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Hays residents want rock quarry crushed

Wednesday, April 27, 2005 by

Citizens say facility brings traffic problems, threatens air, water quality

Saying their quality of life is threatened by a rock quarry, more than 100 Northern Hays County citizens and elected officials held a Town Hall meeting last night to plot a strategy for shutting down the plant located across from the Ruby Ranch subdivision.

People who live in the area say the quarry, already being operated by KDBJ Inc., has snarled traffic on the area’s two-lane rural roads, threatens the area’s air quality, produces noise pollution, lowers property values, and poses a major threat to water quality in the Edward’s Aquifer.

A panel of elected officials, a state transportation representative and a representative from an environmental group talked about what local and state government can—and can’t—do to provide relief for residents and property owners in Buda, Ruby Ridge and Northern Hays County areas. Panelists included Hays County Judge Jim Powers, Hays County Commissioner Susie Carter, Buda Mayor John Trube, T exas Department of Transportation engineer Don Nyland, and Colin Clark, Communications Director with the SOS Alliance. The program was moderated by Hays County Justice of the Peace Beth Smith. State Sen. Jeff Wentworth and Rep. Patrick Rose were scheduled to be on the panel but had duties at the State Capitol.

KDBJ declined to have a representative at the meeting.

Judge Powers said he is frustrated by how state regulations limit what counties can doing in a situation like this “We can’t promise tonight that we are going to fix this problem,” he said. “We need all of you to make your voices heard on the issue, particularly to the state officials at the TCEQ and in the Legislature.“

The quarry, located on FM 967 between Buda and FM 1826, has already started mining limestone out of the Edwards Aquifer in the Barton Springs Recharge Zone. Critics say the project threatens to pollute Barton Springs with sediment and construction runoff, while pumping out aquifer water to spray down the dusty mining operations. Residents say the operation has already resulted in huge amounts of traffic on FM 967, a two-lane road. When fully operational, the quarry will mine 2.4 million tons of rock and use 200 million gallons of water from the aquifer each year.

There are two groups that have formed to oppose the quarry, the Neighbors Organized to Protect the Environment, or NOPE ( http://www.nopebuda.com) and Stop the Crusher ( http://www.stopthecrusher.com ). Those groups have already challenged two TCEQ permits for the plant, with contested case hearings coming in the next few months. Water use permits for the quarry are also pending before the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District.

Citizens signed up to ask questions of the panel and to make comments. Major issues for most of those at the meeting involved traffic problems caused by large, 18-wheel trucks from the plant, air pollution from the dust kicked up by the rock crushing operation, and the noise caused by the plant, which sits only 500 feet from some homes in the area.

“I live in the house that is closest to the quarry,” said Kathleen Holder. “The noise pollution is astounding. I can hear the sound of rocks being crushed in every room of my house. It is truly ruining our lives.”

Another resident, Daniel Eiland, said his major concern was for property values and his family’s quality of life. “We worked hard and bought a nice piece of land in the Hill Country for our home,” he said. “But now we are concerned. A lot of things were misrepresented in the process of developing this area. It’s clear that these people (KDBJ) are not concerned about compliance with regulations. That leaves us to wonder if it is worth the risk of staying.”

Margaret Williams said she has driven FM 1826 daily for eight years to her teaching job, but recently the traffic has gone from merely congested to dangerous. “Just today, as I was driving in, I had a truck from the quarry come straight at me and cross the median,” she said. “I had to pull over to the shoulder just to avoid being hit. We need lower speed limits on the road, and better enforcement of them, too.”

Residents seemed concerned with learning to live with the quarry for the time being, but most, like Mary Stone, eventually want it gone. “I’m concerned for our community,” said Stone, a member of Stop the Crusher and one of the meeting’s organizers. “We’re going to do our part to raise our voices and be heard by the people that can do something about this. We do not have the infrastructure here for a plant like this. It needs to be stopped.”

In their closing statements, panel members urged citizens to put pressure on state agencies and elected officials who make the decisions on when and how things like the quarry get permitted. “You need to press for greater protection of the environment by these people,” said Commissioner Carter. “You are the watchdog. I hope you can organize and have the same affect on your area as the San Marcos River Watch has had there. The county has a long way to go to enact stricter regulations. But I think we are realizing that rapid growth is not always a benefit.”

