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Council chooses Northwest water plant over Green

Friday, June 23, 2006 by

Lobbying had impact says former Council member

The City Council chose to move forward with plans to build a new water treatment plant in Northwest Austin yesterday, a plan that startled some environmentalists and irked Council Member Jennifer Kim, who still favors construction of a new Green Water Treatment Plant. The vote to move forward with Water Treatment Plant #4 first was 6-1, with Kim voting no after asking a relentless series of questions of city staff.

This is the second part of the one-two punch that started in early June, when Council passed on using city-owned land at Roy Guerrero Park as a replacement site for Green. East Austin neighbors heavily opposed the plan. Meanwhile, the Green plant is considered obsolete by city officials because it sits on a site too small for retrofitting.

The plan has been to demolish the Green plant so the downtown site can be used for a new central library. Passing on the Roy Guerrero site, however, left the treatment plant plans in limbo, although utility officials continue to stress the growing need for a new treatment plant, which needs to be online sometime between 2011 and 2013.

Yesterday, water utility officials proposed passing on a Green replacement until 2041 and move forward with Water Treatment Plant #4, which has been under study for more than five years now. To further complicate matters, the utility has proposed an alternate – and less environmentally sensitive – site for WTP #4 about 1.5 miles away from its current proposed location of FM 2222 and RM 620.

Utility staff discussed the merits, site against site, and Green versus WTP #4, during an afternoon presentation. What former Council Member Brigid Shea wanted to discuss, however, were the political interests at work. Paul Saldaña donated time to Shea so she could speak for six minutes.

Shea, who said she has been asked to be part of three engineering teams designing the new Green, told the Council, "Part of what’s not being said is that there are some major political interests at work." Those interests, she said included Pete Winstead’s group, Sustainable Water Resources. "They’ve had a lobbyist sitting down here at City Hall for the past week working very hard to kill the new Green proposal. A lot has changed in the past week, and part of it is because the private investors who want to serve water to that new growth along SH 130 don’t want the city to be in a position to compete with them."

Shea later said she was on the teams for Black & Veatch, URS and Earthtech, which bid on the Green project.

"The other major force at work is the engineering team that’s invested in Plant #4," Shea said. "They’ve had a veritable army of people, working the media, working all kinds of people. And again, at the end of the discussion, we might conclude that Plant #4 is the best site. But we haven’t had a full, open discussion. And what concerns me is when private financial interests seem to drive the public policy decisions without the public having the benefit of a true, open discussion."

Shea concluded, "So, that’s what I needed to say. I may be the skunk at the picnic, but I just feel like it had to be said."

Sustainable Water Resources is a consortium made up of groundwater rights owners, engineers, consultants and financiers seeking to sell groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in Lee County to customers along the IH-35 / SH- 130 corridor. SWR has entered into an agreement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and is currently looking for other customers in the area, including Austin. SWR is led by local and Texas-owned firms including Winstead Consulting, Bury+Partners, WaterTexas and local investors.

Shea told In Fact Daily after her speech that the lobbyists she was referring to included Nikelle Meade, Jerry Harris and Andy Martin of Brown, McCarroll. Meade is the lobbyist for Carollo Engineers, the prime contractor for WTP #4, which won the bid and signed a contract with the city in 2001. Meade said neither Harris nor Martin has been involved in the water treatment plant question.

Shea also named Trey Salinas of Martin & Salinas Public Affairs as one of the lobbyists working for the Winstead group. Salinas, who is registered to lobby for Sustainable Water Resources, denied that he had been working on the matter during the past week. Winstead, on the other hand, said his group had been trying to get the city to give up on both plants for the past two months. He denied that they had been working on the matter over the past week, however.

Winstead said, "We’re trying to get them to consider introduction of a groundwater solution as a part of long-term water planning. So, candidly, we admit that the Green Water Treatment Plant needs to be built at some time. We've been frankly contending….whether you build WTP 4 or son of Green, the price of groundwater is going to be cheaper."

City Manager Toby Futrell was adamant in her disinterest in Winstead’s proposal, however. "The staff has been very clear and very public that we do not see that as a viable alternative now or in the near future," Futrell said.

