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Wal-Mart, neighborhood reach agreement

Thursday, December 4, 2003 by

Retailer agrees to measures to protect Blunn Creek

A demonstration against Wal-Mart’s plans to build on the headwaters of Blunn Creek became a celebration yesterday with the announcement that neighborhood negotiator Tim Mahoney and Wal-Mart’s attorney, Richard Suttle, had reached a tentative agreement that would save the creek. Mahoney, an attorney and president of the South River City Citizens (SRCC), told the crowd of about 50, “From this moment on, the creek has been saved.”

Members of the organization had gathered at the entrance to the Blunn Creek Preserve near St. Edward’s University yesterday afternoon. Many carried signs saying “Save Blunn Creek.” Although there has been a backlash against Wal-Mart in general among some activists, SRCC members had been especially concerned about the impact of so much impervious cover—nearly 80 percent—on a 21-acre tract at the corner of Ben White and I-35.

According to engineers hired by the neighborhood, impervious cover planned for the property would likely result in eliminating the base flow of the creek, which, except for Barton Creek, is the cleanest Austin creek emptying into the Colorado River. But Wal-Mart has agreed to neighborhood demands with the understanding that SRCC will support Wal-Mart’s zoning request, which is scheduled for third and final reading at today’s City Council meeting. Suttle and Mahoney also agreed to postpone the matter until next week in order to iron out the details.

Neighbors put forth three conditions needed to gain their support for the zoning change. As expressed in a letter from Suttle to Mahoney, those are:

• No diminishment of the existing base flow rate and volume (of water) from the site.

• Maintain at least 95 percent of the existing site average annual infiltration.

• Enhanced water quality requirements.

• Neighborhood compatibility design standards.

In the letter to Mahoney, Suttle wrote, “Wal-Mart will provide water quality treatment for approximately 109,000 cubic feet of storm runoff using applicable City of Austin storm water controls. This is approximately 25 percent more treatment capacity than current City of Austin code requires.” In addition, Wal-Mart has promised to follow enhanced water quality requirements, use integrated pest management and native plant species, install a Grow Green information kiosk in the store and neither use nor sell coal tar sealants in the store or parking lot.

Wal-Mart also proposes to use more neighborhood-friendly lighting, extra landscaping and energy saving devices. The company has also agreed to provide 24-hour security.

“I think Wal-Mart really wants to work with us,” Mahoney told In Fact Daily. He said he wanted to “honor the challenge (Wal-Mart) met in coming forward.” In addition, he said every member of the City Council had assisted in the process, but especially Betty Dunkerley, Daryl Slusher and Brewster McCracken.

Mahoney asked those assembled at the demonstration if they would approve the agreement and the crowd said yes. Even though all the details have not yet been determined, Mahoney said, “The way this thing is going I have every confidence we’ll come to an agreement.”

Mahoney said he hopes SRCC will form a non-profit corporation “so we can be pro-active in development.” He said neighborhoods and businesses could work together to protect urban watersheds. “We need to be working together so this is just part of our social fabric and doesn’t evolve into a crisis like this has been.”

Commissioners likely to do odor study with BFI

Travis County Commissioners appear to be inclined to move forward with an odor study at the Northeast landfills, even if one of two operators declines to participate.

Waste Management Inc. representatives were not at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting, and no one from the company had indicated an interest in paying for a portion of the odor study. Browning-Ferris Industries, on the other hand, has agreed to ante up its portion of the year of odor monitoring, at a cost of $120,000, in order to clear its record.

Attorney Paul Gosselink said BFI was committed to move forward with an independent odor study by the county. BFI thought it was a good idea when it was proposed, and the idea still makes sense to the company. He added that the neighbors and the landfill still had different opinions about whether odors continued to be a problem at the two landfills. The study would resolve the issue.

BFI officials have agreed to turn $120,000 over to the county, with no strings attached, Gosselink told commissioners. He added as a caveat that BFI would like to sign off on the design of the study, to make sure the goals of the study are reasonable.

One odor incident in a year should not be considered a major infraction, Gosselink said, nor, however, should repeated problems be considered acceptable at the landfill.

“We feel we can perform operationally and pass the study,” Gosselink said.

