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Recycling pilot pronounced a success

Monday, January 24, 2005 by

The way Austin recycles could change in the future if the city decides to implement some or all of the methods used in a recently completed All-in-One Recycling Program.

The program, which ran from July to January, used a single, 60-gallon covered container for all recycling materials, which was collected every two weeks. The pilot program was run in five different areas of the city, each with approximately 1,000 homes.

According to a report issued last week by the city’s Solid Waste Services Department, the so-called single-stream recycling project showed a significant increase in both the amount of materials recycled and the number of households participating. According to SWS Director Willie Rhodes, the proposed system makes economic sense for the city. “Our goals with this program were to streamline collections and standardize the fleet, reduce injuries, cut costs, and increase our collections,” he said. “We were able to do this in the test areas without dropping any of the items we are currently collecting.”

Rhodes said one of the big advantages of the single stream approach is being able to use semi-automated or automated collections similar to the way garbage is now collected. The program uses a specialized vehicle that lifts the standardized containers and empties the contents into a holding compartment.

During the pilot program, the bulk recycling materials were taken to an Abitibi sorting facility in San Antonio. Bruce Murchison with Abitibi said despite mixing of materials, there is very little waste. “Compared to other cities, the materials brought to us from Austin was fairly clean,” he said. “Glass was a high percentage of what we got, but there isn’t as much of a market for glass as there is for other materials.”

Murchison said if Austin commits to a full-scale single-stream program, Abitibi would probably build a state-of-the-art receiving and sorting facility in either San Marcos or New Braunfels.

The SWS Study showed that in the five test areas of the city, the average volume of recycling increased significantly, and doubled the normal volume in three of the five areas. The number of households participating jumped between 10 and 20 percent, depending on the day of the week.

Also listed as advantages of the single-stream system was improved collection efficiency, reduced lifting and bending injuries, fewer employees needed per crew and per route, increased collection volumes, the possibility of collecting additional materials, and increased participation.

Rhodes said the program does face some challenges, mainly financial. Capital costs to begin the program will be substantial, he said, with the specialized automated collection trucks and the covered containers costing the most, as much as $175,000 per route. There is also the problem of contamination, or garbage, being mingled with the recycling, making it unusable.

“Our poll of the customers in the pilot study showed that there is significant support for the cart system, provided there is no additional cost,” Rhodes said. “The majority did say they prefer weekly instead of bi-weekly collections, and that we should consider using a large collection bin.”

Rhodes said he was happy with the results of the pilot, but that it may take as long as three years to implement the program city-wide. He will present the finding in the report to City Council at its February 3 meeting.

Historic changes foreseen for city program

Members of the Historic Landmark Commission are learning that approving the city’s new Historic Landmark Ordinance was easy compared to the work it will take to implement the changes to the city’s historic preservation program.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained just how much work at a special called meeting of the commission last week. The meeting was set so he could explain the differences between the proposed ordinance and the one approved by the City Council, but many of the questions raised pointed to new duties and tasks for Sadowsky’s office.

Nowhere was that more apparent than the discussion of local historic districts, which are new to the city and intended to provide continuity and stability to Austin’s historic neighborhoods. The fact that neighborhoods were using the historic landmark ordinance to avoid zoning encroachment was a key issue the Historic Preservation Task Force sought to address with the overhaul of the 30-year-old ordinance.

Commission members will now have to address the finer points of how the ordinance will be implemented, points which are likely to require further discussion by the HLC. The concept of Austin’s local historic districts is based loosely on the historic preservation ordinance in Dallas, although the design guidelines are far less stringent than those required for that city’s historic conservation districts, Sadowsky said.

Under the Austin ordinance, the Council, HLC or 50 percent of the property owners in a neighborhood can initiate local historic districts. If the HLC initiates the process, it will not require the approval of the neighborhood until the application reaches Council, and it would become Sadowsky’s duty to photograph and document the contributing and non-contributing structures in the district.

“This will be very similar to the National Register District nominations,” Sadowsky told the commissioners. “We haven’t developed the forms yet, but it’s going to require an inventory and an evaluation of the structures. Each structure will need a photo, the age of the construction and an evaluation of whether the structure contributes or not.”

That’s one task that would go to Sadowsky if the HLC initiates the application. Sadowsky said he is hopeful he can accomplish the task with the help of interns from the University of Texas and St. Edwards University, plus community volunteers.

Once an application is approved, Sadowsky also will guide the process to create a set of design standards for each district. As Sadowsky pointed out, design standards have varied in historic districts in Austin. Hyde Park is strict. Willow-Spence, on the other hand, is far less stringent in its standards. Each neighborhood will vary, Sadowsky said.

Design guidelines likely will include issues such as massing, size, setbacks and compatibility standards, and could vary from city standards. Dallas has gone so far as to force new construction to resemble the historic houses in certain neighborhoods. Austin’s guidelines will not go that far, Sadowsky said.

“I think to make these standards work, both practically and politically, the design standards need to be enough to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood but not so much that we get a property owners’ revolt,” Sadowsky said.

