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A new slant on protecting the Springs

Monday, June 19, 2006 by

Panel to study new ways to protect land in sensitive watershed

Council Member Lee Leffingwell’s

ad hoc advisory committee on limiting development in the Barton Springs watershed has just begun meeting, but the discussion on Friday would indicate that he has asked the group to consider a new direction for public consideration.

The traditional proposal to protect the watershed – and the frequent focus of comments from groups such as the Save Our Springs Alliance, at various zoning and transportation hearings – has been to decrease impervious cover by downscaling development over the watershed and its contributing zone. Frequently, the suggestion of the SOS Alliance has included proposals up to and including the purchase of land to avoid wide-scale development.

The committee includes members of several environmental groups, the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

A presentation by the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, however, would indicate that almost a third of the land within the City of Austin’s jurisdiction in the Barton Springs watershed – 21,483 acres – is already dedicated to open space. Another 23 percent of the land under the city’s jurisdiction – a total of 15,698 acres, or 23 percent of the city’s acreage – is undeveloped.

That combined land – 31 percent open space and 23 percent undeveloped land – leaves a current overall impervious cover in the Barton Springs zone in the city’s jurisdiction at 9.6 percent. The fact the city had made so much progress on the issue of open space was surprising to both city officials and Leffingwell’s committee, which has begun its work of reviewing what Leffingwell admits is a "bare bones" ordinance on development in the zone. The scope of that ordinance will grow with the committee’s work.

Leffingwell suggested that statistics would indicate the city was doing "a pretty good job" at preserving open space, even though he personally cringed a bit that part of that open space, however small, was golf courses. Given that such a wide swath of land already had been developed, it might wiser to focus on retrofitting existing development, Leffingwell said.

"Given the amount of land that is potentially grandfathered within Austin’s jurisdiction, we have been focusing, perhaps, a disproportionate amount of energy on land acquisition," Leffingwell said. "Maybe the real bang for our buck would be to take those large, already developed segments where we have virtually no water quality controls – Barton Hills, Travis Country, Granada Hills, Circle C come to mind – where we might have the legal ability to retrofit those areas for water quality. That would be a huge benefit."

Of the total 15,698 acres of undeveloped land under city control within the Barton Springs zone, WPDR estimates that developers have agreed to SOS-level agreements on 2,202 acres. That means that the development on that land will meet the city’s SOS standards. Another 2,727 acres of the land, or 4 percent of the overall total, is potentially grandfathered from SOS requirements. The balance of 10,769 acres is unplatted.

Visualizing the land in the Barton Springs zone as a pie chart, 31 percent of it – 20,944 acres – is single-family residential development. Another 8 percent – or 5,256 acres – is commercial/multi-family development. Another 7 percent – or 4,954 acres – is roads. The open space and undeveloped land make up the balance.

Members of the committee wanted to see trends in use, but WPDR Assistant Director Nancy McClintock cautioned against it, saying that past data has been inaccurate, at best. The city, in past surveys, often made assumptions about what the use of land was or would be.

Leffingwell also noted the challenges of land outside the city’s control. The impervious cover outside the city’s jurisdiction currently sits at 5.3 percent. However, a total of 60 percent of the land in the Barton Springs Zone but outside the city’s jurisdiction – a staggering 143,795 acres – is undeveloped land. Leffingwell said agreements between the city and other jurisdictions also was important to consider, especially given the fact that activity outside the city would most certainly impact water quality in Austin.

WPDR also suggested other questions that should be considered by the committee: How does the city improve water quality with redevelopment of existing properties? What should the city’s future strategy for open space acquisition be, given the fact that the $50 million open space proposal has a strong likelihood of passing? And what agreements might be reached with developers to minimize the impact of grandfathered tracts? City staff also raised the issue of working with other jurisdictions within the Barton Springs zone.

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

Moving around . . . In anticipation of being elected by her colleagues as Mayor Pro Tem on Tuesday, Council Member Betty Dunkerley has vacated her office for a move down the hall. However, her staff was expecting to make the move in two steps—first into the second floor glass conference room known as the "fish bowl" and then to the Mayor Pro Tem’s office. Dunkerley herself was expected to take over the small conference room behind Council receptionist Gail Chavez until the other office is ready. The swearing in for Council Members-elect Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole, as well as Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken is set for 6-9pm Tuesday at the Palmer Events Center . . . Global warming warning . . . Environment Texas and two other organizations will hold a news conference Tuesday to highlight the impact of global warming on Texas. The groups will release a new report focusing on the extent of global warming in this state since 1960, with an emphasis on pollution from the electric utility industry and fossil-fuel burning vehicles. The groups will gather in front of the federal building on East 8th Street at 10am tomorrow . . . The political action group is also planning to have demonstrations around the country on June 28, targeting members of Congress it says are tied to the oil industry . . . Meetings . . . The Arts Commission meets at 5:30pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Annual Intergenerational Juneteenth Celebration takes place from 10am to 2pm at Rosewood Park . . . Neighborhood Newsletter . . . The June issue of Austin City News, an online publication providing city-related information, is now available online. The newsletter is a direct link to city news for neighborhood associations in the Austin community. This month’s edition has information on keeping cool at city pools, saving energy during the summer, and the inauguration ceremonies planned for the City Council new and returning members. You can find it, and back copies as well, at . . . New Elections Administrator . . . The Williamson County Elections Commission has appointed Debra Stacy as county elections administrator. Stacy has been the acting elections administrator since the resignation of Cliff Borofsky on May 5. Stacy has been the county’s elections manager since October 2005. Previously, she held the position of voter registration supervisor with Williamson County from March 2001 to August 2003. The Elections Commission is comprised of County Judge John Doerfler, County Clerk Nancy Rister, County Tax Assessor/Collector Deborah Hunt, Republican Party Chair Bill Fairbrother and Democratic Party Chair Richard Torres.

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