Sections

About Us

 
Make a Donation
Fully-Local • Non-Partisan • Public-Service Journalism
 

Lippe explains why city favors plant in park

Wednesday, April 12, 2006 by

Utility's explanation draws no apparent supporters

The first public viewing of the city’s plan to relocate the Green Water Treatment Plant to 30 acres of land in the Roy Guerrero Colorado River Park near Longhorn Dam did little to drum up public support for the project, and raised questions from some observers about the city’s motives for pushing the project.

Members of the Parks and Recreation Board, along with a standing-room-only crowd of about 100 onlookers, got a briefing Tuesday from Austin Water Utility Director Chris Lippe and other city officials on the $122 million project, which laid out a timeline to get the project approved and completed in just 62 months.

The initial reaction from several board members was concern over what was perceived as pressure to quickly approve the project without sufficient information. Board Member Mark Vane asked officials if they had considered other possible sites for the plant, and if so, what sites were studied and rejected? Assistant City Attorney Allison Galloway said city officials would not release the information, citing a state law that allows them to keep such negotiations private.

“I’m not sure I can make a decision on this without a lot more information,” said Vice Chair Jeb Boyt. “It makes me very uncomfortable that I’m being asked to approve this plan without knowing what other options were considered. Why should we feel rushed into making what is a long-term decision?”

Lippe commented that the city originally planned to build Water Treatment Plant #4 near Lake Travis first, but that environmental considerations forced AWU to accelerate its plans for relocating the Green plant. Despite the criticism, Lippe seemed pleased with the public interest in the project.

“I really thought it was a good meeting and I was glad there was the kind of discussion there was,” he said “We heard a lot of good information and that’s going to help us as they come back next week and go to other boards and commissions. It’s obvious that the public cares about parks and cares about facilities.”

Several political observers noted that the city’s putting plans for the Green plant out to the public in such an unpalatable form might be a ploy to build public sentiment against the project in order to get WTP4 back on the front burner.

“The Water Treatment Plant #4 had been in the works for many years,” Lippe said. “Several things changed on the environmental front since that plant was planned. Those changes put us in a position to have to shift to an alternative site.”

At the urging of the Environmental Board, the city hired a consultant last year to study alternative sites for the WTP4, but the results of that study have not yet been made public.

Lippe outlined the plan to use a 30-acre, triangular shaped piece of land on the west end of Guerrero Park for the new plant, citing its proximity to Town Lake for water intake, the need for minimal improvements to the distribution system and the ability to place the plant in a location that can be easily secured.

Several East Austin community leaders attended the meeting, and many had concerns over taking dedicated park land for the project and offering only $5 million in funds to mitigate the loss. PARD staff said the $5 million could be used to develop some planned features in the park that are not currently funded.

Reaction to the proposed plant was also uniformly negative among those running for Austin City Council who hope to represent the east side.

“There is no reason to do this. It smacks of the same mentality that in 1928 put chemical plants and tank farms in East Austin,” said Place 2 Council candidate Eliza May. “It is particularly offensive that the stated reason is to free up downtown land for developers to make a profit. Ya Basta. Enough is enough.”

Place 2 candidate Mike Martinez said, “ I think the city should have spent a lot more time talking to the public before they laid out what seems to be a decision. Even in the presentation they just made—the timeline says grant approval by City Council on May 25 is almost as an assumption. Those kinds of tactics are exactly what cause people to be upset.”

Place 6 Candidate Sheryl Cole said “I'm obviously concerned about it and the parks community and the neighborhoods are against it. I think they should be respected and heard. I do think for environmental reasons that the water should come from Town Lake but I think the community needs to be listened to.”

The other Place 6 candidates, Darryl Pierce and DeWayne Lofton, were also opposed. ”I have a problem when we deliver just a one option to the community,” Pierce said. “I would think you would look at alternative sites; but it seems like they worked kind of behind the scenes and then you deliver it without community input.”

Lofton said “From what I've heard, it seems like a ridiculous thing to do, to place it within the boundaries (of) an existing park where we have families and children. The whole notion of them putting it in East Austin goes with their history of East Austin being the dumping ground of what is unwanted.”

City officials stood their ground on releasing any information on alternative sites for the plant. City Attorney David Smith said no information of any kind would be released on other sites that were considered for the plant until after the Council votes. “The Council has not made its decision,” he said, so it is possible they will reject the parkland site. Should that happen, Smith said, the city would be in the position of trying to negotiate with the owner or owners of other possible sites for the plant.

AWU officials released their timetable for getting the project approved. Following Tuesday’s briefing on the project, another special called meeting of the PARD Board is set for April 17 to hold a public hearing and consider approval of the project. Similar meetings are set for the Environmental Board on April 26; the Water and Wastewater Commission on May 3; and a Public Outreach meeting on May 10. City Council consideration is scheduled for May 25.

