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More questions raised about landfill deal

Thursday, May 19, 2005 by

Former Council members ask for delay

Opponents of the city’s controversial proposed landfill contract with IESI gained the support of three former Council Members yesterday as they sought to kill—or at least postpone—the 65-year deal. Under the contract, IESI would take over the day-to-day operations of the city’s RM 812 Landfill, which is just south of Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

Former Mayor Gus Garcia and former Council Members Bill Spelman and Brigid Shea sent a letter asking the Council to put off signing the contract “until after the City’s Long Range Solid Waste Planning Task Force has completed its charge.” The deal, which involves combining the city’s FM 812 landfill with one owned by IESI into a construction debris only landfill, is set for City Council consideration today.

The Solid Waste Advisory Commission has voted twice not to support the contract. (See In Fact Daily, April 28, 2005.) IESI won the contract on an initial 5-2 Council vote last November.

Garcia, Spelman and Shea argue that a long-range plan might indicate less need for such a large expansion. “Unfortunately, this contract, which calls for nearly doubling the size of the landfill, could provide perverse economic incentives for the city and IESI to discourage the recycling of construction and demolition waste,” they wrote.

Also Wednesday, Texas Landfill Management (TLM), owned by Bob Gregory and his brother, officially withdrew its bid to run and close the landfill. Gregory told In Fact Daily that he decided to withdraw after two Council members cancelled meetings with him. In his letter to the city, Gregory wrote, “Based on City Staff's concerns about TLM not being in compliance with the anti-lobby provision, which we understood expired after City Council acted on this proposal last fall, and in an effort to avoid any appearance of impropriety, we feel we must completely withdraw our proposal.” Texas Landfill Management is the management arm of the Gregory brothers’ waste management operations. The more familiar name is Texas Disposal Systems (TDS)

Gregory said IESI is proposing something far different than what the city asked for in its Request for Proposals (RFP) last year. He also said there is nothing in the contract that would keep IESI from taking household waste to the site. IESI spokesman Rod Peckham has said the company would take only construction debris. (See In Fact Daily, May 18, 2005.)

In his letter, Gregory wrote, “The City staff is now pursuing and considering a proposal that will dramatically increase the height of the landfill to a minimum of 580 feet above sea level and extends the operating life of the landfill for 65 plus years, which TLM believes raises a strong concern for the safety of the air traveling public. TDS believes that the proposed contract allowance to extend the height of the landfill over unlined disposal cells that are currently leaking into Onion Creek is inappropriate and should not be allowed.”

Gregory said he learned after reading the contract, which he obtained through an Open Records request, that the contract would allow the landfill to be built up to 627 feet. He described that as “a humongous expansion of the landfill. I never dreamed that the City of Austin would allow something like that.” Asked how he would benefit from a rejection of the contract by the Council, Gregory said, “They’ve done a lot of work to vilify us.” He said his company would benefit “only slightly” by taking over the city landfill.

“But it would hurt us if the city allowed them to expand over the landfill.” The state will allow a landfill that’s never been closed “to continue to stack garbage over the old industrial and hazardous waste. If they allow them to do this, there’s no question it hurts us,” he said. “I’m competing against guys who don’t play by the rules…and what they're asking the city to do is take a promise for money and let them dump over the old footprint and they don’t even have to have a liner.”

Texas Campaign for the Environment spokesperson Robin Schneider said those who oppose the contract would be out in force today. Schneider said that if the Council approves the contract, she would begin a petition drive to put the matter before voters. Gregory echoed her sentiments.

In Fact Daily incorrectly reported that Schneider had said IESI ‘s landfill was responsible for leachate flow into Onion Creek and high levels of methane gas off the site. Schneider said she was referring to the city landfill, not the one operated by IESI. In Fact Daily regrets the error.

Aquifer board won't oppose MUD deal

BSEACD board asks Austin to let them in on future negotiations

Whether they were just feeling left out of the process, or were genuinely concerned about the City of Austin’s pending deal with developers of the Winfield Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) along the Hays-Travis County line, the board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) have decided that they are OK with it after all. But, they add, don’t let it happen again.

After a lengthy debate, the board approved a resolution last night asserting its role as the state-mandated protector of the Barton Springs region of Edwards Aquifer. As such, they agreed not oppose the proposed consent agreement between Austin and developers that would prevent the developers from seeking additional ground water from the aquifer. But the board also wants to make sure it is included in any such future discussions.

