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Travis says TCEQ should strengthen landfill rules

Wednesday, September 24, 2003 by

Operators want to strip regulations of specific requirements

Travis County Environmental Officer John Kuhl will be among the witnesses at a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) hearing this morning to urge members to uphold and strengthen current Site Operation Plans (SOPs), the rules governing waste disposal, trash pick-up and odor control at landfills.

As Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols told commissioners, the language surrounding these plans requires landfill operators to provide few details, using terms such as “do what is sufficient,” or “do what is appropriate” or “take necessary steps” to address the various areas under the rule.

Whatever the operator files—typically an echo of the plan, saying things such as “will provide sufficient trash control” or “will take necessary steps to control odor”—has tended to be what TCEQ put on file. That lack of specificity in those SOPs, however, has left the agency little room for enforcement and sparked a court challenge to an SOP for the expansion of a Browning-Ferris Industries’ landfill in China Grove, just outside San Antonio.

Neighbors in San Antonio want more specificity and are in litigation over the matter. The case has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. Landfill operators have asked the TCEQ to strip the term “in sufficient detail” from the SOP and give them flexibility to address each site specifically. Today, TCEQ commissioners will take testimony on the proposed rule changes.

Activist Trek English considers the rule change to be a disaster for Travis County, which anticipates expansions of both the Waste Management, Inc. and BFI landfills in Northeast Travis County. Instead of tightening requirements, the state is tossing them out altogether.

“What really amazes me is that when a landfill is permitted, it’s not like a health spa or a restaurant,” English told the Commissioners Court. “It’s a bioreactor.”

Landfill operators would like to seal cells of trash and forget them, but those cells form and mix gases for decades, English said. “It’s like a time bomb. That’s why the county and state need to have complete knowledge and good controls over the landfills on the front end.”

Instead of waiting for the issue to be resolved at the Supreme Court, landfill operators have asked the TCEQ to take up the issue immediately and strike the language in question, English said. The process circumvents the court and avoids responsibility, English said.

Kuhl was in general agreement with English’s objection to the rule changes. As Kuhl told the court, “it’s impossible to interpret compliance if you don’t have specificity in the regulations.” And without specificity, it’s almost impossible to issue citations.

Commissioners agreed Kuhl should testify before the TCEQ on Wednesday morning. In his testimony, Kuhl intends to make the following four points:

• SOPs should provide sufficient detail and striking that language only weakens requirements for landfills.

• The TCEQ should relax requirements for sufficient detail only if there is a critical shortage of waste capacity in a particular region.

• The TCEQ should develop standards for what constitutes “sufficient detail.”

• If the TCEQ approves an application for a permit that does not contain sufficient detail, that permit or amendment would expire within a year, or until a permit or amendment to the SOP is filed that provides sufficient detail for operating standards.

If TCEQ commissioners approve the rule changes today, the matter will be posted for a 30-day public comment period.

County finds, allocates additional $1.5 million

While the city continues to struggle to resolve its budget issues, Travis County will enjoy an extra $1.5 million in revenue to spend this budget cycle.

Property taxes remain a far more constant revenue generator than sales taxes, giving the county a more stable income base than the city. At yesterday’s Commissioners’ Court meeting, Christian Smith, executive director of the Planning and Budget Office told the court the fifth, and final, revenue estimate before the budget vote had yielded an extra $1.5 million in revenue.

Of that total, $1.1 million is considered one-time savings. An additional $411,000 falls into the category of ongoing revenues. County commissioners made quick work of identifying some of those expenditures, although County Judge Sam Biscoe expressed concern about the precedent set by spending money outside the budget process. The judge called the last minute expenditures “a prostitution of the mark-up process.”

Smith told commissioners they were faced with the choice of spending the total on one-time tax relief, one-time purpose expenditures or ongoing tax relief. The current tax rate for the county under the proposed budget is 49.18 cents per hundred-dollar valuation.

Before the day was over, commissioners had agreed to set aside a large chunk of the money in allocated reserves. An estimated $461,000 of the revenue came from judicial fees and is being set aside in reserve funds allocated to the court. Another $583,00—almost equally divided between one-time expenditure money and ongoing revenue funding—was also put into reserve.

Commissioners quickly agreed to some smaller budget additions, including:

• $40,000 for additional security at StarFlight facilities.

• about $100,000 to address compensation issues in the County Attorney and District Attorney offices.

• $25,000 for start-up operation costs for a pool at East Metro Park.