Sadowsky can sign off on demolition permits for non-contributing buildings and minor additions for contributing buildings in local historic districts, but major additions will go through the Historic Landmark Commission. It will be the HLC’s duty to make sure additions comply with each district’s design guidelines. Contributing structures within the historic district will require certificates of appropriateness for demolition or additions. That is far less cumbersome than current policy that requires the Historic Landmark Commission to initiate historic zoning when it wants to stop the demolition of a potentially historic structure.

The city also will offer tax abatement for owners who want to make improvements to contributing properties or will make an investment in a property to restore it to contributing status. Under the ordinances, city property taxes will be frozen on the property at the unimproved value for seven years. So if a property owner has a house valued at $100,000 and makes improvements that bring the value of the house up to $150,000, the value will remain at $100,000 on the city tax rolls for 7 years. Other taxing jurisdictions will have to make their own decisions about freezing property values.

This tax abatement also has some strings attached. For one thing, it has to be a type of rehabilitation that extends the life of the structure, Sadowsky said. That could be something like a new roof or even the addition of a heating and air conditionng system in the house. Another one of Sadowsky’s tasks will be to compile a list of acceptable expenditures to qualify for the abatement. After the work is completed, Sadowsky will make a visual review of the exterior of each house. A certificate of occupancy will certify interior work was completed.

In East Austin in the area that has been designated as the city’s revitalization zone – which stretches from Ben White to Manor Road and I-35 to US 183 – the amount of improvements is decreased and the tax abatement is extended to 10 years.

Sadowsky told commissioners he wanted to look carefully at what qualified for abatements in which neighborhood. Creating a garage apartment for a 2,500-square-foot house in Pemberton Heights should not be viewed the same way as rehabilitating and expanding a historic home in East Austin, where the housing stock is typically small.

Commissioner Daniel Leary said such abatements could be a real threat to East Austin, possibly leading to developers buying out properties because of the tax breaks. Leary said he feared that too much of a good thing could lead to gentrification.

“I think there definitely is that potential,” Sadowsky said. “I think in our additions, we need to make sure that we don’t encourage gentrification.”

Commissioner Jean Mather noted that the tax abatements might have helped in ongoing battles like the dilapidated house on the corner of West Lynn. Sadowsky said that would not be the case. The tax abatements would apply only to non-landmarked properties, except for East Austin, with the thinking that landmarked properties already get tax breaks.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved Mental health report due today . . . The Mayor’s Mental Health Task Force will report its findings at a briefing and press conference at 2pm today. Co-chairs former Mayor Gus Garcia and former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco and their task force have been studying the problems caused by reduced state funding for mental health services since last August. The public is invited to attend the briefing, which will be held at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in the Learning and Research Center Auditorium, 2800 Spirit of Texas Dr. . . Mayoral speech . . . Mayor Will Wynn will deliver the State of the City Address from 12-1pm Tuesday at the Four Seasons Hotel. Addressing members of the Real Estate Council of Austin, the Mayor will outline his proposed bond package as well as efforts to boost economic development . . . Monday meetings . . . Leaders of CAMPO will meet at 6pm tonight in the auditorium of the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center. They will consider amendments to the region’s 2025 Transportation Plan and changes to the 2004-2008 plan, as well. The board will also be electing officers . . . The Arts Commission will meet at 6:30pm in room 1027 at City Hall. Their agenda includes a report on the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office . . . Design standards . . . Tomorrow design professionals and neighborhood advocates will get a chance to review the results of work by Council Member Brewster McCracken and city staff to develop standards for new retail buildings. On Wednesday, representatives of the real estate and development community will have the same opportunity . . . Democrats plan workshop . . . Senate District 25 democratic activists and SDEC members Bruce Barrick, Zada True-Courage are sponsoring a workshop on Saturday to teach campaign skills to fellow Democrats. Speakers for the event include Bob Mann, Dennis Teal, Austin State Rep. Elliot Naishtat, Peck Young, John Oeffinger, Alyssa Burgin and Charlie Jackson. RSVP to Zada True-Courage at courage4courage@hotmail.com, 210-499-5776, or Bruce Barrick at 512 444-0220 . . . Republicans busy, too . . . Texas Republican Party Chair Tina Benkiser is beating the drums for Talmadge Heflin, the Houston Republican who lost his seat in November by only 33 votes to Democrat Hubert Vo. Benkiser is sending a barrage of e-mails to supporters urging them to contact their state representatives to tell them “that you don’t want election fraud swept under the rug.” Benkiser says the evidence of election fraud on the part of Democrats is “indisputable.” The election contest is set for a hearing this Thursday. A committee made up of five Republican and four Democratic members of the House will decide the matter sometime in February . . . On February 1st, the City of Austin Equal Employment/Fair Housing Office will move to One Texas Center on Barton Springs Road. . . . New face at Cap Metro . . . Capital Metro has a new COO. Dwight Ferrell has been named as the transit agency's Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer. He's been with Capital Metro since June of 2004. He previously worked for transit agencies in New Orleans, Atlanta, and Dallas.

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