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Engineer predicts pollution as result of LCRA line

Wednesday, May 12, 2004 by

Ross says engineering solutions do not prevent water degradation

If the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) puts a proposed water line on Hamilton Pool Road, “degradation of local stream water quality and of the Barton Springs Aquifer will occur,” according to an analysis by engineer Lauren Ross. Ross is a water quality consultant with extensive experience in designing and critiquing engineering solutions to potential water quality degradation. The Hamilton Pool Road Scenic Corridor Coalition, a group that has asked the LCRA to wait until a regional plan has been approved before making a final decision on the line, financed the study.

Ross made her comments in a letter to the LCRA board, which is scheduled to consider the matter at its May 19 meeting in Burnet. Three area landowners, Rebecca Hudson, Bill Formby and Rusty Signor founded the Hamilton Pool Road Alliance, which favors the line. The water line would facilitate the building of an estimated 1300 homes along the narrow road that connects Ranch Road 12 to State Highways 71 and 290

“The water line has the capacity to bring a lot of development out there—somewhere between 7,700 and 25,000 homes,” Ross said yesterday. “No one knows exactly how they’ll configure the storage tanks and the pumps,” she added, but 25,000 additional homes would mean at least 50,000 people in the area southwest of Bee Cave near the Hays County line.

Such dense development could not occur within the water line, Ross notes. “The existing water supply for development along Hamilton Pool Road relies upon withdrawals from the Trinity Aquife r . . . Assuming that all available water could be developed by numerous evenly spaced low capacity wells with constant year round pumpage . . .the total number of households that could be served from this aquifer without depletion is between 12,000 and 63,000.” Ross estimated that the sustainable development density would be somewhere between 1 house per 3 acres and 1 house per 18 acres. Asked to comment on those numbers, Ross said, “One to three—that’s the best possible outcome, which can’t possibly happen.”

In her letter, she concluded that the proposal to allow 1300 homes on approximately 1300 acres would mean that the water line would bring a much higher level of density than if groundwater were used exclusively.

The landowners have asked for a surface-water plan to develop within the watersheds of Little Barton Creek and Rocky Creek, within an area of thin soils and often steep topography, Ross noted. In order to maintain clear base flow in the two creeks there must be “large expansive areas of natural soils and vegetation” in the watershed, Ross wrote. The two creeks feed into Barton Creek and in turn into the Edwards Aquifer.

Ross said she had additional concerns about stream bank erosion resulting in additional sediments and pollutants flowing into the creeks. She also cited concern about pollution caused by inadequate handling of wastewater. There is no central sewer in the area.

Those seeking the waterline for residential development have promised to cluster houses in order to protect environmental quality, but Ross analyzes their proposals as being “designed to benefit the developer by minimizing infrastructure costs, and not to foster environmentally sound design.” As an engineer, Ross has designed systems to remove pollutants from storm runoff. But she wrote, “National water quality experts have concluded that engineered controls make little or no significant difference in water degradation from development.” When Ross inspected engineered water quality structures at the Temple Inland building and the HEB in Southwest Austin—both of which complied with SOS regulations when built—she found that the two systems were failing. Ross said the owners of those properties were busy doing the things that such businesses do and gave little thought to the structures once they were installed. In general, Ross said, “These systems are highly unreliable.”

The LCRA entered into a memorandum of understanding with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to protect water quality and avoid harm to the Barton Springs Salamander. But the engineering designs approved by USFWS “rely on unsupported assumptions and ‘bad’ science. They will not achieve the nominal standards, which are a key basis for support for the proposed development.” Ross concluded, “With the 7,700 to 25,000 additional homes that could be built with water from a 16-inch line, the degradation of water in the creeks and aquifer recharge will be significant.”

LCRA spokesman Bill McCann responded to a request for comment with the following written statement: “In her 10-page report, Ms. Ross brings up many of the same issues and concerns that LCRA staff has already identified and is addressing. While we have not yet had an opportunity to review the report in detail, LCRA staff continues to believe that the proposed Hamilton Pool Road water line project offers an opportunity to provide ample, clean water and significant environmental protection to an area where they do not now exist. We are forwarding this report to the Board for its consideration along with all of the other comments that we have received from the public on this subject.”

RMMA panel hears recommendation for sale of land

Commissioners tell Council to act on information not available to commission

Last night, members of the Robert Mueller Municipal Advisory Commission expressed some skepticism at the city’s assessment that the sale of the 700 acres of land at Mueller was the only way to make the project’s parameters work.

Members of the board had obviously given thought and some research to the various scenarios proposed for the Mueller property: sale, among them a lease and combination sale-lease option. Outside counsel Jim Cousar and Assistant City Manager John Stephens made the same presentation to the City Council last week.

Commissioner Donna Carter said she thought the assumptions the city started with–that Catellus would not want to do a lease deal, or that homeowners would not buy homes on leased land—made her a bit suspicious of the presentation. Carter, like a number of her colleagues on the commission, did not want to close the door on intermediate options.

“This goes to how you frame your presentation,” Carter said during the discussion. “You assume this is how it’s going to look, and that is how it’s presented.”

