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Hays County joins struggle for water rules

Tuesday, May 3, 2005 by

Rep. Rodriguez once again delays takings bill

Northern Hays County has become ground zero in the battle between the state and municipalities over water quality and land use regulations. Rapid population growth in an area that just a decade ago was mostly farm and ranch land over the Edwards Aquifer has pushed conflicts between developers, land owners and environmental interests out of Austin and into the Hill Country.

Small communities such as Buda, Hays City and Dripping Springs have recently become embroiled in fights over land use planning, water quality regulations, and the kind of traffic and growth problems many of their residents moved to the country to leave behind. Citizens in the area are organizing to try to keep control over development over the Edwards Aquifer.

Another front in the battle is at the State Capitol, where several bills filed this session would limit—or outright take away—local control over water quality and land use planning. Bills that used to just threaten Austin’s water quality regulations are now seen as having a potential effect over attempts at long-range water and land-use planning in the suburban areas.

Some of the bills being closely watched include:

• HB 2833 which requires cities to compensate property owners if development regulations reduce the value of their land by setting impervious cover at below 45 percent. This bill was passed out of committee last week, but parliamentary maneuvers by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) have sent it back to committee, putting its passage in jeopardy.

• SB 1858 which would strip local governments of the authority to regulate water quality, giving that power to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to establish statewide standards. It could go before the full Senate today.

• HB 3461 which creates state guidelines for local moratoriums on commercial development, a tactic recently used by Dripping Springs to control growth. It is scheduled to go before the full House later this week, and

• HB 323 would require a city to obtain the consent of the voters in an area to be annexed and in the annexing municipality before annexation. It has been voted out of committee but has not yet been scheduled for debate by the full House.

All that legislation could have a serious affect on efforts in Buda and Dripping Springs to get control over regulations in the area. Residents who have been battling a planned rock-crushing quarry near Buda for two years gathered in a Town Hall Meeting last week to review their options and plan a strategy to shut down the plant, located in the Ruby Ranch subdivision. And The Dripping Springs City Council approved a new Water Quality ordinance and also passed a resolution asking the Legislature to back off of passing laws that would limit their ability to pass environmental regulations, temporarily halt construction or limit development.

Saying that the rock crushing quarry threatens their quality of life, more than 100 Northern Hays County citizens and elected officials met last week near Buda. 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.

At the Buda meeting, 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, Texas Department of Transportation engineer John Nyland, and Colin Clark, Communications Director with the SOS Alliance. KDBJ declined to have a representative at the meeting.

Judge Powers said he is frustrated by how state regulations limit what counties can do 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 mine2.4 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.

One bill, SB142 by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), could bring some immediate relief for counties faced with this type of situation. The bill would give counties the ability to hold a local option election to regulate land development in unincorporated areas, a power they currently do not have. SB 142 could go before the full Senate this week. If passed into law, it would allow Hays County some oversight over operations at the quarry, according Judge Powers.

Opponents of the quarry may have received a major boost from passage of the Dripping Springs water quality ordinance last week that put new controls on areas in the city limits and in its extraterritorial jurisdiction. The Ruby Ranch area and the KDBJ quarry are both in the Dripping Springs ETJ.

The ordinance passed by the Dripping Springs Council adds limits to the amount of impervious cover allowed in sensitive areas. However, the measure does not include all of the limits recommended in a proposed Regional Water Quality Plan, being considered by water districts, cities and county governments in Hays, Travis and Blanco counties.

Under the ordinance, only 10 percent of the area over the Barton Springs recharge zone can have impervious cover while 35 percent of the area over the contributing zone can have impervious cover. Those limits apply to the city’s ETJ, while 50 percent is allowed within the city limits.

Notes from the campaign trail

Benedict files suit; Clarke pays for list

Place 4 challenger Wes Benedict filed suit yesterday against the treasurers of the Austin Police Association PAC (APA PAC) and the Real Estate Council of Austin Good Government PAC (RECA PAC). Benedict’s suit charges that the police political action committee has failed to disclose the occupations of contributors, an apparent violation of state law. His suit also accuses both PACs of violating a murky part of the City Charter, which according to Benedict prevents such committees from taking more than $100 per person per year.

Also yesterday, one of the Austin Toll Party’s endorsed candidates reported that she had decided to pay for use of the party’s mailing list and amended her campaign finance report to reflect that.

Numerous members of RECA have contributed substantial sums to the police committee, which supports the three City Council candidates favored by those RECA members. Benedict is challenging incumbent Council Member Betty Dunkerley. Both groups—the police by endorsement and RECA by tracing the money—seem to be supporting Place 1 candidate Lee Leffingwell and Place 3 candidate Gregg Knaupe.

