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Council unanimously approves utility's strategic plan

Friday, December 5, 2003 by

Every Council member endorses roadmap to solar future for Austin

Austin Energy’s Strategic Plan received a unanimous endorsement from the City Council Thursday night, with Council Members applauding the utility’s commitment to renewable energy and defending the city’s timetable for closing the Holly Power Plant.

The utility’s goal of achieving 100 megawatts of solar power by the year 2020 won rave reviews from the Council. “Some folks may not realize what a huge step this is tonight or what it took to get here,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. “They may not realize the kind of progress this symbolizes and the kind of grand and glorious move toward a better future that it implies.” All Council members chimed in with their support of the plan and praise for the utility’s staff. “This is a momentous occasion, not just for Austin Energy but for the country,” said Council Member Brewster McCracken. “Austin Energy will firmly establish its position as the nation’s leading clean energy utility. It will have the nation’s most progressive and visionary solar energy program.”

The plan as passed by the Council includes a call for analyzing the true value of electricity generated by solar technology. Because of technical limitations and market conditions, solar energy currently costs more per kilowatt-hour than electricity from other sources. “We would look at the value of solar energy, not just the cost of electricity that comes out of the photo voltaic cell,” said Austin Energy Vice President Roger Duncan. “The study would take into account all the extra value that solar gives to Austin Energy and the City of Austin: the environmental benefits of clean air, the economic development benefits if the cells are manufactured here in Austin, the advantages to Austin Energy’s transmission and distribution system from having on-site generation. There are several items that will need to be included in this study.”

Duncan revealed the 100-megawatt goal at a town hall meeting Tuesday night and Council Member Brewster McCracken announced his enthusiastic support of the plan. (See In Fact Daily, December 3, 2003.) On Wednesday, Council Member Daryl Slusher announced that he would be offering an amendment to the utility’s strategic plan to include the goal. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Raul Alvarez also indicated they would co-sponsor such an amendment. Yesterday’s Austin Chronicle stated that the actions by Slusher, Goodman and Alvarez suggested “that the utility would have been pushed into adopting solar goals if it hadn’t done so voluntarily.” But Slusher said that was not the case. “I worked with Austin Energy and with Solar Austin trying to help them come to agreement (but) my role in this was actually very limited. The overwhelming amount of credit . . . should go to (Duncan) for coming up with a compromise that Solar Austin would support. I would not have put forward a solar amendment that (Duncan) did not play the main role in developing or that he would not be comfortable in supporting.”

Neighbors of the Holly Power Plant used yesterday’s public hearing to reiterate their call for closing the plant. “When we petitioned the City Council to close the plant back in 1999, that’s when the plant should have been closed,” said Paul Hernandez. “We also at that time asked the city to start investing in solar. Had that happened, you would have had enough money now for the infrastructure that you would need to implement solar. We were not listened to…instead, the closure of the Holly Power Plant was put off another ten years.” But Council Members, including Council Member Raul Alvarez, defended their efforts to close the plant, which is scheduled for shut down by 2007.

The Council approved the plan on a vote of 7-0. The plan was designed to be a broad outline of policy goals, meaning that some specific details about some portions have yet to be worked out.

Big box ban on aquifer official

Ordinance applies only in Barton Springs zone

Early this morning, the City Council unanimously approved a ban on big box stores over the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer. Although the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce expressed opposition to the ban, they did little to stop it. The ordinance has limited applicability, but is characterized by Council Members as a logical extension of the city’s efforts to protect the aquifer and direct growth away from the Barton Springs zone.

Opponents of the idea stressed their support for protecting the aquifer while criticizing the steps outlined in the ordinance as ineffective. “Some of the other speakers have said this all about water quality and protecting the environment and protecting Barton Springs,” said RECA of Austin President Tim Taylor. “We endorse that.” But Taylor said the group did not endorse further restrictions above and beyond the SOS Ordinance, which he described as “the law of the land.” Property owners, he said, “should be allowed to go in…and build on their property…complying with SOS. If SOS is right, then why do we have to go in and attack a single particular land use?”

Taylor and Council Member Daryl Slusher engaged in a lively question-and-answer session on the particulars of the proposal. Slusher challenged RECA to publicly call on companies such as Lowe’s to abide by the provisions of the SOS ordinance even when they were attempting to build on land with more permissive development regulations. Taylor declined, stating the business group did not take positions on specific developments, only on broad public-policy issues.

Supporters of the proposed ban outnumbered opponents by far. Environmentalists and neighborhood activists lined up to urge the Council to pass the big-box ban. Susan Moffatt of Hyde Park told the Council the two sides in the debate over the ban were, in her opinion, on opposite sides of the line dividing right and wrong. “The line could not be clearer,” she said. “It is right to protect our aquifer. If we fail, we will not be able to undo the damage.”

