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County doubts efficacy of toll study

Friday, October 14, 2005 by

The chief executive in Travis County’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department (TNR) has raised doubts with County Commissioners about the scope of work on the proposed regional toll road study.

TNR Executive Manager Joe Gieselman, who also served at the one-time executive director of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, revealed his doubts when pressed by County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty to give his assessment of the scope of work.

“It just appears that some of the questions being asked are somewhat leading questions. I guess that’s the best way to put it,” Gieselman said. “I’m not sure I’d pay a consultant this type of money to answer those kinds of questions. The kind of presumption is the answers you already know, and it is a matter of the consultant trying to verify that answer. And that’s a waste of money in my opinion.”

Two items — an interlocal agreement on the contract and the appointment of a member to the regional steering committee — were on the agenda at Tuesday’s court meeting. County commissioners did not appear especially comfortable with either item. Commissioner Ron Davis wanted more specifics on the time frame for the study. County Judge Sam Biscoe suggested tentative approval for the tentative contract.

Gieselman’s caution that the consultant should not be led to a predetermined solution was enough for Biscoe to call for another week delay while Gieselman outlines his specific concerns about the scope of the consultant’s work under the contract. The scope of the contract determines what information county commissioners eventually see, and that information should be what the county wants to see, Gieselman said.

A numbers of agencies are involved and a number of issues are embedded in the scope of work being proposed for the toll road study, Gieselman said.

“The other thing we have to be careful of is feature creep or scope creep, where you have more questions than you have money to pay for,” Gieselman said. “All those things need to be in balance if you’re going to pay $350,000. The scope needs to answer that. If you lead the consultant into an open-ended question, you can add up a bunch of money real quick.”

The total contributed by the combined agencies involved in the study now is up to $345,000. Each participating agency has a seat on an impartial steering committee to oversee the study.

An apparent miscommunication by Shoal Creek Properties (SCP) led to a “show cause” hearing last night before the Barton Spring Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) board, which voted to terminate a water well permit owned by the company for over-pumpage and other permit violations. However, board members accepted the company’s explanation of extenuating circumstances, and will consider a new permit application for the property at 1235 Loop 4 in Buda.

The water district called the hearing because SCP had exceeded its permitted volume of 100,000 gallons by more than 1 million gallons for two straight years. The company had also not reported or was late in reporting its usage for 18 months out of a three-year period.

The property, most recently a warehouse, was originally a controversial shrimp farming operation that began in 1994 but went bankrupt in 1998. The original owners, Penbar Farms, obtained a permit to pump up to 6 million gallons a year.

Fred Eppright with SCP said his company obtained the property out of the bankruptcy, sealed up all but one of the concrete-lined shrimp ponds on the property, and leased it to a corrugated box manufacturing company.

Eppright said the water pumped from the aquifer was used to fill an above ground concrete tank that was used for fire fighting. The tank, which holds some 800,000 gallons of water, was attached to pumps which would send the water to fire suppression equipment inside the warehouse. The tank is automatically refilled by a float valve that triggers a pump when the level gets too low.

The tank supply arrangement was made, he said, because the local water supply company could not provide sufficient water pressure for local firefighters to protect the building.

“After we purchased the property, I called the district (BSEACD) office and talked with someone and explained that we did not need the 6 million gallons in the permit.” Eppright said. “That person suggested that we drop it down to the minimum (100,000 gallons) and see what happened.”

What happened, at least in 2003, was a break in the water line into the building, which caused the system to use more than 2 million gallons that year, according to district records. That problem was discovered and repaired, Eppright said. However, in 2004, usage exceeded 1.45 million gallons.

“The same week I was notified by the district that we were over-pumping again, I got a call from the sheriff, asking why there were so many trucks going on and off of the property,” he said, explaining that at the time it was not occupied. “We found out that a construction company was sending its water trucks to a hydrant hooked up to the water tank, and ‘borrowing’ (stealing) our water.”

Eppright said that in all cases, his company paid the water bill for the over-pumpage, and didn’t believe there was a problem beyond that.

“It appears that what we have is a miscommunication here,” said Board Vice Chair Jack Goodman. “To us, just looking at these numbers, it appears you were flaunting the permit regulations. Clearly that was not the case, but without knowing your circumstances, we had no choice but to call this hearing.”