• $15,000 for possible lump sum payments for StarFlight employees. The lump sum payments would put county employees on an equal footing with City of Austin employees.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty expressed his concerns that StarFlight employees might consider themselves entitled to both county and StarFlight salary increases. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner assured Daugherty that the crew for the StarFlight chopper understood they were being put on par with city employees and could not claim additional county raises when county employees receive annual increases.

Daugherty also got a project from his own wish list: sidewalks in the Precinct 3 Wildwood subdivision. The project will cost the county an additional $245,000.

The timing was perfect for Project Access, the project from the Travis County Medical Society Foundation to fund health care for indigent people with no insurance who fail to qualify for Medicare or the county’s Medical Assistance Program, known as MAP. The TCMS requested $175,000 to cover pharmaceutical costs in the program’s start-up year, with $70,000 coming from the county and $105,000 from the city.

Knowing that the city could not afford to put any money into the project, county commissioners immediately moved to put $100,000 toward Project Access. The program, which donates the time of hundreds of volunteer doctors, is intended to be a bridge between the current health care crisis and the possible creation of a Travis County Health Care District.

Sonleitner moved to bump the sheriff’s challenge grant up to $500,000, which would match any cuts Sheriff Margo Frasier makes in her department up to that amount. Sonleitner was less successful when she asked the court for another $100,000 in pay increases for the sheriff’s department, including raises for the 911 operators and crime scene technicians.

Biscoe said he would have to counsel against such a deal, given that the sheriff is being challenged to cut back expenditures in her $80 million budget. Daugherty added that he also had some issues with the pay raises, since the current unemployment rate has made recruiting far easier for the county.

Biscoe asked for another week, with a chance to hear from Frasier next Tuesday on her department’s priorities. Sonleitner pulled her motion from the table. Biscoe asked for all other proposals to be put on his desk by the end of the week, allowing commissioners the chance to review them before the Commissioners’ Court meeting next Tuesday.

Historic Commission denies permit for downtown Marriott

Dennis McDaniel of the Austin Heritage Society told the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) that the word “demolition” rarely passes his lips—although it did Monday night.

McDaniel was one of several speakers who encouraged the HLC to agree to a demolition permit for three warehouses along East Fourth Street. White Lodging, which has an option on the three parcels, wants to replace the warehouses with a Downtown Austin Marriott to serve the expanded Convention Center.

The Finley Company owns the circa-1930 warehouses, which currently sit vacant. Historical directories indicated that the properties were used as warehouse space for various companies. Little indicates that the warehouses played any historical role in Austin’s history.

But McDaniel told commissioners that both the Historic Preservation and Executive committees of the Austin Heritage Society had reviewed the three properties and could find little merit in designating them as historic. The group considered a new hotel to be a far better use for the property than any potential industrial use, McDaniel said.

“It was the very strong conclusion of those different committees that it really didn’t warrant historic zoning,” McDaniel told the HLC, later adding that the Heritage Society had decided to pick its historic designation battles. “There are issues out there right now in the public that we’re going to have to fight pretty hard for . . . but no one on the board or committee thought this was one that was worth fighting for. “

In other words, as McDaniel said, the Austin Heritage Society was more than willing to lie down in front of the bulldozers if the property was historic, but he had yet to find anyone who wanted to do so for the warehouses in question.

Downtown Austin Alliance Executive Director Charlie Betts said a vote for historic zoning would likely do no more than delay the inevitable demolition of the buildings. The warehouses meet no more than three of the city’s 13 historic preservation criteria. Betts called the warehouses “an embarrassment and an eyesore.”

Betts added that the DAA would stand shoulder –to shoulder with the HLC if a property merited preservation. And in his years with the early Landmark Commission, he said, the bar for historic designation was fairly high when the owner opposed historic zoning.

Consultant Bill Turner, who represented White Lodging, told the HLC he could find no real historic significance to the properties and no real reason for a readaptive use of the buildings, even though his own company had consulted on the conversion of warehouse property into PF Chang’s and Fleming’s Steakhouse. The one architectural feature of note to the property—an Alamo parapet—was common to at least two dozen buildings downtown, Turner said, showing pictures to the board.

The final sticking point for the HLC was the city’s own designation of 310 East Fourth as a warehouse that deserved Priority 1 preservation in the city’s 1984 historic preservation survey.

The HLC ultimately agreed to deny the demolition permit and put the historic zoning process in motion, although it was clear the ultimate answer may still be to award a demolition permit. After one local resident talked about the local contributions of warehouse owner Herman Becker in the 1930s, Chair Lisa Laky said she could not support a demolition permit.

