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Part of water plant study approved

Friday, May 13, 2005 by

Council OKs only $1 million for Carollo studies

At the urging of prominent environmental leaders and the Chair of the city's Environmental Board, the City Council on Thursday agreed to put the focus on studying alternate locations for the proposed Austin Water Treatment Plant No.4. The Council amended a professional services contract with Carollo Engineers by $1 million, which the firm will use to review environmental mitigation and water quality control measures that could be used in the construction of a new treatment plant and to launch a new public outreach campaign related to the project.

"An independent consultant will do the lead and do the majority of the work on alternate sites," said Water and Wastewater Utility Director Chris Lippe. "That will be the water resources planning consultant that was selected about a month ago. Carollo may be asked to assist with that, looking at the variables and possible cost differences from site to site."

Based on recommendations from the Environmental Board, the utility proposed a two-phased approach to the study. "The current site for this plant is a highly environmentally sensitive part of Austin. The look that's been taken so far is only preliminary," said Chair Mary Ruth Holder. "The site is surrounded by BCCP preserve, karst surface features dot the landscape, Swiss cheese geology lies underneath. Downstream and nearby springs and creeks contain the declining Jollyville Plateau Salamander." She said the Board had carefully reviewed the utility's projections of increasing water demand for the city, and come to the conclusion that further study was needed. "Alternatives to this particular site have not been considered in 20 years. That's despite dramatic changes in land use in that area and species concerns. A through review of alternatives is essential."

Council members praised the Board's work, noting that the concerns raised by the group had played a major role in their decision. "The Environmental Board did a really good job. The amount of time and work they put into it is a real help," said Council Member Daryl Slusher. "I think it is appropriate to look at other sites. But I would caution the environmental community not to get into a position of saying the city doesn't ever need a water plant again. I think the average citizen of Austin is going to be a lot less sympathetic to environmental causes if they don't get water when they turn on their faucet."

Slusher was referring to comments made by Bill Bunch, Executive Director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. He urged the Council to reject the current site entirely, and questioned whether a new plant was really necessary. "We are not balancing demand side management and supply management. If we were serious about reducing peak day demands, we wouldn't need to build it," he said. "We'd be very well off with the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant expansion. If you commit this million dollars today to continue going down the line of attack to build Water Treatment Plant No.4, you are going to further prejudice and undermine the fresh look that we really need from this alternatives analysis."

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman responded that the current location could not be automatically dismissed. "To me that's totally illogical. I can't imagine how you would say 'no' to a particular location if you don't have any reasons for it," she said.

The plan approved by the Council calls for the various consultants to review alternate sites, other possibilities for adding capacity (such as changes to the Green Water Treatment Plant), review conservation strategies, and analyze demand projections. Carollo Engineers will also look at ways that Water Treatment Plant No.4 could be built on the site currently owned by the utility using techniques to prevent the construction from harming water quality. "While this is going to be based on the existing site, it will be applicable to whatever site is selected," Lippe assured the Council.

The decision about where to locate the plant will not be made until all of that information is presented to the Council. "What we've tried to do is put safeguards on here so that no further action from the utility beyond what we've asked them to do happens without Council approval first," said Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. The process should also include more public input before item returns to Council, likely in September.

Council takes step to fix MUD's bills

Canyon Creek MUD Board must take action

Resolution of problems Canyon Creek residents call “ double taxation” took a halting step forward Thursday when the City Council tentatively approved a plan to reduce water bills for those living in the subdivision. However, some members of the Council were hesitant to agree to the plan unless the subdivision was willing to drop its legal action against the city.

What the Council offered residents of the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 is credit on their bills of $577,000 per year through 2026. That would ease the financial burden of Canyon Creek residents, who are paying off MUD bonds that were issued before the area was annexed, as well as city taxes. The reduction would come through a 50 percent credit on MUD residents’ water bills.

In return for lower water bills, the City Council is asking the MUD board for a promise not to issue bonds beyond the latest round, reducing the authorized debt ceiling from $22.8 million to $15.5 million. In addition, the city wants title to about 406 acres of land for preservation of endangered species and a promise that the board will not pursue legislation that would impair the city’s annexation powers or its ability to collect taxes.

The Council also wants the MUD board to give up its lawsuit against the city but that was not a part of the proposal. The MUD, along with some individual residents, sued the city and lost in the trial court. The case is now on appeal. In that suit, the city successfully argued that the Canyon Creek MUD should not be treated differently than any other. Former Rep. Jack Stick and the area’s current representative, Mark Strama (D-Austin), both tried but failed to pass legislation to help the MUD’s residents.

Sponsors of the resolution to help the MUD were Mayor Will Wynn, Council Member Brewster McCracken and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. Council Member Daryl Slusher expressed concern about the fiscal implications—a $12.1 million loss to the Water Utility, and the fairness of cutting utility bills for some residents.

