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Bill threatens land next to Mueller

Thursday, July 24, 2003 by

Legislation would put Rodriguez' studio in hands of TxDOT

City leaders are faced with another encroachment issue at the site of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, and once again it is coming from the Capitol.

The threat usually comes from Rep. Ron Wilson (D-Houston), who faithfully files a bill each session for a general aviation airport on the former municipal airport site. During the special session, however, it was the demise of the State Aircraft Pooling Board that caused chaos.

Governor Rick Perry eliminated the State Aircraft Pooling Board at the end of the regular session, but his action made no provision for the employees or assets of the agency. Yesterday, after debate over House Bill 57 by Rep. Peggy Hamric (R-Houston), the Senate decided to hand those assets over to the agency that handles state aviation matters, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Normally, that would not be a problem for the City of Austin, but the approximately 10 acres of land and two hangars owned by the State Aircraft Pooling Board are adjacent to the 700 acres that were once the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. The city has a detailed development plan for the former airport site and a Catellus Development of San Francisco has agreed to spend many millions of dollars to make the land a showpiece of urban design.

Austin officials don't want to have a public fight over the matter, but they are clearly worried.

“I’m not quite sure what the Texas Department of Transportation’s interests are, but we would like to have a voice in any decisions,” admitted Austin lobbyist John Hrncir, who has already spoken to Catellus “It would be different if this were a private property owner developing his own piece of land. We’d have zoning authority over the land. We have no zoning authority over state land.”

The Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Advisory Board has not discouraged state agencies from locating on or near the site, but the group is keenly aware that state government entities do not add to the local tax roll.

Jim Walker, spokesperson for the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition, told In Fact Daily, “We the community have known and expected the state of Texas to be at that site in some way, but no matter what agency it was that owned it, we’d always had high hopes that they’d be involved in the master plan.”

The two airport hangars on the pooling board's site are leased to filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez filmed the trio of 'Spy Kids' movies there. The Austin Film Society is a tenant, a highly desirable tenant, in the eyes of the advisory board that oversees the project.

Control over the land took two forms during the House and Senate debate. On the House side, Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) inserted language that would have sold the land only to the city, county or someone who currently leases the land. That would obviously include a big-name Hollywood movie director.

On the Senate side, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) attempted to add an amendment as a substitute to HB 57 that would have given the city and county right of first refusal on the property. His amendment failed, 10-15, with the bill going to a third, and final, reading today.

Sue Edwards, director of Redevelopment Services for the City of Austin, says the city would like some control over the site but they don't intend to buy it. The land backs up to a portion of the Mueller property that will eventually be residential development and a possible Austin elementary school.

“We would be fine if Robert Rodriguez bought it, or if the Legislature gave it to a governmental agency,” Edwards said. “We’re concerned it would be an incompatible use with the development.” She said another concern is that TxDOT might condemn some of the land the city has carefully planned for redevelopment.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said, “All we can do is try to work with it. We will always try to make lemonade out of lemons.”

Rumors are that Rodriguez might be interested in purchasing the pooling board property. It's the city's hope that the land would be used in such a way that it won't drag down the value of neighboring property, Hrncir said.

Estimates say the elimination of the State Aircraft Pooling Board would mean a $7.3 million savings over the biennium. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has estimated the value of the pooling board's assets to be $21 million.

The abolition of the agency also leaves the pooling board's lease of 13 acres at Austin Bergstrom International Airport in limbo. The agency leases land from the city on a 99-year lease at $1 per year. It's still unclear whether the agency could sublease the space to a commercial business.

Hays residents to raise Concerns at district meeting Citizens of northern Hays County worried about the effects of a proposed dredging operation and asphalt plant on FM 967 plan to take their concerns to the directors of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) tonight. A group formed to fight the plant, NOPE (Neighbors Organized to Protect the Environment), has hired an attorney to fight the request of KDBJ, LP for an air permit before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) . They can be expected to fill the tiny meeting room of the aquifer district to voice their concerns. Board members can listen to their fears and concerns about what the project might do to their wells, Onion Creek, and the aquifer. But KDBJ has not requested water service from the district, so it is hard to see what the board can do.

The proposed plant, which would be on property bordering the Ruby Ranch subdivision, would use limestone quarried from of the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. According to the TCEQ application, the rock-dredging operation will use water to spray equipment used in processing the gravel. Three nozzles will spray 8 gallons of water per minute, and roads for the plant will be sprinkled with “water and/or chemicals,” the application notes. But the application does not deal with water quality or quantity.

In addition to runoff pollution, Ruby Ranch area residents say they are concerned about noise, blasting, dust, odors, truck traffic and their water supply. The plant would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Ruby Ranch neighborhood is located on FM 967 between RR 1826 and Buda. The property is in the extra-territorial jurisdiction of Dripping Springs.

Ginger Faught, who works for the City of Dripping Springs said she had spoken with the project engineer for the developers of a proposed asphalt plant near the Ruby Ranch subdivision. She said she had informed him that the location where his clients plant to build the plant is in the city’s ETJ. In order to proceed with their plans, Faught said, the developer would have to file a site development permit and go through the permitting process. That process includes a public hearing before the Planning & Zoning Commission followed by a public hearing before the Dripping Springs City Council.

Faught said the engineer, Jerry Demo of Pollution Solutions, told her his clients would pursue the air quality permit first before applying for any other permits. Demo has told In Fact Daily his client had instructed him not to speak with the press.

Hays County residents are not alone in their worries. Austin Council Member Daryl Slusher, who has been working with officials in Hays County to come up with a regional plan for protection of the Edwards Aquifer, said the application raises several concerns. “I can identify off the top of my head five or six potential problems,” he said. Slusher said water quantity and water quality are both major concerns. “Are they just going to pump water out of the ground? This looks like a real major water user.”

At least as big a concern is water quality, he said. “They have all that crushing of the rock and the emission of the used water.” The plant would threaten area wells and Onion Creek, which flows on the south side of the property. He said he was also concerned about potential health threats and air pollution resulting from emissions of the operation. He also listed noise from trucks and a general overall decline in the quality of life for those living close to the plant..

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©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

No meeting today . . . City Hall offices are quiet this week, with many darkened doors as Council members and their aides take a little vacation time before next week's return to hearings and budget work sessions . . . Casa de Luz controversy . . . The non-profit learning center and restaurant has many staunch friends and defenders, several of whom emailed their Council members this week to complain about what they feel is unfair treatment of the macrobiotic cafeteria by the city's Parks and Recreation Department. The city has filed charges against Casa de Luz for allegedly changing the use without a new permit and for parking violations. The owners of the business deny the charges. This matter will no doubt become a more public controversy soon, since both sides appear to be entrenched in their positions.

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