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A year after the Commissioners Court started its efforts to craft a landfill-siting ordinance, the court is no closer to stopping the expansion of existing facilities.

Wednesday, December 4, 2002 by

Under state law, landfill owners have a right to expand landfills, regardless of what the county wants. Neighbors have the right to protest those landfills, but Texas counties have no authority to stop permit amendments or landfill expansions, even when they have questions about the landfill’s operations.

With negotiations over operating agreements with existing landfills stalled—or as Environmental Officer John Kuhl termed it, on hiatus—there’s little the county can do. Yesterday, the court discussed a 10-foot height increase for Browning Ferris Industry’s Sunset Farms landfill at Highway 290 and Giles Road, an increase that had already been approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county wanted to address the noise, dust and odor objections raised by neighbors, but the court had to see proof. There may be violations at the landfill, said Biscoe, but the county needs evidence. And it needed to be properly posted for the county to consider.

“If we start taking enforcement action, not only do we have to have the authority, we have to have the facts to back up whatever action we take,” Biscoe said. “So if we can get those, I say we go for it, we do something about it.”

But the county’s desire to control landfill operations is not going to stop a permit amendment that has already been issued by the state.

TCEQ, formerly the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, approved the 10-foot addition on Oct. 22. The neighbors filed a protest on Nov. 12, only two days before the state’s protest deadline. Between now and Dec. 14, the general counsel for the TCEQ will consider the neighbors’ protest and decide whether to put the height amendment back on the agenda for the state agency to reconsider. If no action is taken before the end of the year, the one-time 10-foot height increase will be granted.

The premise of a proposed county landfill-siting ordinance was to give the county some say about the addition of new landfills and some control over the operation of existing landfills. Commissioners Court sent Kuhl away in June to craft an operating agreement with BFI and Waste Management, both of whom own landfills in Northeast Travis County. Those operating agreements would hold the landfill operators to a standard of conduct and give the county some quantitative proof when opposing landfill expansions.

But the budget and elections intervened in the process, Kuhl said. BFI attorney Paul Gosselink says the company is still willing to meet the letter of an operating agreement. Commissioner Ron Davis’ recent move to codify regulations on everything but existing landfills was roundly rejected by other members of the Commissioners Court.

Yesterday, Davis put the approved 10-foot expansion of the Sunset Hills landfill on the agenda, but commissioners had little to say about it. The amendment had already been approved by TCEQ, the comment period was over and the county could do nothing to stop the permit.

The 10-foot height amendment is not a full-scale permit application since TCEQ staff can approve it administratively. BFI estimates that it has about 6.5 years left on the site. The amendment would give the landfill an additional year to 18 months of life.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner told landfill opponents there was little the court could do. The state had given its blessing to the permit, the expansion did not require a site development permit and the construction was more than 500 feet outside the flood plain, at least according to the latest diagrams submitted by BFI engineers.

Melanie McAfee, who co-owns the Barr Mansion with her husband Mark, said the landfills are “great big juggernauts” that are rolling over regulations. Each small assent by the county to BFI’s requests just makes a big problem bigger, she said.

“Someone needs to look at the big picture. That is not what I am hearing today,” McAfee said. “So many things are happening, and they need to be looked at. For you to just listen to the landfill and just look at this one little thing . . . that is the wrong way to look at the issue . . . We have a serious violation out there and we need your help.”

Activist Trek English reiterated the issues of blowing trash and litter, excessive dust and noise, and improper erosion on the site. Biscoe said the posting on yesterday’s agenda was too narrow to consider such issues, but he encouraged the neighbors to either submit questions that the county could address or arrange a face-to-face meeting with BFI between now and Dec. 17 to express their concerns directly.

Gosselink said he considered the issue of the 10-foot height amendment to be resolved, given its approval by TCEQ. He said the additional height would give the landfill operator the ability to address drainage issues and move the face of the landfill where trash is deposited away from the roadway. The permit includes the addition of two sedimentation ponds along the western boundary of the site to reduce sediment erosion into nearby Walnut Creek.