Stone said Stop the Crusher will concentrate over the next few weeks on opposing KDBJ’s operating permits, and pushing for passage of several bills now in the legislature that would give counties and local governments more power to regulate businesses that threaten the environment.

East Austin zone may depend on abatements

The city’s Community Development Commission is looking for ways to fund new affordable housing development in East Austin without encouraging gentrification or giving big businesses tax abatements.

After holding numerous meetings with members of the East Austin community, the Commission made a series of recommendations to the City Council that dovetail with creation of a Community Preservation and Revitalization Zone. The suggestions, designed to address neighborhood concerns about housing affordability and help existing small businesses, would rely on developers who want to take advantage of proposals for tax abatement in the zone.

Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas proposed creating the special zone to encompass much of East Austin last fall (see In Fact Daily, Oct. 5, 2004). Their goal was to promote the creation of new jobs and encourage new businesses to locate in East Austin by offering tax breaks and other incentives.

In a report to the rest of the Council, Alvarez noted that some existing East Austin residents were worried about the impact that new business development would have on property values in the area. "Folks want to see investment in East Austin, but they are concerned about the whole issue of gentrification," he said. "So this approach also tries to identify resources for existing neighborhoods, existing homeowners, and existing small businesses." One issue complicating that effort, said Alvarez, is that many federal programs that could provide funding are tied to the creation of new jobs, which means some businesses would not be eligible. "If we can find a funding source that doesn't have those ties, maybe be can fund a loan pool that can fund things that will help the existing businesses that have struggled to survive," he said.

The recommendations from the Community Development Commission and Alvarez covered six areas:

• launching an outreach program to inform residents about tax exemptions and taxpayer rights;

• having the city's lobbying team support new state laws designed to help existing residents within a Community Preservation and Revitalization Zone;

• requiring companies receiving benefits from the zone program to adhere to livable wage guidelines;

• requiring developers of new residential properties to make 10 percent of the units available to families making less than 40 percent of the Median Family Income if they want to receive tax credits;

• creating a new fund for low-interest loans to small businesses; and

• requiring more information from developers about existing housing options on land slated for redevelopment.

Community Development Officer Paul Hilgers told the Council that while the staff had already applied some of those requirements to existing programs, others required more study. The provision to require businesses receiving tax breaks from the program to meet living wage guidelines, he said, was one suggestion that could have unintended consequences. "We recognize the need to raise the wage standards in the area," he said. "We're concerned that the requirement could create a disincentive for locating in the zone." Hilgers also wanted more time for the staff to study ways to offer property tax abatements that were not linked to the creation of new jobs, which he said could limit the pressures leading to the gentrification of the area within the zone. "It may be appropriate to establish such a policy in the zone. It could allow us to hold City of Austin taxes constant as surrounding property values escalate." The key, Hilgers said, would be crafting the eligibility guidelines for those tax breaks. "It's important to state that investment of some kind in the property would be necessary to trigger such an abatement. You cannot have abatement on existing property as it stands. It would have to be for some kind of improvement."

Ricardo Zavala, chair of the CDC committee on the Community Preservation and Revitalization Zone, told In Fact Daily that Thomas and Alvarez had initially wanted to get developers to pay into a fund to assist homeowners in paying their utility bills. “That’s what their original proposal was.” That way, he said, homeowners would be able to pay their taxes more easily because they had additional money to pay their utility bills. Texas law prohibits the city from lowering property tax rates in only one area of the city.

When the CDC committee held hearings, Zavala said, “A lot of people were saying they didn’t want any new big businesses; they wanted the small businesses to get capital to help them grow. So, instead of having a utility voucher idea, we changed it to make it a small business type fund…to help the small businesses there.” Funding would depend, of course, on a developer deciding to take advantage of the proposed tax abatement.

Zavala agreed that the proposal includes a long list of requirements in order to make a development eligible for the abatement.

The city currently sets aside about $3 million a year from the General Fund for housing programs, Alvarez said. “So I think it’s feasible to target some of that for the (Revitalization) Zone. In addition, he said he is hopeful that the public will have a chance to vote on bonds for affordable housing next year. “The City Manager kept a place holder item in there for $25 million,” for housing, he said. “Certainly, that’s something I’m interested in seeing remains in the package.”

