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East Austin recycling site still causing headaches for city, BFI

Tuesday, October 14, 2003 by

Tests show contaminated soil at Bolm Road property

William Rhodes, director of the city’s Solid Waste Services Department, notified the City Council yesterday that Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) would have to remove contaminated soil from an area the city purchased from the waste management company in 2001. The seven-acre property, known as the BFI/ACCO site, is at Bolm Road and Airport.

In 1996, a five-alarm fire swept through the facility, sending black smoke into the neighborhood south of the old Mueller Airport, raising the ire of neighbors who had complained about the plant’s traffic, noise and blowing debris prior to the fire. At the time, the site was the city’s major recycler. The city purchased the property in response to complaints from neighbors, Rhodes said.

BFI purchased the property from ACCO Waste Paper around 1991, but a number of different waste companies owned the land during the 20 years prior to the fire. One of the items left behind was an underground storage tank for gasoline, Rhodes said. That tank was removed in 1999, two years before the city purchased the property. However, BFI still has responsibility for monitoring wells on the site to make sure that the property is free of contaminants.

Unfortunately, when the tank was removed, “the contaminated soil excavated from around the tank was not removed from the site, but was instead returned and paved over. The latest test results indicate that the soil contains an elevated level of contamination. BFI met with TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) regarding the elevated levels and developed a plan of action for the cleanup of the site,” Rhodes wrote in a memo to the Council. As part of its agreement with the TCEQ, Rhodes said, BFI hired a company called Arcadis. Arcadis discovered the problematic soil.

BFI now plans to remove the contaminated soil and fill the resulting hole with fresh soil topped with pea gravel. An oxygen-generating compound will be added to the soil to “stimulate both natural and biological degradation of the remaining contaminants.” BFI will be taking groundwater samples both on and offsite this month, Rhodes said. In December, Arcadis will perform more tests and remove any remaining contaminated ground water.

Rhodes added that he was working with neighborhood leaders to notify area residents about the issue. He said the city plans to build an SWS administration building on the site.

CAMPO group rejects more votes for Austin

Many officials represented by proxies

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board agreed to recommend a few changes to the board’s composition at a brief meeting last night.

New census figures and revised boundaries in February led the board to take another look at its representation. While the debate was fairly heated when it was first raised last spring, a motion by Commissioner Karen Sonleitner sailed through last night.

Under Sonleitner’s motion, Bastrop and Caldwell counties would be added to the CAMPO board, but only as ex-officio members. Hays County would get an additional member, as would the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Proxies sitting in for most of the elected officials who are actually on the board nixed the idea of adding members from the Intermunicipal Rail District or the Capital Area Rural Transportation System.

Former Mayor Gus Garcia championed the idea of another member from the City of Austin to reflect the proportional trends in population. That idea, however, did not get much traction last night. County Judge Sam Biscoe proposed adding a member from either the city or county, with the two governments making a final decision on the additional member. Mayor Will Wynn gave it a subdued second. The motion failed, 8-12, generally along Austin and non-Austin lines.The final decision on new members will lie with the six parties on the Joint Powers Agreement: State of Texas; City of Austin; Travis County; Williamson County; Hays County; and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Under current census figures, Travis County carries about 70 percent of the population in the three-county CAMPO area. Williamson County carries 22 percent and Hays County has 8 percent. A strict division based on population would give Williamson County 5 members, Travis County 14 members and Hays County either 1 or 2 members. With the three current at-large members, that would bring the total to 24 CAMPO board members.

Council Member Danny Thomas commented briefly on the board’s new growth, suggesting that “productivity is more important than numbers.”

Last night’s discussion was all about representation, but the real representation issues at CAMPO may end up having nothing to do with geography. The board recently approved an option to allow proxies for sitting board members. Last night, 9 out of the 20 members attending the meeting were proxies rather than board members.

Proxy members included staff members for many of the House and Senate representatives. Harry Savio of the Greater Austin Homebuilders Association sat in for Rep. Jack Stick.

The “board by proxy” decision had an impact on last night’s discussion. While the conversation on the CAMPO board composition was rather lively last spring, the group voted quickly on the decision last night.

The only comments offered during the discussion came from Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Chair Bob Tesch, who was sitting in for Rep. Mike Krusee. And while the proxies voted, none offered opinions on any of the subjects presented. With no real extended discussion, the Sonleitner motion sailed through unopposed.

Historic question splits Planning Commission 4-4

The Planning Commission last week deadlocked over the historic value of the four small houses known as the Bellmont Cottages, sending no recommendation on the cottages’ merit to the City Council.

The stalemate over the four Washington Square cottages—rental property owned by legendary University of Texas football coach Theo Bellmont—likely signals the commission’s recognition that the City Council sees some past recommendations as overly generous. A task force will begin meeting this week to discuss how and when the city should offer the historic landmark designation.

A demolition permit on the Bellmont Cottages has been in limbo since February. The Historic Landmark Commission initiated a historic zoning designation earlier this year and eventually voted for such a designation, over the objections of the owner and recommendation of Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky.

Arguments both for and against historic designation of the cottages illustrate the types of questions that arise when buildings that do not at first glance appear to be historic are viewed through the eyes of developers and neighbors. Neighbors stressed the close ties to Bellmont and their contribution to the city’s Bachelor Row. They spoke of the peaceful, and historic, contribution of Washington Square. The houses were a part of the rich history of the University of Texas in the 1930s and 1940s, they said.