The AWU’s presentation is available online at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/water, along with other information on the project.

Notes from the campaign trail

Candidates address funding for arts programs

Candidates for the Austin City Council explained their priorities for funding the arts Tuesday night during a forum sponsored by the Austin Arts Alliance. In addition to outlining their own experiences supporting arts groups or participating in the arts, the candidates were asked whether they would support changing the city’s current policy of funding arts organizations strictly from hotel and motel tax revenues.

“We have the lowest tax rate of any major city in Texas,” said Mayor Will Wynn. “Currently the needs are so demanding on the general fund side…police, fire, EMS, parks, libraries, public health…that without a substantial restructuring of the revenue stream into our general fund I don’t see us beginning to…at this time…fund arts out of general fund revenue.”

Other candidates were more willing to consider the change. “If we can use some of those funds for the arts I would be willing to look at that, I would have an open mind and I would think outside of the box on how we can use those funds,” said Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, who is hoping to replace Wynn as Mayor.

“I would commit general funds to the arts,” said Place 2 candidate Mike Martinez, who drew a round of applause from the crowd at Nuevo Leon when he described his commitment to the arts. He said that while he understood the economic importance of the arts and cultural attractions for the city, he did not agree with assessing spending on the arts strictly in terms of a return on the city’s investment. Instead, Martinez told the crowd of artists and musicians that art should be valued for its own sake, not judged by its economic impact. “We, as a society, haven’t accepted art as having value without putting money on it, and that’s wrong,” he said. “The first thing we have to do is shift our minds about how we see the arts, how they impact us as a community, and how they shape who we are.”

Fellow Place 2 candidate Eliza May offered qualified support to using money from the city’s sales and property tax revenues for the arts. “I, too, would commit dollars either from the general fund or coming from the dollars that we collect from our tourism tax,” she said. “I think that the money is there, it’s just a matter of how we appropriate it, where we put those individual priorities.”

Candidates for Place 6 were asked which projects, if any, they would be willing to trim from the list recommended by the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee to reduce the size of a proposed bond package this fall from $615 million down to $500 million. All three were reluctant to identify specific projects to be stripped out, instead preferring to cut an equal percentage across the board from all of the proposed projects.

“Everything in there deserves to be in there,” said DeWayne Lofton, who served on the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee. “Certainly, the money that we’ve allocated for the arts community needs to stay in there. If there are going to be cuts, I would recommend that they be made across the board and not just going in and look at one particular line item.”

Darrell Pierce also proposed proportionate cuts, along with reaching out to the private sector to form partnerships to fund arts projects. And Place 6 Candidate Sheryl Cole also opposed eliminating any particular project or projects in order to reduce the overall size of the bond package. “I really think we should be about the business of growing the economic pie rather than slicing it,” said Cole. “That being said, I would go across the board for every project and cut as opposed to just swipe out any one. If we had to get down to $512 million I think that would represent somewhere between a three to five percent decrease on every project.”

Wynn explained the current Council’s reasons behind setting a target of closer to $500 million. “I believe that the bond package needs to be reduced. First and foremost, we don’t have $500 million or $600 million to allocate,” Instead, the Mayor said the city had the ability to issue between $84 and $92 million in bonds per year without adversely affecting the city’s property tax rate. “Reducing it to $525 million, we’re still looking at six to six and a half years of bond sales…and we can’t even begin those until 2007. People think we have $600 million sitting aside. They get really excited when their project gets approved, then they wait for years until it gets funded to be constructed.” A smaller bond package, he said, would enable to city to actually fund those projects that are approved in a shorter time-frame. “I think it’s poor policy to have that large a program that will stretch for eight years instead of five or six years.”

He also offered one final caveat regarding the November bond package, which may be repeated as the city’s May 13 election date draws closer. “If Proposition 1 (the Open Government charter amendment) passes, there probably won’t be a bond election in November,” he said. “We would use all of that and then some to fund the $36 million initial expenditure and the $12 million it will take to fund ongoing, on-line, real time posting of everything that you send to your elected officials.”

New flood plain maps ready

With more than 1,000 miles of urban streams in the city, flooding is a fact of life in many parts of Austin. But knowing where those floods are likely to occur can be critical information for everyone from homeowners to city planners to emergency operations personnel.

The US Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review (WPDR) Department have released preliminary versions of new Flood Plain Maps for the City of Austin and Travis County.

George Oswald, managing engineer with the WPDR, briefed City Council members last week on new floodplain maps and the process to make the preliminary versions permanent.

“The average age of most of the current flood plain studies is about 19 years,” he said. “Most of the current maps were developed from outdated land-use data and obsolete modeling technology. Also, most of the current maps exist only in hard copy form.”

