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Task force OKs continuing All current commissions

Wednesday, July 23, 2003 by

Commissioners cite need for training, communication with Council

The Boards and Commissions Process Review Task Force (BCPRTF) this week revealed its long-awaited recommendations: no active boards or commissions should be disbanded, but the City Council needs to clarify or redefine the purpose of both the Commission on Women and the Design Commission .

The BCPRTF, chaired by former Council Member Bill Spelman, has moved in fits and starts over the last two years. The deadline for the results of its work was a little more than a year ago. Last night, the task force and city staff liaisons reviewed almost all of its 58-page draft report.

Under its recommendations, the BCPRTF has asked for the dissolution of a number of defunct or long-dormant commissions: Austin INET Authority, Census 2000 Committee, Central City Entertainment Board, Convention and Visitors Commission, Downtown Development Advisory Group, Economic Development Commission, Equity Steering Committee, Green Building Task Force and Town Lake Waterfront Overlay.

BCPRTF members wanted clarification on the purpose of the recently reconstituted Commission on Women. Members also wanted more clearly defined the role of the Design Commission, which has spun off in a direction far-removed from its original purpose stated by city ordinance. According to that ordinance, the Design Commission is intended to hand out architectural excellence awards.

The BCPRTF also considered the consolidation of various boards but made no final recommendation on the matter. According to the report, “the City should explore the possibility of having several of the boards related to construction and development permitting meet in the same building on the same evening” with the intention of coordinating the agendas for the convenience of contractors or builders who may need multiple permits.

In addition, the BCPRTF added language this week recommending a quicker sunset for the Zoning and Platting Commission than the five years set forth when the ZAP and the Planning Commission were split. Betty Baker chair of the ZAP, proffered the recommendation to address the dwindling number of cases being heard by ZAP.

The 47 recommendations of the task force, with an additional five appendices, was broken into areas of organizational issues; appointment of board members; operational issues, primarily around communication between boards and the Council; and commission policy and procedures. The discussion moved fairly briskly, although it took almost four hours to complete a review of the background and specific language in the recommendations.

The BCPRTF left about a dozen recommendations on the table for discussion when it recessed at 10 pm, including the recommended size of commissions. The problem of recruiting commissioners is not now as great as it was when an initial recommendation of seven commissioners per commission was made. The task force will meet again next Tuesday night to finish up its review.

Two key points were stressed repeatedly in the almost 300 surveys returned by board members: Commissioners wanted more training. They did not think a mandatory orientation session would discourage applicants. And board members raised serious concerns about communication with the City Council. According to the report, “With few exceptions, board members have no consistent and reliable way of knowing whether and how Council acted on this (policy issues) advice.”

Recommendations should be timely:

The task force agreed on the following during the course of discussion:

• Boards that serve an advisory role should reflect the diversity of opinion in the community. Boards that serve a sovereign role—those given the right to make decisions on the City Council’s behalf—should be more closely aligned with Council members’ desire to strike a balance among competing interests in a case.

• The City Council should make decisions based not just on the basis of the boards’ votes, but also on the basis of the boards’ discussions. Parks and Recreation Board Member Mary Ruth Holder called for the City Manager’s office to create a standardized form for the commissions to use to provide balanced feedback to the Council.

• Council members should have enough time between a commission vote and a Council vote to digest the input of a particular commission. Commissioners should be informed, on a regular basis, of Council response to recommended actions.

• Commission work plans should be developed in tandem with relevant departments’ business plans. For example, the Parks Board should have some idea of what the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget and priorities would be in the upcoming year before developing its work plan. This does not mean the commissions would have input into the departmental budget process; it would be intended to be a guide for priorities.

• The Financial and Administrative Services Department should develop a method for consistently, uniformly and accurately estimating the cost of the board and commission system. Spelman said the task force did not have the expertise to come up with a cost-benefit analysis of the board and commission system.

Commissioners hear Sludge site complaints No sooner had the Travis County Commissioners Court passed a waste facility-siting ordinance—albeit, minus the landfills—than the court was faced with its first post-ordinance permit case.

Magna-Flow has applied for a Texas Commission of Environmental Quality permit for its existing sludge application site on Taylor Lane, near FM 969. The permit would formalize an existing registration for Type B sludge application on a 127-acre site on Gilleland Creek in Southeast Travis County. Under a recently passed law, all registered sludge facilities must now go through the more stringent permit process.

The permit process brings a higher level of potential notification and challenge to a waste-siting facility, Chief Environmental Officer John Kuhl told commissioners. Public concern over the site will trigger a public meeting on the permit. That could lead to a full evidentiary hearing at some later date, to which Travis County could be a party, Kuhl said.

This might have been the time to test-drive the county’s new waste-siting ordinance, but few of the parameters of the new ordinance would apply to the Magna-Flow site, even if the ordinance pre-dated the Magna-Flow permit, Kuhl said. The Magna-Flow facility is far away enough from most receptors to be considered safe under the newly approved ordinance.

The county’s main objection is the field’s location within the county’s 100-year flood plain, Kuhl said. The county’s flood plain ordinance, passed in 2001, prohibits the placement of a sludge facility within 500 feet of the FEMA-designated 100-year flood plain.

Magna-Flow has argued that the flood plain ordinance does not apply to its operation because the sludge facility pre-dates the adoption of the flood plain—a House Bill 1704 twist on waste siting. Kuhl presented the Magna-Flow rationale to county commissioners; no one from the company was present for yesterday’s item.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner balked at the argument, saying that HB 1704 was written for standard development projects, not to trump health and safety issues.