Carter and Commissioner Claire Morris wanted the city to present more options on what it would take to pull out a component like the Town Center and put it on the block for lease. Only three scenarios, however, were configured at the request of the City Council. The mix of sale and lease, Morris said, should be as creative as possible.

Commissioner Rick Krivoniak admitted that the lease or purchase of the land was not his area of expertise. What Krivoniak said he did know was that one of the original goals of the project was to put as much property back on the tax roll as quickly as possible. His first priority, however, would be to make a choice that did not slow down the process.

When Commissioner Matt Harris heard the presentation that leases would be difficult to negotiate and implement, he argued that lease terms could be negotiated. Almost half the land in Hawaii is on a land lease. The Port Authority leases most of Lower Manhattan. Harris asked whether a similar situation would work on the Mueller land.

Sue Edwards, director of Redevelopment Services, said the question was not really how well leases worked or how easy those leases would be to administer. The real point being made by city staff was that the lease option and the sale-lease option just don’t work financially. The cost of front-end infrastructure on the Mueller project is $175 million, she said, whether the city issues bonds initially and waits on lease revenue or uses the revenue from the sale of the land to pay off the infrastructure early.

“Between what the cost of the project is and the amount of the lease stream coming in over time, it’s a huge amount of money,” Edwards said. “In order to make this project work as designed, it will not work financially except in the sales scenario.”

The difference between the sale and the lease is a 20-year difference in profits, city staff told the commission. Under a sale, the city could see profits by 2025. Under a lease, the city would not see a profit until 2046. That’s not a scenario that most developers want to consider on a long-term development commitment, Edwards said.

The value of the property increases as the debt is paid off, just like a house, Edwards said. Money and value must be paid off on the property before the property gets value. City staff has the numbers on what each scenario would cost. Because the numbers are proprietary, however, they won’t be released to the commission. Stephens did say the difference between a lease and a purchase would be tens of millions of dollars. And the city acknowledged that all the money from the land sale would go to infrastructure costs.

The question comes down to what kind of subsidy the city would be willing to put into the plan before the money comes back to the city. The more the city leases, the more tax-increment finance bonds have to be issued and the higher the resulting interest rates.

Chair Jim Walker said the concept that this development would eventually pay for itself was a message the commission wanted to send to the city. ROMA consultant Jim Adams urged the commission to consider the vision that was intended for the project—such as open space and affordable housing—when considering a position on the sale-lease issue.

Save the Land supporters argued that the land held by the city would only gain value. They urged the city to maintain as much control as possible over the land. A request to slow down the process was met with some laughter from the commission, given the number of years members have worked on the project. Save the Land plans to address the Council during Thursday’s public hearing, which is scheduled for 6pm.

The commissioners were torn by the desire to get Mueller underway and the nagging suspicion that more could be done to explore leasing options. Without the financial figures, though, the commissioner could not make an educated recommendation. A motion to support the city's recommendation to purchase the property failed.

A second motion, which recommended the Council, based on their superior information, take whatever action necessary to get the Mueller project started, passed 4-0-2. Walker, Morris, Harris and Krivoniak voted in favor of the motion. Rob Carrothers, who supported the sale of the property, and Carter, who wanted more careful consideration of leasing options, abstained.

Final tally on early voting . . . At the end of a ho-hum early voting period, about 3 percent of Travis County voters had cast ballots at the end of the day yesterday. The total who got out early was 17,610. Weighty issues such as formation of a hospital district and collective bargaining for Austin firefighters top the ballot, which also includes one AISD race and selection of three ACC board members. Saturday is Election Day . . . Mayor to address downtown issues . . . The Downtown Austin Alliance is hosting Mayor Will Wynn as their guest speaker at a very special “Issues & Eggs” breakfast meeting at 8am today. Wynn, who developed several downtown properties before taking office, is a former chair of the DAA. He will talk about the “State of Downtown ” to members of the Alliance and their guests at the Marriott at the Capitol, 701 East 11th Street . . . Liberation of Fifth Street announced . . . At 2pm today, eastbound lanes on Fifth Street between Bowie and Baylor will reopen to the driving public. As most downtown drivers know, the intersection at Fifth and Lamar and the roadway between Baylor and Bowie, have been under construction since March. They are now complete and ready to return to motorists. Area merchants are expected to move the barricades at 2pm for TV cameras. Lamar will continue as one lane each way. In addition, the parking lane on Fifth Street alongside the new Whole Foods store (just east of the intersection) will remain closed . . . Coupon for electric lawnmowers available . . . This month, the CLEAN AIR Force of Central Texas, in coordination with participating Home Depots and P&K True Value, will be providing a 20-percent discount on the purchase of a Black & Decker corded or cordless model of electric lawnmower. Participants can print out a coupon at www.cleanairforce.org and take it to the Woodward, Arboretum, Sunset Valley or Round Rock Home Depots, or to the P&K True Value Hardware in Georgetown. Gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment is responsible for more than 5 percent of urban air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. For more information on the program, call the CLEAN AIR Force of Central Texas at 916-6047, or send an email to info@cleanairforce.org.

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