One of the major advantages of the new flood plain maps will be their availability online, Oswald said. Not only will having the maps online make them much more accessible, he said, but it will also make it easier for public safety officials to react to potential flood zones.

The process to modernize the maps started in October 2003. The main purpose of developing FEMA Flood Plain maps is to determine the need, rates and availability of federal flood insurance for homeowners and businesses. It is also used by lenders to determine risk.

But the maps are also critical for city planners, who use them for land development, zoning, permitting and other regulatory purposes. The new maps are based on current land-use conditions, and reflect 25-year and 100-year floodplains.

“The new maps will include all 26 watersheds in the City of Austin and the 51 watersheds located in Travis County,” Oswald said. “Obviously, using digital technology will allow for better, more accurate data on items like topography, bridge/culvert/channel geometry, soils and land use. It will also mean more accurate hydrologic and hydraulic modeling methodologies.”

There will be a 90-day comment and appeal period beginning April 25 for the public to analyze the maps, and if there are inaccuracies, present data to show where the maps are incorrect. There will also be a series of public meeting to discuss the maps prior to the beginning of the 90-day period. Those meeting are scheduled:

• Following the 90-day appeal period, there will be a three to six-month period for FEMA to revise and finalize all models and maps. After FEMA has completed that process, it will announce an effective date of the maps, six months from the date of the announcement.

The city must then adopt the new floodplain maps by ordinance before the effective date in order to maintain its participation in the National Flood Insurance Program.

Hard copies of the preliminary floodplain maps are available at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Rd., Windsor Park Library, 5833 Westminster Dr., and the Manchaca Branch Library at 5500 Manchaca Rd. A digital version is available at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/watershed/flood_fema_pmap.htm.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Hill Country Alliance wins Sweetwater battle . . . Travis County Commissioners yesterday postponed action on the Sweetwater subdivision indefinitely, at the request of the applicant. The Hill County Alliance, among others, was opposed to the development, saying it fails to comply with the county’s new water quality ordinance. . . SAD endorses three propositions . . . The South Austin Democrats voted last night to endorse Proposition 1 (Open Government) Proposition 2 (SOS) and Proposition 6 (allowing city employees to expand health care coverage for their families) . . . The West Austin Democrats will meet at 7pm tonight at Howson Library. They will discuss the first two propositions and decide whether to endorse them . . . Grandfathering lawsuit filed . . . Attorney George Slade has filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin on behalf of Munson Park, Ltd. The suit claims that the city should have granted Munson rights under Chapter 245 of the Local Government Code that would allow development under rules applicable when the subdivision was created in 1985. Assistant City Attorney Chris Edwards said Tuesday that Munson Park Ltd. sued the city before it owned the property but the city was able to get that suit dismissed because Munson had no standing. Since then, she said, the partnership has purchased the property and filed suit again . . . Beck trial postponed . . . Former Austin Police Association PAC Treasurer James Beck has requested a continuance on his Class C misdemeanor trial concerning failure to file contribution and expenditure documents with the City Clerk. The trial has been reset for May 17 . . . AMD order . . . State District Judge John Dietz rejected the SOS Alliance’s attempt to stop Advanced Micro Devices from building a new company headquarters in the Barton Springs watershed. SOS had sued the City of Austin to block it from approving AMD’s site plan for the project. Dietz ordered the parties in the suit to go to mediation, but the city is now free to approve the site plan and allow AMD to go forward. SOS Director Bill Bunch told In Fact Daily that he was disappointed in the ruling but would work through the mediation process to try and get AMD to reconsider. . . Richards honored . . . The Austin school board has voted unanimously to name the newly created Young Women’s Leadership Academy in honor of former Texas Governor Ann Richards. The campus will be known as the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. Richards taught at Fulmore Junior High in the Austin Independent School District before going on to serve as Travis County Commissioner, Texas State Treasurer and Governor of Texas . . . New initiatives to be detailed . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce will announce the launch of two new initiatives to help economic growth in Central Texas today. The first effort is the creation of a focused technology initiative to be lead by a Vice Chair of Technology on the Chamber’s volunteer leadership team. The second is an initiative to aid local entrepreneurs in gaining access to capital to start their businesses. This initiative is directed at providing quality, early-stage investment opportunities for accredited Central Texas investors. Both initiatives aim to advance the Chamber’s Opportunity Austin plan to create 72,000 new jobs by 2008. . . . Meetings . . . The Telecommunications Commission meets at 7:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Solid Waste Advisory Committee meets at 6:30pm in room 105 in Waller Creek Plaza .

Join Your Friends and Neighbors

We're a nonprofit news organization, and we put our service to you above all else. That will never change. But public-service journalism requires community support from readers like you. Will you join your friends and neighbors to support our work and mission?

Back to Top