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Board unhappy with Cortaña, Bull Creek options

Thursday, August 17, 2006 by

Environmental panel wants city to keep looking for new site

Saying that it found the Cortaña site for Water Treatment Plant 4 an unacceptable option, the Environmental board voted last night to recommend that the Austin Water Utility keep looking for a site for controversial water treatment plant but stopped short of a total rejection of the Cortaña site, which the city favors.

Most members of the board agreed with member Mary Gay Maxwell, who said she felt like city staff was "putting a gun to our heads," insisting on a choice between the original 102-acre site at the headwaters of Bull Creek or the 45-acre Cortaña site, both of which are habitat for endangered species.

"There are political games being played here, and I don’t want to be a part of it," Maxwell said.

The board voted after hearing a staff presentation outlining the process used by Plummer and Associates to study and rank alternative sites for WTP4, a study completed last October but not released until July. The board also heard almost an hour of public comment on the Cortaña site, almost all of it negative.

In the process, several members of the board had criticism for the way city staff has handled the entire matter. Board Member Karin Ascot had some particularly harsh words for Austin Water Utility Director Chris Lippe.

"When our subcommittee met with your staff last year, there were several points made about keeping people informed," she said. "Yet we never got that information in a timely fashion. That leaves something to be desired. It was a huge surprise and an unpleasant one to find that some of our suggestions were completely overlooked. We are here to represent the public, and you should allow them to have actual input into the decision."

Board members were unanimous in praising city staff for pulling the Bull Creek location off the table, but found that the Cortaña site posed an unpalatable tradeoff. The Bull Creek site has the largest concentration of Jollyville Plateau salamanders, which have been nominated for the Endangered Species List, as well as a large number of karst and other critical environmental features.

However, choosing the Cortaña site would mean displacing five pairs of nesting Black-Capped Vireos, a tradeoff city staff seemed willing to make, but most board members were not.

"It seems like were being asked to cut off either our left hand or right hand," said Board Member Phil Moncada. "It’s not much of a choice."

Public comment echoed the board’s position.

"We need to get this project off of the fast track and take a look at all of our options," said Bill Bunch with the SOS Alliance. "We need to find a site that makes sense."

Roy Whaley with the Sierra Club also agreed, with tongue firmly planted in his cheek. "The BCP folks always tell me that I can’t hike or ride a bicycle in the preserve lands because it might upset the wildlife," he said. "I guess it’s all right to drive a bulldozer in there. I guess I’m riding the wrong vehicle."

Ascot first made a motion to recommend that the City Council reject both the original Bull Creek site and the Cortaña site. However, there was concern among the board that a flat-out rejection of all current options could force the AWU to default back to the Bull Creek site. Chair David Anderson offered an alternative motion that encouraged the city to continue looking for other sites and put several conditions on AWU if it concludes that there are no other viable sites other than Cortaña.

That motion passed on a unanimous 8-0 vote.

BOA denies duplex variances

They may not have the same social stigma as McMansions, but duplexes apparently carry their own set of unwelcome characteristics in some Austin neighborhoods.

In a Monday night Board of Adjustments meeting, board members denied two variance requests surrounding new and planned duplexes. The board also got a very visual protest from a neighborhood group on West 34th Street that worried about a variance request potentially allowing two property owners to build new duplexes on the street.

Chris Wallin and John Loudamy went before the board requesting a variance to decrease the minimum lot width from 50 feet to 48.33 feet on two adjacent lots in order to erect duplexes on each lot in a MF-1, or multifamily, zoning district. Wallin and Loudamy said the duplexes that currently stand on the two lots are run down, and they plan to tear the two structures down and build two new two-story duplexes.

But neighbors attending the meeting said they worried about "monster duplexes" changing the face of the quiet and quaint street. Unrolling a photo montage of the street’s homes, neighborhood association members Mary Ingle, June Hawley and Ginger Hurst told board members that despite several requests on their end, they haven’t seen plans from Wallin and Loudamy for the duplexes.

"We asked for a drawing in May," Ingle said, adding she worried about big structures with increased impervious cover. "This is a street that already has issues with parking and drainage."

Wallin countered that he and Loudamy made several attempts to meet with neighbors, and got little more than skepticism from them.

"Their response to us was that they will not be supporting a duplex project," Wallin said. "One of main reasons they’ve said they won’t support it is they’re uncomfortable with me…we want to do a nice project. We will change the neighborhood, but it will be for the better."

Board members told the West 34th street neighbors if the variance was denied Wallin and Loudamy could still build apartments on the lots up to 30 feet in height, and urged both parties to talk the matter over and come back next month. But after prolonged discussion, board members voted to deny the variance.

In other action, the board also denied a variance to a builder who received an erroneous permit from the city. Matt McCormick got a permit to build a three-story duplex no higher than 30 feet on a lot at 616 West Monroe Street. But after framing the building, McCormick discovered the city’s permit should have allowed him only two stories, and he went before the board asking for a variance to continue building the three stories already under construction. Although it’s currently three stories, the duplex is less than 30 feet.

Kathie Tovo, president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, spoke against the variance, saying she didn’t want others building in the area to also try to skirt the law.

"A duplex for three stories would be really out of character in a single family neighborhood," Tovo said. "It may be shorter in height, but the inclusion of a third story would have significant impact when there’s a new ordinance prohibiting that."

Board members were almost evenly split, but ended up denying the variance in a 3-4 vote.

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

Oak Springs property meeting. . . On Friday, Council Member Mike Martinez, along with colleagues Sheryl Cole and Lee Leffingwell, will convene a meeting of stakeholders interested in the fate of Oak Springs, one of the few springs still bubbling in East Austin. Martinez says his office has spoken to the owner of the six-acre property, which is the home of giant oaks, wetland plants and a huge willow tree. The owner, who had planned to build a discount store on the site under site regulations approved in 1968, is open to other options, Martinez said. He expects representatives of PODER, the Rosewood Neighborhood Association, the Environmental Board and the property owner, among others, to attend the meeting on Friday . . . Water saver group . . . Council Member Lee Leffingwell said Wednesday he expects the Council to appoint three of its members to join members of the public to form a task force on water conservation, a matter very much on the minds of many Austinites as the days get hotter and the drought continues . . . Oak Hill meeting set . . . Council Members Jennifer Kim and Mike Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley will host a town hall meeting at the Southwest Hills Community Church, 7416 Highway 71 West on Monday, Aug. 28. The meeting will focus on highlights of the proposed city budget and upcoming bond package. "This town hall offers an opportunity to discuss the priorities and needs of Oak Hill as the Council moves through the budget process," said Kim . . . Back in court . . . The lawsuit filed last year by several bar and nightclub owners challenging Austin’s voter-approved smoking ban is back in federal court today. While Judge Sam Sparks’ ruling last year in the case allowed the city to continue enforcing the smoking ban, his ruling was on the business owners’ request for a preliminary injunction. The full trial on the merits of the case is scheduled to begin this morning.

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