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Commissioners delay decision on BCP land

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 by

Although Travis County Commissioners agreed there’s no time like the present to acquire the last of the land needed to complete the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP), Tuesday’s meeting of the court brought no resolution to the issue of a land acquisition strategy.

The preserve, now 10 years old, stands close to completion at 27,749 mitigated acres out of a target 30,428 acres. But county and Austin city officials are in a race against time to acquire the last of the preserve as land costs continue to skyrocket.

"BCP has a long way to go and some of the initial financial forecasting was based on outdated land costs and values," County Judge Samuel Biscoe said.

After discussing in executive session the potential relocation of Austin’s Water Treatment Plant 4 to a 45-acre piece of land that is part of the BCP, commissioners decided to wait until next week’s meeting to make any decisions about a strategy to put more land in the preserve.

One hurdle county officials may face is the City of Austin’s perception that it’s done its part to put land in the BCP.

Kevin Connally, a Travis County environmental resource management specialist, responded to Pct. 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner’s question about what the city’s strategy for completing the preserve is by indicating city officials feel they’ve done their share for the preserve.

"I believe they feel like they’ve already achieved their obligations under the permit," Connally said. "City land holdings are about 13,000 and the county’s are about 5,000 acres."

But both city and county officials expressed a desire to work together to complete the preserve’s land acquisition in a timely manner. Sonleitner acknowledged the city’s early move to gain the 13,000 acres that went into the preserve beginning in 1992 and predated the county’s efforts to gain $64 million in locally generated funds and matching grant monies.

Austin’s Environmental Conservation Manager, Willy Conrad, said City Manager Toby Futrell considers the city to be in full partnership with the county as far as a strategy for augmenting the preserve goes.

Futrell told In Fact Daily she is concerned that "at some point we’re going to risk this permit because we’re having trouble finishing it."

The city has offered to add 102 acres for the preserve at a site previously set aside for WTP 4 at the headwaters of Bull Creek. In addition, the city has identified 928 acres on Little Barton Creek, which the city would add to the preserve in return for Cortaña. Pct. 3 C ommissioner Gerald Daugherty sits with Mayor Will Wynn on the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Program Coordinating Committee, which must approve the taking of the 45-acres of Cortaña for WTP 4. (See In Fact Daily, July 28, 2006.)

The BCP is the nation’s first preserve of its kind, created in 1996 in response to a 1982 amendment to the federal Endangered Species Act. The preserve makes it possible for private landowners to develop land while complying with federal laws to protect endangered species by dedicating acreage to habitats.

There are eight endangered species protected in the BCP, including the Golden-Cheeked Warbler and Black-Capped Vireo. The preserve is jointly held by Travis County and the City of Austin, and cooperative partners including the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Nature Conservancy of Texas and the Travis Audubon Society own and manage lands dedicated to the preserve.

Council hears pros, cons of helmet law

In a preview of what is likely to come before City Council next week, the major players in the debate over mandatory bicycle helmet laws laid out their positions Tuesday before the Council’s Public Health and Human Services Subcommittee. However, members of the subcommittee – who did not have an ordinance to vote on – made no recommendation to the full Council.

Two groups – one led by former Mayor Bruce Todd and the other from the Austin Cycling Association (ACA) – made presentations on the issue of requiring bicycle helmets for adults. (Current law requires them for children up to age 17.) Todd, who was severely injured last year in a cycling accident, made a strong case for mandatory helmet use. The ACA said it fully endorsed the use of helmets, but would not endorse a mandatory use law for adults.

Other individuals who addressed the subcommittee, including members of the "League of Bicycling Voters," expressed their strong opposition to the proposed helmet law.

Todd’s wife, public relations executive Elizabeth Christian, said no matter how many safety courses are taken or road improvements are made, bicycle accidents still happen.

"Helmets don’t prevent accidents," she said. "They mitigate the impact of the head colliding with the ground and minimize the chance of a life-changing head injury."

Christian quoted statistics showing that use of bicycle helmets reduced the risk of brain injury by 88 percent, and read from a letter written by Dr. Pat Crocker, chief of emergency medicine at Brackenridge Hospital, to members of the City Council.

"Of the 39 children and young adults with injuries serious enough to be transported to the Trauma Center and admitted for care, 46 percent sustained head and brain injuries," he wrote. "In the significant majority of these cases these injuries were life-altering events with risk of long term disability. Most interestingly during this period, no patient who was helmeted suffered a serious head injury." Todd, of course, suffered a serious head injury while wearing a helmet. That helmet saved his life.

Christian also quoted figures showing that head injuries due to bicycle accidents were a financial burden on both families and taxpayers.

"The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute estimates that the direct cost of cyclists’ injuries due to not wearing helmets is $81 million each year," she said. "Indirect costs – including hospitalization and long term disability care – are some $2.3 billion."

The Austin Cycling Association’s Preston Tyree, in his presentation, emphasized the need to take steps to prevent bicycle accidents. He said ACA’s proposal was based on engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation.