Board Chair Bob Larson did point out that not reporting water usage on a monthly basis was also a major violation. Eppright assured him that his company would report on a timely basis in the future.

Eppright all said that his local water company, Monarch, had informed him that it was expanding its water supply capacity in the area and would be able to provide proper water pressure for firefighting within the next nine months. He also said plans were in place to expand Loop 4 near the property that would allow him to “pave over” the well site and close it down in the near future.

The board voted 3-0, with Member Craig Smith absent, to terminate SCP’s current permit, but to allow them to have an engineer determine an appropriate pumping volume and apply for a new well permit within 30 days.

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

SOS continues battle against AMD . . . According to the Save Our Springs Alliance, the group has now gathered 15,000 signatures on its petition asking AMD not to locate on Stratus’ property over the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer. SOS is asking supporters to contact the City Council and urge members to pass a resolution opposing the move. In addition, SOS says the city should not recognize Stratus’ grandfathering claims since AMD plans an office complex, not a retail development, as originally planned back in the 1980s. Council members have shown no interest so far in jumping into the middle of a battle they are not required to fight . . . Kim travels to NYC . . . Council Member Jennifer Kim is in New York City through today to visit several private foundations to learn more about funding opportunities for the City of Austin and the Austin nonprofit community. On Thursday, Kim visited the Ford Foundation, F.B. Heron Foundation and the Nathan E. Cummings Foundation to learn about partnership opportunities in community development, affordable home ownership and environmental resource management. Today, she will visit senior staff at the New York Public Library to learn about their central library and branch system . . . Festival set for Saturday . . . Three Austin nonprofits are teaming up to host the Third Annual Festival de las Plantas, a celebration of the natural beauty of Guerrero Park, an homage to the connection between people and plants, and a showcase for regional cultural traditions. The festival, which will be held from 10am to 4:30pm at Roy Guerrero Colorado River Park, 800 Grove Boulevard, features demonstrations, live music and dance and children’s activities. Those responsible for the event include the Austin Parks Foundation, PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources), and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in partnership with City of Austin and the Austin Parks & Recreation Department. Sponsors include AMD, Austin Energy, LCRA, KGSR, La Invasora, El Mundo, Adelante Services, the Austin Chronicle, and KLRU . . . Berry Springs Park opening . . . When Williamson County officials celebrate the grand opening of B erry Springs Park and Preserve this Saturday, they will be celebrating more than trails and swings. The county is returning a scenic, tranquil oasis that has been adored by its residents for more than 13,000 years. Berry Springs Park and Preserve is a 300-acre park designed for nature lovers with amenities including camping sites, more than 2.5 miles of hiking and biking trails, a playscape, picnic shelters and small group amphitheater. The grand opening ceremony starts at 11am and is free and open to the public. The park is located between I-35 and CR 152 with the main entrance off of CR 152. More information on the park is available at www.wilco.org, by e-mail at Parks&Rec@wilco.org, or call 512-260-4283. . . Changing their stripes . . . On Saturday, the city Public Works Department is hosting a meeting for Shoal Creek Boulevard stakeholders to discuss a new striping configuration for the street and to present two proposed designs. The meeting will begin at 8:30am at Murchison Middle School, 3700 North Hills Drive (corner of North Hills and Hart Lane in Northwest Hills). Despite what appeared to be a major uproar of people in the neighborhood to get rid of the curb islands along Shoal Creek, a group calling itself “Friends of the Boulevard” is encouraging local residents to show up and demand that the city keep the curb islands. As one resident told Council members during a hearing, if nothing else, the curb islands serve to help “keep Austin weird.” . . . Tooting our own horn . . . We knew it all along, but it’s nice to have someone else recognize our work. The editors of the Austin Chronicle have named In Fact Daily as a “Best of Austin” in the critics’ Media Category in their annual “Best of Austin” listings. In this week’s edition, the Chronicle’s critics said “If you have a serious need to stay in touch with city politics, Jo Clifton and her busy-bee staff at this online newsletter can't be beat.” They added that, “it is essential reading for those directly plugged-in to the civic affairs of Austin and surrounding communities.” And, yes, that is Jo in the picture sporting a trench coat and fedora, hanging out in what appears to be a parking garage. We thank the Chronicle critics for their wisdom, and to our readers for making us an essential part of their day.

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