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Landfill has Hutto area residents riled

Monday, October 18, 2004 by

County Judge says he did not know contract allowed non-Williamson trash

It’s fairly easy to spot out on the flat, featureless terrain in eastern Williamson County, which sits on the southern edge of the fertile Texas Blacklands. The 62-foot high lump of earth-covered refuse called Mount Hutto has been a benign—albeit sometimes malodorous—feature on the horizon in the form of a county landfill.

But all that has changed in recent weeks, when Waste Management Inc. (WMI) filed a request with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to expand the site to more than three times its current size and turn it into a regional landfill. That possibility has transformed the rural burg of Hutto into a battleground for residents, environmentalists, politicians, state regulators, and big corporations.

The issues, while complex, boil down to the basic notion that a large number of Hutto residents – many of whom just moved there to escape the ills of urban life in Austin – don’t want a massive landfill in their backyards.

"I would not have moved here had I known about this landfill expansion," said resident Susan McAtee, who adds that she can see the landfill from her home.

WMI’s request is being handled in two parts: first, land use, then in December, the actual plan for the facility. The last day for public comment is October 25, with a decision expected some time after that. The Commission held a public hearing last week in Hutto, called after local citizens and an Austin-based environmental group expressed major misgivings about the project.

The hearing attracted, in addition to Hutto residents and TCEQ officials, several Williamson County officials, members of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, and Waste Management officials. Most of the local citizens expressed fears that the expansion of the landfill would damage the quality of life, hurt property values and permeate the air with a foul smell.

"If I had known about this, I wouldn't have moved to Hutto," said Hutto resident Shelia Knapp, echoing the sentiments of many of the local residents who spoke at the hearing.

Steve Jacobs of WMI explained the precautions his company takes to protect the environment by meeting regulations prescribed by the state.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Frankie Limmer said the expansion would ensure that the growing county has room for the expanding amount of trash it's producing. Williamson County’s population grew by more than 79 percent between 1990 and 2000 and has continued that rapid pace.

The landfill, which sits about five miles north of Hutto on FM 685, has been in place since 1981 and owned by Williamson County since 1991. Waste Management, which manages the landfill for the county, has requested a permit to expand its footprint by 362 acres to approximately 500 acres, and build the mount up to 75 feet. The expansion would include a $160,000 recycling center that would receive metal, paper, plastic and oil.

Environmentalists expressed concerns that the expansion would cover land that is unsuitable for a landfill and it would increase truck traffic in the area. The land for the expansion contains a branch on Mustang Creek, and would be accessed by highways 79 and 29, both of which are already congested.

Robin Schneider with the environmental group said that before her organization began canvassing local residents, most of them were not aware of the plans.

“Whenever there’s a permit application, the local area is entitled to have a public hearing,” Schneider said. “But there has to be sufficient public concern before TCEQ will call a hearing. Before we became involved, almost no one in the area was aware of the application.”

Some also question WMI’s authority to request the permit. Waste Management officials say a change was added to its contract with the county when it was renewed in October 2003, allowing it to receive materials from other counties. County officials, including County Judge John Doerfler, said they knew nothing of any such change being made in the contract.

Schneider says her group is prepared to file an appeal to the TCEQ board if the agency’s staff approves the permit next week. “We think there are too many potential problems and too many unanswered questions to go forward with the expansion at this time,” she said.

Group gathering anti-smoking petitions

Supporters of a tougher smoking ordinance for Austin have quietly launched a drive to bypass the City Council and take the issue directly to the voters. As of last week, supporters began collecting signatures on a petition aimed at putting new smoking regulations on the ballot for the electorate to decide.

On Friday, a petitioner with the American Cancer Society sought signatures from joggers and other passers-by on the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge over Town Lake. He told those who slowed down to talk that the petition was designed to put the smoking issue on the ballot, and that signing the petition did not necessarily indicate they were for or against smoking in public places. In Fact Daily was not able to reach a representative of the society for comment Sunday.

The City Council passed a near-total ban on smoking in public under Mayor Gus Garcia, but implementation of that ordinance was later delayed, giving opponents—and a new City Council—time to substantially modify the rules before they took effect. The city's bars and restaurants can now obtain a smoking permit, or choose to forgo a permit and become "smoke free" zones. The current rules took effect on June 1.

