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Williamson eyes water district idea skeptically

Tuesday, November 16, 2004 by

State, county may not see eye-to-eye on need for district

As Williamson County growth continues at a rapid pace, local officials are concerned about the future availability of water. But a tug-of-war is developing between state and local officials on the best way to conserve the area’s groundwater supplies.

Two county officials, Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman, and Precinct 4 Commissioner Frankie Limmer, met Monday with a group of stakeholders to discuss the possibility of forming a groundwater conservation district. According to Commissioner Birkman, the consensus is that one is not needed, but that is only the beginning—not the end—of the discussion.

“Most of the people at the meeting don’t believe we need a district,” she said. “They are wary of forming another entity that can tax us, but because of a bill passed during the last Legislature, the state could force a district on us. So, it becomes a case of ‘If we have to have one, let’s create one that we can control.’”

The stakeholders at the meeting included cities like Round Rock, utility districts such as Brushy Creek, and individual landowners with wells. About 75 people attended Monday’s meeting in Georgetown.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has studied an area including Burnet, Williamson and Northern Travis counties as a priority groundwater management area (PGMA). Seventeen distinct parts of the area were identified. Of the 17, six were designated as PGMAs, five were put on a “watch list” for future problems and six were determined not to need management.

At Monday’s meeting, Burnet County officials announced they were petitioning the TCEQ to for a PGMA in their county, separate from anything to be formed in Williamson and Travis counties. Burnet County Judge Dave Kithil said his county has the smallest population in the area and feels it would do better managing water resources on its own.

According to Commissioner Birkman, the TCEQ is slated to issue an updated report in January, which could get the ball rolling for the state to act.

“If the state determines that there is a need, they can create a local district and impose it on us,” Birkman said. “I talked with the TCEQ, and they tell me that they have never actually had to force a district on an area. They said most counties have decided to create their own.”

But big stakeholders including Round Rock and the Brushy Creek MUD say they are managing the area’s water resources properly, and don’t need another layer of bureaucracy to tax and regulate them. One the other hand, Birkman says, they would rather create a local entity with local control than have the state force an agency on them.

“One of the reasons we don’t need one is that we’re are not a ‘donor county,’ “she said. “We are a net importer of water, so we don’t need protection from outside groups pumping water out of our area.”

Birkman said the comments from the meeting would be presented to the Williamson County Commissioners Court on November 30. She said the court is likely to appoint a panel from among the stakeholders to study the issues surrounding groundwater management in the area.

Kim announces; Ahart files for anti-smoking PAC

It’s still six months until Austinites get to vote for the City Council, but the campaigns are beginning to heat up.

Jennifer Kim, a small business owner with a master’s degree in public affairs, kicked off her campaign for City Council Place 3 yesterday. The rally brought together an estimated 40-50 supporters, including Paul Saldaña of Martin & Salinas Public Affairs, Planning Commissioner Cid Galindo, and former Planning Commissioner Niyanta Spelman. Kim, 32, is the owner of a franchise that helps small businesses resolve information technology problems.

Veteran Democratic activist Cecelia Crossley introduced Kim, who said she would focus on quality of life issues, economic development, and responsible stewardship of the environment. She is the daughter of immigrant parents, one Korean and one Chinese. Kim told In Fact Daily she believes the most important thing Austin must do is retain its creativity. Austin’s unique blend of artistic and technological expertise produces “ideas that can’t be developed elsewhere.” Kim said she has not hired a campaign consultant, but Saldaña, who has extensive experience working for former Mayor Gus Garcia, said he is providing some pointers on a volunteer basis.

So far, the other likely candidates in the race to sit in Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman’s chair include: Margot Clarke, Mandy Dealey and Jeff Trigger. Gregg Knaupe, who yesterday named Evelyn Nazro as his treasurer, has not decided whether he will run in Place 3 or Place 1, which has been held by Council Member Daryl Slusher for the past eight years. Knaupe’s campaign manager, Mark Littlefield, said last night, “A lot of people are encouraging (Knaupe) to run in one spot or another,” but said he would not likely have a decision on which would be the better race, strategically, until January. Littlefield managed the successful re-election campaign of State Rep. Patrick Rose (D-Hays County). Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker has not yet decided whether to run.