“I can’t fathom how anyone can vote to lose something without knowing all the facts,” Laky told her colleagues.

Commissioner Jean Mather wanted Marriott to consider incorporating the parapet into the hotel’s design. She told the story of American Bank, which had the opportunity to save a historic downtown inn, but eventually chose to demolish the inn and build a gold-domed building “that everyone grew to hate.” The developer could have saved a piece of Austin.

Commissioners Laky, Mather, Teresa Rabago and Patti Hall Hansen voted in favor of denying the demolition permit and starting the historic preservation process. Next month, Historic Preservation OfficerSteve Sadowsky will return with information he has compiled on the buildings under consideration.

In the other corner were Commissioners David West, Daniel Leary and Julie Hooper. West said he found other warehouses downtown to be far better candidates for preservation and adaptive reuse. Hooper said she was torn between a desire to preserve and an attitude that the fate of the three warehouses was all but sealed..

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

All about Wal-Mart in Austin: Zoning and Platting Commission postpones Wal-Mart on Ben White . . . After listening to about an hour of testimony on the question of a zoning change for property at I-35 and Ben White, the ZAP voted 5-4 in favor of indefinitely postponing consideration of the matter. The ZAP task force considering a zoning change for a proposed Wal-Mart at Slaughter and I-35 has not yet completed its work. A final meeting of that group is scheduled for Friday . . . Mayor responds to Blizzard’s remarks about Wal-Mart negotiations . . . Mayor Will Wynn sent the following statement to In Fact Daily regarding a story in yesterday’s edition ( September 23, 2003): “ Mike Blizzard has it wrong when he says that negotiations about the MoPac/Slaughter site should ignore Wal-Mart and instead be conducted with Endeavor Real Estate and/or the owner of the land. What he’s advocating constitutes interference with a contract. Like it or not, Wal-Mart has an enforceable contract to buy 29 acres of land that have entitlements sufficient to permit construction of up to 65-percent impervious cover, more than enough for a supercenter. This situation constitutes an immediate threat for the aquifer, and I and my colleagues on Council intend to do our best to assure that the problem is resolved.” Last night, Blizzard responded, “Endeavor has a larger plan for that site, which they want to develop at an intensity that the neighborhoods do not support. By not having Endeavor at the table we’re not addressing the concerns over the plan for the entire site” . . . No Wal-Mart cases this week at Council. . . Two zoning items related to Wal Mart locations are on this week’s City Council agenda. But attorney Richard Suttle, who is handling the cases for the company, indicated the Mayor’s request for a postponement will likely be honored. “What we said was if the Mayor and Council wanted to talk, we were willing to talk and a delay was acceptable,” he told members of the Zoning and Platting Commission last night. “The length of delay has not been established, but it’s at least this week…that was to take the pressure off the City Council this week . . . Planning Commission meets tonight . . . The Commission will be considering amendments to the city’s Land Development Code tonight, including one that would change flood plain regulations . . . Barton Springs Pool tests today . . . The City of Austin and the US Geological Survey plan to do tests at the pool today to simulate drought conditions. The USGS will be testing alkalinity, turbidity and dissolved gases and our biologists will be looking at any effects on the Barton Springs and the Austin blind salamanders. The pool will remain open until 9am this morning, so early morning swimmers may still take their daily plunge. Deep Eddy Pool will be open at 6am Thursday for the early morning swimmers. Barton Springs Pool will reopen at 5am Friday. Deep Eddy Pool will be open at 6am on even days (although Thursday is the day Barton Springs Pool is normally closed for cleaning) . . . Tracy Watson party today . . . Tracy Watson, who has served the City of Austin in many roles but most recently as a mediator, is retiring this week. A party in his honor will be from 3-5pm today at the Town Lake Center Assembly Room, 721 Barton Springs Road . . . Planned Parenthood groundbreaking . . . Mayor Will Wynn, State Rep. Elliott Naishtat and State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez joined officials of Planned Parenthood for the groundbreaking of their new south Austin clinic Wednesday on Ben White just east of South Congress. “I wanted make sure I was here to honor Planned Parenthood and say ‘thank you’ for this desperately needed investment in our community’s health care system,” Wynn said. . . . Council committee meets today . . . The City Council Telecommunications Infrastructure Committee will hold its quarterly public forum on cable television services at 3pm today. The meeting is set for Room 304 of City Hall. .

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