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Water quality bill's impact softened

Monday, May 16, 2005 by

Barrientos, Madla tack on amendments to help Austin, San Antonio

Senators Frank Madla (D-San Antonio) and Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin), with a pair of amendments on Friday morning, acted to minimize the harm Senate Bill 1858 might do to Central Texas water quality initiatives before the bill moved out of the Senate.

Of all the bills filed this session, SB 1858 is the one that most specifically targets the SOS Ordinance. Those behind the bill, among them the Texas Landowners Conservancy, wanted a more measured approach to water quality protections. SB 1858 set out those parameters, starting with water policy driven by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, rather than local jurisdictions.

The caption on the bill, indeed, said that the purpose was to limit the power of municipalities to issue permits or establish standards and practices to regulate water quality. For some, the intention appeared to regulate water standards that were too high. Sponsor Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria), however, said the point was to raise the water quality guidelines of cities that failed to meet the state’s “bar” for water quality, rather than punish those who had met and exceeded those standards.

“We want to look at what standards you have selected and we want you to come ‘ prove that up’ so that we can react if we don’t think that you have done enough,” Armbrister said. “We want to bring all the cities up to that minimum standard.”

Madla said his amendment was offered to address the concerns of San Antonio. It amended one section of the bill to say that if regulations of the municipality were more stringent than TCEQ standards, then the municipal standards prevailed. Armbrister accepted that as a friendly amendment.

The second amendment, offered by Barrientos, provided that jurisdictions could adopt and implement water quality guidelines – if there was a perceived imminent threat to water quality – before TCEQ gave its final approval.

“The TCEQ could come back and deny this, but this would prevent a race to the county clerk’s office to file speculative incomplete applications,” Barrientos said. “This would just avoid a bureaucratic mess at our counties.”

Sen. Leticia VanDePutte (D-San Antonio) wanted reassurance from Armbrister that when local water standards exceed state standards, the state would not deny those local standards or practices, if those standards are based on sound science.

Armbrister acknowledged the concerns, saying a first read of SB 1858 might suggest that the state could “knock down” water quality standards that were more stringent than the state. Armbrister said his intent was to push cities over the bar, rather than make cities like San Antonio and Austin to reduce their water quality standards.

When an event happens – like a train derailing and leaking chemicals – it’s important for the state to know what measures a locale has for protecting water quality. The goal is to make sure everyone has met the minimum bar for water quality, he told the Senate. Those comments echoed Armbrister’s comments in the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

The Senate passed SB 1858, as amended, on second and third reading on Friday morning. The bill was passed on a voice vote, with no opposition.

City working on zoning notices

More emphasis on information in Spanish

The city Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department is working on a revision to the notices sent out to neighbors of properties up for zoning changes. Those changes are designed to more prominently feature information for residents that speak Spanish.

"Our notices have changed since the latter part of last year," Greg Guernsey with NPZD told members of the Planning Commission last week. "Right now, we're at an interim phase. We're waiting for a new database system that would feed into our notices, so they would be produced quickly and easily." For some notices, such as those for zoning changes or historic zoning cases, information in Spanish was moved to a different portion of the page, which could make it more difficult to find for those recipients who do not speak English. "We already include a single paragraph at the bottom of our notice, but on our old notices it's a little bit more prominent. It was placed in a box near the top of the notices and we're working to see if we can bring that back up and place it in the box like it was done before. This is something we feel we can do very quickly for zoning notices and for neighborhood plan amendments."

Beyond that short-term change, Guernsey said the staff was working on a more comprehensive change to the notices to include more information in Spanish, but that the new notices would not be more expensive to produce or mail than the current notices. "I just have to get the last proof-reading. We have three different people reading the Spanish translation to make sure that it's not a formal Spanish translation, but something that somebody would most likely be able to pick up and read," he said.

