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Bonds for preserve land win support

Wednesday, July 13, 2005 by

Committee hears about survey favoring $60 million more in bonds

Based on the results on an opinion survey, Travis County taxpayers may be given the opportunity to raise their own taxes in order to fund $60 million to purchase and preserve natural areas within the county. That is in addition to some $115 million in revenue neutral projects approved for recommendation last night by the Travis County Citizens Bond Advisory Committee (CBAC).

County taxpayers will be asked to approve a series of bond issues on November 8, 2005 under the general headings of jail facilities, drainage, bridge and mobility, and parks and open spaces. The land preservation measure will be in addition to those items. The CBAC is charged with studying a variety of projects and paring the list of bond election projects down to approximately $100 million. County commissioners will make the final decision on what goes on the ballot.

Committee Member Perry Lorenz said a study, funded by the Hill Country Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, showed solid support among voters for a bond proposal to buy and preserve natural areas.

“The survey asked the question two ways: Would you support issuing $60 million in bonds to purchase and preserve natural space? And, would you support paying an additional $16 in taxes per average household to purchase and preserve natural space?” said Lorenz. “What we found was that when you told them exactly how much it would cost them, support for the measure was at its highest.”

Support for the measure came in at or near 60 percent or higher no matter how the question was asked, according to the poll results. The telephone survey was conducted between June 28 and July 2. More than 500 registered voters were asked about the proposal, with 56.3 percent saying they would vote for it; 4.9 percent were leaning in favor of it, 2.3 percent were leaning against it, 27.8 percent would vote against it and 7.9 percent were undecided.

CBAC members voted to approve adding the item to their recommendation report to Commissioner’s Court next week.

On the more mundane issues of jails, drainage and parks, three CBAC subcommittees reported their recommendations to the entire panel last night, but the main committee was hesitant to do any chopping beyond what had already been done.

The subcommittee on drainage, bridge and mobility submitted a recommendation for $63.7 million in projects, paring down an initial wish list of some $240 million.

“We did not prioritize our final list of projects,” said subcommittee chair Glen Coleman. “We tried to work hard for all of the county and be disciplined in looking at the most critical needs.”

The parks and open space subcommittee submitted $45 million in recommendations, according to chair Leslie Pool. The largest projects on that list were the Southwest Metropolitan Park at $7 million; Phase II of the East Metro Park at $6.5 million and Arkansas Bend Park on Lake Travis at $6.5 million. It also includes $3.4 million for general water quality improvements.

The jail facilities subcommittee issued a slim $20 million recommendation. Chair Steve Martin said that was pared down from an initial request for $86 million, about $40 million of which was already earmarked.

“That left a request of $43 million on the table,” he said. “We cut that down to $20 million. We think that will force the planning staff to revisit some of the issues with the buildings out at Del Valle. We don’t think that all of those building need to be torn down and replaced. We think there are three buildings that still have useful life left.”

County Commissioners have vowed to keep the bond election revenue neutral, meaning that whatever money is spend will fall within the scope of revenue increases from rising property values, and not a tax rate increase. That does not include the land purchase and preservation projects, which—if approved—would mean a tax rate increase of one cent to raise $60 million.

CBAC Chair Richard Moya will take the committee’s recommendations to the Commissioners Court next week. A series of public outreach meetings are scheduled around the county between July 25 and August 4, with a final report to commissioners due on August 16.

County wants developers to help fund roads

Travis County wants to bring more private development partners to the table to put more of its planned arterial roadway network on the ground in the outlying areas of the county. But County Commissioners say they don’t want to get stuck holding the check.

County officials say the issue is cost. The CAMPO 2030 plan predicts Travis County must build another 350 miles of roads to keep up with the traffic. That’s a $900 million bill for county residents, a bill the county can’t cover, said Joe Gieselma n, executive manager of Transportation and Natural Resources. County commissioners should leverage their dollars by setting parameters for public-private partnerships on the construction of the county’s unbuilt arterial roadways, Gieselman recommended.

Public-private partnerships are not new to Travis County. As County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out, the county and developers in Steiner Ranch agreed to split the cost on roadways as far back as 1997. What the county also discovered during those negotiations, however, was that developers had a way of subdividing tracts in ways so that no portion of the tract touched the roadway. Those who didn’t touch the roadway could choose to continue to say they shouldn’t bear a portion of the cost.

