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Pilots express concern about landfills

Wednesday, May 17, 2006 by

Birds make flights hazardous, pilots say

Armed with dramatic photos of the damage done to a plane that collided with a bird near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, members of the Texas Aviation Association took their complaints about the IESI landfill in southeast Travis County to the Austin Airport Advisory Commission on Tuesday. Several pilots asked the board to pass a resolution calling for the immediate closure of that privately-run landfill, along with an adjacent city-run landfill that's already scheduled for closure.

"We're here to prove Type IV landfills attract birds, primarily turkey vultures" said TAA President Jay Carpenter. He then played a series of videotapes shot in October of 2004 outside the IESI site showing large birds flying over and landing on the landfill. "These birds love that landfill. They're there almost every day. We're playing Russian roulette with the air safety of our public."

While no IESI representatives were at the meeting, the company has previously strenuously denied that its site is a special attraction for bids (see In Fact Daily, October 29, 2004). The landfills, which were in place before the city moved the airport from Robert Mueller to Bergstrom, were converted to receive only construction-related debris. Carpenter, along with Robin Schneider with the Texas Campaign for the Environment told the commission there were several possible reasons why birds were still attracted to the landfills, including the underlying organic waste from the site's previous use as a Type I landfill or construction workers depositing their fast-food waste in with construction debris.

While Schneider has taken her concerns about the two landfills to the city's Solid Waste Advisory Committee, local pilots have a new burst of enthusiasm for closing the landfills because of the experience of Dr. Stephen Becker on April 22. Becker was taking off from ABIA when he noticed "a pair of buzzards" pass in front of his Cirrus SR22 single-engine plane. "To my total amazement, one of them smashed into the outer part of the wing…the result of that was the outer part of my wing being split open, forcing us to make an emergency landing," Becker said. He displayed his flight path for the commission, using data collected from his plane's GPS tracking system, which showed his collision with the bird over the landfill. "At least in my mind, there's no question where I was. I guess to some extent it's open to debate whether it is a totally random occurrence to hit a turkey vulture right over a landfill in central Texas."

Becker said he believe the strike was not random, but was related to the landfill. "I hope that the commission and the City Council and whoever has control over the landfills will take this issue seriously and do something about it, if something can be done, before we have something more serious than this loss of property."

Statistics provided by city staff show a total of 202 bird strikes reported by pilots since ABIA opened. Of those, seven were considered to be large birds similar to the incident described by Becker. "There are over 225 commercial airline takeoff and landings each day at the airport, and there are about 1,600 general aviation movements each month," said Aviation Department spokesman Jim Halbrook. "Of the seven large bird strikes, two of them required 'Alert 2' landings by the pilot….and they all landed safely."

Commission members seemed receptive to the pilots' complaints, with Chair Hannah Riddering requesting that next month's agenda include a resolution on the issue of bird strikes. Commission Member Carolyn Lowe specifically requested data about the frequency of bird strikes at other, similar airports for comparison.

Leffingwell ordinance addresses aquifer issues

After the Save Our Springs Alliance’s "Clean Water" amendment failed at the polls last weekend, a draft ordinance designed to accomplish many of the goals of Proposition 2 being circulated by Council Member Lee Leffingwell is getting a lot of attention.

Leffingwell believes the ordinance addresses some of the problems that spawned the unsuccessful effort to amend the city charter, including the issue of "subsidizing development" over the Barton Springs zone.

One section states that before the city approves an expenditure of "significant funds,"— currently defined as $5 million or more—for infrastructure extension over the Barton Springs Zone, the City Manager would have to present a cost-benefit analysis. The report would compare the infrastructure expansion with alternatives such as "buying out proposed development lands that would otherwise generate traffic, utility demands, and pollution if left to develop."

The ordinance has been crafted to avoid some of the negative consequences anticipated by opponents to the proposed Clean Water amendment and Leffingwell stresses that his ordinance is "not a clone of Proposition 2," which he strongly opposed.

First, he said, the ordinance would codify a longstanding city policy to direct growth into the Desired Development Zone and away from the Barton Springs Zone of the aquifer.

In addition, Leffingwell explained, a part of the proposal dealing with economic development agreements would require any company which received an incentive to "repay the full value of the package" if that company or its parent company contradicts the city policy by building over the aquifer. The condition would last for the term of the agreement, not perpetually, as set forth in Proposition 2. Economic development agreements are defined as agreements under Chapter 380 of the Texas Local Government Code, a tax abatement agreement or a fee waiver relating to a SMART housing agreement.

Leffingwell said current economic development contracts say tax abatements will stop if a company fails to comply with the prohibition against building over the aquifer. It says nothing about parent companies. However, Leffingwell said he believes that no company has violated the policy.

