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Contract award raises water conservation questions

Friday, March 25, 2005 by

The The City Council voted yesterday to award a $500,000 contract to Alan Plummer Associates for a water resource planning study focusing on Austin’s long-term needs. Water utility Director Chris Lippe promised the Council “a fresh look at the whole integrated water resources planning picture.”

But the study is a long-term one that is projected to be completed two years after the contract is finalized, offering little comfort to environmentalists Mary Arnold and Bill Bunch. Both have raised questions about whether the utility is as committed to conservation as they believe it should be. Bunch and Arnold argue that more aggressive conservation measures could be used to postpone construction of Water Treatment Plant #4, which is planned for a spot in the middle of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Preserve near Lake Travis. (See In Fact Daily, March 3, 2005.)

A subcommittee of the Environmental Board, currently studying Water Treatment Plant #4, also met yesterday. Board Chair Mary Ruth Holder said the primary charge to the subcommittee is to study alternatives to the Council awarding a $6.5 million contract for preliminary design work at the BCCP plant site.

Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, presented data showing San Antonio’s water use dropped from 156 gallons per person per day (gpd) to 142 gpd between 1994 and 2000. San Antonio’s residential conservation programs began in 1994; commercial conservation started in 1998. Bunch said Austin’s water use, on the other hand, has not shown such a steady decline since water conservation began but has shown peaks and valleys.

Tony Gregg, Water Conservation Division Manager for the city, disputed Bunch’s assertion. His data shows a very gradual decline in water use overall, but also reflects peaks during dry years and valleys during wet ones. Usage has fallen from a peak of about 208 gpd in 1984, the year before conservation programs began, to about 185 gpd in 2003. Gregg told In Fact Daily, “Most of the peaks are related to weather, but the trend line is down.”

Comparing one city with another, for example Austin and San Antonio, is problematic, Gregg said, because of the different economic levels within the population. Austin’s usage also includes water sold on a wholesale basis to West Lake Hills and Rollingwood, among others. Conservation programs are “just not as effective” in the wholesale area, he said. Water use in West Lake averages 400 gallons per person daily but Austin residents use only 168gpd, he said,

Bunch’s data shows inside water use for activities such as flushing toilets and washing clothes add up to 72.5 gpd without conservation and 49.6 gpd with conservation. He criticized the utility for having a water conservation goal of 5 percent—which was the goal prior to the current one.

Water planner Theresa Lutes told the Council, “In 1999, the goal was set for a reduction amount of 50,000-acre feet total by the year 2050. Out projected demand at that time was to be 375,000-acre feet.” The city has a contract with the LCRA for 325,000-acre feet, with the remaining 50,000-acre feet to be made up through a combination of conservation and reuse, said Lutes. “The study will help us specifically flesh out how to get there so we’re looking at reduction in excess of 10 percent,” she said.

Gregg said the utility’s goal is reduce usage by 13.3 percent between 1999 and 2050. “If we reduce overall water use by 13 percent we’re reducing per capita use by 13 percent,” he said. That would mean a reduction from what Austinites used in 1999—about 190 gpd per person—to 165 gpd. “Ridiculous,” said Bunch, since the number is still not as low as San Antonio’s current usage. Looking only at numbers for City of Austin customers, usage in 1999 was about 166 gpd. A 13 percent reduction would bring city water users down to 144 gpd.

Lippe promised the Council the study would provide “a fresh look at the whole integrated water resources planning picture.”

Holder said the Environmental Board subcommittee is planning to issue a report back to its full board by April 20 or May 4 at the latest. Holder says the panel is still gathering information from various city departments and stakeholders. She said the City Council is scheduled to take up the issue of the preliminary design contract for Water Plant #4 again on May 12 and possibly take action on it on May 19. The Council postponed action on the contract in February at the request of the Environmental Board.

One item that the subcommittee plans to review is a 1985 study of five proposed sites for the Water Treatment Plant, to see if enough has changed over the past 20 years that some of the alternative sites might now be viable. She also said the panel plans to go over the major points of the preliminary design contract to see if requirements for water conservation could be built into the project.