Consultant Bart Eklund noted in a report presented to commissioners last week that odor complaints have dropped significantly at the landfill. Neighbors admit the problem has improved somewhat, but added that some neighbors no longer call because of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) inaction at the landfills.

Representatives from the TCEQ, who were invited by the commissioners, were neutral on the benefits of the study, or whether that study would be useful in stopping an expansion permit on the existing landfills. Permits would be referred to another section of the environmental agency.

Regional Director Patti Rhea confirmed those findings in mild legalese, saying that complaints had dropped as gas capture measures have increased at the landfill site. TCEQ staff offered only a tepid endorsement of plans to monitor the odors.

Eklund had recommended a minimum of five odor-monitoring stations, with monitoring stations upwind and downwind of the working face of each landfill. The monitoring stations would provide minute-by-minute monitoring of the area.

Commissioners expressed support for the study for different reasons. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said a study of odors in the area would be a far better record for any future court proceeding. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty noted that the study could distinguish between landfill and non-landfill odors in the area. Most of the homes in the nearby Walnut Hill subdivision are on septic systems. County Judge Sam Biscoe said the purpose of the study should be to pinpoint problems and identify solutions.

Biscoe delayed a vote on the study for another two weeks. County staff is expected to negotiate the specifics of the odor study with BFI. Sonleitner will be out of town next week.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Big box day . . . Today’s City Council meeting, like so many in the past few months, will feature arguments about big box retail. The Real Estate Council of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce have teamed up to oppose the anti-big box over the aquifer ordinance. Dominick Chavez and Tim Taylor of RECA were trying to persuade the Mayor and Council members not to ban the Wal-Marts and Home Depots from the Barton Springs zone, prompting Council Member Daryl Slusher to put out a 3.5 page letter detailing reasons to support the ban. His message is that those business groups are flat wrong, just as they were when they opposed the SOS Ordinance as bad for the economy. The proposed Lowe’s settlement will have a public hearing—at 7pm or later. Lobbyists were busy at City Hall yesterday, with Robin Rather and Brigid Shea visiting Council Member Brewster McCracken to see if they could change his vote on Lowe’s . . . Confusion reigns. . . Yesterday, In Fact Daily reported that the Planning Commission had actually recommended that the Council reject the Lowe’s proposal on a vote of 4-2. That was because city staff believed that Commissioner Michael Casias had resigned before the meeting on that matter. But yesterday Casias informed the city that although he intended to resign he had not yet done so. Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry said she talked to Casias and confirmed his status. She was concerned because only 4 commissioners are needed to make up a quorum in a commission of 7 members, but 5 are needed to make up a quorum and to make a legal recommendation if there are 8 or 9 members. So, when the Planning Commission voted 4-2 last week, that reflected no formal position. Not so important in that case, Terry said, but very important when it comes to subdivision approvals and zoning recommendations. If there is no quorum vote on a subdivision, it may be deemed approved by operation of law . . . Democratic judge candidates begin race . . . Jan Soifer and Gisela Triana are vying for the Democratic Party nomination for Judge of the 200th District Court. Triana, who has been a county court at law judge for the past four years, announced her candidacy and had her first fundraiser yesterday. Soifer put out a press release saying she had met her own goal of raising $100,000 in campaign contributions. Soifer also announced today that her campaign has now won endorsements from 1,100 legal professionals and community leaders from all across Travis County. She said she hopes to secure an additional $50,000 in contributions by February 1, 2004 . . . New chairman. . . Members of the Water and Wastewater Commission have selected Michael Warner to take over as chairman. Commissioner Chien Lee will serve as vice chairman. Darwin McKee, the previous chairman, recently resigned from the commission. The group is also asking the Mayor to recognize McKee with a proclamation in honor of his 11 years of service . . . South Austin bash . . . Businesses along South First Street are uniting for their first-ever Holiday Bazaar. The event will feature art vendors, food, live music and a concert at Jovita’s to benefit the small, independent shops along the street. The Holiday Bazaar starts tonight and runs through Sunday. The long-running construction project on South First will be put on hold for the event. “There still will be some barricades up, but the great news is it’s paved, so people will be able to park,” said Amy Holt, owner of Funque’s Antiques. Local business owners are looking forward to a major improvement in traffic flow later this month when final markings are put on those sections of the road that are finished. Other sections will remain under construction until next summer.

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