Gosselink said he would “love to reach an agreement with the neighbors” and to comply with an operating agreement.

The Design Commission Monday night sought a deeper understanding of what the Smart Growth incentives actually accomplish. The city is now considering whether to codify the Smart Growth guidelines and abandon its current incentive program. Such a move would require all developers to meet higher standards, but could discourage them with its higher costs.

Planner George Adams addressed commissioners’ questions on the issue. They wanted to know if the hundreds of thousands of dollars the city deducts from the cost of development really constitutes the make-or-break point on a decision to relocate downtown, or simply a carrot dangled in front of developers to set more desirable design guidelines.

“Our concern, to a great extent, was that basically we want to attract people to come into downtown,” Chair Juan Cotera told Adams. “If we codify and pull so much out of the incentive program, will it lead people to go somewhere where it’s cheaper to build? At what point does that happen?”

Commissioners wanted to see some hard data on whether all developers should be required to meet the guidelines under Smart Growth, or if incentives should be used to encourage developers to choose the set of design principles set out by the city, as many in the Downtown Austin Alliance have suggested.

According to a roster of Smart Growth matrix projects presented to the Design Commission, the city has offered almost $20 million in fee waivers and incentives to about a dozen projects. That includes $2.1 million for the expired site plans of the Austin Market Place, which is being reconfigured as Sixth + Lamar. The total value the projects would contribute to the tax rolls, minus Austin Market Place, is estimated at $600 million.

Adams told commissioners that the single most expensive guideline would be streetscape improvements, although he hesitated to name the cost of configuring ground floor space for development might be.

Adams told developers he considered the matrix to be something that brought higher quality construction to downtown, but not a make-or-break issue for developers to place a project downtown. The trend in development, in general, has moved toward the central city, Adams said. Cotera agreed.

“I think the reason why developers want to develop downtown doesn’t really have a lot to do with incentives,” Cotera said. “It has a lot to do with them wanting to go downtown.”

And while the kinds of incentives Smart Growth has offered has been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s not been on the scale of the CSC project or the ill-fated Intel project, Adams said. Those were much more substantial incentives.

Adams said that only some downtown projects have come to the table for Smart Growth points. The Brazos Lofts, Avenue Lofts and many of the newer downtown restaurants like PF Chang’s and Fleming’s did not go through the evaluation process. The city also has not submitted the plans for the Long Center, City Hall or the Palmer Events Center. Commissioners expressed a desire to see city projects go through the design process, even if they were unlikely to take incentive dollars.

Faced with the issue of incentives, commissioners agreed the additions to the tax roll far outweighed the cost of the incentives to the city. Cotera said it might be time to consider a more organized funding mechanism for incentives rather than waived fees. Commissioners agreed to approach Council Members Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley on the subject, as they are spearheading an economic development task force.

Sheriff Margo Frasier was on the losing end of a fight yesterday to let her deputies take vehicles home when they live outside of Travis County.

Voters criticized incumbent candidates during the election for allowing deputies to drive Travis County vehicles to homes in Hays, Williamson and Bastrop counties. According to Frasier, 261 vehicles in her fleet are assigned to employees to take home, 120 to homes outside of Travis County. About 250 of those employees are law enforcement officers.

Current county policy requires vehicles owned by Travis County to remain in Travis County. That policy was put into place in January 2002. Frasier asked that the policy be waived for deputies living in outlying counties and certain administrative staff that work crime scenes.

Frasier had several reasons why the car take-home policy makes sense for her department. The policy encourages employees to be accountable for their own vehicles. It allows the county to deploy resources rapidly. And the county lacks the resources to properly patrol a designated area for vehicles—each outfitted with about $18,000 of law enforcement equipment—after hours.