“It seems to me that the city needs to do a comprehensive look at water conservation and reuse before going forward with a water treatment plant we may not need,” Holder said. “We need to compare what we do with what is going on in cities like San Antonio and San Angelo. I think we are behind others when it comes to water conservation.”

West Lynn house facing demolition

Cost of renovating dilapidated house too high

Except for Council Members Jackie Goodman and Raul Alvarez, the City Council yesterday gave up the fight to save the Brown-Ledel-Silverman House at 609 West Lynn.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley offered the motion to deny historic zoning on the dilapidated but clearly historic house, which a number of preservation experts considered to be beyond repair. Engineer Jerry Garcia estimated the cost of repair would be in the range of $1 million, given the problems with the structure and plumbing. Mayor Will Wynn provided the second.

The city’s own estimates, completed in February, estimated a cost of $467,900. The appraisal value of the house was $287,278, more than half of which was attributed to land. The house next door, at 611 West Lynn, by comparison, was valued at $736,739.

“I really think that it’s a shame that this property has gotten to this point and gotten to this condition,” Dunkerley said during the discussion of her motion.. “At least three different experts have looked at this property. I’ve visited the property and looked at the engineering reports from two different people. I really don’t think it’s feasible to restore this in a way this is sufficient to get the same value out of it.”

Dunkerley also attributed her recommendation to the fact that the property is already sitting across the street and alongside existing apartment complexes. The final vote was 5-2, with Goodman and Alvarez voting against the motion.

New owner Hunter Goodwin, who bought the house from Dolph Dildy, made a passionate speech before Council almost a month ago, saying that neighbors had been so underhanded in their attempt to preserve the structure that he no longer wanted to live in the neighborhood. Goodwin intended to tear down the property and replace it with a family home. His sister lives on the edge of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, which mounted a strong effort to get the house zoned historic.

After a brief reprieve from Goodman – and a chance to solicit offers on the property – Dunkerley and her colleagues agreed to move forward to deny historic zoning. Council Member Brewster McCracken, who visited the property, said the plumbing facilities were so lacking that the house had become a public health hazard. The home no longer has functioning plumbing for toilets.

Council Member Daryl Slusher asked Goodwin whether he could put his bad experiences aside and work to build a home that “blended in” with the neighborhood.

Goodwin expressed regret for some of his earlier words. He said that he had learned, since his outburst at Council, that OWANA as a whole should not be blamed for some of the actions of a few members who had targeted him and his house. Goodwin promised to build a home compatible with the neighborhood. The item was Sarah Crocker’s final zoning case before the City Council. She has moved to Washington, DC, to begin lobbying there.

During discussion on her motion, Dunkerley said she was adamant that a case such as 609 West Lynn not be repeated. She intends to propose an extra staff member for historic preservation who could work directly with neighborhoods to identify and target those properties in historic neighborhoods that were in need of repairs. Those homes should be targeted for the city’s rebate and reconstruction programs, as well as tax freezes that are available for historic districts, Dunkerley said.

“We need to do that so we can keep properties that are historic livable so they can stay here longer in the city,” Dunkerley said. “That would be my recommendation for this one.”

The house at 609 West Lynn belonged to Timothy Brown, an early principal of West Austin Public School, which eventually was renamed the Pease School. Brown served as principal for 41 years. A marker on the campus honors his years of service. His wife was active in the formation of Kirby Hall, a one-time dormitory for Methodist women attending the University of Texas at Austin.

The Council approved historic districts and their abatements in December. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said the operations committee of the Historic Landmark Commission will meet in April to start drafting forms for the process of designating local historic districts.

More visitors mean more money for ACVB

Lander promises more support for live music, artists

The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau will be getting an extra $240,000, thanks to an increase in the hotel and motel occupancy rate. The bureau's budget is based on occupancy projections, and the number of room nights booked so far this fiscal year is running ahead of those projections. During the 2002 and 2003 budget cycles, the ACVB's budget was reduced at mid-year because occupancy was running below the predicted levels.

The bureau already has plans for the funding boost this year. It will be used to reinstate the bureau's reserve fund and augment marketing efforts designed to lure more convention business. That will include a direct mail campaign, staffing trade shows, and targeting key markets for additional advertising. ACVB hopes the advertising will help increase bookings for the year 2007, which would in turn increase the amount of bed tax revenue available for the city to disperse to cultural arts programs.