But as Gieselman told commissioners this week, everyone needs to pay a proportional share of the cost of the roadway, and not just the cost of the pavement. Under the proposed guidelines approved by county commissioners yesterday, developers also would share in the cost of right-of-way, drainage easements and water quality provisions. The guidelines would apply in extra-territorial areas of the county, outside the areas deemed as “near-term annexation areas” for Austin.

At this point, the policy is discretionary, not mandatory. As Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols described it, the guidelines approved by the court will be the starting point for negotiations between the county and developers. Applicable roadways would be those arterials that appear in the CAMPO 2030 plan, such as Howard Lane.

“You’re dealing with a situation where you’ve got two parties interested in developing voluntary mutually agreeable terms,” Nuckols said. “This is the term sheet for those various different parts. This is a way to save everybody time and money and say, ‘If you’re interested in doing one of these deals with the county, this is the starting point.’”

The policy will not stay discretionary for long. Gieselman said it was likely the terms would be folded into the county’s rewrite of the subdivision guidelines, making participation in road building more mandatory than optional for developers. This would give the county a guarantee that large sections of road will be completed, with more developers bearing the cost of the construction. Developers would be guaranteed a more stable timetable on construction and more participation by the county.

Even as the county commissioners approved the guidelines, commissioners had different perspectives on how the burden should be shared. Sonleitner said developers should be pushed to pay their fair share, since they would be the ones benefiting from the roads. She pointed to missing sections in Dessau Road, saying that the county had to wait two decades for developers to come to the table and put up their fair share. Roads should be built on county deadlines and not hinge on the developers’ inability or unwillingness to pay for a road that benefited them.

“The county is not Bank Mom,” Sonleitner said. “We are not here to cover the costs of private land speculators trying to get into the market. If they go in and say, ‘I’m not ready,’ I respect that. Come back when you’re ready to go through the subdivision process, but we cannot and should not be using public dollars to do things that are going to enrich and enhance the value of their land if they’re not willing to put up their own dollars. The point of this should be to leverage our dollars.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, on the other hand, said the county did have a duty to move forward with the roadway network, whether or not developers participated. In some cases, constructing a road like Parmer Lane is important to do, regardless of who benefits. Providing an adequate road network is a duty of the county.

“I think one of the reasons why we have the God awful traffic we have, from a mobility standpoint, is that we don’t get out there and build a comprehensive road system,” Daugherty said. “It’s something we always just take for granted, but I don’t want to say we’re only going to build roads when we have people we can extract money from to build those roads.”

Gieselman outlined four major policy guidelines in setting parameters for public-private partnerships on major arterial construction. Under the proposal, the county and developer would split the cost of the arterial 50-50.

The partnership agreement must reflect rough proportionality among landowners. The cost, split between county and developers, will be fair and based on use of the road. The county, under any circumstances, will commit to pay for no less than two lanes of a four-lane road.

The county will agree to be sensitive to cash flow issues. Developers have asked that contributions be divided between the engineering phase and construction phase. Developers also can delay financial contributions until the time of construction, as long as the developers agree to post a fiscal security on the project.

Developers must share the costs of the full project, Gieselman said. That will include the construction of water quality features and bridges, as well as sidewalk and bike facilities. “When we say share the costs, we mean all the costs – everything that is within the right-of-way will be part of the construction costs and will be shared,” Gieselman said.

And the policy will apply to those areas outside the city’s near-term annexation areas. The county may consider some additional language for exceptions in this area when it comes time for the formal policy on the subdivision regulations.

Under the private-public partnerships, the county or the developer could take the project out to bid. The county would maintain its right to review the plans.”

Saying that proposed rules to protect the Edwards Aquifer fall far short of what is needed, representatives of the City of Austin and the Save Our Springs Alliance—among others—told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) yesterday that much tougher regulations are needed to protect the vast aquifer.

TCEQ held the first of two annual public hearings yesterday on the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and the TCEQ's rules which regulate development over the delineated contributing, recharge, and transition zones of the Edwards Aquifer. Tuesday’s hearing was at TCEQ’s Austin headquarters; another hearing is set today in San Antonio.