"When you enter into a development agreement, people that sign the agreement would know, these are the conditions…so they sign it intending to comply with the conditions, so normally they do," he said.

If five members of the Council vote to do so, the city may enter into an economic development agreement for a project over the Barton Springs zone. But, the Council must find that the environmental benefits obtained by the agreement are greater than the adverse environmental impact.

Also, the city would be prohibited from entering into an economic development agreement with any company that had built or applied to build a major employment center over the Barton Springs Zone—unless the company agreed to move at least two-thirds of its employees to a site or sites outside the zone.

Proposition 2 would have taken all decisions on grandfathering claims out of the hands of city staff and required the Council to vote on each one seeking to avoid compliance with the SOS Ordinance. It would have taken a two-thirds majority of the Council—five members—to approve such grandfathering and would have denied grandfathering for land if the applicant or permit holder had previously filed for federal bankruptcy protection.

Under the proposed ordinance, a majority of the Council would have to find that the grandfather claim was valid on any project of 50 acres or more or exceeding 50,000 square feet. Leffingwell’s ordinance is silent on the bankruptcy question.

Both the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission are currently studying the proposal, A subcommittee of the Environmental Board will present a report on the proposal at the board’s meeting tonight, which is scheduled to begin at 6pm at Council Chambers.

Since the current Council has only three meetings left after this week, it is likely that the new Council will make a decision on the ordinance.

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

Begging for bonds . . . On Thursday, the Council will conduct a hearing on matters to be put before voters in a November bond election. Supporters of the Elisabet Ney Museum were making the rounds yesterday to work on the Council. They argue that the museum restoration, for which there is already private money and a government grant, should be a priority. Although the Bond Election Advisory Committee recommended a $500,000 item for the ballot, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department deleted the historic museum from its recommendation. Instead, supporters say, the department added numerous other items, including the Zachary Scott Theater, the MACC, the Asian-American Cultural Center and a skateboard park for a combined addition of $27 million. The Department of the Interior designated the museum a "threatened cultural resource of national significance" in 2003 and awarded the city, which owns the museum, $250,000 for restoration. However, if the city does not raise the additional funds, the grant will expire and the money will be lost. Supporters have already raised $336,000 to contribute to a total estimated restoration budget of $2 million . . . Beck trial scheduled for today . . . James Beck, former treasurer of the Austin Police Association PAC, is scheduled for trial on a campaign finance violation charge at 10am today. Beck was treasurer for the APA PAC last summer when the group failed to file a required campaign finance report with the City Clerk’s Office. Libertarian Arthur DiBianca filed the complaint against Beck. DiBianca says, "This is sort of a historic event–to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in many years (maybe the first time ever) that the city has made an effort to enforce its campaign finance laws." Violation of the ordinance is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 . . . . Austin Energy deputy to testify today . . . Austin Energy Deputy General Manager Roger Duncan will testify today before House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy on plug-in hybrid vehicles. Local Congressman Lamar Smith is sponsoring legislation to promote the development and use of plug-in hybrids, which the city is promoting in a nationwide campaign . . . Tuscany Way funds approved . . . On Tuesday, Travis County Commissioners approved the use of $250,000 in accrued interest from 1984 bond funds to complete preliminary engineering on Tuscany Way, south of US 290 to Springdale. That road segment, when connected to the portion of Tuscany Way north of US 290, will provide an important arterial for the area. The accrued interest is about half of the county’s available interest funds off the 1984 bonds. It is expected that the city and county would jointly fund the project when construction begins on the roadway . . . Name change . . . County commissioners have changed the name of the Travis County Hospital District to the Travis County Healthcare District. The name change came with new legislation. Executive Director Trish Young says the name more appropriately reflects the broader purpose of the county district. The new logo will reflect the change. The hospital district’s website is at . . . Mobile vendor ordinance expected . . . Commissioner Clarke Hammond asked that the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission form a joint panel to address the anticipated mobile vendor ordinance. Hammond also wanted to include stakeholders in the process, both vendors and neighborhood leaders. Chair Betty Baker agreed with the request. . . What do you think? . . . Twelve thousand Austin households will soon receive the annual City of Austin Citizen Survey, an effort by city officials to gauge the public’s satisfaction with the delivery of services. "The survey has a mutually beneficial purpose. It is a critical tool for City officials to better improve services that affect the quality of life in Austin," said City of Austin Budget Officer Greg Canally. Randomly-selected survey respondents will rate a number of City services encompassing emergency public safety response, transportation, parks and recreation, library services, garbage collection services and biking accessibility. The City’s goal is to obtain information about the success of these programs and the community’s priorities as a whole. The deadline to respond to the survey is June 2.

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