The department's focus on Spanish-speaking residents also includes identifying key staffers who speak Spanish and would be able to respond to questions and provide documents in Spanish upon request. For other departments, such as Watershed Protection and Development Review, Guernsey said providing Spanish translation services would be more difficult. Since that department sends out a wider variety of notices to a larger list of people, Guernsey said it would be harder to identify Spanish-speaking staffers available for a quick response on that wide variety of subjects. "We're working with them, so that they would look at possibly putting it in the next budget year…trying to find a way to fund the position that would assist in that," he said.

Guernsey's briefing was partly in response to charges leveled by frequent City Council critic Pat Johnson at a Planning Commission meeting last month. He appeared at the meeting to protest a zoning change for property 1805 Frontier Valley Drive. The owners, Mitchell and Jan Davis, are seeking a change from SF-2 to MF-3. Johnson, who lives at the nearby Frontier Valley Mobile Home Park, said the city had not gone far enough to reach out to Spanish-speaking neighbors. "Everybody out there in that park is within 300 foot. We got 155 trailers out there, and 85 percent of the people that live in those homes and pay property taxes cannot even read English, much less understand it," he said. "So here we get a notice in the mail, they don't know what that notice means. How can you have proper notice for a public hearing when people don't even understand what they're reading?"

For that particular case, the city staff told the commission that all proper notification procedures had been followed. After a discussion of the merits of the case, the commission eventually voted to support a zoning change to MF-3.

In a separate case, Northwest Austin residents are complaining about a different facet of the city's notification procedures. The Comanche Trail Community Association is upset that many of the residents of that neighborhood did not receive an official notice from the city about variances requested for a new Wal-Mart Supercenter planned for FM 620 in the Four Points area. They are not claiming that the city violated its normal policies and procedures, rather that those procedures are not sufficient. The neighborhood is more than 300 feet away from the proposed site of the new Wal-Mart, so most of the residents did not fall within the boundary for official city notification when the variance requests went before Zoning and Platting Commission. The neighborhood group is joining forces with Austin Full Circle ( austinfullcircle.org ) to request that the ZAP reconsider the case. The group also wants the city to establish special notification procedures for larger development projects. They plan to announce their request outside City Hall at noon today.

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

Musical reception . . . Mayor Will Wynn is hosting a reception for members of the local music industry this evening on the balcony of City Hall from 6-8pm. Rachel Loy, who won an Austin Music Foundation Incubator Award, will provide the entertainment . . . Landfill talk . . . Travis County Commissioners have scheduled a Tuesday afternoon session to discuss the remaining issues surrounding landfills in the county. To date, the county has only addressed sludge in its ordinance. Items on the agenda Tuesday include an overall strategy for landfills, a performance-based agreement with Browning-Ferris Industries, a siting ordinance for landfills and consideration of a proposal from Waste Management . . . Second chance . . . On Friday, the Small Business Group announced its support for Jennifer Kim for the Place 3 runoff for City Council. Kim owns her own small business. The group had previously endorsed Gregg Knaupe . . . Campaign action . . . With only one runoff election to go, life on the campaign trail seems pretty quiet. The Metropolitan Breakfast Club is hosting Place 3 contenders Jennifer Kim and Margot Clarke this Wednesday at 7am…. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s Opportunity Austin will be talking to the duo on Thursday morning . . . STAR Flight in action . . . Employees from the Austin-Travis County STAR Flight program will recognize EMS Week 2005 with an “ Open House” at the Travis County STAR Flight Hangar facility from 5 to 8pm Wednesday. The public is invited to meet the pilots, medics and flight nurses, and to see an aerial demonstration at 7pm. The STAR Flight Hangar is located at 7800 Old Manor Rd.. . Big-box brouhaha . . . Neighborhood, labor and environmental leaders will hold a joint press conference with the Comanche Trail Community Association at noon today at the Austin City Hall plaza. The group is protesting the city’s handling of a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter on FM 620 in the Four Points area. Leaders will also announce a new campaign to require common-sense code changes for future big box development in Austin. . . Sheriff’s fundraiser . . Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton is holding a fundraiser Tuesday night to retire his campaign debt. The event is from 5 to 7:30pm at Rocco's Gril l, 612 W Sixth St . Former Mayor Gus Garcia is the honorary chair of the event. For more information, call 474-4738.

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