Tom Ennis with the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department and Brad Rockwell, deputy director of the SOS Alliance, both said they found the TCEQ’s proposed regulations lacking in several areas, including impervious regulations. Rockwell said impervious cover limits are critical.

“The most important and indispensable component for protecting a Karst aquifer like the Edwards is restrictions for impervious cover,” he said. “TCEQ rules do not include any kind of impervious cover restrictions.” Rockwell charges that in addition, TCEQ’s “optional measures” are designed to allow developers to evade federal Fish and Wildlife Service impervious cover restrictions. “It’s a step backwards,” he said.

Austin’s Ennis agreed. “Impervious cover limits should be used in conjunction with water quality controls and buffers to provide an overlapping safety system for water quality,” said Ennis. “No combination of measures without impervious cover restrictions can hope to protect the aquifer. Impervious cover always provides a stronger level of protection.”

Both parties criticized the TCEQ for not addressing pollutants other than total suspended solids ( TSS).

“Failure to address other pollutants (nutrients and metals) is a serious shortcoming of the Guidance Measures in general and the Optional Measures in particular,” said Ennis. “While TSS is a visible pollutant, other pollutants may have a greater impact on aquatic life…This issue has been Identified, accepted and addressed by most other entities in the area ( LCRA, USFW, COA and the Regional Plan) except TCEQ.”

Rockwell agreed, calling the TCEQ’s standards for assessing pollutants “grossly deficient.”

Ennis pointed out several areas adaptive management practices that the city considered a problem, including:

• A lack of water degradation or species decline triggers for new management strategies;

• The time lag between when a project is approved and when it is completed; and

• Legislative grandfathering of certain projects effectively circumventing current water quality monitoring technology.

Rockwell said enforcement is also a major problem due to a lack of manpower and funds.

“The Edwards Aquifer is huge,” he said. “It goes from almost the Texas border all the way up into North Central Texas. But for the entire region, the TCEQ’s budget is about $585,000. That’s nowhere near enough to do the job adequately. The City on Austin’s budget for water quality protection is $6 million dollars and the area they cover is miniscule compared to the entire Edwards Aquifer.”

Ennis said the TCEQ’s rules were simply too weak top be effective.

“It is the experience of the City of Austin that effective environmental protection requires three elements: thorough rules, vigorous plan review, and diligent enforcement,” he said. “These “optional enhanced measures” are insufficient to protect water quality and we are concerned that TCEQ is understaffed to help undertake plan review and enforcement.”

The TCEQ is accepting written comments on the proposed regulations through August 13.

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

Richie lauded . . . Carl S. Richie II, board member of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, was recently awarded the Commissioner’s Service Award by the Southwest Regional Council of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. Richie, who has served on the housing authority board since 1997, is also a member of the board of the Travis County Hospital District . . . TxDOT’s meetings . . . The Texas Department of Transportation will host three open houses to discuss plans for the Y at Oak Hill and other concerns for those traveling on US 290/SH71. Tonight’s meeting is in Dripping Springs; Thursday’s is in Bee Cave, and the third is at the ACC Pinnacle campus next Tuesday, not Monday as previously reported . . . Representing herself . . . Attorney Janet Stockard, who normally appears as defense attorney for those charged with DWI, has sued HEB. She is alleging negligence on the part of Central Market after she slipped and fell . . . Meetings . . . The Bond Election Advisory Committee’s transportation and drainage subcommittee will meet at 6:30pm in Room 3005 of City Hall . . . The Neighborhood Planning Committee of the Planning Commission will meet at 5:30pm in Room 240 of One Texas Center . . . Free auto emission check . . . Those Ozone Action Days are back and Central Texans have another reason for wanting to know how their cars’ emissions are affecting the environment. Beginning in September, residents of Travis and Williamson counties will be required to have an emissions test during their annual safety inspections for gasoline powered vehicles 2-24 years old. Free inspections are being offered this Saturday from 10am to 2pm at Highland Mall behind Foley’s. An expert will also provide advice on how maintaining your vehicle can increase your gas mileage, improve long-term performance and help clean the air we breathe.

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