Although the two items related to ACVB passed on consent, they did not come without comment from the Council. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman urged the agency to do more to market the city's cultural arts programs, calling for a more integrated approach to spreading the message about the city's many attractions. "We're' talking about enhancing the ability of ACVB to market the city and bring in more stakeholders…for a more comprehensive movement toward the kind of vision we want to see in terms of art, economic development, and especially creative industry," she said. "What I'm looking for is a committment from ACVB and our city folks to join in that more comprehensive and inclusive effort, so what we market to visitors and to private investment for economic development in creative industries is a vision that we have come to through efforts that we all take part in. I think that will make things move much more quickly,” Goodman said.

ACVB President and CEO Bob Lander said that bringing more representatives from the arts groups into the bureau's decision-making process was a high priority. "We have made a conscious effort to include more folks from the arts community on our board," he said. He also sought to reassure the Council that the bureau was committed to promoting live music. "It's probably not a well-known fact, but this year alone we've booked more than 250 music groups to conventions," he said. "We're very proud of that. Yes, we definitely consider this to be an important part of what we do."

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Gables West Lake compromise? . . . Representatives for St. Stephen’s School and neighbors who live near the school’s vacant tract are reportedly making progress in their effort to reach agreement. Yesterday, the parties asked the Council to postpone the zoning case for one month so they can continue to work on a resolution. Evidently, some apartments would be allowed but many would be replaced by single-family homes, under a scenario the parties are currently pursuing . . . Appointments . . . The City Council made two appointments by consensus: Thomas Esparza, Jr. to the Commission on Immigrant Affairs and Helen Varty to the Downtown Austin Community Court Advisory Committee. Council Member Brewster McCracken reappointed Lisa Schickel to the Music Commission . . . SOS Alliance parties . . . There will be a full moon tonight and that means there's a Full Moon Party at Barton Springs from 8-10pm. Partygoers are encouraged to bring potluck food. Admission is free after 9pm . . . Shop with that gospel swing . . . On Saturday from 3-6pm El Interior is hosting an SOS party with Austin gospel legends the Bells of Joy and an all-women’s drum ensemble Djembabes. See the event flyer at www.SOSAlliance.org. El Interior is located at 1009 West Lynn . . . Endorsements . . . The Black Austin Democrats endorsed Place 1 candidate Lee Leffingwell, Place 3 candidate Jennifer Kim and Place 4 Council Member Betty Dunkerley after their candidate forum last night . . . B usiness groups to hold joint candidate forum . . . The Downtown Austin Alliance, the Real Estate Council of Austin, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Capital City African-American Chamber of Commerce, the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, the Capital Area Transportation Coalition, the Building Owners & Managers Association and the Greater Austin Contractors & Engineers Association will all get together for a candidate forum on April 13. Call the DAA to make a reservation. . . Young contract finalized . . . The Travis County Travis County Hospital District’s Board of Managers gave final approval on a contract with Trish Young to become the agency’s executive director last night. Young, who officially begins her job on April 1, will be paid $175,000 a year. Interim director Jim Collins, who has guided the board since its inception, said he planned to submit his resignation at next week’s meeting “with very mixed feelings.” . . . Police beat . . . City Demographer Ryan Robinson laid out the results of his study on the quality of life for African-Americans in Austin at Thursday's Council meeting ( http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/aascorecard/). It shows the city's African-American population migrating to the suburbs, while other major cities like Houston and Atlanta are the preferred destinations for mobile African-American professionals. The Council directed the City Manager to hold a series of community discussions about the issue over the next 60 days and return with a set of recommendations . . . Assistant Police Chief Cathy Ellison presented an update Thursday on how APD is implementing the recommendations made by the Police Executive Research Forum last fall (see In Fact Daily, November 1, 2004). One of those recommendations was a new training academy for officers. Ellison said the department would be submitting that request as one of its priorities for a 2006 city bond election . . . Note: I n Fact Daily is a copyrighted publication. Subscribers are prohibited from copying or forwarding its contents except to members of their own firms or households.

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