The resolution will be delivered to the Austin City Council, which is expected to finalize an agreement at today’s meeting with 2824 Partners LP for a massive development that will eventually have up to 9,000 homes and a large retail shopping center.

“We need to make our position clear that we are not against the agreement,” said Board Secretary Craig Smith. “If we don’t say we don’t oppose it, it will send the wrong message.”

Concern over the City of Austin’s involvement in the proposed development was raised in March when BSEACD Board President Bob Larsen wrote a letter to City Manager Toby Futrell, asking the city to remove any provision in a Consent Agreement over the MUDs that would limit their use of groundwater for the development. In the letter, Larsen said “…ultimately it is the responsibility of the district alone to determine through an open and public process when and how groundwater is released for beneficial use. “

At last night’s meeting, Larsen defended his position, saying that the matter ”relates to our jurisdiction over the groundwater here in the aquifer. Our policy is to support the conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater. We are charged with being good stewards of the groundwater resources, and this agreement takes that out of our hands.”

But some other board members questioned his position. ”This has nothing to do with us,” said Vice President Jack Goodman. “This is a business move by the city in order to supply water to the development, and until we get a permit application in front of us, I don’t see where we are involved.” Goodman added that—in his view—the district was not charged with being proactive on such matter, but was designed to act when a specific proposal was laid out.

But Larsen maintained that the district needed to protect its mission as the enforcer of policies as they pertain to the use of the aquifer. “We just can’t give that away to the City of Austin. We weren’t informed of what was going on in the discussions regarding an area for which we are responsible. We should have been privy to what was going on.”

Board Member David Carpenter was also concerned that Austin was usurping their authority. “I have a problem when the city thinks it can speak for the district,” he said. “The city has been throwing our name around, and I think we have an obligation to defend the district.”

However, it was also pointed out that taking that position could be construed as opposing the city’s consent decree with the developers to not take groundwater out of the aquifer, something the board agreed it wanted to avoid.

At that, Smith offered an amendment to a draft resolution on the matter, which had outlined that the district supports the conjunctive use of ground and surface water, and that the district would not issue any ruling on the Winfield MUDs until a permit application was filed with them. Smith’s amendment added two key phrases, noting that the district does not oppose the agreement to limit the MUDs’ taking of groundwater, and stating the district’s request to be included in all future discussions between the city and developers concerning water service to land developments within the district’s boundaries.

The board voted 5-0 to approve the resolution and forward it to the City Council before today’s public hearing. The board also decided not to address the Council during the hearing but to have district staff present to answer any questions the Council may have.

ZAP affirms Wal-Mart variances

Despite considerable opposition to the move, the Zoning and Platting Commission early Wednesday morning upheld the environmental variances it had previously granted for a proposed Wal-Mart on FM 620. The 8-1 vote came after hours of testimony heard following the Commission's decision to reconsider the case at the urging of the Comanche Trail Community Association.

"We have an obligation as a citizens’ commission to hear people come talk to us and give us testimony as to how they feel they will be impacted," said Commissioner John Philip Donisi, shortly before 2am Wednesday as the ZAP prepared to vote. "I appreciate that we've been able to do that tonight. I think we have achieved something this evening. It's not time wasted. It's a good effort." Other commissioners were less enthusiastic about the proceedings, considering the fact that the commission reached the same conclusion at its May 3 meeting. "I guess I feel like I've been riding my stationary bicycle, and you know how far I've gotten down the road," said Commission Chair Betty Baker. "We've made a big circle here tonight."

Commissioners had been convinced to rescind their action of May 3 and reconsider the case after pleas from neighbors, who complained that they had been left out of the discussions before the ZAP and the Environmental Board. Comanche Trail residents were joined by Susan Moffat of Austin Full Circle, who explained why the residents believed the earlier hearing on the case was going to be postponed (See In Fact Daily, May 17, 2005). Moffat also called for an additional two-week postponement to allow the neighborhood group time to better prepare its case.