Two Canyon Creek residents addressed the Council. Bob Rouder expressed the hope that he and his neighbors would see some relief. After giving them some of the area’s 25-year history, Rouder asked the Council for “conciliation and compromise and justice.”

Jenny Jensen talked about the fact that she and her neighbors want to be part of the city but have put up with paying off the MUD bonds, as well as city taxes. She struck a nerve in Slusher, however, when she referred to “what many of us have perceived to be an open and unabashed hostility toward Canyon Creek by this city’s administration. We have lived with the hostility and tax burden for 18 years now and there is a resolve in our community that there will not be a nineteenth.”

Slusher was visibly angry, but cool. “Would you care to elaborate on that?” She didn’t and another resident came up to explain that “she was making a reference to a perception in the community.”

Slusher said he was opposed to the city agreeing to do the negative surcharge without any guarantees that the MUD board would drop its suit. “The city prevailed in the lawsuit but some Council members would like to come back anyway and pay at least at least half the cost of the MUD debt . . I can be sympathetic to that—to wanting to settle this issue—even though the city was on strong legal ground. But at least one problem I have is that the lawsuit continues against the city seeking these funds. There’s an appeal that s still going on.” It would be better, he said, if the MUD board would take action before the city.

“Otherwise, it seems that the city is just parting with $12 million, still involved in a lawsuit in which the city, the ratepayers could lose even more and we don’t get anything for the $12 million. So that’s very difficult for me to support,” Slusher concluded.

Wynn pointed out that the city would get several hundred acres for the BCCP but also some good will, not just from the affected citizens but also from the Legislature. Those parties would see that the city was trying to work out “a long term agreement” that would put Canyon Creek’s bills “more in line with the vast majority of the city,” he said.

Council Member Raul Alvarez agreed with Slusher, saying the city’s offer of a rebate should be seen as a “peace offering” which might lead to settlement of the lawsuit. “Have them come back to the Council,” he said. “I think just approving doesn’t really get rid of all of the bad feelings that may be out in the community.”

Council Member Danny Thomas concurred. “We know that Canyon Creek is not being treated right,” he said. “But I’m also concerned when we continue to do items like this . . . We have to be responsible to the whole City of Austin.” He said he was concerned about the money the city continues to spend on legal fees over Canyon Creek. “I feel and hope that once we send this to the MUD,” he said, that the board would drop the suit.

Mayor Will Wynn pointed out that if the ordinance had only four votes, then they could only approve it on first reading anyway. When all was said and done, the vote in favor of giving Canyon Creek residents a rebate was unanimous, but the matter will have to come back for second and third reading. The MUD board will meet next week. If they respond to the city’s offer positively, then the Council will likely grant final approval.

Dormant projects ordinance approved

The city’s new dormant project ordinance, which Council passed on third reading last night, is a direct result of the city’s lobbying efforts against Senate Bill 848.

Senate Bill 848, which was carried in the House by Rep. Edmund Kuempel (R-Seguin) as House Bill 1704, was nicknamed the “ cocktail napkin” bill. The bill gave developers the right to vest their property rights as soon a permit application is postmarked or a significant utility commitment is presented on the property.

That bill, another in a line of “grandfathering” bills, alarmed city officials. Environmental Officer Pat Murphy recalls lobbying Kuempel asking him to consider taking Austin out of the bill. Kuempel’s response was prompt. Didn’t Austin have a dormant plan ordinance? A dormant plan ordinance was the best defense if it was so worried that developers were going to get around the ordinance, an argument he repeated on the floor of the House when the bill was passed in late April.

Actually, Austin didn’t have a dormant plan ordinance, which Murphy and Assistant Attorney Marty Terry went quickly to work to correct. The ordinance passed last night started the clock on plans as of May 11, 2004. The date is a year in the past because the Legislature gave cities the power to create the ordinance back in 1999, saying that any ordinance would be in effect five years hence, on May 11, 2004.

Needless to say, a pre-dated ordinance that invalidates a preliminary plan as “dormant” would alarm developers. Even this session, the Legislature continues to tinker with the rights of existing plans in other bills, such as Senate Bill 574. John Joseph, Jr. strenuously objected to the ordinance at last night’s hearing, saying that the city should not enact ordinances that claim retroactive authority over existing plans.

“Retroactive rulemaking disputes the clear intent (of Ch. 245 of local government code) against punitive retroactive rulemaking,” Joseph told the Council. “I’m certain you have been counseled and advised about this. I have no idea what the discussion was about, but I want all of you to be aware that Senate Bill 574 was signed by the Governor on Monday night. The intent was laid out and it goes into effect on September 1, 2005.”

