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County will remain neutral on expansion applications to TNRCC

Thursday, June 6, 2002 by

Travis County Commissioners have chosen operating agreements over variances in the effort to add some oversight to the county’s existing landfills.

The operating agreements—which the county will sign with Texas Disposal Systems, Browning-Ferris Industries and Waste Management Incorporated —will be a big step forward for the county, which has been given little or no authority by the state to regulate landfills. The agreements will set standards for daily operation of the landfills, as well as possible fines or court action if landfills fail to meet their end of the bargain.

Both sides will get something out of the agreements: The county will get an instrument it can enforce in place of a state health code that is almost completely silent on the county’s ability to regulate the operation of landfills. Landfills, in exchange, get a guarantee from the county that Commissioners Court will remain neutral on expansion applications to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).

Neighbors faced with the current problems surrounding the two northeast landfills are still somewhat miffed that Commissioners Court would negotiate with the landfill operators at all. Neighborhood activist Trek English told commissioners it was time to stop the 10-year cycle of expansions for the WMI and BFI landfills.

“It’s not just ‘not in my backyard,’” English told commissioners, reiterating that operators came back year after year for exceptions. “It’s enough in my backyard!”

English said neighborhood residents hoped that the county could step in and do a better job than TNRCC at regulating the sites. She even went on to imply that it would be her hope that landfills could relocate away from the neighborhoods.

New state law allows the county to limit the locations of new landfills but grants no authority to regulate existing landfills. County Judge Sam Biscoe said the limitations the proposed ordinance places on new landfills cannot be applied to existing landfills. Siting requirements are not retroactive. Both BFI and WMI are permitted by the state for additional capacity that will take them into the next decade. That is something the county cannot stop, Biscoe said.

A written operating agreement, however, can put Travis County in a better position if a landfill operator breaches the terms of a contract, Biscoe said. Without a contract, the county “has not been given a whole lot of authority on existing landfills.” The best the county could do under current code was to make periodic checks and pass enforcement issues along to TNRCC. An operating agreement can set specific standards.

And, as Biscoe pointed out after the meeting, Travis County’s promise of neutrality does not necessarily guarantee expansion for WMI and BFI. TNRCC will make the final decision as to whether the two landfills will be entitled to vertical expansion.

To the neighborhoods, however, signing an operating agreement is somewhat akin to joining the enemy camp. John Hutchison, president of the Walnut Place Neighborhood Association told commissioners he had doubts about the ability of landfills to meet contracts. If the landfills can’t be trusted to operate legally now, “How in God’s name are you going to get them to operate properly in the future?” Hutchison asked.

Hutchison said the variance process was far more open to public comment. Contract negotiations between landfill operators and future commissioners could easily turn into “backroom deals,” Hutchison said, which drew some ire from Commissioner Karen Sonleitner. She told Hutchison all contracts approved by the Commissioners Court would be subject to an open court vote and public scrutiny.

Commissioners asked for three things next week:

• A revised version of the ordinance addressing some of the questions over definitions raised by the court;

• A model agreement for existing landfill operators; and

• A tentative agreement between the county and TDS.

In the interim, county officials will meet with landfill operators for more input.

The ordinance, when approved, will limit the location of new landfills, adding language that will put distance requirements between the operation of landfills and uses such as schools, neighborhoods and businesses. State law will allow the county to limit the placement of landfills, but it cannot be so difficult as to make it impossible to site one.

Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols told commissioners the day may come when the ordinance is so restrictive that it might be impossible to find a site for the landfill that would meet the requirements of the ordinance. Commissioner Margaret Gomez said she worried that this process might become so difficult in Travis County that the county might end up doing what it resented other counties doing: sending its waste to other counties. She worried that Travis County waste might end up in a county with less money and less of a voice from the people.

“We need to accept some responsibility for our waste. Where’s our responsibility here as citizens? I don’t think that’s being addressed at all,” Gomez said. “The need for landfills is going to remain, and increase as the community grows.”

Librach says he misunderstood Council's intention

City Manager Toby Futrell reacted to yesterday’s In Fact Daily story about the suspension of Smart Growth incentives by saying that neither she nor the City Council had made such a decision. Michelle Middlebrook Gonzalez, Public Information Officer for the city, said that during both City Council budget retreats the manager had talked to the Council about such a moratorium, but no decision was made. (See In Fact Daily, Wednesday, June 5, 2002 .)

Gonzalez said Futrell intends that projects—like Landmark’s Convention Center Hilton Hotel and 5th Street Towers—continue through the Smart Growth process. Austan Librach, Director of the Transportation Planning and Sustainability Department, said “There is new information that I’ve become aware of . . . I was mistakenly under the impression that we were waiting” until the City Council takes action on the 2002-2003 budget. “That hasn’t happened. The City Council did not direct staff to wait until they had deliberated . . . and they have told staff to continue to bring Smart Growth incentives forward.” Librach indicated that the Council would be looking at the impact of the incentives after hearing from the Economic Development Task Force.

Asked how incentives and fee waivers are handled, Librach noted that some developments received fee waivers before beginning work but many others paid the fees, progressed with construction and were reimbursed after the project was finished. He said he is hopeful that future developments will be reimbursed rather than receiving fee waivers prior to construction. Some projects have received such waivers but have not been completed since the economic downturn.

In addition to fee waivers, Smart Growth incentives include building of sidewalks with Capital Improvement Projects and Great Streets money. The Water & Wastewater Utility also reimburses Smart Growth developers who do their own utility hook-ups. Librach said the utility is willing to make those payments “as long as the project has a 10-year breakeven payback.”

New and improved . . . In Fact Daily has reorganized its archives, back copies of In Fact Daily and its predecessor the weekly InFact. If you have ever tried to use the archives, you may have shared the editor’s frustration. In the past, responses came back in alphabetical order, rather than in the more common chronological order. That has changed, we are pleased to report. Click here to reach the Archives: . . . SOS celebrates . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance is planning a party Friday at Barton Springs from 3-10pm, in celebration of “the soul of our city, Barton Springs,” and recognizing the 12th anniversary of the June 7, 1990 City Council meeting that brought more than 900 concerned citizens to protest the Freeport PUD proposal. The Council unanimously rejected the PUD. Part of the celebration will be videos of citizen speakers from that all-night hearing. SOSA is still fighting, of course. The Stratus Properties proposal is close to the top of their agenda, as is the Hill Country Galleria, proposed for the intersection of Texas 71, Bee Cave Road and RM 620. The Village of Bee Caves is considering whether to grant financial incentives to the developer for the 1.3 million square foot mall. That vote is currently scheduled for June 25. For more information on the SOSA objection, visit . . . All about water from the City of Austin . . . The Water and Wastewater Utility’s new Strategic Water Resources plan is available—on CD. Director Chris Lippe says putting the information in a digital format will make it easier to update each year. The plan covers facilities for water, wastewater and reclaimed water . . . A busy summer for South First Street . . . Drivers who commute downtown on South First are being warned that the street between Ben White Blvd and Barton Springs Road will become one long construction zone so the department can replacement existing water and wastewater lines. Traffic will be reduced to one lane in each direction, but driveways will be maintained. Construction is scheduled to begin in late June. After that section is completed, South First between Barton Springs and West Avenue will go under the jackhammer. During the third phase, work will be done on the street between West Annie and Oltorf. Phases 4 and 5 will continue southward.

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

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