Some of the money would go from Eastside developers into a fund for small businesses, which, Alvarez said, would not have the same restrictions as current federal funds. “I personally think we should look to see if we can look at Smart housing requirements,” to see if they should be amended, he said. He also expressed interest in a housing trust fund, along the lines of a proposal by State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez.

Thomas and Alvarez asked Hilgers to return this week with some broad policy guidelines for the Council's consideration based on the Community Development Commission's suggestions and other public feedback.

Historic panel rejects staff advice on 2 houses

The Historic Landmark Commission voted to recommend historic zoning on two houses at Monday night’s meeting, rejecting staff recommendations and leaving Commissioner Patti Hansen in the minority.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky did not recommend historic preservation status on either property. One, the former Brown’s Flower Shop in Hyde Park, is a commercial building located on land that is now zoned single-family. The second house, at 2807 Rio Grande, held neither architectural nor historical significance, Sadowsky said.

The HLC, however, recommended historic zoning on both. With only four members present, Chair Lisa Laky and Commissioners Jean Mather and Julia Bunton voted in favor of historic zoning. Hansen voted against.

Brown’s Flower Shop, located at 4301 Avenue A and built in 1931, is in poor condition. Sadowsky recommended against historic standing – opening the way to demolition of the structure — although he suggested some aspect of the Brown’s Flower Shop be incorporated into the new single-family structure, if possible. After a month of searching, Sadowsky said he could find no historical significance to the floral shop.

Laky dismissed the concern that the building was in poor condition. The city set historic criteria, and 4301 Avenue A meets that criteria, Laky said, adding that she was surprised the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association supported the demolition of the building.

“I see no provision that says we should be taking into account the structure, or the condition of the structure, at all,” Laky said. “It’s either historic or it’s not.”

Hansen said she could not support historic zoning on the commercial property, especially now that it was zoned as single-family housing. A building like the petrified hotel, where an Eckerd’s Drug now stands, had serious historic and sentimental value. This did not.

Laky said the fact that the building was outside the Hyde Park National Register District, and still met the historic criteria, made an even stronger case to her.

The house at 2807 Rio Grande was built in 1909. Sadowsky recommended the house be documented with photographs, and possibly relocated elsewhere, but did not recommend historic zoning. The house is a foursquare-style wood-frame house with hipped roof and hipped front dormer, which was a fairly common design, Sadowsky said.

The house currently is being used as apartments. The tenants presented an overview of the house’s history, including details of some of the former tenants. The owner, on the other hand, argued that the house’s former residents were not particularly historic.

Mather said the structure might not be an unusual type now, but if developers kept pulling down houses, it wouldn’t be long before the type was uncommon. She recommended historic zoning on the house, given it was almost 100 years old. On this motion, too, the vote was 3-1, with Hansen voting against historic zoning.

