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Council rejects landfill deal

Friday, May 20, 2005 by

City to look at long-term solution for waste disposal

Mayor Will Wynn surprised observers Thursday—including those waiting to speak against the deal—by announcing that he supported indefinite postponement of consideration of the city’s proposed contract with IESI Corp. to run and close Austin’s FM 812 landfill. Council members agreed with him and unanimously approved putting a hold on the project.

The city has been working with Fort Worth-based IESI to reach agreement on a 65-year contract that promised some financial relief to the city, but disturbed some environmentalists and pilots who had dire warnings about the possible consequences of signing such a deal.

Wynn said that the Council had important long-term questions to answer about solid waste, questions that are more critical than “the disturbing financial elements” of operating and/or closing a Type IV landfill. “So I hope that this effort actually helps us with the task at hand, which is the long-term solution for a well-sited, competitive scientifically sound landfill solution for the sustainable future of Central Texas,” he said. Type IV landfills are permitted to take only construction debris, not household waste. The city has had trouble with its Type I landfill and is still responsible for remediating environmental problems, including leachate and landfill gas.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who along with Council Member Raul Alvarez opposed the deal last November, said, took a swipe at city staff. While not naming anyone in particular, Goodman was clearly aiming at Solid Waste Services Director Willie Rhodes, who not only ignored the advice of the Solid Waste Advisory Commission (SWAC), but refused to give them the information they requested. If the item comes back to some future Council for action, she said, the staff should take advantage of the expertise on SWAC, the Environmental Board and other advocacy groups in the community. She also implicitly criticized the city’s Law Department by saying any future contract of such a nature should be outsourced.

“So that if (the contract) comes back, we not only have guarantees as to operational policies, history, guarantees of improvements in the future, closure of our part (of the landfill), and a number of other things that are very notably missing from this contract,” Goodman said.

Environmentalists, Council Member-elect Lee Leffingwell, three former Council Members and Bob Gregory, co-owner of Texas Disposal Systems, had all urged the Council not to take action on the contract at this time.

Texas Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Robin Schneider was ready to speak against the contract. Following the meeting, Schneider explained some of the problems with the city’s old landfill. “The city had dug deeper and gone higher than they were supposed to,” she said, leaving only a small slice of the original landfill available for more waste. “ Schneider was also critical of the company’s proposal, which she said was devoid of operational details, and of Solid Waste Services for rating IESI more highly than competitor TDS.

A local pilots association has also registered its concern about the landfill being too close to the runways at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Birds drawn to the landfill pose an aviation hazard for planes. FAA regulations specify that landfills should be at least five miles from a major airport, but the FM 812 landfill was “grandfathered” in place by the FAA, just 500 feet from the south border of ABIA when it was opened.

IESI seemed to be a natural partner for the city at the FM812 landfill because the company has a Type IV landfill adjacent to the city’s Type I facility. IESI proposed to join the two landfills together, filling in the part of the city’s landfill that has not been utilized so far.

Jeff Peckham, IESI regional vice president, said, “It’s a disappointment, but the city has made a policy decision” to change directions. He noted that the Council seems to want to wait for a long-term plan and new Council members will help decide what the new policy might be.

In addition to the landfill, IESI operates trash collection services. Royce Gray, IESI district manager, explained, “We run more than 60 routes in the metro area serving more than 76,000 residential homes.” That includes service to Cedar Park, Pflugerville, Taylor, Jonestown, Lakeway and Lago Vista, plus unincorporated areas of Travis, Hays and Williamson County. Gray said IESI also provides service to Bryan, Johnson City and Blanco. Much of the waste IESI picks up is taken to the Williamson County landfill near Hutto but the majority of the trash from Travis County is taken to the BFI landfill, he said. He said his company also has reciprocal agreements statewide with Waste Management.

Peckham said the company gave the city three options. The city chose the option that would allow IESI to fill the untouched areas of the city facility. He said IESI planned to fill “only the untouched areas of their facility. We were 90 percent along,” in concluding the agreement, he said. “There were just a couple of loose items.” IESI had been working on the deal for almost two years, he said.

The city apparently has already gotten something out of bargaining with IESI. Peckham said, “We have supplied the city dirt for free. They are out of dirt,” on the city site, he said, while IESI has an excess. “If they decided not to take any more trash today,” at the city site, “they would still need dirt,” to cover the trash already on the site, he said.

