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Environmental Board recommends rules with caveats

Friday, November 15, 2002 by

The Environmental Board voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend the city’s proposed hazardous pipeline ordinance, despite the vocal opposition of residents attending the meeting. Board members, however, listened attentively to the concerns of citizens, many of whom live directly adjacent to the Longhorn pipeline in South Austin. Because of those concerns, the board put strict conditions on its recommendation, not just to mitigate unfair restrictions the ordinance would impose on homeowners, but also to enhance safety measures in the proposed law.

Like city staff working on the ordinance, the Board a tough job in balancing the rights and concerns of homeowners along pipeline routes with safety concerns for the community at large. Some citizens who spoke at the public hearing Wednesday night expressed support of the proposal’s intent safety goals, but railed at the injustice that certain restrictions would impose.

“I would not have bought the property if I had known I couldn’t add onto it,” Brent Romero told the board, expressing frustration over restrictions that could require him to build with stringent, bomb-proof standards if he chooses to extend his home. He said he’s lived near the Longhorn pipeline route for nine years, in a “rather modest house” that he had always planned to enlarge. “It’s an investment in my future,” he said. But his investment may go awry due to this proposed ordinance, he noted, and he doesn’t think it’s fair. He said when he bought the house, the city told him the pipeline was an “antiquated, vestige of history,” never to be used again.

Darrel Kelly, who said he lives less than 50 feet from the Longhorn pipeline, said the restrictions in the draft ordinance would impose astronomical costs for making modifications to the double-wide mobile home where he’s lived since the 1960s. If he built a patio room onto his home in accordance with the proposed ordinance, he said it would have to be built out of concrete and steel, and then sprayed with fireproofing material. He told the board he had gotten two estimates from contractors on such a project. One came in at $17,000, and the other at $23,000.

“To build a playroom for my granddaughter would cost $30,000,” he said, even though the value of his property in total comes only to $35,000.

“By your vote, your recommendation, you will make the decision that could destroy this neighborhood,” he said, adding that the restrictions in this ordinance would victimize him and his neighbors more than Longhorn and its pipeline partners would. The City Council will have final say on the city ordinance, but a decision by Travis County Commissioners will also impact those who live outside the city. (See below)

Barbara Morgan elicited applause from the crowded meeting room when she said the City of Austin now wants homeowners to pay for its past mistakes, and the costs are too high. She said she’s concerned the proposed ordinance will drive homeowners out of her neighborhood and turn it into a community of renters. She has lived about 150 feet from the Phillips pipeline for 22 years; she likes her neighborhood and doesn’t want to move, she said.

Scott Davis said he also felt let down by the city. “The pipeline is in my backyard too,” he said, and when he bought his house 17 years ago, he knew there was some risk involved, but the city told him it was safe and he believed it. Now, he said, 17 years later, “they’re saying it’s not safe.” This ordinance, he noted, is an official declaration that his property is unsafe. The result, he said, is a diminished property value.

Vice chair Tim Jones asked him “to explain exactly how this ordinance devalues your home.”

Davis said that restrictions in the proposed ordinance would make adding on to his home prohibitively expensive. “I think any restrictions you’re putting on these houses will diminish the value,” he said.

The public hearing followed a presentation by city staff on the proposed ordinance. Assistant City Attorney Mitzi Cotton explained that the goals of the ordinance are to prevent accidents, protect public and private property in the event of an accident and pay for damage in case an accident occurs. She said the ordinance only applies to hazardous liquid pipelines of eight inches or more in diameter.

The ordinance would require $50 million in general liability insurance and $40 million in environmental liability insurance per pollution incident or aggregate claim. An additional $1 million dollar per mile of environmental liability insurance would be provisionally required for each mile of pipeline in the city limits.

New construction, which includes additions to or reconstruction of existing structures, would be required to meet strict standards based on a minimum one-hour evacuation time in the event of a leak or fire associated with the pipeline. No new construction would be allowed within 200 feet of a pipeline without meeting certain standards for early detection and warning of a leak or fire. Certain types of facilities, such as hospitals, schools, daycare and retirement centers, among others, would be prohibited altogether.

“There were some who believed the ordinance was not strict enough,” Cotton said, noting how difficult it is to draft such an ordinance. “It’s a dilemma,” she said, “this is our best shot at it.”