Singer-songwriter Bill Oliver brought some levity to the proceedings with a rendition of Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Boxer”, rewritten as “Big Boxer”. Oliver’s version of the classic denounces the impact of big-box stores on the environment and locally owned stores. Members of the Sierra Club and the Save Our Springs Alliance also spoke out in favor of the ban, but also called for stricter limits on the size of stores and a lower maximum size for grocery stores in the affected area.

As passed, the ordinance will limit retail outlets over the Barton Springs Zone to a maximum of 50,000 square feet. Grocery stores will be limited to 100,000 square feet. A typical big-box discount store can cover 200,000 square feet. At the advice of legal counsel, the ordinance was crafted as a zoning overlay. Existing big-box stores in the affected area will be allowed to continue operating, but will be limited in how they can expand. If an existing big-box store is abandoned, the next business to occupy the space will be required to comply with the new rules.

Slusher, the chief sponsor of the measure, used a map of the city to show the substantial areas where big-box stores will still be allowed. By limiting the ban to the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer, Slusher said the city was still allowing plenty of opportunities for big-box stores within the city limits. “This is consistent with around 30 years of city policy, including the Austin Tomorrow Plan in 1979. That’s 24 years of official city policy to steer intensive development into these areas,” he said, pointing to the eastern half of the map, “which is a very large area.”

Council Member Brewster McCracken stressed that the plan was also consistent with the city’s economic policies. “Low-wage chain mega stores in the Barton Springs zone have never been part of our economic strategy,” he said. By steering growth away from the Barton Springs zone, McCracken said, the city would be helping both the economy and the environment. “Our compromise does not limit the size of development in the entire city. This compromise does prohibit future property owners from consolidating parcels of land to build 200,000 square foot super centers in the most environmentally sensitive areas of our city.” McCracken pointed out that Bee Cave had recently enacted such a ban, as has Sunset Valley.

The big-box ban passed unanimously on all three readings. That means it will take effect in ten days. The Council also passed an extension of the existing moratorium on new big-box stores in the affected area to Dec. 17 so the new ordinance can take effect at the time the moratorium ends.

Council approves Lowe's agreement, will return next week

Engineering arguments offered

Opponents and proponents of the settlement agreement between Lowe’s Home Stores and the City of Austin gathered once again last night to argue over whether the Council should approve the agreement. For a second time, the Council split 4-3 on the question, with Council Members Daryl Slusher, Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez still saying no.The Council will have a final public hearing and vote on the agreement next Thursday, during the final meeting of the year.

Two of the speakers offered widely divergent viewpoints on the engineering solutions Lowe’s has promised to use to prevent pollution of the Edwards Aquifer. Lauren Ross, an engineer and geologist working on behalf of Sunset Valley, said the water quality benefits of both the engineering strategies and the $600,000 in mitigation money are significantly less than would be achieved by application of the SOS Ordinance. Williamson Creek has a higher impervious cover than any other feeding into the Barton Springs zone of the aquifer. Buying land in another watershed, she said, will not offset the impact of putting 40 percent impervious cover on this piece of property.

Lowe’s proposal, she said, relies on engineering technology to prevent an increase in the amount of pollutants entering the creek. “This is a battle that we have been fighting in this community for at least 15 years.” Engineers come up with technological solutions that promise no to prevent pollution. “I’ll agree with you that we have that kind of technology on paper. We now have 10 years of field experience having that kind of technology on the ground and . . . we don’t have a single water quality control that is meeting that standard.”

Ross said she has been involved in six projects designed to protect the quality of water entering the aquifer from Sunset Valley sites and has seen the pumps and other devices fail time and time again. That includes the system installed at William Cannon and Brodie Lane for HEB. “None of those systems have functioned as designed from the moment they were put into the ground,” she said. “We have failed pumps, broken irrigation lines, we have untreated storm runoff being pumped directly into the creeks so that you can get at the pumps.” While the settlement agreement proposes solutions to some of those problems, she said, it does not address all of them. Under SOS Ordinance standards, she said, it is necessary to capture 86 percent of stormwater. But with 40 percent impervious cover, as proposed by Lowe’s, the technology must catch and treat 100 percent of that water.

Lowe’s engineer, Bob Allen of Cunningham-Allen, said, “I’d like to point out that the design standards for this system far exceed any design standards in the City of Austin or Sunset Valley.” In addition to the usual capture technology, he said Lowe’s will install rainwater harvesting system that will collect about 18 percent of the water entering the site. That reduces the need to capture and treat stormwater, he noted. In addition, he explained that each pump would be designed to “deliver 100 percent of the design capacity, so even if one pump goes down, the other can do it. The pumps will be outside of the pond,” so they will be easier to maintain, he noted. In addition, he said Lowe’s will submit to inspections by the city and third-party monitoring. Lowe’s is also promising high maintenance standards for vegetation.

