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Hays to see celebration, protests today

Friday, May 6, 2005 by

Residents want to educate officials about rock crusher

As Austin city officials and other invited guests head to a planned celebration today of the acquisition and preservation of more than 4,300 acres of conservation easements in Hays County, they will be driving past a three-mile-long human chain of local citizens protesting a rock crushing quarry that sits atop 233-acres of fragile land over the Edwards Aquifer.

Austin officials are calling today’s event a celebration of the expansion and second successful year of a municipal, federal, state and private partnership to protect sensitive lands through conservation easements. The ceremony is set from 1:30 to 3:30pm at the City of Austin’s Rutherford Ranch on Onion Creek.

However, protesters from two Hays County groups, Neighbors Organized to Protect the Environment (NOPE) and Stop the Crusher, plan to be at the intersection of FM 967 and FM 1626 west of Buda with a specific message spelled out by protesters and clearly visible to those attending the event. Members of the Texas Congressional delegation, Travis County and Hays County delegations, state agriculture leaders, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) leaders and city officials have been invited to attend.

Stop the Crusher organizer Mary Stone said that protesters intend to contrast the effort which protects valuable Hill Country property from development – the conservation easement partnership – with a new, rapidly expanding quarry located above the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

According to the city, two major conservation easements are the result of an agreement among the NRCS, the City of Austin, and Hays County landowners Anne Schweppe Ashmun and Scott and Gini Nester, completed late last year. The ranchlands owned by Ashmun and the Nesters are part of the historic Kuykendall 101 Ranch, which dates back to 1890 and is located in the recharge zone of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer.

“Conservation easements are outstanding models of public and private partnership,” said Austin Mayor Will Wynn. “As a result of this most recent collaborative effort, an additional 755 acres of ranch land in Hays County will retain their natural and historic legacy for future generations.”

The new acreage, comprised of two conservation easements, adjoin an existing conservation easement of more than 862 acres acquired in November 2003 through a partnership among NRCS, the City of Austin, and Ashmun.

The City of Austin officially opposes the quarry. The property contains more than 160 sinkholes, caves and other recharge features through which rainfall and runoff replenish the aquifer.

The two groups, NOPE, ( http://www.nopebuda.com and Stop the Crusher ( http://www.stopthecrusher.com), have been formed by hundreds of North Hays County citizens to call attention to water quality, traffic, blasting, air pollution, and other problems caused by the quarry.

NOPE has sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), claiming the agency illegally approved a plan by the quarry operators to prevent aquifer contamination. The quarry is operating under a temporary air pollution permit issued by the TCEQ. The application for a full state air pollution permit has been contested and is under review.

Strama hopes to sooth Canyon Creek's woes

Legislation to help MUD stuck in committee

Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) continues to pursue relief for the Canyon Creek subdivision, through both legislation and negotiation with the City of

. One of Strama’s campaign promises when he beat Republican Jack Stick in November was to help the Northwest Austi n homeowners with their vexing financial problem.

Canyon Creek homeowners are paying off bonds sold when their homes were in a Municipal Utility District. City Attorney David Smith said the bonds were sold to finance infrastructure for the subdivision. The MUD lost its court battle against what residents call double taxation. The trial court ruled that the Canyon Creek MUD residents are not, in fact, being subjected to double taxation. Smith said the MUD board, which filed the suit, has appealed the ruling.

Strama raised the Canyon Creek issue on the floor of the House on Tuesday when Rep. Bill Callegari (R-Houston) moved to repeal a portion of the Texas Water Code that would impact Canyon Creek. Strama cautioned against repealing a section of the water code that would allow in-city municipal utility districts to charge more than cities for city services.

"I understand in Houston, they have had success with an in-city municipal utility district," Strama said. "In Travis County, we have had only one experience, and it has been disastrous. Canyon Creek, in my own district, was annexed into the City of Austin 15 years ago. At the time they were annexed, the developer agreed to a consent agreement with the city to pay for all utilities." However, the developer is long gone.

That has resulted in a situation in which the 1,200 homeowners in the Canyon Creek subdivision off of FM 620 pay about $1,000 more per year in utility bills, Strama said. Callegari managed to remove a portion of the Water Code, Chapter 54.016(F), which protected Canyon Creek's position in its litigation with the city. During the discussion of the bill, Strama made sure it was written into the record that Callegari did not intend to impact the ongoing litigation between Canyon Creek and the city.

"No one in a city MUD should be forced to pay a higher aggregate tax rate than the highest tax level in the city," Strama told the House. In a discussion in the House Wednesday, Strama said he still had hopes that Canyon Creek could negotiate some arrangement with the city so the subdivision could have some relief from its high utility bills.

"The deal that the developer cut with the city was wrong," Strama said. "It forced the future homeowners to pay a higher rate than every other taxpayer in the city. That is something that is prohibited by law."

Strama said the Canyon Creek MUD situation was a key issue in his House race, and it was one he was hopeful to address during the current legislative session. Strama's stand-alone bill on the local MUD, House Bill 2042, was left pending in the House Natural Resources Committee. A similar bill failed to get out of committee last session. The city quietly opposes such legislation.

"If our negotiations with the city are not fruitful, there are several vehicles moving through the House to which my legislation could be amended," Strama said. "When I campaigned in Canyon Creek, I consistently said the best way to solve this problem is through good faith negotiations with the city, and first and foremost, that's what we're trying to do."

Notes from the campaign trail

Firefighters say EMS mailer is misleading

Leaders of the Austin Professionals Firefighters Association held a news conference on Thursday to clarify their endorsement in the Place 3 City Council race. The union's Political Action Committee had previously voted to support Jennifer Kim, and union president Mike Martinez said he was worried that a campaign mailer sent out by the Austin-Travis County EMS Employees Association PAC was creating a false impression that his group was backing Gregg Knaupe.

