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County Judge Sam Biscoe had plenty to say about substandard housing when he testified before the House Committee on County Affairs on Wednesday.

Friday, June 4, 2004 by

The topic at Wednesday's hearing was "urban colonias," not exactly the first topic associated with Travis County. But with Kennedy Ridge, Clover Leaf and Northridge Acres as his examples, Biscoe presented recommendations to the House committee.

"Urban colonias" was a topic introduced by Rep. Kevin Bailey (D-Houston) back in 1991, when he got a bill passed to put water and wastewater service in all neighborhoods that had been annexed by the City of Houston. By the time it was over, Houston had spent $200 million to push water service out to 100 neighborhoods.

To his chagrin, Bailey found that there were another 46 highly populated neighborhoods without water and wastewater service outside the city but inside Harris County.

"This is a serious issue," Bailey told the committee, chaired by Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown). "You've got sewage in the ditches. The smell is unbearable. You can bathe or wash your clothes or your dishes. This is in Harris County, Texas, where you would think the problem wouldn't exist."

Biscoe had his own experiences with urban colonias, including the success of bringing water and wastewater service not once, but twice, to Kennedy Ridge.

Senate Bill 873, passed in the 77th Session, granted counties some of the subdivision powers given to cities. Biscoe suggested that those powers under SB 873 be modified.

A time limit should be put on subdivision plats, Biscoe said. When looking at subdivisions with problems, Biscoe said the common factor was that most of them had first been platted many years in the ago. New infrastructure such as water and sewer service should be required for undeveloped portions of existing subdivisions.

"Most of the time, the developer had aborted the development, but the lots were sold," Biscoe said. "The lots weren't occupied and there were no residents out there, but then residents started going in, in a variety of housing. Before you know it, you have people living out there, and in terms of enforcement, you're putting the county in the position of giving a resident a citation and a fine for services they deserve."

Biscoe also recommended that plats expire after some period of time. The rights to the developer should not last forever.

In most cases, the residents can't afford to pay the bill. In the case of Kennedy Ridge, residents offered up "sweat equity" to install a water and wastewater system they couldn't afford to buy. Biscoe asked that some of the funding grant matches given to border counties should also be extended to those counties faced with urban colonias. Funding should be granted in tandem between water and wastewater service.

The service at the urban colonias, once it is extended, often has to be handed over to a private water service provider. That leads to astronomical bills, Biscoe said. He recommended that lawmakers and community leaders brainstorm some way to make the investment in a water system more attractive to the private service provider.

The Austin Independent Business Alliance is sponsoring the Indie Biz Fair on Sunday. The group of locally-owned businesses is also holding a fund-raising auction featuring items donated by members. The event starts at 5:00pm and takes place at Ruta Maya Coffee House, 3601 S. Congress. More information is available on the group's web site at Groundbreaking ceremonies are scheduled for Sunday for the new Children's Hospital at the old Robert Mueller Airport site. The facility will have 169 beds. The Seton Healthcare Network plans to have the new facility open the 451,000 square-foot facility in 2007.

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