So with nearly six months to go until Election Day, bar owner Paul Silver and his friends in the Warehouse District have decided its time to start grilling candidates on their favorite issues. Today’s forum at Truluck’s underscores their attempt to get a jump on other advocacy groups, which usually wait until February or March to hold endorsement meetings and forums.

To help candidates invited to today’s event prepare for questions they may be asked, Silver sent out a list of possible questions, including, “What business regulations would you eliminate, add or modify?” It seems safe to say that the regulation Silver is most interested in modifying or eliminating is the anti-smoking ordinance, since he has railed against that for the past few months.

But Rodney Ahart of the American Cancer Society says the ordinance should not be an issue that the City Council should have to decide. To that end, Ahart has put together a coalition of organizations to help put “a smoke-free workplace” on the ballot next year. Ahart yesterday filed documentation with the city showing that he will be the treasurer of O2nward, a specific purpose committee working to put the referendum on the May 7 ballot.

Ahart said he has enlisted both paid and volunteer workers to gather signatures of 10 percent of Austin’s registered voters. Organizations supporting the effort include the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, Texas PTAs, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, TexPIRG (Texas Public Interest Research Group), Gray Panthers and Travis County Medical Society. One-third of US cancer deaths are as a result of tobacco, Ahart said.

While most people agree that work places should be smoke-free, Ahart said, “some people don’t define places where you go for entertainment as work places.” However, for those who work in the entertainment industry, their office may be on 6th Street. “And that’s really the piece that we’re striving and working toward—as well as to provide a smoke-free environment for our citizens.”

Ahart said his group will be having a press conference on Thursday to show how many signatures they have gathered in the past four weeks to support putting the matter on the ballot. Thursday is designated as “the Great American Smokeout,” he said.

Zoning change moves forward for Shops at Arbor Walk

The Planning Commission has given its approval for a major project at the corner of MoPac and Braker. Simon Properties and the University of Texas have agreed to convert 46 acres currently used for a golf driving range into an outdoor shopping complex called the Shops at Arbor Walk. To do so, the owner, UT, needs a zoning change on land at the southeast corner of MoPac and Braker site from "P" (public) to CH (commercial highway district).

The UT System Board of Regents has already approved a 52-year lease with Simon that will bring the University approximately $130 million in revenue and put the property back on the tax rolls. "Right now, the taxes on that golf course are about $26,000 per year," said attorney Jay Hailey of Locke Liddell &Sapp, who is representing UT on the case. "The rest of it is tax exempt, because it's owned by the university and is sitting there vacant." He estimated the combined property and sales tax revenues from the Shops at Arbor Walk would be $1.86 million per year for the various taxing entities that have jurisdiction over the site.

The new development would be near The Domain, and just across from the UT J.J. Pickle Research Campus. While the university had laid out a plan in the late 1980's for the site to be an extension of that research facility, UT's Director of Campus Real Estate told commissioners that changing conditions had forced the regents to reevaluate that strategy. "A lot of people don't realize that UT receives less than 20 percent of its annual budget from state appropriations," he said. "We are tasked to raise tremendous volumes of money and this is a major initiative to one part of that process. It is very important to us that this go forward."

But the desire for additional revenues was not the only factor in the university's decision. "It is very hard for us to cross the railroad tracks," he said, referring to a freight line that runs along the edge of the eastern edge of the driving range, separating it from the rest of the university-owned property. "It does not integrate well with the main portion of the Pickle Research Center, and we think the long term use for a commercial purpose as a very large endowment is the best thing to promote higher education and research."

Commissioners peppered UT representatives with questions about possible future uses for that rail line, including the possibility of commuter service. Several commissioners urged UT and Simon to follow transit-oriented development principles, leaving room for a commuter rail station if at all possible. "No one is more interested in transit than the University of Texas," said UT's Jim Wilson. "Our interest is in connecting these two major campuses with the people who want to interact. It's not unreasonable to have a platform or something here."