To County Judge Sam Biscoe, the issue is money. Frasier’s argument that all deputies are on call at all times did not win him over. Christian Smith, executive director of the county’s Planning and Budget Office, estimated the cost of out-of-county vehicles to be $81,000 a year. He came up with that figure by multiplying the number of cars by 15—a conservative estimate of the number of miles the cars would be driven outside the county each day—and then again by the vehicle-mile expenses.

Frasier insisted the county would not save that money. Instead, she suggested the county would likely lose it because of wear and tear on vehicles. The take-home policy allows the county to maintain a vehicle for three or four years. The pool situation for Austin Police Department vehicles is that most last no more than 18 months, Frasier said.

The Commissioners Court was split on the issue. Commissioners Gerald Daugherty and Karen Sonleitner consider the cars a basic benefit of the job, one pledged to deputies who lag 7 to 10 percent behind the Austin Police Department in salary. Sonleitner pointed out that some deputies in Travis County drive further to their post than driving in from Williamson County. She proposed a motion to disallow take-home cars for administrative staff, but waive the county policy for law enforcement personnel. Daugherty agreed, which split the Commissioners Court 2-3.

Biscoe proposed a motion to enforce the county policy, but asked the sheriff to bring back justification for exceptions to the policy next week. Exceptions will be considered by the court on a case-by-case basis, said Biscoe, who was joined by Commissioners Ron Davis and Margaret Gomez.

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

No health care subcommittee this week . . . The City Council health care subcommittee did not meet Tuesday for lack of a quorum . . . Alvarez checking out tech opportunities in Monterrey . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez spent yesterday in Monterrey, Mexico, meeting with city officials to learn about the area’s resources. The Mexico Trade Center at Austin’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will be assisting Monterrey, which is hoping to become a high-tech center like Austin. Alvarez hopes to share Austin’s experiences to aid the sister city in that effort . . . Downtown street decisions this week . . . After postponing the matter indefinitely last summer and again in November, the City Council is scheduled on Thursday to once more consider whether to alter traffic patterns in downtown Austin. The part of the DAMP (downtown Austin mobility plan) generating the most angst is conversion of certain downtown one-way streets to two-way and prohibiting left hand turns from Congress to numbered streets during certain hours. The proposal to eliminate left turns from Lamar to W. 5th and 6th Streets during peak hours is apparently dead. The Council has scheduled a hearing on the plan for 5pm. Staff is likely to present the non-controversial parts of the plan as one item and single out the less popular section for individual consideration. Council Member Danny Thomas has put an item on the agenda to direct the City Manager to study recommendations from the Urban Transportation Commission and come back with a report on downtown transportation projects in 90 days. Thomas also is supporting a proposal to enact a new ordinance regulating underground gasoline storage tanks over the aquifer recharge and transition zones . . . Wynn has questions about annexed areas . . . Council Member Will Wynn has an item on this week’s Council agenda to direct the City Manager to conduct a review of nine areas annexed in 1997. Some residents of those areas— US 183 East, US 183 West, Balcones Village, Davenport Ranch, Four Points, Village at Western Oaks, Southwestern, Carson Creek and Circle C—believe the city has not met all of its commitments to provide city services equal to what other parts of the city receive . . . Brown Santa needs help . . . Those who want to donate a toy to the Brown Santa program will have a chance at the Classic Cars and Street Rods Show this Sunday. Brown Santa volunteers will be on hand all day, hoping to fill a 12-yard dump truck with toys. The show will be at Charity Auction Depot, 5120 Highway 71, in Garfield. For more information, call Charity Auction Depot at 512-247-5144 or Brown Santa Headquarters at 247-2682 . . . Daugherty takes Moore’s place on boards . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court has approved appointing Gerald Daugherty to the boards on which interim commissioner Margaret Moore had previously served. Those include a seat on the Austin/San Antonio Corridor Council and CAPCO Board. Daugherty was also appointed to serve with County Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioner Karen Sonleitner on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board (CAMPO).

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

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