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The City of Austin got good news yesterday from agencies sampling water and sediment in connection with allegations by the Austin American-Statesman that Barton Springs Pool is unsafe for human use. Both the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) reported no detectable benzo(a)pyrene in water from the pool or from Town Lake.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003 by

In addition, preliminary results from core samples from the hillside and the edge of the parking lot where the Statesman theorized waste from a coal gasification plant had been buried indicated no such waste there. City Manager Toby Futrell said, “We’re obviously waiting for all the final samples to be in and a conclusion that all four agencies (Texas Department of Health, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Environmental Protection Agency) can sign off on, but I’m obviously very pleased that we’re getting confirmation of our numbers.” Those four agencies will decide on the best way to remediate the pollution that the city has found in the past. The city believes that a coal tar based pavement sealer caused the high levels of benzo(a)pyrene found in the ravine. (See In Fact Daily Jan. 24, 2003, Jan. 20, 2003 .)

In addition to sampling water, TCEQ tested sediment from the deep end of Barton Springs Pool, finding it contained .75ppm of benzo(a)pyrene—well below the level considered a public health concern, according to TCEQ spokesman Patrick Crimmins. Last week, the TCEQ, which is cooperating with other agencies in the process, reported a high level of benzo(a) pyrene in soil from a ravine below the hillside. The hillside is downhill from the Barton Creek Park Place Apartments.

The most important new data released yesterday concerned the core samples from that parking lot. Futrell described the core sampling as a three-step process, comparing it to coring a pineapple. When a core is removed from the earth, a visual inspection will show whether there are different levels of sedimentation. “If there are coal products there’s a discoloration in the fill,” she said. “And all 10 samples (from the parking lot area) have not shown that discolored layer.” In addition, a preliminary analysis of six of the 10 core samples shows no coal products. The remaining four samples from the parking lot were visually clear, she said, although the city has not received results from those tests.

“We’re fairly close to good news . . . every day that goes by and every consultation . . we’re just increasingly encouraged that what our original data showed and our conclusions are borne out,” Futrell said. The City Manager said she had been surprised by how quickly things were moving. While she would not speculate on a date for reopening the pool, Futrell said, “As soon as I have a report signed off on by all four agencies, I am going to throw a party at the pool—free swimming for everybody.” She also expressed her gratitude to the many citizens who expressed a desire to help the city. A number of Barton Springs Pool swimmers, for example, have said they would do anything they could to help—including having blood tests to prove that prolonged exposure to the pool is not a health hazard. “It has been a very reasoned and proud response.”

Patrick Crimmins of TCEQ pointed out that a number of reporters seemed to have missed the point that Barton Creek does not flow into Barton Springs or the pool—except during heavy rains. The high readings of benzo(a)pyrene were found in a ravine that drains into Barton Creek. However, the creek flows into Town Lake. The LCRA tested for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), like benzo(a)pyrene, as well as for arsenic, mercury and lead. “None of the samples contained any detectable levels of PAHs,” according to LCRA spokesman Bill McCann. Barely detectable levels of arsenic and lead were found. The agency tested at six different sites along Town Lake last week and plans to do another test after the next heavy rain. “This will give scientists an idea of whether any of the contaminants in question are present in the water after sediment is stirred up during and after rains or whether contaminants are present in the stormwater washing into the lake,” said Lisa Hatzenbuehler manager of water quality protection for LCRA.

Council Member Darryl Slusher, who is heading up a Council task force on Barton Springs and Barton Creek, added, “It’s very encouraging to get those results back but we still need to work on this issue—and we need to clean up all the pollution of all the creeks. I hope this is a turning point and folks will pay more attention to water quality in the future.”

Additional sales tax used to leverage highway funds

Senator Bill Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant) backed off his threat to dismantle the popular economic development sales tax he helped create back in 1989, but he still has plans to close loopholes in current legislation.

When Ratliff authored the legislation for the 4A and 4B taxes more than a decade ago, the additional sales taxes were intended to jump-start industry and improve the quality of life in smaller cities. More than 500 Texas cities subsequently created economic funding corporations from 4A and 4B sales tax funds.

Arlington used the funds to build the Ballpark at Arlington. It has brought Kraft Foods to Kilgore and EZ-FLO to Rockwall. But it has also paid for an executive’s house in Amarillo and has been used as cash incentives to lure businesses from the Metroplex to the small town of Frisco. Those uses raised red flags for both Ratliff and Sen. Kim Brimer (R-Ft. Worth), who have both suggested abolishing the taxes.

At a Real Estate Council of Austin luncheon yesterday, Round Rock Mayor Nyle Maxwell said the additional sales tax funds have allowed his city to leverage funding on 18 road projects the city intends to complete between now and 2005—for an additional $147 million worth of roadway in the city. Accessibility, Maxwell said, is the only way to attract new commerce.

The Mayors Alliance, a loose coalition of Central Texas mayors, intends to lobby in favor of maintaining the 4A and 4B funding for economic development and infrastructure projects, Maxwell told RECA. The annual $10 million in additional revenue is crucial to fund new arterials throughout the city, Maxwell said. It’s not just what they can buy, he said; it’s what they can leverage.

“These monies have enabled us to go to the county and to TxDOT and put money on the table to get these projects moving,” Maxwell said after the meeting. “It just makes it more desirable for them to participate in these projects. It’s a real advantage for us.”