Commissioners also urged UT to consider more pedestrian connectivity between the site and surrounding areas. "Part of what I would like to see up here is how UT staff or visitors at the Pickle Campus can get over here for lunch or shopping, because part of what we would like to do on the Planning Commission is reduce the amount of driving trips people have to make or shorten those trips," said Commissioner Dave Sullivan. Wilson agreed that connecting the shops to those potential customers at the Pickle Campus would be in UT's best interest. "We believe it would be a great benefit to the people at Pickle, and there will be a lot more people at Pickle because we've run out of space on the main campus," he said. "We will work diligently to create the connectivity because we see this as more than an economic generator for the University—it is part of the community of our north campus."

Commission Chair Chris Riley suggested postponing a vote on the zoning change for two weeks to allow commissioners to further consider both the pedestrian and mass transit issues. However, Hailey urged the Commission to take a vote sooner, rather than later. "We're under a very short fuse to try to get this property zoned before the end of the year to meet certain contractual deadlines," he said. Furthermore, Hailey said that many of the issues brought up by commissioners would more appropriately be handled at the site plan stage, not during zoning.

The commission voted 8-0 to approve the zoning change. The request is scheduled for consideration by the City Council on December 2. If the Council grants approval, construction on the site could begin in early 2005.

Cap Metro looking for federal money

Capital Metro is gearing up for the process required to obtain federal funding for the northwest commuter rail line approved by voters earlier this month. The Federal Transit Authority requires agencies seeking federal financial help for rail to conduct a thorough study of possible alternatives for addressing traffic problems.

Capital Metro Board Members got an update on the study process from Craig McCullough with the Lopez Garcia Group, a Dallas-based engineering consulting firm. He told them the most effective way to alleviate traffic problems along the northwest corridor of Capital Metro's service area is commuter rail service on the existing track, with some modifications. The consulting team reviewed five different options: a "no-build" scenario using only Rapid Bus service, maximizing the efficiency of the current system without significant capital projects, creating High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on US 183 and using them for buses, running commuter rail service on the existing Capital Metro tracks, and making some modifications to the tracks within the Avery Ranch and Robinson Ranch areas.

"We suggest that you recommend to CAMPO the realigned track commuter rail alternative for your long range commuter plan," said McCullough. He said their studies showed that line would have the largest number of riders, the shortest travel time, and would also establish a reliable "reverse commute" option between East Austin and Leander. Furthermore, the commuter rail line would support regional planning efforts and would be the most cost-effective of the five options. "The realigned track commuter rail was the lowest operating cost alternative, however it did have the highest capital cost," he explained. "You have to buy more vehicles to take care of those riders."

A resolution officially declaring the modified rail line as the "locally preferred alternative" should be on the agenda for Capital Metro Board Members at their December meeting. "In looking at it, the project appears very competitive for funding," concluded McCullough. "It looks like a good project."

For early risers… Paul Silver and Carl Tepper will be on KVUE (Channel 24, Cable 3) at 6:25am this morning to talk about the first City Council candidate debate of the season. That event, at 12:30pm today at Truluck’s on Fourth Street, is being sponsored by a loose coalition of business groups that include the Austin Warehouse District Association, the Austin Hotel and Lodging Association, the Building Owners and Managers Association and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association. Silver is the owner of 219 West and Tepper is a former Council candidate who serves on the Urban Transportation Commission . . . Later meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission has a full evening of hearings—unless some of those cases on the agenda are postponed . . . The meeting begins at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The Resource Management Commission will meet at 6:30pm in Room 304 of the old City Hall. . . Hearings on historic preservation plan . . . The University of Texas’ School of Architecture will play a key role in the creation of a revamped preservation plan for Austin. The preservation plan–not to be confused with the preservation ordinance set to go to Council on Thursday–will evaluate and designate buildings in Austin most worthy of preservation. The last plan, a drive-by windshield survey completed in 1984, evaluated only the exteriors of most buildings and what history was known at the time. The first of the two meetings will be at the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center, Room 3.102, on the University of Texas Campus, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. The second meeting is scheduled for Wednesday night in the auditorium of the Texas School for the Deaf, 1102 S Congress Ave., at 6:30 p.m. A draft of the report is due on May 31. . . Historic day coming . . . Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky says Dec. 2 will be a red-letter day for historic landmark cases. A total of 17 cases will be on the City Council agenda that day. Sadowsky told the Historic Landmark Commission last night that he had already alerted Council members that the increase did not represent a sudden influx of cases but was the accumulation of all the historic landmark cases since August.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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