Saldaña, who recently left Martin & Salinas, admitted to working against his former employers, who are lobbying for SWR. Saldaña said he was a sub-contractor on four of the seven teams that bid on the new Green plant, including Black & Veatch and Turner Collie & Braden. He said Black & Veatch won the staff recommendation and TCB came in second. TCB is part of the team which will design WTP #4.

Saldaña noted the city has an anti-lobbying provision governing firms that are seeking to win competitive bids, such as the one for Green. That prohibits the firms from lobbying individually for a contract. However, it did not prevent Saldaña, or anyone else, from lobbying the staff and Council to make a decision in favor of moving forward with either Green or WTP #4 first, he noted.

"I was put in a difficult position as a sub-contractor," for several teams, he said. "I’m disappointed, but there’ll be other opportunities

Mayor Will Wynn said it was difficult to imagine that too many private parties were going to make a profit off the plant construction, unless the city moved forward with both plants. Futrell also made it clear that the construction plans did not require any private water providers in the foreseeable future, and that the city considered any blending of surface and groundwater to be problematic, at best.

Environmentalists were concerned about the land swap for the WTP #4 in North Austin. Both were environmentally sensitive pieces of land that have or would require mitigation. Utility officials touted the advantages of the alternate site, which like the original site, is located in the Balcones Canyonland Preserve. Not building on the previously proposed site, they said, would allow for preservation of more environmentally sensitive land, including the headwaters of Bull Creek, which is home to the sensitive Jollyville plateau salamander.

"You’re being asked to make a $4 billion decision," attorney Brad Rockwell told the Council, referring to the cost of both plants. "These are $4 billion that will be paid by the ratepayer, a $4 billion that needs a lot of scrutiny and a lot of public input." Rockwell said he is no longer employed by the SOS Alliance nor is he associated with any of the groups that might gain financially from choosing one plant over the other.

Activist Mary Arnold, who has followed the issue of WTP #4 for years, said the water treatment plant issue was really three separate questions: Can the city meet its projected peak day demand with current capacity? Will the plant serve the projected growth in the city, and how much of the demand was outside the current and projected city limits? And, third, the choice needed to be made between a new Green or a new WTP #4, based on demand and where it might be located in the city.

Some members of the Environmental Board wanted to slow down the process to offer fuller input on the merits of the two sites in North Austin. David Anderson, chair of the Environmental Board, said a board subcommittee was assigned to the WTP #4 issue but had not been fully apprised of the options to be presented to Council. Anderson said the board’s concerns – both Anderson and Karin Ascot registered opposition to the city plans – had more to do with process than the merits of WTP #4. Anderson is employed by URS, one of the firms which bid on Green.

Glen Coleman, a member of the Water and Wastewater Commission who was on hand Thursday to observe the Council discussion, said he preferred that the city build WTP #4 first.

Coleman said he did not have a financial interest in either plant, adding that if the matter had come before the commission, four of the nine commissioners would have been obliged to recuse themselves because they work for one or another of the teams bidding on the plants.

Council Member Mike Martinez also asked why – if the alternate site for WTP #4 was so much better – the Council hadn’t moved forward with the alternate site sooner. Futrell noted that the city did not own the Cortaña site, the new proposed location for WTP #4, until after the initial assessment had started on the original site. The initial WTP #4 site was purchased in 1984. The Balcones Canyonland Preserves was created in 1993.

Kim was adamant in her opposition to building WTP #4 ahead of Green, a plan which is based, in part, on water conservation plans that were intended to give the city an extra two years of breathing room before the new plant is required to come on line, from 2011 to 2013. Kim repeatedly came back to the point that it was impossible to predict that the water conservation measures would work – especially without input from stakeholders – and that she could not support the delayed plant in good conscience, noting the needs of businesses like Samsung, which will require 5.2 million gallons per day.

Kim also pressed AWU Director Chris Lippe repeatedly about how often the water utility had managed to deliver a water plant on time. Lippe noted a plant in Southeast Austin – which Kim noted was a wastewater plant – but which Lippe said was a major $100 million project. Lippe had to admit the Ullrich water plant was almost 15 months behind schedule for completion, but he added that time contingencies had been worked into the water treatment plant plans to make sure the plant had plenty of time to get online.

