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Scientist says Statesman has applied the wrong rules to the data

Tuesday, April 1, 2003 by

The Austin American-Statesman, continuing on the persistent theme that swimming in Barton Springs Pool could be hazardous to human health, said Saturday that recent samples show lower levels of cancer-causing PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), but then asserted that those levels “exceed state sediment guidelines.”

Michael Honeycutt, who holds a PhD in toxicology, was the source of those numbers and strongly disagrees with the reporter’s conclusions. Honeycutt, senior toxicologist with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), has been leading that agency’s investigation of possible toxins in the pool and Barton Creek. Honeycutt said yesterday, “If I thought there was a problem there, no one would be ringing the bell louder than me.” In other situations, he said,“ I have had to call people and tell them do not drink your water.” The Statesman story infers that Honeycutt believes the pool is safe for people who swim three times a week, but not for those who swim more frequently. That is not the case. Honeycutt told In Fact Daily that the Statesman reporter “adjusted the numbers” the state publishes for screening sediment levels in areas such as Town Lake. Those numbers do not apply in Barton Springs Pool, he said.

Here’s why: Sediment found in the shallow portions of Town Lake, where a person might conceivably sit for a period of time, is clay-based. But the sediment in the shallow part of Barton Springs Pool is not. Honeycutt said the sediment levels “would be applied to Town Lake, if you sat down and rolled around and came out muddy. If you go to Barton Springs and roll around, when you come out you are not muddy.”

Honeycutt added, “There is sediment that has clay in it in the deeper portions of the pool, that’s 10 to 17 feet deep. You can’t lie in sediment that’s under 10 feet of water. In the shallow end of the pool where you can lie down, there’s very little sediment.” The pool is safe, he contends. “If I thought there was even a hint that Barton Springs Pool should be shut down, nobody could shut me up on that.”

The newspaper has also cautioned the public about arsenic. Honeycutt said, once again, that the newspaper is applying the wrong test to the Barton Springs sediment. The EPA has established screening levels for soil in a residential yard, where children are likely to be playing and ingesting soil on a regular basis. But, “The whole state of Texas is above those numbers,” he said, along with the entire states of New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. “It’s a screening level—a level above which you investigate—but we don’t even use that here in Texas because everywhere you’re going to be above that level. Mother Nature put it there.” The number used in Texas is higher, and does not apply to sediments in pools and creeks because of the nature of contact with it.

The most recent Statesman story also seemed to imply that state and city workers were only testing for the PAH compound called benzo(a)pyrene. Honeycutt pointed out that the testing and analysis has gone far beyond that. “We’ve analyzed for more than 130 chemicals and we evaluated every one of them, including all of the carcinogenic PAHs, of which there are seven. And the results on all of those were fine. None of those are any problem whatsoever for anyone to swim in that pool, 365 days a year for your lifetime.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher said he has only received two or three phone calls from citizens concerning the allegations made by the Statesman. He said, “I don’t know whether it means people aren’t reading it or don’t believe it.” Slusher is in charge of the City Council’s report on the matter.

Whether to apply rules throughout city is just one dilemma

The proposed new rules for duplexes are drawing sharply contrasting reviews from developers and homeowners as the City Council prepares for a possible vote on the rules this week. Homeowners are calling for stricter provisions to prevent the so-called “super-duplexes” from being built within the single family SF-3 zoning category, while developers say the new regulations need further refinement to prevent them from having an undesirable impact on the drive to provide more affordable housing.

Homeowners from the Hyde Park, North University and Hancock neighborhoods turned out at last week’s City Council meeting to voice their opinions. Many of the speakers wore neon-green stickers reading, “Save SF-3,” and described the super-duplexes as “egregiously huge,” “unscrupulous” and “exploitative.” Susan Moffat of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association endorsed the suggestions offered by the Planning Commission, and called for Council members to consider an occupancy limit on duplexes. “Occupancy limits are the key,” she said. “First, limiting the total number of unrelated adult occupants to six per site will automatically reduce the number of vehicles and required parking spots, as well as trash and noise levels. Second, they will not affect families or traditional duplexes.”

City staff is not recommending new occupancy limits. “We feel like there’s a number of problems or potential problems associated with that,” said George Adams with the Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department. “One of the major ones being the practicality of enforcing a lower occupancy limit. We’re concerned that there may also be potential legal issues . . . and we are also concerned about the potential affordability impact associated with that particular recommendation.” One owner of a property tagged as a super-duplex spoke against the occupancy rules, noting that they would have a significant impact and reminding Council Members he had followed current code when building his project.

Developers of other projects cautioned that writing overly broad restrictions on new duplex development could hurt the city. “I, too, am concerned about super-duplexes,” said Mike McHone. “I believe we need to carefully construct a solution so that we don’t destroy the ability to build duplexes throughout the city and even in these neighborhoods that are appropriate to the intent of the ordinance.” Changing parking requirements, rather than imposing occupancy limits, McHone said, could resolve some of the biggest problems with the super-duplexes.

The Real Estate Council of Austin is supporting suggestions offered by the Planning Commission last week just prior to the Council meeting. But RECA representatives also want more information about the proposal. Specifically, the group wants to know if the rules would apply only to those central-city neighborhoods currently dealing with super-duplexes, or if they would be applied citywide. Those issues and the concerns of homeowners could all be considered by the City Council at its meeting this Thursday, when the rules will be posted for a first reading.

