties early in the meeting by bringing up a tract she predicted would not be controversial. Tract 109, located just west of Dahlgreen and south of La Crosse Blvd, is an irregularly shaped lot that Stratus does not intend to develop. (See http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/news/02/images/cir_c_strat_8x11.jpg for a map of the tracts) However, under the terms of the proposed settlement with the city the company would be allowed to include that empty land when calculating the overall impervious cover on all of the lots in question. The practice is being referred to as an impervious cover “bucket” from which the company could draw, concentrating development on some tracts while leaving others vacant. Nearby residents objected, saying the company shouldn’t receive credit for refraining from developing land that it did not plan to develop anyway. “This skews it to a lower average,” said Ellen Smith, representing the New Village of Western Oaks. Amy Rupp, representing the Circle C Neighborhood Association, agreed. “We don’t want the credits in the ‘bucket,’” she said. Homeowners had similar concerns about tracts 111, 112 and 113, which under the settlement would be dedicated to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

In order to compensate for the large amounts of open space on those tracts, Stratus is requesting permission for additional development on other tracts. The proposed zoning for land at the northeast corner of SH 45 and FM 1826, tract 114, would change from Interim-Rural Residential to GR-CO (Community Commercial with a Conditional Overlay). Neighborhood association representatives said they were concerned about the additional traffic that could accompany a GR-zoned business and instead suggested the lower-density LR (neighborhood residential) zoning. They voiced similar concerns about traffic that could be associated with development on tract 103, which is just north of West Slaughter Lane and Escarpment Boulevard. Representatives of the SOS Alliance also objected to the proposed zoning change for that tract, citing the impervious cover that would be allowed there.

The discussion of individual tracts and the merits of their respective zoning cases took up the bulk of the meeting. Baker told task force members that they would not be allowed to discuss the proposed agreement between the city and Stratus that has prompted the cases to be brought forward. “It’s going to be removed from the agenda,” she said, noting that the step did not imply any assumption regarding Stratus development rights under either Chapter 245 of the Texas Local Government Code or HB 1704.

Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry provided a legal explanation for limiting the scope of the task force. “The attorneys for the City of Austin do not share an attorney-client relationship with the members of this task force,” she explained. Terry advised task force members they could present their questions or complaints about the city’s negotiations directly to the City Council. There is also a summary of the proposed agreement on the city’s web site, and the settlement has been discussed at various neighborhood meetings and at a previous ZAP Committee meeting. Still, Rupp was upset that the item would be removed from future task force agendas. “This is bizarre,” she said. “If we want to say, ‘we don’t want any of this,’ that’s apropos to any discussion of a community-wide task force, and that’s directly related to HB 1704 .”

Baker intends to hold two more task force meetings before the zoning cases return to the ZAP June 25. The case is currently scheduled to be heard by the City Council on June 27, but that date is likely to change, since Mayor Gus Garcia will be out of town for much of the month.

here for Monday ,,

Friday.

Condolences to Jesus Garza . . . Austin’s former city manager lost his mother this weekend. Hortencia Garza was 75, according to a spokesperson for Seaside Memorial at 4357 Ocean Drive in Corpus Christi, where the funeral is scheduled for 10am today . . . Who’s minding the store? . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez was the only member of the City Council at City Hall yesterday, with the others either on vacation or attending other events. Mayor Gus Garcia was on his way to Laredo to give the commencement speech at his old high school—52 years after his own graduation . . . Deconstruction at Mueller . . . The old airport building is not being demolished, says the City of Austin, it is being taken apart in a careful manner so that pieces can be reused by the appropriate parties. The deconstruction, which is being done by ICE Contractors of Dallas and Lopez Building Material Recovery and Deconstruction Services of Austin, is part of the city’s sustainability program. The team is hoping to sell the terminal, rotunda and concourse as complete units, noting that the rotunda and concourse would be ideal for use in building warehouses or other commercial or industrial buildings. For more information, contact John Lopez, pager 209-4993; Andrew McGarran, pager 202-7730; or Jim McKee at 972-670-5146 . . . Intel nearing end of appraisal period . . . Fred Shannon, external affairs manager for Intel, told In Fact Daily yesterday that the chip-maker is reaching the end of its appraisal of the unfinished downtown building, but is not yet ready to name a completion date for that part of the process. After that is done, Intel will be contacting all those who have inquired about purchasing the building and seeing which ones qualify to make the deal. The city had earlier valued the property at $5.3 million and hopes that a major employer will scoop up the prime location . . . Cap Metro meeting today . . . The board of Capital Metro will meet at 4pm today. The General Manager is to report on light rail, the prime topic for a great many quiet conversations around the city. The discussions begin with the wisdom of having another light rail election in November and proceed to what route won’t stir up South Congress merchants once again. And will Gerald Daugherty, as he runs for County Commissioner, run against the Capital Metro board or against his opponent, appointed Commissioner Margaret Moore? Finally, how much money would Austin lose by sitting out this funding cycle?

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

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