Sunset Valley Mayor Terry Cowan told the Council that he had been authorized to promise Austin up to $600,000 for purchase of water quality land if the City of Austin would reject Lowe’s offer. The relationship between Sunset Valley and Austin has been strained by Lowe’s, but the smaller city put Austin in the driver’s seat by rejecting Lowe’s site plan and then transferring jurisdiction of the land into Austin’s ETJ. Those are but a small smattering of the facts that make the lawsuit between the parties so complex.

Austin’s lawyers have consistently told the Council—while only implying to the public—that the city cannot win the lawsuit because the Legislature gave Lowe’s the choice of developing under county rules instead. Lowe’s has offered the mitigation funds, early annexation and the accompanying tax benefits to Austin in return for water and wastewater service. Lowe’s might be able to insist on water service at any rate but would further be required to operate a septic system without public sewer service.

Council Member Daryl Slusher urged his colleagues to reject the deal, but acknowledged that the decision is not an easy one.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley said, “This is not easy. We can’t just say no. (Slusher is) looking at this agreement and comparing it with other agreements. I look at this and see if there’s a legal way to stop it. I’m coming at it from a slightly different way. We’ve been getting advice from our attorneys throughout the process. For those of you who say, ‘Just say no,’ we may be saying no to only get something worse than this.”.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

What’s up with the Sheriff? . . Sheriff Margo Frasier has scheduled a press conference at 2pm at the Commissioners Courtroom. Public information officer Roger Wade’s cryptic press release says, “All questions concerning this announcement will be answered at the press conference . . . All media representatives are encouraged to attend this important announcement . . . City-county rules postponed . . . The Council postponed until next Thursday final approval of regulations the city and county will follow in the ETJ. The jurisdictions are required to come to an agreement by Jan. 1, 2004 by HB 1204, or face mandatory arbitration . . . Zoning cases zapped by postal service . . . Because the US Postal Service purchased new equipment to read labels on mail, a multitude of letters sent out by the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department and Watershed Protection and Development Review came back to the city as undeliverable. That made for a short zoning session yesterday. Planning manager Greg Guernsey said the city’s labels have always included the tax parcel number and the case number at the bottom of the label. Since the new machines read the label from the bottom up, looking first for the ZIP Code, the machines rejected the city’s mail. The Council unanimously rejected the request of a home and business owner in the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood for a zoning change to accommodate his use of his own property as an automotive repair shop. The Council also voted unanimously to support the request of a property owner on Bastrop Highway for a change from interim-single-family to CS (commercial services). The Zoning and Platting Commission faced the same situation earlier in the week . . . Brave Democrat . . . Stephen Yelenosky, legal director of Advocacy, Inc, yesterday announced his candidacy for judge of the 345th District Court. If Yelenosky secures the Democratic nomination in the spring primary, he will face Republican Judge Patrick Keel in next November’s election. Yelenosky has served as a member of the Ethics Review Commission and the Charter Revision Committee, as well as Liveable City and the Austin Tenant’s Council . . . Appointments. . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley appointed Jodi Leach to the Child Care Council and Council Member Raul Alvarez appointed Robert Schmidt to the Electrical Board. Stephen Cox was appointed by consensus to the Mechanical, Plumbing & Solar Board, while Trish O’Day gained consensus approval for reappointment to the Medical Assistance Program and Rural Medical Assistance Program Joint Advisory Board. Council Member Brewster McCracken appointed Lisa Schickel and Mayor Will Wynn appointed David Glassco to the Music Commission . . . Monday street closure . . . The Downtown Austin Alliance reports that a one block section of Third Street between Trinity and San Jacinto will be closed all day on Monday for filming. Parking meters on the west side of the 200 block of Trinity Street will also be closed during this same time period . . . Handel’s Messiah set for Tuesday night . . . The Austin Symphony will present Handel’s Messiah at 8pm Tuesday at the Riverbend Centre, 4214 Capital of Texas Hwy, just north of the 360 bridge. For more information, call 476-6064 . . . Common Cause fundraiser . . . The 15th Annual Uncommon Event will be from 5:30-8pm next Thursday, at 502 E. 11th St. (TX Assn. of Broadcasters Bldg), 2nd floor. The theme of the party is “Lauding the Defenders of Democracy.” The group will recognize Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and Reps. Dawnna Dukes, Ruth McClendon Jones, Elliott Naishtat, Richard Raymond, Eddie Rodriguez, Patrick Rose and Mike Villarreal. Tickets will be available at the door. Refreshments will be provided by local restaurants and caterers and the Therapy Sisters will entertain . . . Early Action plan approved . . . The draft version of the Clean Air Action Plan received unanimous approval from the City Council Thursday night. The list of techniques to reduce ozone pollution is still being shopped around to the various city and county jurisdictions that will need to sign off on the plan before it goes to the EPA. The final draft will come back to the Council for review in January.

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