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Board rejects change to building in flood plain rule

Monday, July 26, 2004 by

Staff wants administrative approval for small, unoccupied buildings in parks

The Environmental Board is recommending against a proposed change to the city's ordinance governing building within the 25-year flood plain. The proposal, which the board rejected on a 5-1 vote, would allow administrative approval of construction of specific types of small, unoccupied buildings within the flood plain in recreational areas.

Like other flood plain variances, such requests now go directly to the City Council for approval. The proposal that various boards and commissions are reviewing, including the Parks Board and the Planning Commission, would allow staff to grant variances for parking lots smaller than 5,000 square feet and buildings smaller than 1,000 square feet. George Oswald of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department told board members that would include restrooms, pump houses, bathhouses and concession stands.

"As you know, a lot of our park land is along creeks," he said. "Over the last few years as the Parks Department has been upgrading and expanding its facilities, we have gone through the process of taking these variances to the Council. What this will do is expedite that process. We're not going to relax any of the safety standards. The buildings will still have to meet certain flood-proofing requirements."

Board Member Mary Ruth Holder felt the streamlined process would allow the Parks and Recreation Department to conserve its money and resources. "PARD has probably one of the most minute budgets of any city department," she said. "I see this as them working to minimize staff time." Holder was a member of the Parks and Recreation board for several years before her appointment to the Environmental Board.

But Board Member Karin Ascot questioned the wisdom of streamlining the process for adding more impervious cover within the 25-year flood plain. "I don't like it. It feels as if we're just making it easy to put a bunch of concession stands and parking lots all over the place, which I don't think we need more of," she said. Joining her was Board Member Timothy Riley, who warned that any steps to reduce restrictions on floodplain development would be steps in the wrong direction. "I've done floodplain management, and I'm philosophically opposed to any structure within the 100-year flood plain," he said. "There are inherent and unavoidable risks by placing structures in floodplains. Even though I don't think its such a big deal with these small, unoccupied structures, I have a problem inching that door open to allowing larger structures."

Board Chair Lee Leffingwell reminded the other members that another floodplain variance ordinance revision had come before the board last year, and the board had recommended against it. "I have consistently opposed efforts to remove or eliminate the public process," he said, noting that the hearing on floodplain variances before the City Council was the only option that neighbors would have for public comment. "I want to maintain the public process . . . where if there are people that have concerns they can come forward and make their views known."

Riley's motion to recommend denying the changes passed on a vote of 5-1, with Holder opposed. Board Members David Anderson and Bill Curra were absent. The ordinance revision goes to the Parks board for its recommendation on July 27, the Planning Commission on August 10 and to the full City Council for consideration on August 26 if it stays on schedule.

EPA should act on air pollution first, says environmental advocate

Vickie Patton of Environmental Defense told a session at the National Conference of State Legislatures last week that states’ Clean Air efforts work best when the Environmental Protection Agency does its part first to clean up major polluters such as trucks, boats and trains.

Patton told lawmakers that the EPA has put a number of aggressive measures on the table in the last year, including diesel retrofitting. That's a progressive move ultimately expected to save 12,000 lives and eliminate 200,000 asthma attacks, Patton said. It's a big step forward in public health protection.

The problem is that only half of the benefits from diesel retrofits will be realized by 2020, Patton said. The federal government simply doesn't have the money to provide for immediate retrofitting, Patton said. She suggested that states should push harder for the federal government to contribute and pointed to the current five-year diesel retrofit program in Texas as a model for other states in cleaning up existing diesel fleets.

"The EPA's commitment to a diesel retrofit program is innovative, but the resources aren't there," Patton admitted. "We need to go to Congress and tell them, 'Let's fund a comprehensive diesel retrofit in order to meet effective national standards.'"

Commercial ships of all kinds are major polluters. Ohio and Pennsylvania have been hard hit by pollution from tugs and barges. By correcting the issues associated with commercial boats, the nation could eliminate millions of tons of pollutants, Patton said. She also pointed to locomotives as a significant source of air pollution that must be addressed on a national, not local, level.

"States need to push EPA forward in putting together comprehensive plans to address power plants and diesel engines and set better standards for commercial ships and locomotives," Patton said. "States are the best place to start the campaign for a strong foundation from the federal government. There is an opportunity here to leverage and maximize investments for the greatest public health."

States are often focused on the hard deadlines of the Clean Air legislation, Patton said. She encouraged states to step back and look at a bigger picture. The best strategy is a multi-pollutant strategy, recognizing that one form of pollutant typically exacerbates another. The same pollutants that cause ozone also lead to regional haze, Patton said. Volatile organic compounds often contribute to a number of types of pollution.

"The point is to consider how we can achieve multiple benefits," Patton said.

An innovative program can address issues on multiple fronts and it’s the newest area of research for the EPA, Patton said. For example, new big-rig truck electrification technology not only addresses particulate issues, it also can make inroads into environmental justice complaints that economically depressed areas catering to truckers often bear the brunt of air pollution. It makes sense from the truckers’ point of view because it brings down cost.

Even something as simple as being energy efficient can have a big impact on the release of pollutants. By reducing energy consumption, a host of harmful pollutants are also reduced. The goal is to consider clean air activities "in a smart and thoughtful way," Patton said.

Business as usual resumes . . . After four weeks of relative quiet, City Hall will return to the normal hustle that accompanies every City Council meeting. There are a multitude of issues, including the budget, that await the Council this week . . . Water quality meeting . . . A subcommittee for the Travis-Hays regional water quality planning group will meet at 1pm today in the offices of Naismith Engineering at 8th and Nueces. They will be reviewing the consultant’s plan and schedule for stakeholder committee participation in preparation of the Water Quality Protection Plan. The group may make recommendations concerning whether the schedule can be accelerated, among other issues, to the full group . . . ZAP to mull task force recommendations . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will have a special called meeting at 5:30pm today in Room 500 of One Texas Center. Keith Jackson, who served on the Historic Preservation Task Force, along with three other members of the commission, will lead a conversation on the task force’s recommendations for changes to the historic landmark ordinance. It seems likely that the commission will recommend that the Council adopt the task force’s recommendations rather than staff suggestions where those two documents differ. (See In Fact Daily, July 22, 2004) . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will meet at 7pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. Their brief agenda includes one request for a demolition permit and three requests from property owners that their houses be recommended for historic zoning . . . The Design Commission will hold a special called meeting at 5:45pm in the 8th floor conference room of One Texas Center to talk about changes to the ordinance defining the commission’s role. They will also review and make a recommendation on the city’s Green Building Program . . . The Resource Management Commission will meet at 6:30pm in Room 721 of Town Lake Center . . . The Arts Commission is scheduled to consider a number of Art in Public Places projects and make recommendations. They will meet at 6:30pm at Waller Creek Plaza.

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