Kim, who made a number of passionate speeches on the need to go with the safer Green water treatment plant now – rather than take an extra two years to complete WTP #4 – made a motion to move forward with a new Green plant.

"We have water conservation measures, and we don’t even know if the public will support them," Kim said. "To be going forward with WTP #4, and have to force water conservation measures to do it, is very unfair to the public… I’m very dismayed today that we’re not doing our due diligence as part of this important policy decision."

Martinez offered a second, but only to raise his objection that the new Council members had not had enough time to fully understand a decision of such magnitude. Other Council members had six years to make a decision. He and Sheryl Cole had roughly six hours of briefings to come to some kind of conclusion. He then pulled his second, which meant Kim’s motion died.

A number of factors appeared to sway other Council members. For Wynn, it was the fact that the construction of WTP #4 now could put off the replacement of Green until 2041. Utility officials also projected that the city could save about $100 million by moving WTP #4 forward first before the replacement for Green. The total cost of the WTP #4 plant is projected at $2.5 billion and Green is projected at $2.6 billion.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell prodded utility experts to talk about the environmental suitability of the alternate site on WTP #4. An additional 985 acres will be added to habitat for endangered species with the choice of the alternate site. Federal authorities say the choice of the alternate site will require a minor plan amendment, which would make the process less cumbersome than a stakeholder-involved major plan amendment, according to AWU’s Willie Conrad. That could minimize the city’s exposure to litigation, although Futrell admitted that anyone could sue the city at any time for the choice of the site for the plant.

And Council Member Brewster McCracken noted that the city had not rushed into the process – the study and site selection for WTP #4 had been well underway for a number of years already. McCracken said he felt comfortable with the vote, especially given the fact that construction of WTP #4 would put off the Green construction.

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley made the motion to move forward with WTP #4 and sought to direct staff to purchase the private property for a future site for Green in East Austin. However, city legal staff said she could only direct the manager to bring that item back to Council—which then became part of the motion.

McMansion rules win final approval

Council-appointed commission to recommend variances

New regulations designed to put a stop to the spread of so-called “McMansions” will go into effect October 1 after winning approval on third reading from a unanimous City Council. The ordinance does include a provision for a Residential Design and Compatibility Commission, which will be able to recommend variances from the ordinance to the Council. That appointed commission will be made up of five residential design professionals and four citizens at large.

Architect Chris Allen, who served on the task force which helped write the new rules, told the Council that creative architects would be able to work within the new setback and height limits. “Our remodeling exceptions are fairly generous,” he said. For new construction, Allen advised, builders would on many lots still be able to build two-story homes. “You can do two stories at the minimum setback on a slab foundation,” he said. “With pier-and-beam, you’re going to need to move in a little bit further. We’ve been dealing with constraints and challenges in the City of Austin developing urban homes for years. That’s nothing new. I think we, as architects, can rise to the occasion and solve those problems and maintain a level of compatibility.”

A handful of other task force members attended Thursday’s Council Meeting to applaud the final vote. “I think it was a very good compromise. I think it does a lot to solve the problem that was going on with the over-building, “ Danette Chimenti with the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association told In Fact Daily. “I also think that it is very fair in allowing for a lot of re-development to continue.”

Council Member Brewster McCracken also applauded the final draft as a compromise effort. “We’ve had some homebuilders come out in support of what we have before us today,” he said. This does have, as people become more familiar with it, more homebuilder support….because only a very narrow segment try to max out lots and build as much square footage as possible. It’s an aberration, not a common practice, among our builders.”

The final version contains the clause limiting a home to either 2,300 square feet of gross floor area or a maximum floor-to-area ratio of 0.4 to 1, whichever limit allows for the greatest amount of development. Some developers had opposed the 0.4 FAR limit at the last Council meeting (see In Fact Daily, June 16, 2006). The ordinance will apply to most central-city neighborhoods except the old Robert Mueller Airport. The interim regulations approved by Council back in March as part of the McMansion discussion will remain in place until the new rules take effect October 1, with only one minor change to the system for calculating the front-yard setback.

Canales retires after 26 years

The fourth time was charm for Assistant City Manager Joe Canales, who was talked out of retirement each of the last three years by City Manager Toby Futrell, but plans to make it stick this time. Futrell and the entire Council honored Canales Thursday for his 26 years of service to the city.