Chuck Lezniak, with the Watershed Protection Development and Review Department, also said it had not been easy drafting the ordinance. “We’re very limited in what we can do,” he said, “in what regulations we can apply to the pipeline company.”

Board Member Phil Moncada asked about greenbelts used as recreation areas in pipeline easements. Lezniak said, “The ordinance is not intended to protect water quality. The ordinance is for life safety.”

Moncada said, “My concern would be access, not only for emergency vehicles, but for how people will get out of that area.”

Board Member Matt Watson asked why the proposed ordinance stipulates only primary schools not be built within 200 feet of pipelines. He asked why students at secondary schools wouldn’t be provided the same protection. “Is that because they can run faster?”

Political consultant Mike Blizzard said some of the issues in the ordinance dealing with smaller changes that would be associated with smaller properties were causing too much turmoil. “Is it really going to make a major change in public safety?” he asked. He said the ordinance needed to be changed so it would be fair to small property owners, and then he moved on to the big picture of public safety at large.

He said he had done extensive research on the subject and he brought stacks of documents to show board members how other cities around the country and in Canada had dealt with the issue of pipeline safety.

“I think the limits are too short. I say at least 500 feet for a school or a hospital or a daycare,” he said, dismissing the 200-foot limit stipulated in the ordinance. He noted that a common type of pipeline accident is an explosion, not just a leak or fire. The limits in this ordinance seem to be for an accident of less catastrophic proportions, he said. A study done by Radian Corp. and commissioned by Longhorn Partners, the owner of the pipeline, states that the projected area of impact from a gasoline spill that turns into an explosion is 921 feet.

After two-and-a-half hours, the board voted 7-0 to recommend the proposed ordinance with conditions. Among the conditions were provisions to extend restricted construction areas from 10 feet to 25 feet, and to extend prohibited-use areas from 200 feet to 500 feet. Secondary education facilities should be included in the prohibited-use areas, and new construction stipulations should be modified to accommodate homeowners to prevent punishing them for making modifications to their property.

Watson made the motion for approval, adding the condition to “allow staff to rewrite it to tailor it more narrowly to what we’re trying to do.”

Board Member Mary Gay Maxwell, who made the second, said staff needed to reword the ordinance to avoid punishing small property owners but still keep it a strong law to make pipeline areas “unappealing to new development.”

Secretary Karin Bongiorni (formerly Ascot) and Board Member Susana Almanza were absent.

Commissioners not prepared to issue opinion

Travis County Commissioners will take another week to put their thoughts to paper on the city’s proposed hazardous pipeline ordinance.

Environmental Officer John Kuhl presented an initial overview of the proposed ordinance to county commissioners this week, but they were not fully prepared to analyze it. Instead, County Judge Sam Biscoe asked Kuhl to make a list of implications and concerns to the county, as it applies to the extra-territorial jurisdiction. That list will go out to county commissioners this afternoon. Kuhl also promised to schedule a meeting with city officials before next week’s commissioner court meeting to review their comments.

Once the list is presented to Commissioners Court next week, it will go out to interested parties in the county, including the Real Estate Council of Austin and various environmental groups. A cover letter, list of county concerns and a copy of the ordinance will be sent out to all interested parties. Biscoe expressed some doubt the county could be prepared with both commissioners’ comments and feedback from county residents by the time the City Council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance Dec. 12.

Last session’s House Bill 1445 gives the city and county joint authority over subdivision plats. Senate Bill 873 gives the county the right to claim oversight authority similar to municipalities on various issues. The complication is that the city’s decisions—like those made on the hazardous pipeline ordinance, as it relates to subdivision plats—now have a direct impact on the county.

Kuhl said, “Welcome to the new world of regional planning.” He called it the “House Bill 1445/Senate Bill 873 conundrum.”

Kuhl explained his initial reservations about the ordinance to the court. Provisions to phase out manufactured housing near existing pipelines would impact communities in Dove Springs and Dittmar. The problem is an inability to meet one-hour evacuation standards. Kuhl also expressed some concerns about how the ordinance would affect the remodeling of existing homes in areas near pipelines. Both issues need to be addressed more fully in the final version of the ordinance, Kuhl said.

Biscoe compared the measures of the hazardous pipeline ordinance to the limitations on remodeling and rebuilding that FEMA sets after a flood incident.