Sludge facilities do not always make bad neighbors. Around ten sludge facilities are scattered across the county, including one operated by the City of Austin. Magna-Flow’s case, however, is somewhat weakened by the TCEQ notices of odor violation on its two locations. Neighbors allege the company has failed to turn the soil properly after spreading sludge.

Notice of the Magna-Flow permit application ran in local newspapers on July 16, starting the clock on a 30-day comment period. With little discussion, commissioners agreed to draft a letter of opposition to the permit that will be returned to the court in two weeks.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty played devil’s advocate on some of the neighbors’ worries. Henry Trell of the Park Springs Neighborhood Association laid out a concern that Manville Water Supply Company had recently bought property near the site. Daugherty asked why the water supply company had made such a purchase, knowing the sludge facility was in the area.

“We find emotionally we can be with you,” said Daugherty, adding that no one wants to be in a situation of living near a difficult waste facility. “But we also want to be make sure we have enough information. The industry will come, and the industry doesn’t show up not prepared. They’re going to have resources behind them, and we’re going to need information.”

It was Daugherty’s gentle way of saying that Magna-Flow had operated, with a proper permit, on the site long before Manville decide to dig a well and before developers had decided to buy up almost 1,900 acres along Taylor Road. Like it or not, Magna-Flow may very well have property rights that entitles it to operate on the Taylor Road site.

Neighbors in the Park Springs Neighborhood Association have promised a fight over the permit. Trell said the site “stunk like the devil” and “attracted flies and other hazards.”

Outside the meeting, Kuhl said most properly functioning sludge facilities do not have an excessive odor. The Magna-Flow waste is processed at an off-site plant. The waste being processed comes from a variety of sources, primarily from outside Travis County.

Developer Larry Beard voiced his concern on behalf of the consortium of developers that is building 4,000 homes in Heritage Park. Beard called the sludge site an “open sewer” with numerous violations and said the site jeopardized the work of people who were trying to bring affordable housing to the city.

“I would ask you to consider the impact this will have—the negative impact this will have—when we have long sought the chance to bring a viable opportunity for affordable housing to so many people in Eastern Travis County,” Beard said.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez asked Kuhl to be prepared with a list of all Type B sludge facilities in Travis County. Kuhl said he would do it. Outside the meeting, he said no sludge facility had generated the concern and violations of the Magna-Flow site. Commissioners voted to oppose the facility and are likely to approve a letter of opposition at their Aug. 5 meeting.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Lowe’s vote delayed again . . . Travis County Commissioners delayed a vote on the preliminary plan for the Lowe’s store in Sunset Valley yesterday. Judge Sam Biscoe said representatives from both the City of Austin and Lowe’s told him they were making “significant progress” on a compromise, so Biscoe moved to delay a vote on the project for another week. Council Member Daryl Slusher told In Fact Daily that Lowe’s has agreed to provide SOS water quality controls on the property. “Negotiations are still taking place, but that is an advance,” he said. The impervious cover is still 40 percent and the parties are discussing how the company might mitigate that. For example, Lowe’s could buy property to be preserved or put money in to a fund to buy conservation land, Slusher said. “That part is still being negotiated,” he added. In addition, Lowe’s would agree to immediate annexation by the City of Austin. If that happened, Lowe’s would be entitled to water & wastewater service and would generate sales tax for the city . . . Round Rock tourism . . . The City of Round Rock will host a two-hour workshop on tourism on Wednesday, July 30. The workshop, conducted by Destination Development Inc, will outline the tourism potential for the city. The workshop will be held in the McConcio building at 301 West Bagdad, from 6-8pm . . . Anderson Mill Road improvements . . . Travis County has signed an interlocal agreement with Williamson County to complete an expansion of Anderson Mill Road. Voters have approved a total of $9 million for the project in two separate bond elections . . . Remodeling plans . . . County commissioners reviewed plans for the remodeling of the County Courthouse. The remodeling, which would cost $1.3 million, would meet the space needs of the courts for another five years. The work is intended to address both noise and congestion problems . . . Extra meeting scheduled . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission has called a special meeting on July 29 to consider whether historic zoning would be appropriate for the DeWitt Greer House at 2508 Jarratt Ave. in Old West Austin. The case was delayed because Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky was in the hospital with a staph infection and could not attend last night’s meeting. Owner Jim Johnson and his wife are anxious to demolish the house so they can build a new one in its place. But the Historic Landmark Commission stopped the demolition by starting the historic designation process. Johnson said he is scheduled to go before the City Council with his request on August 7. Johnson said each day the demolition is delayed costs him $140. Several neighbors who are supporting Johnson’s application were upset that the case was postponed. Greer was head of the Texas Highway Department during much of the 1950s, when a there was a boom in Texas highway construction . . . Cameron Road . . . Travis County has signed an interlocal agreement with the City of Austin to share the cost of designing and engineering the extension of Cameron Road. The extension will be between Howard Lane and the proposed State Highway 130. Cameron Road is currently a two-lane arterial. Long-range plans forecast the need for a six-lane arterial. The county will pay the majority of the budgeted $790,000 for design and engineering costs from surplus road bonds approved in1984 . . . Waiver to return . . . With little fanfare, the Zoning and Platting Commission last night agreed to put the question of reconsidering a waiver for the Rainey Street Apartments on the board’s Aug. 12 agenda. Last week, ZAP granted a waiver to Fairfield Residential for the apartment project, eliminating the need to have first-floor pedestrian-oriented space. The complex will be on the Hike and Bike Trail at the end of Rainey Street in the Waterfront Overlay District. Chris Riley, a member of the Planning Commission and chair of the Downtown Commission, objected strenuously to the waiver and talked to some ZAP members about the reconsideration. (See In Fact Daily July 17, July 21 and July 22, 2003.)

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