The ordinance was one of the topics for discussion in executive session during the Council meeting. Before the vote, Mayor Will Wynn carefully laid out the argument that the city simply was taking advantage of authority that was granted by the state in 1999. Terry said the ordinance carefully mirrors the parameters set out under state law.

Both Terry and Murphy stressed that the city would apply its authority to invalidate preliminary plans carefully. The fear among developers is that a preliminary plan could be filed on 100 acres but only 10 acres may be developed before the timeline expires on the preliminary plan. Both Murphy and Terry said that any effort to develop, even if it was on a portion of a piece of property, would constitute a continuing “good faith effort” under the law. Murphy said the intention was not to stop developers from implementing an extended timeline for development; instead, it’s intended to stop developers from, in extreme cases, pulling out a 20-year-old letter and saying it constitutes property rights.

Murphy said he had completed a preliminary review of plans that might be deemed dormant under the city’s new ordinance. None of them were filed any later than 1988, Murphy said. Even so, each plan that might be deemed dormant will be carefully reviewed to make sure that every effort is made to acknowledge a serious good faith effort of a developer to develop his property through permits or utility activity.

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

Whistle blower suit . . . Lisa Sanchez, a former pipeline maintenance supervisor has filed suit against the City of Austin. She alleges that she was demoted for reporting suspected drug activities at work to the Austin Police Department.

Noted Austin musician Steve Fromholz has filed a malpractice suit against Dr. Donald Counts alleging that the doctor failed to find Fromholz' cardiovascular problems. Those problems led to a stroke, leaving the musician unable to earn a living, according to the suit . . . Appointments . . . The City Council reappointed the following citizens to serve by consensus: Barbara Aybar to the Board of Adjustment and Sign Review Board; Gale Spear and Jo Fierro to the Child Care Council. Council Member Danny Thomas appointed Avis Jones Wallace and Council Member Brewster McCracken appointed Maureen Britton to the Child Care Council. Council Member Raul Alvarez appointed Meichihko Proctor to the E thics Review Commission. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman appointed Colin Leyden to the Urban Forestry Board . . . Promises of free ice cream . . . LifeWorks, in partnership with Ben & Jerry’s PartnerShop™ initiative, plans to own and operate a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream store on 6th Street . This initiative will provide training, a positive first time employment experience, and graduate at-risk youth to career-oriented jobs, career training and higher education. To meet the ice cream gurus and get a free sample, visit the shop at 5th and Lamar at noon Saturday . . .. Past its prime?. . . Mel Ziegler told Council it was time to think about a replacement for the Dougherty Arts Center, which is one of the few venues for community stage productions in Austin. Ziegler admits the project is not on the radar screen for the upcoming bond issue and has not been recommended by the Parks Department. Yet it’s clear the aging building has outlived its usefulness for the city, Ziegler said during a presentation to the Council yesterday afternoon on the Arts Commission…. Zoning cases . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman finally agreed to a compromise on zoning of the property at 11410 Manchaca Rd. Goodman had been hesitant to offer anything more than LR-CO for fear it would create a precedent in the neighborhood but agreed to GR-CO, limiting the uses in the strip center to a local restaurant, a neighborhood hardware store and a yoga/fitness studio. Consultant Sarah Crocker guided the compromise, which she said was not residents of the surrounding neighborhood did not oppose. . . .Council has sent the Gables at Westlake issue off to mediation, delaying a zoning decision for at least a week. Attorney Nikelle Meade of Brown McCarroll said she was optimistic that the neighborhood and applicant could come to some compromise on the remaining issues, which included traffic circulation, building height and number of units. The two sides already have agreed on aesthetic standards. Mediation is scheduled for Monday, and possibly Tuesday, with the intention of bringing the issue back to the full Council on Thursday…. Block grants… The city of Austin is still accepting comments on its $37 million in federal Community Development Block Grants. That’s a 7 percent reduction in funds. Paul Hilgers told the Council that sub-recipients of the grant funds were informed they would have to accept an across-the-board 5 percent cut. Hilgers said US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison had signed up to try to turn back cuts proposed to the federal block grant programs. The Bush Administration has proposed cutting the CBDG grant program by 25 percent and eventually phasing out the federal assistance program. . . Big money for toll roads . . . Campaigns for People held a news conference yesterday claiming that special interests have bought Texans the nation's most expensive toll road project. According to the Quorum Report, the group has issued an eight-page report titled Big Money Paves the Way for the Trans Texas Corridor, in which it claims that over the past four years, road building and bond financing interests have given millions of dollars to support amending Texas' constitution and to pass laws creating the Trans-Texas Corridor. It notes that between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2004, the Texas Department of Transportation awarded $14.3 billion in contracts to build and maintain roads in the state of Texas. More than 40 percent of the total — $6 billion, — went to the Top 10 TxDOT contractors. In the same time period, those 10 contractors made over $1.1 million in political contributions to state leaders.

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