“Joe was slated to retire just about a year after I was made city manager. He handed me his retirement notice…and I shredded it,” Futrell said. “The fact is, he didn’t just mentor employees, he mentored nine City Managers. I’m convinced I’m his favorite. Joe is going to be so deeply missed, and that is such an understatement, there’s no way to completely explain it. When you say unforgettable and irreplaceable, you’re talking about Joe Canales. I wonder sometimes how we will move forward without you, although I know you think we will be just fine.”

Mayor Will Wynn presented Canales with the city’s Distinguished Service Award.

“He has worked with probably thousands of city employees directly, past and present, as well as City Managers, Council Members, and Mayors, and we’re all better because of it, said Wynn.

“I’ve served with Joe for 16 years, and he is the wisest man I’ve ever known. I just want to personally thank him for all the times he’s used that wisdom to get me out of the jams I’ve gotten myself into,” said Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, who also served with Canales during her time on city staff.

“I have to say this certainly is the happiest time I’ve been at this podium. With 26 years, you’d think I would have a lot to say… but I can’t….I knew this was going to happen,” Canales said, choking back tears. “You look back on 26 years, and I’ve been blessed very much. . . .But it’s time to move on. It’s just the team as a whole, it’s the workforce, it’s the employees. Because when it’s all said and done, you really need to count on the folks. The employees are going to step up and they’re going to meet the challenge and they’re going to serve the people. It’s been a privilege to serve with you all.”

Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza will take over Canales’ duties at City Hall until a permanent replacement is found.

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

Pavilion project gone, for now . . . After running into a buzz-saw of opposition from the surrounding neighborhood, and finding even fewer friends on the Council, the backers of the Pavilion Condominium complex have thrown in the towel. The high-rise project, located on US 183 near the Arboretum area, ran into a Council that is not interested in building tall buildings outside of the Central Business District. Former Mayor Gus Garcia, who has been working to promote the project, said the developers were going “back to the drawing board.”. . . Kim to sit on Democratic governing board . . . Council Member Jennifer Kim has been appointed to the Texas Democratic Party State Democratic Executive Committee (SDEC). Two new seats were allocated to the Asian American community at the recent Democratic state convention. She also announced Thursday the launch of her new website, www.jenniferkiminaustin.com. She will host an online chat today from 2pm to 3:30pm . . . New Council passes on appointments . . . All those commissioners and board members whose terms expire at the end of June can either breathe a sigh of relief or curse their luck. No one was appointed (or not) yesterday. The Council will not meet again until July 27 . . . The Council did make decisions on its own services, however . . . Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken will join the board of Capital Metro. . . Public Access forum . . . The Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs and the Austin Telecommunications Commission present a free Community Media Forum on Saturday. The forum topic will be "Public Access Television in Austin." Morning sessions will include speakers on the history and future of public access, legislative concerns, sustainability, technology and community building. Speakers will include former Mayor Pro Tem and current Public Access Community Television (PACT) Board Co-President Jackie Goodman; PACT Executive Director Linda Litowsky; PACT General Manager Garry Wilkison; and Joseph Van Eaton of Miller & Van Eaton, Washington, D.C. The afternoon will be dedicated to focus group discussions on topics decided by the attendees. The forum will close with reports to the assembly at large from each focus group. The forum will be from 9 am to 4:30pm Saturday at 721 Barton Springs Road in the Assembly Room. More information and free registration is available online at http://www.CTiaustin.org/mediaforum or by calling 974-3510 . . . Artists’ workshop . . .Beginning Saturday, the city Art in Public Places Program begins a series of monthly artists’ workshops. Noted artists and arts professionals will lead each of the four workshops which will provide a comprehensive overview of the public art making process. Participants will be given the necessary tools to make the transition from the studio to the public art arena, and will be given information on applying for both city and non-city funded public art opportunities. This Saturday’s workshop will be 11am to 1pm. All workshops are free and open to the general public. For more information, contact Kathleen Brady at 974-9308 or go to http://www.cityofaustin.org/aipp. . . Rained out by global warming, groups to try again . . . Environment Texas and two other organizations will hold a news conference today 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. They had originally scheduled their press conference for Tuesday but that event was called due to rain.

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