Attorney Richard Suttle, representing Wal-Mart, argued unsuccessfully against the reconsideration. He told Commissioners about the company's efforts to work with neighborhood groups, including notifying homeowners’ associations within a two- to three-mile radius of the site. It was at the urging of those groups, Suttle said, that the company had designed its current proposal that included the requested environmental variances. "We've spent the last six months negotiating with Wal-Mart," confirmed Grandview Hills Homeowner Association President Mike Dow. "We're very pleased with the level of cooperation we've gotten. They've addressed all our concerns."

While the commission did not agree with Suttle's request to deny the reconsideration, it also denied Moffat's request for an additional two-week delay. "We've got four or five neighborhoods that became involved in the process through two hearings and a task force. Now, a neighborhood I don't doubt will be impacted shows up late to the game and asks for a delay," said Commissioner Keith Jackson. "We are getting ready to position ourselves that this is going to be the tactic du jour of zoning. We're not going to get a case out of here."

Because of other contested cases on the agenda, it was late in the evening before neighbors had the opportunity to make their arguments against granting the variances for the project. They pointed to the company's environmental track record as a major issue, and made presentations regarding the findings of fact used by the Environmental Board to support the variances.

Suttle countered that the retailer had surpassed what its competitors had been required to do in the same area to protect endangered species, water quality, and Karst features. "This case went above and beyond the code," he said, "both from an environmental standpoint and beyond what anybody else in the area did, whether it be Targe t, HEB, or Home Depot on the same variances that were granted." He argued that the retailer's record was well-known to the commission, and that the material presented by the Comanche Trail group was not new.

A majority of the commissioners were not swayed by the information submitted by the Comanche Trail group, although several said they welcomed the opportunity for more public input on the case. Jackson eventually moved to rescind the reconsideration vote from earlier in the evening, effectively restoring the variances approved May 3. "I'm glad we had the hearing tonight, and I'm glad we had the neighborhoods here. But now that we've had it, I'm not sure that there was necessarily any new information presented," Jackson said. "I think we started tonight with the idea that the neighborhood association had not been allowed to present their case. The interested parties presented their case, and in my view there wasn’t new information. We've all sat through numerous Wal-Mart cases."

Moffat said she was disappointed by the commission's action, but vowed to press on with the group's campaign to change the city's notification rules and to require big-box retailers to perform a community impact assessment.

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

Four members of the Downtown Commission attended a charette last weekend on public art downtown, talking about both signature art and contextual arts. The former is what are generally considered works of art, such as sculpture and painting. The latter refers to art elements in items such as light posts. The group also discussed the concept of an arts market in the Rainey Street neighborhood on the weekends, promotion of art to complement the historic character of the area and enhancement of the Blanton Art Museum-Bullock Historic Museum-Guadalupe Art Center-Ransom History Center as an arts district . . . Soundproofing . . . D owntown Commissioner Teresa Ferguson says the time is now for the city to do more to focus on sound-proofing residential properties that are going up along Red River. The commission wants to invite developers to discuss how to address new residences in the middle of the downtown live music scene . . . Commission meeting early . . . The Planning Commission has scheduled a training session this morning to talk about the burial of private utility lines and use of the right-of-way. The topics came up during the discussion of design guidelines, especially for downtown. The session is at 8am at City Hall . . . Carpenter to be honored . . . The Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Texas is hosting a dinner and roast of Liz Carpenter tonight, with emcees Cactus Pryor and Sarah Hickman. Roasters will include Kinky Friedman, Mayor Will Wynn and Sarah Weddington. For more information, call 338-0839 . . . Biking Friday. . . Jeb Boyt of the Parks Commission wanted to reminds those so inclined that Friday is Bike-to-Work Day. The Parks Commission also has a workday to improve the trails at Shoal Creek Park on “ It’s My Park Day” at 9am on June 4 . . . Zoning headaches. . . The SOS Alliance has once again called for protest against a zoning change to allow development of 344,000 square feet of offices Southwest Parkway. Since the developer has adhered to the requirements of the SOS Ordinance and the Legislature is considering some bills that would have the effect of eliminating the ordinance, it seems unlikely that the Council would heed any calls to reject the zoning request. SOS says the offices would bring an unwarranted amount of traffic to the area. The case will be heard sometime after 4pm . . . Gables Westlake. . . The word Wednesday afternoon was that neighbors and development representatives had not been able to reach an agreement on the number of apartment units that might be allowed on the land owned by St. Stephen’s School. The cases are set for 4pm, but the Council might want to postpone them again in the hope that the two sides can reach agreement.l.

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