Developer Larry Paul Manley, on the other, argued that the cottages met no more than 2 of the 13 historic criteria set out by the Historic Landmark Commission for historic landmark designation. The city’s interest in historic designation came late in the development process, after the demolition permit was requested.

The neighborhood association—which had spoken so passionately about the historical value of the cottages—offered no hint of concern over the historic value of the cottages when the developer’s daughter attended an association meeting in March. Neighbors used the historic designation simply as a way to stop development, Manley said.

“I think the neighbors are bootstrapping up their arguments,” Manley said. “It is not addressing the basic tenet of historic designation. It’s a case of a misapplied use of the historic zoning rules for land use planning. This is the clear intent of neighborhoods (blocking) development.”

Certainly Theo Bellmont was a famous figure in Austin history, Manley said. Manley went on to say that if every investment property owned by a famous person in town were earmarked for landmark designation, no tax base would be left in Austin.

These houses do not meet the standards of historic preservation, Manley said. Even if the case were made that the cottages contributed to the character of a historic district, the city’s ordinance on historic districts has yet to be passed. And Sadowsky cast doubts whether he would endorse the cottages as contributing, even if the ordinance were passed.

The Planning Commission was split. Some favored the arguments of Commissioner Chris Riley, who spoke of the importance of community interests. Others, like Commissioner Michael Casias, was disturbed by the community’s push for a historic designation only after a developer proposed condominiums on the property.

Commissioner Cynthia Medlin said she could find no compelling evidence to call the cottages historic. Medlin said she was convinced that Bellmont, if he were alive today, would like to see his property rights maximized, just as Manley was doing. Commissioner Matt Moore added that he would have been more convinced by the efforts of the neighborhood if the neighbors had made some effort to purchase the properties.

Commissioner Niyanta Spelman said she was sensitive to the fact that rental property—run down or not—could still be historic.

Chair Lydia Ortiz said she could not favor the historic designation. Manley owned land, zoned MF-3, and he had a right to develop it. Ortiz also said she had issues with zoning a piece of property as historic simply because of its association with Bellmont.

“I don’t believe, because that one criteria is met, that we should allow for historic zoning on this property when normally five are met,” Ortiz said. “I don’t believe the case has been made on the other criteria, or is really compelling enough to get us to those five.”

With one vacancy, the eight commissioners deadlocked. Medlin, Ortiz, Casias and Moore favored demolition. Spelman, Riley, Maggie Armstrong and Sullivan favored the historic designation. After the 4-4 vote, commissioners agreed to send the case to the City Council with no recommendation.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

MBE/WBE Council subcommittee meets tonight . . . The three-member subcommittee may make a decision this evening on what changes they might recommend to the Council as a whole for the MBE/WBE Ordinance. The meeting is at 6pm in Room 304 of City Hall . . . Local groups to urge rejection of Wal-Mart . . . Members of a number of local groups, including the Austin AFL-CIO, Liveable City and the South River City Citizens plan to hold a press conference at 6pm tonight at One Texas Center. The Zoning and Platting Commission will be considering zoning changes for two planned Wal-Mart Supercenters, one at I-35 and Slaughter and another at I-35 and Ben White, at tonight’s meeting, which also starts at 6pm. A spokesperson for the group said community leaders would ask ZAP to turn down Wal-Mart’s requests and recommend that the City Council initiate a study of the social impact study of Wal-Mart’s Austin-area expansion plans. The group also hopes ZAP will ask the Council for a change in current zoning and land-use regulations to respond to the supercenter/big box trend in retail development. An attorney for landowner James Monahan has already warned the city that he may file suit for interfering with his contract with Wal-Mart. Monahan lost Endeavor Real Estate and Wal-Mart as buyers when the retail giant decided not to build on his property after pressure was applied by both the city and community groups . . . McCracken to look at Baltimore information systems . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken and his assistant, Karen Gross, will accompany Acting Chief Information Officer Pete Collins to Baltimore where they will learn about that city’s CitiStat management system. The system is modeled on New York City's CompStat crime reduction program, using information technology to improve the delivery of government services such as police protection, trash collection and health care. McCracken will also meet with Congressmen Lloyd Doggett, John Carter and Lamar Smith. McCracken hopes to come back from Baltimore armed with information to help Austin improve the way it delivers information and services to citizens . . . New chef in town . . . Mark Dayanandan, who has cooked for several Presidents and the Royal Family is the executive chef for the new Austin Hilton. He is currently preparing menus and organizing teams for the hotel’s three restaurants: Finn & Porter, described as “upscale steak and seafood;” the Liberty Tavern; and a Java Coast® coffee shop. He also will be responsible for the Hilton Austin’s banquet and catering activities . . . Rumor mill. . . The Central Texas RMA is combating rumors about toll road expansion. Chair Bob Tesch says three north-side neighborhood associations have already contacted the mobility authority, asking whether the newly extended US 183 will be turned into a toll road. The actual toll road is US 183A, which will stretch down from the San Gabriel River . . . Updates requested . . . Transportation Policy Board Chair Gonzalo Barrientos has asked for an update on area road projects, including State Highway 130, at the next CAMPO board meeting. The board meeting, set for 6:15pm on Nov. 17, will include a hearing on project applications for Surface Transportation Program Metropolitan Mobility funding.

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