Commissioners then voiced some of their own concerns. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner was concerned that communities were properly notified of the ordinance for public comment. Commissioner Ron Davis wondered about jurisdiction—where did the city’s authority end and the county’s authority pick up? That led to some discussion of whether the ordinance should be adopted countywide and how that would impact the extra-territorial jurisdiction of other cities. Travis County already holds House Bill 1445 agreements—interlocals to share platting authority—with Pflugerville and Lakeway.

Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols said the ordinance could be adopted in a piecemeal fashion. Commissioners could first pass an ordinance that applied only to the extra-territorial jurisdiction of the City of Austin, and then pass them for other jurisdictions as each one came on-line with the ordinance standards.

Still, House Bill 1445 presents thorny problems, Nuckols said. For many years, cities and counties have operated on different standards because the state has given them different authorities. The biggest challenge now, Nuckols said, is to present consistent standards.

Hiring Austin connections has former ACM in hot water

Former Austin Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner, who took over as city manager of Durham, North Carolina last year, has run into problems for hiring Austinites, among others, without following Durham’s city policies. According to reports in The Herald-Sun, Conner hired Byron Marshall’s consulting company in January to help organize a revitalization effort in a small area of Durham. Marshall, executive director of the Austin Redevelopment Authority (ARA), also has a consulting firm known as The Marshall Group.

Marshall was First Assistant City Manager for the City of Austin under City Manager Camille Barnett before Conner came to work for the city. He left that job in May, 1994 to become chief operating officer for Atlanta, Georgia. The ARA is an independent non-profit organization that has a contract with the City of Austin to redevelop the East 11th and 12th Street corridor.

Durham has a city policy requiring that the city advertise and get an RFP on all contracts of $10,000 or more. The contract with Marshall’s group is for $30,000. Durham’s City Council suspended Marshall’s work last week to determine what work has been done so far and how much is owed. Thirty thousand dollars is the amount for which Conner can contract without City Council approval. Former director of Austin’s Day Laborer Program Scott Lyles is now working for the city of Durham. His hiring and salary has also been questioned.

Conner is also accused of hiring the consulting firm of former Human Resources Director Ruth Ann Edwards without getting bids on one of two jobs awarded to that company, according to the Herald-Sun. Edwards left the City of Austin at the end of 2000. Neither she nor Marshall could be reached for comment Thursday. The Herald-Sun reports that “an anonymous group claiming to represent some 300 city employees has been lobbying the Durham City Council to fire” Conner. The City Council of Durham has scheduled an executive session for Monday to discuss Conner’s job performance.

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

Economic initiative on tap for next week . . . City Council Members Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley will be presenting their ideas for new economic development at next week’s City Council work session. Dunkerley is also scheduled to address the subject at the Downtown Austin Alliance’s gathering at 8am next Thursday . . . Hilton Party on . . . But hold the tree. Terri Dusek of the Landmark Organization says the Hilton Austin and Fifth Street Tower residences celebration is still going on as planned next Tuesday from 5:30 to 7:30pm at the Austin Convention Center. However, due to recent rains, Dusek said, not all of the concrete will be poured in time for a tree-topping ceremony scheduled for Wednesday. She said the project is still on track for early completion and the tree-topping party will be rescheduled soon. Landmark plans to use a live tree and donate it to the City of Austin . . . Young Artist to unveil billboard . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman will present a proclamation declaring today America Recycles Day in Austin at 10am this morning as student Brad Williams cuts the ribbon on a billboard featuring his winning poster. Williams is a seventh grader at O. Henry Middle School. The event will be at the parking lot across from APD Headquarters at 7th Street and I-35 . . . Jordan statue unveiling today . . . Legendary Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, for whom the ABIA Terminal is named, will be honored today as a life-size statue of her is unveiled at the airport. The event is scheduled for 1pm on the ground floor of the airport . . . Decision on Hyde Park lots postponed . . . The Board of Adjustment last night postponed a decision on whether to allow three lots in Hyde Park to be subdivided into two lots to accommodate separately owned single-family homes. The resulting lots would be 63 square feet under what is normally required and would need variances for setbacks from front and side streets. Members of the neighborhood association said they were opposed to the change because of the precedent it would set for the area. Chair Herman Thun and two other Board of Adjustment members said they were sympathetic, but vice chair Betty Edgemond said she could not support the necessary variances. Thun asked consultant Sarah Crocker if she would like to postpone the case until a full five-member board could hear the matter and she readily agreed.

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

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