While the alleged violation of the charter may be a red herring, political committees are expected to make an effort to list the occupations of those giving them money. For example, state law says that if the committee receives at least $500 during a reporting period, the committee must provide donors’ occupations. Although APA PAC reports for early 2005 show small contributions from a number of police officers in meticulous detail, their most recent report lists the RECA donors’ occupations as “unknown.” More than one Internet sleuth was able to confirm that the APA PAC has received 30 donations for a total of $27,000 from developers, 18 of whom are listed on the RECA web site as a leader or spouse of a leader of the organization. The charge against the real estate PAC, however, seems unlikely to outlast the first hearing.

APA President Mike Sheffield, said Monday, “The democratic process is open for everybody to participate in and the folks that are helping us are supporting public safety. Some of the folks who gave us money are members of RECA but the PAC board did not give us money, and I guess it kind of begs the question—why is it a bad thing to support public safety?” Sheffield had not seen the lawsuit when he responded to In Fact Daily’s questions.

Four candidates are still running hard to be in a predicted runoff in Place 3. Yesterday, Margot Clarke, who won the endorsement of the Austin Toll Party, filed a correction affidavit for her most recent contribution and expenditure report. Clarke, Benedict and Place 1 candidate Casey Walker came in for criticism when they accepted the toll party’s mailing list as an in-kind contribution, valued by the Toll Party and listed by each of the campaigns at $91.67. The campaigns each chipped in $3,000 to put out a mailer with the toll party’s endorsements and comments.

“In order to be completely above board, we thought we would pay for the list,” said Clarke.

In an email to Toll Party founder Sal Costello, Clarke explained her campaign’s decision to pay $188.29 for use of the list. She said the amount was “our share of the commercial market value of your organizational mailing list for our anti-toll road mailer. This value is based on 1/3rd of the $25 per thousand-voter cost of mailing lists that has been standard in Austin from such vendors as Opinion Analysts.” Although she said the campaign agreed with Costello’s lower estimate of the list’s value—at less than $300—since it was compiled by volunteers, not professionals, she said her campaign wanted “to remove any appearance of impropriety in this matter.” Elliott McFadden, Clarke's campaign manager, said they paid the group on Friday and that they payment would be reported in the campaign’s next contribution and expenditure report.

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

Early voting ends today. . . Today is the final day for early voting in the May 7 election. As of last night, 20,334 Austinites had cast ballots in the City Council election and smoking ordinance referendum. Northcross Mall had the most voters . . . Billboards not regulated by design standards . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken’s aide, Karen Gross, noticed a mention of billboards in Monday’s design standards story. She contacted In Fact Daily to say that the signage portion of the design standards do not apply to billboards. Billboards are subject to an entirely separate set of regulations. McCracken’s committee was scheduled to meet again yesterday afternoon . . . Free movie offered . . . People For the American Way Foundation, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and various others are hosting what has been billed as an evening of film and filibuster, featuring a full screening of “ Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The show will be at 6:30pm tonight at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema South, 1120 South Lamar . . . Working tonight . . . Members of the Zoning and Platting Commission will meet at 6pm in the City Council chambers at City Hall . . . The MBE/WBE Advisory Committee will meet at 6pm at the DSMBR Office, 4100 Ed Bluestein Blvd . . . The Planning Commission committee on the comprehensive plan will meet at 6pm in Room 500 of One Texas Center…. Conservation Foundation. . . .The Williamson County Conservation Foundation's (WCCF) Citizens Advisory Committee is holding a meeting of the land-owning members to determine their designated appointee for the Biological Advisory Team (BAT). The meeting is set for 11am in the conference room at Pct. 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman's office, 400 W. Main, in Round Rock. For more information, contact Annette Todd at 260-4226. . . Firefighters’ Awards tonight. . . The Austin Firefighters Association will host its 2005 Awards Banquet from 6:30-8pm tonight at Onion Creek Country Club. The banquet will recognize civilians as well as firefighters. For example, the Firefighter Champion Award will be presented to Mayor Pro-Tem Jackie Goodman and State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez. Firefighter awards will include Firefighter of the Year, Outstanding Unit Rescue of the Year, Community Service Award and the David Peppler “Spirit” Awards, among others. The Firefighters Association Banquet benefits the Austin Firefighters Relief & Outreach Fund, which provides immediate financial assistance to firefighters and their families affected by an unexpected injury, illness, or death.

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