The Council unanimously approved the indefinite postponement with only Council Member Daryl Slusher warning that the decision might have negative consequences. He noted that the city does not own a Type I landfill but must depend on privately owned sites for disposal of household waste. Without this deal, he said, the city may also be losing the opportunity to have an interest in a Type IV landfill also.

Council approves Winfield MUDs

Protection of aquifer key to agreement

It’s been more than 18 years since the City of Austin approved a Municipal Utility District. But with words of caution from several members, the Council approved a consent agreement last night that will allow the creation of the four Winfield MUDs along the Travis-Hays County lines to serve proposed development.

The city had initially blocked efforts by 2824 Partners LP to create the MUDs, which will serve a massive commercial and residential development near Buda, but with yesterday’s vote gave the go-ahead for the project to proceed. The city had initially objected to the plan because of what it said was concern over potential damage to and depletion of the Edwards Aquifer.

The development, on land that previously under contract to bankrupt developer Gary Bradley, is slated to have up to 9,000 homes and a major shopping and office complex when it is completed.

One of the city’s major points in the negotiation with the developers was to limit the MUDs from taking any more water out of the aquifer than is already allowed under current permits. “It’s important that we realize the reason for going into the MUD at this point,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. “We have always known the Edwards Aquifer was a finite water source, but recently we have identified its sustainable yield, how much the aquifer can supply and what it can’t sustain. We now know that if enough people begin drawing from the aquifer, it becomes vulnerable.”

Council Members questioned developer Steve Bartlett regarding his understanding of the water issues in the consent agreement. “We did restrict the groundwater use,” he said. “We will use alternative sources for water and will not be drilling any new wells or seeking any new permits for use of water from the aquifer. And I want to make it perfectly clear that we asked for that stipulation, not the city.”

The consent agreement, according to city staff, will only allow the MUDs to use water from the aquifer that is already allowed by permits, but could pump no new aquifer water. In addition, they have agreed to purchase water from an outside source equal to any amount of aquifer water used in order to reduce their overall usage.

Colin Clark with the Save Our Springs Alliance registered an objection to the agreement, saying the original wording had banned all use of ground water by the MUDs and that allowing use up to current permitted levels was a “loophole” that could drain the aquifer. “We are not opposed to the creation of the MUDs,” he said. “We are concerned that this agreement allows them to tap existing permits. We would request that the original language be restored and you allow no water from the aquifer to be used.”

A technical explanation of the agreement by city staff seemed to satisfy most of the Council’s questions. However Goodman and Council Member Daryl Slusher did mention concerns that the city had negotiated the agreement without consulting the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. (See In Fact Daily, May 19, 2005)

”We have a governmental agency that is focused on and created for the purpose of looking out for the aquifer,” said Goodman. “I think in the future, whenever we talk about the aquifer, we can all work together. Water is a finite resource, and the pressures to use that water are going to get very hellish. And if we are not together on it, it will be ‘divide and conquer.’ We need to work with them.”

Slusher agreed. “We are going to have to work together as a region,” he said. “In addition to its impact on water, this development is going to contribute significantly to traffic on I-35. Roads are going to be needed, and we need to make sure that the expansion in Hays County happens in this area and not out over the aquifer.”

Council members voted unanimously on two items, the creation of the Winfield MUDs and an exchange of extraterritorial jurisdiction with the City of Buda to facilitate the development.

TOD ordinance finally complete

A one-week delay allowed the City Council to work through the remaining details of the ordinance creating a new Transit Oriented Development zoning category. The Council finally approved the TOD ordinance yesterday, along with a separate resolution concerning affordable housing goals within those TODs, by votes of 7-0.

"This is a big deal," said Mayor Will Wynn, which is why it took so long…so much time, effort, and complication. Traffic continues to be far and away the number one citizen complaint. I say frequently we have to do three things to start to address mobility and traffic in this town: make better use of our existing roads, to have effective mass transit, and to dramatically change land use patterns. With this ordinance we can have the building and development community take advantage in an appropriate way of mass transit options and start to change the land use patterns that fundamentally drive traffic to begin with."