Yesterday, Ratliff confirmed he might change his thinking on what needs to be done to correct the abuse of economic development sales tax funds. Initially, Ratliff suggested two options: placing the economic development corporations under the oversight of a state agency, or simply abolishing the 4A and 4B sales taxes altogether. Now he’s looking at other solutions.

“We need to look at some possible remedies or changes,” Ratliff said. “How much we change is one of those things we have to consider . . . I do happen to agree that cities putting cash out to pay for bounty hunters should be ended.”

That appeared to be a slap at Frisco, which has been criticized by its neighbors for offering cash for relocations. Ratliff also wants to tighten language in the legislation to make sure cities are spending the extra tax dollars on the projects voters intended to fund. Legislation should provide a penalty for those who spend funds on projects that are not authorized by the voters, Ratliff said.

Final recommendations still several months away

The Historic Landmark Commission will take another month to consider its recommendation on the codification of the Downtown Austin design guidelines.

A total of 13 guidelines will be sent to City Council for codification. Katie Larson, a planner in the Transportation Planning and Sustainability Department made a presentation, her second, to the HLC on Monday night. However, after arguments from Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance and agent Mike McHone, the HLC decided to take more time to consider its decision.

McHone argued that the guidelines would hurt smaller projects downtown, especially the Floor-To-Area (FAR) ratio of 3-to-1 in the Central Business District. These rules penalize the developer who wants to create an interim use for a smaller building in the downtown area, he said. McHone frequently represents those smaller developers before the Historic Landmark Commission.

“There is always the law of unintended consequences,” McHone said. “We want to make sure the big projects are nice, but there are a lot of little folks who can be hurt by these rule changes. Often, they are not aware of them until after the fact.”

The argument resonated with HLC commissioners, who are used to countering many of the city’s pro-development arguments. Commissioner Jean Mather suggested the commission look at the issue in detail.

“I think there are a lot of questions,” Mather said. “I’m finding it hard to believe I am agreeing with Mike McHone, but I do.”

That drew a laugh from Mather’s colleagues. Betts said the guidelines would put additional requirements on downtown developers, already strapped by the high cost of land and the disincentive of older infrastructure. The codification of design guidelines “will make it more difficult and more discouraging to develop in our downtown,” Betts told commissioners.

The Downtown Austin Alliance has recommended codification on the following four requirements:

• The clarification on tinting of windows

• The required one-star Green Building standard

• Adding Wooldridge Park to the Downtown Park District • Waiving fees for overhead cover on downtown buildings

Betts also argued that codification would make “Smart Growth incentives go away,” but Larsen countered that if some points disappeared from the matrix, others could be added.

Commissioner Patti Hall suggested the HLC limit its recommendation to those guidelines that applied to historic buildings. The HLC agreed to create a subcommittee on the issue. That subcommittee will bring recommendations back to the full commission in February.

Larsen said a recommendation would not be taken to the Council until all affected commissions had made their own recommendations. So far, the Downtown Commission has recommended no codification of the guidelines and the Parks and Recreation Board has supported all guidelines that applied to parks. The Urban Transportation Commission approved all code amendments with the exception of the minimum FAR for downtown. Zoning and Platting sent the guidelines to a subcommittee. The Design Commission is expected to vote on its recommendations on the downtown guidelines next week.

Larsen told In Fact Daily on Tuesday she expects the City Council to consider the final recommendations for downtown design rules early this summer.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Work session to focus on discrimination . . . The Mayor’s Coalition Against Housing Discrimination will report to the Council on how the group plans to tackle the problem, which was highlighted by a federal report last fall. The report showed that Austin has one of the worst records in housing discrimination among US cities. Those controversial downtown transportation recommendations are also on the agenda . . . New RMA member named . . . Williamson County Commissioners named Mike Robinson to the board of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority on Tuesday. Robinson, a former Mayor of Round Rock, will fill the spot vacated by Bob Tesch when he was appointed by Governor Rick Perry to be the chair of the RMA board. Robinson was elected to the City Council of Round Rock in 1978, and elected Mayor in 1984. He served until 1993. He served as treasurer of the Roads Now Political Action Committee, set up to promote a road bond package passed by Williamson County voters in 2000. The board of the Central Texas RMA holds its first meeting today at 9am in Round Rock . . . Aquifer district to meet . . . The Board of Directors of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District will meet at the District office located at 1124 Regal Row at 6pm Thursday . . . Travis Co. Deputy Sheriff honored . . . County commissioners honored Chief Deputy Dan T. Richards at Tuesday morning’s meeting. Richards is retiring from the Travis County Sheriff’s Office after 22 years of service. A resolution honoring Richards was followed by a curious speech by Mary Aleshire, who said Richards was once her Sunday school teacher—before police met her at the door of Central Christian Church last year and told her not to return. Mary Aleshire is the ex-wife of former county judge Bill Aleshire . . . Landfill regulations to be considered later . . . County commissioners have put off the landfill ordinance and an accompanying report on enforcement compliance for another two weeks. Recommendations on StarFlight are likely to be the centerpiece of next week’s meeting . . . Contract questioned . . . Commissioner Gerald Daugherty raised a red flag on $17,000 in contract modifications on the Ferguson Lane/Tuscany Way design project, questioning whether the county should have anticipated the road’s annexation into the city. The annexation required the city to rework some aspects of the design. Daugherty said he was satisfied by the design on the project, which was 10 years in the making and begun long before annexation was considered. The total budget on the project still remains under its $2 million budget.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights

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