According to Article IV of the Austin City Charter, at least ten percent of the city's qualified voters must sign a petition to place an item on the ballot. That is the same percentage required to trigger a recall vote of members of the City Council, as is being sought by members of the "Austin Toll Party." Although that group has set a goal of obtaining 40,000 signatures, the recent surge in the number of registered voters could raise the number of signatures required for either a recall election or a smoking ordinance initiative. Sal Costello with the Austin Toll Party says the group has already gathered 10,000 signatures in their effort to trigger a recall election on the terms of Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Danny Thomas and Brewster McCracken. The anti-toll road group is planning a rally at 6pm this evening at the First Unitarian Church, 4700 Grover, to announce its candidate endorsements for the November 2 election.

If the anti-smoking forces fail to obtain enough signatures in time to get the item on the May ballot, they can turn in their petition at a later date—but they would only be able to count signatures from a six-month period. The City Charter allows voter-initiated items to be decided during a special election, as long as it is on one of the election dates set out by state law.

In Fact Daily reported that political consultant Alfred Stanley had filed papers to launch a small donor political action committee (PAC) called Austin Supports Health (ASH). Rodney Ahart, lobbyist for the American Cancer Society, is listed along with Stanley as a decision-maker in the campaign, which will focus on tougher city smoking regulations. The group will be able to make contributions of up to $1,000 to candidates who promise to support a tougher smoking ordinance, Stanley said. ( See In Fact Daily, October 14, 2004; October 15, 2004.)

Friends mourn loss of Proffitt . . . Tony Proffitt, a journalist and political expert who served a long list of Texas politicians as spokesman and campaign consultant, died Sunday. Proffitt, who would've been 62 on Wednesday, succumbed to complications of diabetes and cancer. According to media release, Proffitt arrived in Texas in 1962, working for the Temple Telegram briefly and then for the American-Statesman. Proffitt joined U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle in 1965. In the early 1970's, Proffitt went to work for the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, staying with Bullock as press secretary and campaign manager for the next 20 years. Services are pending at the Wilke-Clay-Fish Funeral Home on South Congress . . . Today's fun and games . . . Early voting for the November 2 general election begins at 7am today. Democrats at the University of Texas are hoping to be the first to vote in Travis County, with students beginning a campout last night in front of the undergraduate library on the West Mall . . . Anti-rail press conference . . . Max Nofziger, representing Save South Congress, will have a press conference this at 9am this morning at Güero’s Taco Bar. Nofziger is expected to list his objections to Capital Metro’s commuter rail proposal and talk about a plan for better bus service . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Historic Preservation Task Force is scheduled to meet at 5:30pm in Room 104 of Waller Creek Center. This is expected to be the panel’s final meeting. They will discuss possible changes to their previous recommendations and hear another report on the cost of the current historic preservation program and proposed changes to the ordinance . . . The Design Commission will hold a special called meeting at 5:45pm tonight in the Fifth Floor Conference Room of One Texas Center. The major topic of discussion will be the a Memorandum of Understanding with community members for the South Congress Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project . . . The Urban Transportation Commission will meet at 6pm in the 11th Floor Conference Room of One Texas Center. They too will review a Memorandum of Understanding related to the South Congress Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project . . . The Office of the Police Monitor Citizen Review Panel will meet at 6:30pm at the YMCA East Community Branch Address, 5315 Ed Bluestein . . . If you want to vote early . . . Several locations will be open from 7am to 7pm Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6pm. on Sunday, including: Randall's, 1500 West 35th Street; Travis County Airport Boulevard offices; Travis County courthouse on Guadalupe; Fiesta Mart at 3909 North I-35, Randall's, 10900-D Research; HEB, 2400 South Congress ( temporary building and parking lot); Albertson's, 5510 South I-35; Home Depot, 1200 Home Depot Boulevard at Brodie; Randall's, 3300 Bee Caves Road. Northcross Mall on West Anderson Lane and Highland Mall on Airport Boulevard will both be open from 10am to 9pm Monday through Saturday and from Noon to 6pm on Sunday. For more information, visit : http://www.co.travis.tx.us/county_clerk/election/20041102/early.asp

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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