"In the mail piece, it refers to firefighters in two separate places. Citizens and our firefighters have taken that reference as an implied endorsement of the candidates on that mail piece," said Martinez. That mailer trumpets the EMS workers' support for Lee Leffingwell, Betty Dunkerley, and Knaupe. "While we have endorsed two of those candidates, Lee Leffingwell and Betty Dunkerley, we did not endorse the third candidate that was on that mail piece," Martinez said.

Austin-Travis County EMS Employees Association President Randy Vickery told In Fact Daily his group had not intended to misrepresent the firefighters stance in the Place 3 race. "We put out that public safety: police, fire, and EMS, need to have a strong City Council behind them. The way the flier ended up and the artwork was arranged, it ended up coming out right under the candidates' pictures," he said, "and I can see how people might interpret that as an endorsement, but it was nothing that we meant purposely."

Vickery said he and Martinez had spoken about the mailer after it came out, and both parties agreed it was an unfortunate juxtaposition. "I told them that I was sorry about the misinterpretation," he concluded.

Martinez also went out of his way to point out that he was not accusing the EMS PAC of any wrongdoing. "We understand that politics is a tough business, and people learn lessons along the way, and hopefully the organization that sent this mail piece out has learned a valuable lesson from it," he said. "We certainly don't believe there was any malicious intent."

This is the first city election in which the EMS employees group has chosen to play a significant role, apparently raising thousands of dollars after the deadline for reporting it on the most recent campaign finance report. Martinez reminded voters that the firefighters union PAC was financed solely by union members’ contributions. "It's really important for us to let the public know that the trust that they have given us over the years has been overwhelming, and we need to safeguard that trust," he said. "We believe that our endorsement truly is a representative endorsement of our organization and of the firefighters and we wanted to make that very clear today."

Smokers protest playfully

Opponents of the smoking ban on tomorrow's ballot used a bit of street theatre Thursday evening to illustrate one of their complaints about the measure that would eliminate smoking in bars and nightclubs. They gathered outside of Lovejoy's on Neches at 6th Street to protest the rule requiring people to stay at least 15 feet from the door of a business if they are smoking.

Beerland owner Randall Stockton drew a chalk line across the sidewalk and into the nearby alley to showcase the 15-foot radius from the door of Lovejoy's. "If you step six inches within that line, you are within 15 feet of an openable window or door, and so you are liable for a fine and a Class C misdemeanor," he said. A strict enforcement of the 15-foot rule could force customers into the street to enjoy their cigarettes, Stockton argued. "This is supposed to be some sort of public safety issue. In getting rid of one safety issue, we've created another one," he said. "We're going to be requiring our customers to dodge traffic and stand in the elements if they want to do something that is legal."

Representatives of Onward Austin, which gathered petitions to put the ban on the ballot, dismissed that claim as unrealistic. "Actually, the provision of the ordinance that requires you to be 15 feet away from the door is not a new provision," said Julie Winkler. "It's been in the ordinance since 1994. That provision is really meant to be enforced within reason."

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

SOS fights AMD decisio n . . . Introducing its new web site yesterday, the Save Our Springs Alliance invited foes of major development over the Barton Springs aquifer to sign a petition against Advanced Micro Devices’ plans to build an 825,000 square foot office complex on the Lantana tract. It’s a rudimentary web site, without flashy photos, but offers two separate petitions—one for AMD employees and one for everyone else—plus links to other information as well as how to contact members of the City Council. However, it is not clear what the Council can do about this project, especially now, when two staunch environmentalists are leaving City Hall . . . Latino Sabor kick-off today . . . Ruben Ramos and the Mexican Revolution will begin a series of Latino-flavored concerts at the City Hall Plaza at noon today. The City of Austin and the Austin Latino Music Association are sponsoring the series, along with Gibson Musical Instruments, Güero’s Taco Bar and the Downtown Austin Alliance . . . Saturday events . . . Politically involved Austinites have their choice of locations for watching returns from tomorrow’s City Council elections. Consultants are likely to hang out at the Travis County Clerk’s Office, 5501Airport Blvd. But most people would prefer to spend time in a more user-friendly location. Austin City Hall invites the public to watch returns throughout the evening on monitors throughout the first floor of the new building and outside from the plaza. Channel 6 will broadcast election results live, which will be shown from the Council Chambers as well as facility monitors. Here is a list of the candidates’ parties: Place 3 candidate Gregg Knaupe will be at his campaign office at the Wells Fargo Bank at 15th and Guadalupe, 11th floor; Margot Clarke will be at Threadgill’s north, 6416 N. Lamar; Jennifer Kim will be at the South Congress Café, 1600 South Congress; and Mandy Dealey will be at Serrano’s at Symphony Square, 1111 Red River . . . Place 4 incumbent Betty Dunkerley will be at Hill’s Café, 4700 South Congress. Place 1 candidate Lee Leffingwell will join her at that location . . . Place 4 candidate Wes Benedict and other toll road opponents will gather at JC's Steakhouse at 5804 N I H 35 (290 & I-35). Some other candidates may be at the same location. Place 1 candidate Andrew Bucknall will host a party at his home, 1207 Greenwood Ave . . . Smokers: Keep Austin Free, the group organized to fight the proposed smoking ban, will use Elysium Nightclub at Red River and 7th as headquarters Saturday . . . Onward Austin will hold its party at the Austin Hilton Hotel, Room 400, 500 East 4th Street.

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