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

Memorial service turns political . . . Many friends rose to eulogize Mary Lou McLain during her memorial service Tuesday. She was praised for her devotion to the causes of justice and medical care for all, for her compassion and her hard work over the years. Will Harrell of the American Civil Liberties Union was among those lauding McLain, but he had another message. Saying that Lee Leffingwell, McLain’s husband, should continue the work to which his wife had been dedicated, Harrell urged Leffingwell to continue his campaign for Place 1 on the City Council. No one else mentioned politics, but it seemed as if everyone in the church responded in the affirmative when Harrell said, “All in favor say ‘Yes.’ Leffingwell’s political consultant and friend, Mark Nathan, said late Tuesday that the candidate would probably make an announcement on his decision Thursday. Since voting is in progress, no candidate can withdraw from any of the races. So, the only decision Leffingwell has to make at this point is whether to actively campaign for the seat . . . No legal advice here . . . Fred Lewis, founder of Campaigns for People, sent In Fact Daily a message concerning the opinion put forth by the City Attorney’s Office in yesterday’s issue. Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Gilchrist essentially said the Charter provisions relating to limits on contributions are not enforceable and that she would advise the city’s Ethics Review Commission that they did not have jurisdiction to consider candidate Wes Benedict’s complaints. Lewis wrote, “The City of Austin's Legal Department has been putting out for years hostile misinformation about the enforceability of the City's Campaign Finance Charter Amendment. They have made the same pathetic arguments before and no court has adopted them. Please tell your readers that they listen to the biased, often wrong opinion of the City's Legal Department in this area at their legal peril. Contacted later, Lewis threatened to sue the city over the matter. He said, “They have their opinion, I have mine. I think we’re going to find out soon who’s right.” Lewis said he is too busy with the Legislature at the moment, however, to deal with city issues . . . Comment on Benedict complaints . . . In response to the In Fact Daily story about candidate Wes Benedict’s various legal complaints about Council Member Betty Dunkerley, reader Bruce E. wrote, “Coming from someone who professes that the government is too intrusive, Mr. Benedict is sure asking for a lot of bureaucratic help to further his cause.” . . Early voting continues . . . Voters in Travis County continued to vote at a steady clip Tuesday. Some 1, 684 people voted Tuesday, to bring the five-day vote total to 8,449. The heaviest voting was at Northcross Mall with 162 voters, followed by the Randall’s on South MoPac with 147 voters, and UT with 133. . . Williamson County also weighed in yesterday with a total of 1,251 ballots cast in the first five days. The most active polling sites were the Georgetown ISD Administration Building with 209, the Round Rock Library with 171 and the Cedar Park Library with 122. . . . MUD tax question arises again . . . Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Betty Dunkerley have put an item on this week’s agenda they hope will result in lowering of the property tax burden for residents of Canyon Creek, who pay city taxes as well as a bill for the MUD’s bonds. Paying off the bonds for the subdivision, once known as Northwest Travis County MUD #1, has been an item of contention for years. The MUD board of directors sued the city and although the city won the trial, the matter is still unsettled. Dunkerley said the matter would be taken up in executive session tomorrow. The proposal on the agenda is to have the city take over a portion of the debt residents are now paying. That would be accomplished by what Dunkerley called “a negative surcharge” on utility bills. The city could take on a million dollars a year or less over a 20-year period, she said. What would the city get in return? An end to the litigation, among other things. That would be the subject of negotiation if Wynn and Dunkerley convince their colleagues to authorize city management to negotiate. For background, see In Fact Daily August 13, 2004 . . . Goodman’s farewell tour. . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman is taking a farewell tour of the boards and commissions before she leaves Council, thanking those who have served as her appointees and expressing her appreciation to the city-appointed groups for their work on urban issues. At the Planning Commission last night, Goodman thanked her appointee Cynthia Medlin, who wiped away a tear as Goodman handed her a list of other appointees. Goodman also said she would leave a document that outlined the urban issues she had championed in her years on Council for her successor, as a way to share her institutional memory with the person who would follow her. . . Child fatality report comes out today . . . The Center for Child Protection will announce the 2004 Child Fatality Review Team (CFRT) Annual Report findings during a press conference at 10:15am today at the Center for Child Protection, 1110 East 32nd Street . . . Attention Hays County residents . . . The City of San Marcos and Hays County will be holding a Household Hazardous Waste Collection on Saturday from 8am to Noon. This event is free and open to all Hays County residents but proof of residency is required. In addition, Austin Freecycle is another excellent way to share your leftover paint and keep it out of the landfills ( http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AustinFreecycle) . . . Spaghetti lovers: Don’t panic . . . The Spaghetti Warehouse on 4th Street is not closing, but its bar is changing hands. In Fact Daily reported yesterday that the restaurant would become a nightclub named Six. That applies only to the bar. The restaurant will remain. Six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is one of the investors . . . Rodriguez to the rescue . . . Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) called a point of order on House Bill 2833 on Tuesday afternoon, stopping debate on the session’s major takings bill. The point of order, over the posting of minutes from a relevant meeting, is likely to be corrected and the bill reposted, possibly as early as Friday. In the meantime, HB 2833’s companion bill, Senate Bill 1647, was heard in the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday. These are the bills that would make any zoning category that dictates less than 45 percent impervious cover a “taking,” for which the city would have to pay the property owner . . . Disclosures may be required for RMA boards . . . Rep. Todd Baxter, (R-Austin) passed his House Bill 1708 out of House on final reading on Tuesday. The bill would require the board of the regional mobility authorities to file the same ethical disclosure documents as members of the Texas Transportation Commission . . . New affordable community opens . . . Cantera Vista, the city’s latest affordable housing community, officially opened on Tuesday. The gated community, on Ben White Boulevard across from Met Center near Austin Bergstrom International Airport, was funded with assistance from the Austin Housing Finance Corporation. The three-bedroom homes list for $139,900.

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