Commission wants to limit unrelated adults

At that Planning Commission meeting last week, commissioners spent four hours discussing the intricacies of super-duplexes, finally choosing to support their own recommendation over that of city staff. Commissioners listened to persuasive arguments both for and against the new hybrid development in SF-3 zoning.

Richard Hardin, who owns and manages Hardin House Dormitory near the University of Texas, said, “These super-duplexes do not provide any meaningful density to our urban core,” calling them a thorn in the side of single-family neighborhoods. “They exploit an unintended loophole in SF-3.”

The addition of super-duplexes—stacking high-density housing in traditional neighborhoods—is causing friction in neighborhoods like North University that once welcomed students and are distracting neighborhoods and developers from meaningful Smart Growth efforts, he said.

Developer Mike McHone, who spends much of his time subdividing lots near the University of Texas for condominium projects, asked the commission to make sure “to kill the bad guys and make sure we don’t kill the good ones.” McHone added that he hoped such efforts would not stop new development, suggesting that such construction could be constrained through parking space limitations.

Developer James Cormier disagreed with the staff’s approach to scaling back super-duplex construction across the city. He criticized the blanket approach, pointing out that the super-duplex problem was limited to areas around the university where student housing was tight. He pointed to larger-scale duplex projects in neighborhoods like Clarksville, where empty nesters were looking to move closer to the city’s urban core.

Different cultures have different housing needs

City staff member Stuart Hersh’s concern that the city does not penalize multi-generational immigrant families that often live together in higher-than-average density fell upon some deaf ears in the audience. Gary Penn of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association said he didn’t understand how the city could be supporting illegal immigrants over the concerns of local neighborhoods.

The current ordinance allows six unrelated adults per side, giving developers the option of packing 12 bedrooms per site in the SF-3 classification. Commissioners had a lengthy discussion on the variations of families within each half of a duplex, finally settling on three unrelated adults. Commissioner Dave Sullivan pushed for four unrelated adults. Chair Chris Riley said he sympathized, but he could not support Sullivan’s plan because the neighborhoods had voice such strong opposition. Only Matt Moore joined Sullivan in voting for that change.

City staff had added provisions about limiting impervious cover, building frontage along the lot edge and allocating parking spaces. The staff had shied away from occupancy as a part of the definition because of the fear of being unable to enforce such rules.

In the end, however, the commission had only two definitions proposed by the subcommittee, headed by Vice Chair Maggie Armstrong. They wanted these buildings, which they described as high-density duplexes, to have no more than six people per site. They also recommended limiting parking requirements to two spaces per unit. The commission also agreed to recommend grandfathering for existing duplexes..

Wednesday, Thursday

, Friday.

Music station manager resigns . . . Woody Roberts, who has been general manager of the Austin Music Network for the past 28 months, sent an email message to Council members yesterday informing them of his decision to step down. He pointed out that his dedication to AMN was so great that he worked for free for the first five months on the job. Roberts said he was most proud of these accomplishments during his tenure: expanding the network into San Marcos and San Antonio; building a bridge between the Austin film and music communities; securing a facility for the operation; and videotaping 400 live performances in Austin clubs and festivals. With the fate of AMN on hold until someone comes up with a funding solution, it is not clear who will take over Roberts’ day-to-day duties . . . Just for fun . . . Austinmayor.com has announced that Sammy Allred’s Geezinslaws and the Dixie Chicks will hold a benefit concert for Leslie Cochran’ s mayoral bid tonight at Hill’s Café. The April Fool’s message quoted Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks as saying she would support Sammy’s choice. “I knew the Chicks had to take a stand that might be considered unpopular by some, but Leslie is our man, or is he our woman?” It’s not all fun at Austinmayor.com though. The site has a straw poll, with no scientific claims attached, showing the following: Will Wynn (33.21%); Marc Katz (25.06%); Brad Meltzer (20.10%); Max Nofziger (13.61%); Leslie Cochran (5.22%); and Jennifer Gale (2.80%) . . . Dueling press conferences today . . . Austin mayoral candidate Max Nofziger will be speaking at a press conference on the theme of “Hasn’t Austin Been Fooled Long Enough?” at 10am tomorrow. He will be speaking in front of the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue at Auditorium Shores and promises to take jabs at the city on “several poorly managed city projects.” Also at 10am, the city will be demonstrating its electric car, Barton Big Man, at the corner of San Jacinto and 15th Street. The five-seat electric vehicle drives up to 35 mph and releases no emissions . . . TPJ on the warpath . . . Texans for Public Justice filed a complaint yesterday with Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, asking his office to investigate what the group calls “apparent Texas Election Code violations by Texans for a Republican Majority (TRM)”. The political committee, helped elect Republican House members in 2002, assisting in the election of Speaker Tom Craddick TPJ contends that the Republican group’s IRS filings reveal hundreds of thousands of dollars in ostensibly political expenditures that were not reported in the PAC’s disclosure reports filed in Texas. TPJ contends that TRM used these corporate contributions—contrary to Texas law—to pay for some or all of its non-reported political expenditures. “This complaint outlines the apparent misuse of corporate funds to fill the legislature with big-business, anti-consumer zealots,” said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice . . . SOS Alliance party . . . The environmental organization is having a fundraiser from 7-11pm Friday at 313 West Mary. The Soup Peddler will provide veggie and venison chili. The musical lineup includes Guy Forsyth, Michael Fracasso, Papa Mali, The Boxcar Preachers and Bill Passalaqua .

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

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