"We need to develop a safe environment for cyclists on our streets and bike trails," he said. "We need to update and implement the city’s Bicycle Plan. We need to stop doing unsafe things that can contribute to bicycle accidents."

Tyree also said the city needs to institutionalize a bicycle safety education course, encourage every rider to wear a helmet while riding, enforce all existing traffic safety laws, and evaluate whether head injuries from bicycle riding constitute a public health issue.

"We want to create a bike friendly community, where we integrate bicycle safety in all areas of transportation," he said. "We are requesting that the City Council postpone its vote for 60 days until more information on whether it’s needed or not can be studied."

Tyree added that ACA estimated 1,500 members were so evenly divided on question of a mandatory adult helmet law that the group is taking a neutral position on the issue.

However, members of the group League of Bicycling Voters said they were adamantly against an adult helmet law.

"I am greatly concerned about the possibility that something very enjoyable that I do every day could be criminalized," said Patrick Goetz. "We are calling for 18 months to do an in-depth study and gather pertinent data. A mandatory helmet law now would just divert attention away from the other bicycle safety issues that need our attention."

LOBV’s Rob D’Amico summed up his group’s position, saying "Helmets, good; helmet law, bad."

Two of the three subcommittee members expressed divided feelings over a mandatory helmet law.

"There’s no question that you should always ride with a helmet," said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. "But I’m not sure whether making it mandatory is the answer."

Council Member Mike Martinez agreed. "This is a very divisive issue in this community," he said. "I wear a helmet when I ride, but I don’t support a bicycle helmet law that takes away the right to make a choice."

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, a co-sponsor of the helmet law, said it will be an interesting Council meeting next week.

"You know where I stand on the issue, but I’m not sure where the rest of the Council is on this," she said.

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

SOS sues over salamander, gambusia . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance last week filed suit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service in federal district court in Austin for failing to respond to the organization’s petitions to list the rare Jollyville Plateau salamander and the San Felipe gambusia as endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Jollyville salamander is a small creature that remains aquatic throughout its life and is found only in the springs of the Jollyville Plateau region in Travis and Williamson counties. The San Felipe gambusia is a small, freshwater fish that is found only in San Felipe Creek, below San Felipe Springs, in Val Verde County near Del Rio. SOS says both species are threatened by pollution and decreased spring flows. SOS petitions to list the species were filed on June 10, 2005 and set forth the scientific basis for extending the ESA’s protections to the two endangered species. SOS says it has not received a mandatory 90-ruling on the issue from the Fish and Wildlife Service, even thought the petition was filed more than a year ago. SOS attorney Dan Gildor said the current Bush administration has dragged it s feet on responding to requests to place species on the ESA. According to Gildor, of the 56 species added by the Bush administration, only six of them were not court-ordered . . . Back to court for Beck . . . The former treasurer of the Austin Police Association PAC, James Beck, is due back at Municipal Court this morning for a trial on the Class C Misdemeanor charge that he failed to file a report due last July with the City Clerk. Libertarian Party activist Arthur DiBianca filed the complaint several months back. Beck pleaded not guilty and has had several court dates, each rescheduled. The APA PAC supported Jennifer Kim in last year’s runoff against Margot Clarke. . . SOS offers free movie . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance will be hosting a free screening of Green, "a powerful documentary about Cancer Alley, a 100-mile stretch along the Mississippi River in Louisiana that is home to 150 petrochemical plants – and among the highest concentration of toxic emissions to the air, land and water in the country" at 7pm tonight. The film explores the impact of such emissions on those unlucky enough to live nearby. Local film maker Laura Dunn, who made the movie, will answer questions after the screening at the Alamo Drafthouse, 409 Colorado St . . . Budget battles on horizon . . . The owner of a private off-site parking concession serving passengers flying out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was making the rounds at City Hall yesterday, pressing Council members for a little relief. ABIA management is still hoping to raise fees for such lots to 10 percent of gross revenues, at one percent a year, says attorney Michael Whellan, who represents the owners of Airport Fast Park. The Council will decide that issue, along with a myriad of others, next month. (See In Fact Daily, September 9, 2005.) . . . Meetings . . . The Downtown Commission meets at 5:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Cambers at City Hall . . . New Environmental Directory debuts . . . About a hundred people attended the official release of the 2006 edition of the Austin Environmental Directory by Paul Robbins at City Hall on Tuesday. "This book consistently has a big impact on the decision-making process," said Council Member Lee Leffingwell, "and will help us develop policies to maintain Austin’s position as a national and world leader on environmental issues." The directory also includes several in-depth articles in which Robbins outlines the environmental benefits of using more wind power, strengthening the city’s building codes, and constructing a street car system. "Austin can be a world leader in clean energy," Robbins said. "As I watch the horrible effects U.S. energy policy continues to have on the world, it is hard to be optimistic. But it is not human to live without hope. And there really are solutions if we want them."

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