The ordinance and accompanying maps passed by the Council define the boundaries of each of the TOD zones, which will be located along stops on Capital Metro's commuter rail line. For the most contentious of the TODs, the one near Plaza Saltillo, the Council went with language proposed last week that will declare the entire TOD area a "transition zone". The other TODs will be broken up into three separate zones: gateway, midway, and transition. The gateway zone is the closest to the transit hub and allows the most dense development. The proposal by Council Member Raul Alvarez to declare the entire Saltillo TOD a transition zone was in response to concerns that the increased density could spur gentrification in the surrounding neighborhood.

Neighbors will have a role to play in shaping the development within the TODs. The ordinance outlines steps for Station Area Plans, similar to neighborhood plans, which will be drafted with participation from neighborhood groups and Capital Metro. A separate resolution set out goals for affordable housing within each TOD, with more aggressive goals for the Saltillo and MLK TODs.

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

A fitting honor for Fath . . . She may be the city’s oldest environmentalist as well as the longest-serving member of a city commission. The Council honored 89-year-old Shudde Fath yesterday for her many years of service to the city by renaming the lovely H.E. Brodie Tract the Shudde Fath Tract in recognition of her “countless contributions to the community,” including continuous service on the Electric Utility Commission since 1977—without missing a meeting . . . Retiring employees recognized . . . City Manager Toby Futrell presented two more Distinguished Service Awards to long-time city employees Thursday evening. Sally Henley was recognized for her 24 years with the city's Law Department. "What we're watching here is a passing of the guard," said City Manager Toby Futrell. "You're seeing a whole generation of people who have lead this city to truly be one of the greatest cities in the country retire. We're losing great minds. And with Sally, she truly was one of the architects of bringing about our hospital district. She will be deeply missed, she's irreplaceable and unforgettable." The new Administrator of the Travis County Hospital District, Trish Young, was also honored. She had previously served as the CEO of the City's Community Care Services Department for five years. "I really miss being in this building and working with all of you," she said. "But I also have a special situation where I really do get to see you all the time. I want to thank the Council and everyone here for the support of the District. It's really important work that we're doing and it's really hard work right now, and it will be for a really long time. But I feel if we continue the partnerships that we've started, we're really going to make great strides." . . . Appointments . . . The City Council made the following consensus appointments yesterday: Scott Madole to the Airport Advisory Commission, Mark Williams to the Bond Election Advisory Committee, Richard Halpin to the Downtown Commission and Millie Chu to the Asian American Resource Center . . . Mayor Will Wynn appointed Joe Geraci to the Mayor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. Council Member Brewster McCracken reappointed Charles Cree to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission . . . Runoff forum . . . The City’s Ethics Review Commission, together with the Austin League of Women Voters, will conduct a public Candidate Forum this Sunday for the Place 3 run-off election. The forum will be from 6 to 7pm at City Hall, 301 W. Second St. Free parking for the public is available in the City Hall garage . . . Flood Awareness Week begins . . . The city will hold a Flood Awareness Week Expo at City Hall from 1 to 4pm Saturday. Activities include training for anyone who wishes to become a storm spotter, flash flood safety exhibits, dramatic home videos of flood rescues, and an Austin flood history multimedia presentation . . . Elfant’s 13th Annual Ice Cream Social . . . Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant holds an ice cream social fundraiser each year. When he is running for re-election, Elfant uses the funds in his campaign. During non-election years, he gives money to a non-profit. This year’s earnings will go to CASA of Travis County, court appointed special advocates for abused and neglected children. This year’s party is from 3-5pm Sunday at the AFL-CIO Auditorium, 1106 Lavaca. . . . City staff art contest. . . The call is out to all City of Austin current employees, retired employees, and family members of employees to enter the 3rd Annual National Arts Program art competition in Austin. The program runs in 200 cities in 19 states nationwide. The program art exhibit for the City of Austin will be in August 2005 at the Dougherty Arts Center. Entry is free and each artist may submit up to two works. Registration forms are due by July 1, 2005, and artwork is due by July 18, 2005. For complete details or to request a registration form contact April Sullivan at VSA arts of Texas at 454-9912 or april@vsatx.org. . . . Downtown tour also Sunday . . . The Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association’s Downtown Living Tour is Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tour stops will include The 5 Fifty Five, 811 Congress, Avenue Lofts, AMLI Downtown, The Railyard, Brazos Lofts and the Susanna Dickinson House and O. Henry Museum at Brush Square. Tickets are $20 apiece or $10 for DANA members, and it includes a reception at 5 p.m. For more information, go to http://www.downtownaustin.org

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