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Toll opponents fail to stop RMA bonds

Thursday, March 3, 2005 by

But judge grants standing so suit can proceed

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) was able to proceed with its bond sale Wednesday after State District Judge Paul Davis refused to grant a temporary restraining order ( TRO) sought by toll road opponents. But Davis allowed the lawsuit filed by People for Efficient Transportation, challenging the constitutionality of the toll road authority to proceed, meaning a hearing on the merits of the case will likely be scheduled sometime in the next few weeks.

Attorneys for the CTRMA and the Texas Attorney General's office attempted to have the suit dismissed entirely, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the authority. The CTRMA bonds, they said, would be repaid by people who voluntarily chose to drive on US 183-A, and that since tax dollars were not paying for the road, the anti-toll group should not be allowed to challenge its validity.

That line of argument failed to sway Judge Davis, who denied the defendants' request to have the case dismissed. The argument also served to further infuriate toll road opponent Sal Costello. "That was par for the course," Costello said after the hearing. "But I'm still shocked that we're 'just citizens'…we're just the body of folks that continues to give more and more tax dollars to special interest projects like this boondoggle toll road plan."

Although the judge heard arguments from both sides on the question of the constitutionality of the CTRMA's board, he did not issue a ruling on that issue. The PET lawsuit claims the board's actions are illegal because the members are serving in violation of a state constitutional provision mandating only two-year terms for members of regional boards. Attorneys for the state and CTRMA argued that board members frequently serve beyond their two-year terms until suitable replacements are appointed. While PET did not win the temporary restraining order against the bond sale, Costello was satisfied that their lawsuit will eventually get a full hearing. "The judge said we have the right to be here," he said. "That's great."

After the judge's decision not to grant the TRO, Costello predicted that the CTRMA would need to reconsider issuing the bonds because of the pending litigation. But the CTRMA pressed ahead, closing the deal by mid-afternoon. Officials with the Texas Attorney General's Office had already given their approval for the bond sale.

More questions raised over water treatment plant

The Austin Water Treatment Plant #4 is planned for high atop a hill near Lake Travis, a spot that would take advantage of the geography to distribute its product. But that same location—240 acres in the middle of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Preserve (BCCP)—is making the Austin Water Utility’s plan to build the project a truly uphill battle.

Last night, some members of the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission expressed major concerns over the project, which has been under consideration by the city in one form or another since the 1970’s. Similar concerns from the city’s Environmental Board have caused the City Council to postpone funding a preliminary design study of the project, also known as the Travis Water Treatment plan. (See In Fact Daily, February 17 and February 18, 2005).

Commissioner Leslie Pool had the most concerns about the project, questioning whether improvements to other plants and potential water conservation methods would make building the new plant unnecessary. “I want to know if the Water Utility staff is actively pursuing other alternatives to building this water treatment plant in the middle of the BCCP,” she said. “We’re dealing with the results of a site selection process that took place more than 20 years ago, and a lot has changed since then.”

The project was originally proposed in the 1970’s and was approved by voters in a bond election in 1984. The land for the site, just north of RM 2222 at the end of River Place Rd., sits in the environmentally sensitive, 30,000-acre BCCP. The entire area is 240 acres: 102 acres are set aside to built the plant and 138 adjacent acres set aside as habitat replacement. The site was selected and the land purchased for $20.6 million before the BCCP was put in place.

Voters approved $141.1 million for the project in 1984, and city staff estimates that with inflation and other factors, those funds are now worth about $190 million. Staff estimates the project will cost $365 million and that about $56 million has already been spent on it.

Water Utility Director Chris Lippe said the plant’s location gives it two main advantages. Its proximity to Lake Travis makes it easy to draw water from the lake into the system, and its location atop one of the highest points in the area will make distribution of treated water via gravity much less expensive. He also outlined several steps the department was taking to build environmental protections into the construction and operation of the plant.

However, Pool and fellow Commission Member Glen Coleman questioned Lippe and several staff members relentlessly about the plans for the project. In addition to whether the project should even be built, they also questioned whether the planned tunnels would harm the environment, whether the city would be liable to its other BCCP partners for any environmental damage, and whether the city would be getting a reasonable return on its investment by building the plant. Pool’s list of questions was so long that Chair Michael Warner finally requested that she and other commission members submit them in writing to the staff, to be answered in the next two weeks.

Two members of the public addressed the Commission on the Issue.

Mary Arnold, a former chair of the Commission, said building the plant and then taking the Green Water Treatment Plant offline could have unanticipated consequences for the city. “The (Green) plant draws its water from Town Lake, which draws water from Barton Creek,” she said. “That causes several federal and other regulations to kick in in regards to protecting Barton Creek and its watershed. If the city wants to keep the protections in place, where will the water from the Town Lake intake be sent?”

Bill Bunch with the Save Our Springs Alliance also spoke, noting that despite his being identified as a stakeholder in the process, he had not been contacted about the project. “The staff said they had not contacted the stakeholders because there was nothing to tell,” he said. “Well, I would consider (producing) a report with preliminary project assessments and cost estimates ‘something.’ Nobody was notified that the document even existed.” He called for the commission to support a delay until it can be studied further. “At worst, we’ll lose one summer of having the plant online, and maybe have three weeks of mandatory water conservation in August,” he said. “Balance that with the potential savings of money and habitat.”

The commission took not action, though Warner did request that the staff report back to all commission members on the questions posed about the project, and to keep them informed of any developments.

Two cases win easy ZAP approval

The Zoning and Platting Commission faced an unusual request this week: to grant CS-1 zoning at a site where no liquor will be sold. Normally, the CS-1 designation is reserved for bars or liquor stores, but in this case it will be applied to a warehouse facility on Ferguson Drive in North Austin a few blocks east of Lamar Boulevard. Cawoods Wholesale Liquor currently has a warehouse on Lamar, but the company is seeking a larger facility.

The CS-1 zoning is needed for the operator of the warehouse to comply with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) regulations, said Jim Wittliff, who represented Cawoods Wholesale Liquor. "This is strictly a warehouse where trucks bring cases in and smaller vans carry deliveries out to bars and restaurants in the Austin area," he said. "But we have to be in compliance with TABC regulations, which we've researched this thoroughly with TABC." Those regulations require a liquor wholesaler to also hold a retail license, which needs CS-1 zoning. "Most of the distributors in Austin have retail storefronts," Wittliff explained, "Mr. Cawood has no interest in the retail business. He is strictly a wholesaler; his customers are bars and restaurants."

Commission Chair Betty Baker pushed for additional restrictions on the site to prohibit other unwanted uses. She added provisions against adult oriented businesses, vehicle storage, exterminating services, indoor entertainment, and the on-site sale of alcoholic beverages. That provision, she said, would guarantee the CS-1 zoning could not be used at a future date for some type of retail use. The Commission endorsed a zoning change from CS to CS-1 for the warehouse on a vote of 8-0.

The ZAP also approved a site plan for a new shopping center at 6800 Burnet Rd., which required a waiver from the normal setback requirements found under the city's compatibility standards. The developer had originally submitted a plan that allowed for the normal 25-foot setback distance from nearby residential property, but resubmitted his plans in accordance with the design guidelines for commercial development currently being reviewed by city planners. Those guidelines call for retail development to be closer to the street, prompting owner Sam Buford to move some of the parking for the retail center to the back of his site—closer to residential uses. "There is existing parking at the same depth along the rear lot line at this time," said George Zapalac with the city's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department. "This waiver would only add eight additional spaces in that area."

Buford told Commissioners he had worked with the neighbors to address their concerns, including limiting the lighting and building a masonry wall to help screen the parking from their homes. "The thing I like about this design and the location of the building on this piece of property is that I believe it's going to improve the appearance of Burnet Road in that part of town," he said. "I think this design is the best utilization of the property." Buford is already negotiating with potential tenants, including a veterinarian, and told Commissioners the site would also be well suited for a restaurant.

The Commission voted 7-1 to support the waiver, with only Chair Betty Baker opposed. She felt the change set a bad precedent and that neighbors in the area would not have adequate protection. "I have a real problem, because we're going to be looking at this all up and down Burnet Road all the way through," she said.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

First report from OHAN forum . . . Place 3 Candidate Gregg Knaupe missed Wednesday evening's candidate forum sponsored by the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods because of the flu. His wife, Allison, read a brief statement on his behalf during the opening segment of the meeting. Candidates fielded questions on the SOS Ordinance, TxDOT's plans for the " Y" in Oak Hill, and city services for Southwest Austin for more than two hours. The forum was videotaped by a producer for Austin Community Television and will likely begin airing on one of the three cable-access channels next week . . . Today’s Council meeting . . . Council Member Brewster McCracke n will be pushing his resolution for a study of local toll road financing. Council Member Danny Thomas, who voted for the toll road plan last summer along with McCracken and Mayor Will Wynn, said Wednesday that he would vote for the study as long as it dealt only with the financial aspects of the plan. Co-sponsors are Council Member Raul Alvarez and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. The resolution is likely to pass, but how the Mayor will vote is unknown. He voted for a similar resolution at CAMPO, but that motion failed. However, Wynn may not want the city to foot the bill for a problem caused by another entity . . . No billboard action today . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley said yesterday that she planned to postpone second and third reading of her proposal to allow billboard owners in East Austin to move their signs to other locations. The ordinance is still a work in progress, she said . . . The Council will be considering approval of changes to the Land Development Code that would establish transit oriented development districts. They will also consider a resolution setting goals for affordable housing in such districts . . . At 2pm, the Council will get an update on closed landfill sites and petroleum tank farms within the city . . . At 4pm, the Council will have another opportunity to decide whether to allow the new owner of an historic–but dilapidated–house at 609 West Lynn to demolish it and build a new home. The neighborhood has asked the Council to declare the structure historic, which would prevent demolition . . . The Council will hear an update on proposed commercial design standards and hold a public hearing on the proposal at 6pm. However, representatives of the development community and architects continue to meet with city staff to craft standards acceptable to the various parties involved. The Design Commission is scheduled to review the proposal on March 14; The Planning Commission will review them on March 22 and the Zoning and Platting Commission is set to hear them on March 15 . . . SOS starts anti-Cypress campaign . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance has launched a new website, www.stopcypress.com, in its attempt to thwart development of 2,700 acres of undeveloped ranch land in the Barton Springs recharge zone. Bill Bunch, executive director of the alliance, says, “Cypress is driving suburban sprawl development with its proposed LCRA water line extension and its proposed 1,250-2,700 homes. We are calling on Cypress to sell its entire tract to a conservation buyer at a reasonable price.” . . . A “dirty” secret . . . Among many other things, Austin is famous for Dillo Dirt, the product of the city’s composting grass cuttings with processed sewage sludge. The Water Utility updated the Water and Wastewater Commission on the program last light, noting that it benefits both the environment and the city’s coffers. But when the staff handed out Dillo Dirt samples in small baggies, Commissioner Roger Chan remarked that what they were getting was pretty valuable stuff and that some customers may unwittingly not be getting what they pay for when they buy it. “You know, some of the people that resell this stuff ‘cut’ it, just like cocaine, and don’t sell it in its purest form,” he said. “Maybe we need to regulate how they handle this stuff.” Could mean that vice cops will have to start checking processed sludge products to see if they are pure or were sold on the black market.

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