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County won’t meet city’s Cortaña deadline

Wednesday, August 30, 2006 by

Travis County Commissioners Tuesday firmly rejected the Austin City Council’s deadline for making a decision on the site for Water Treatment Plant 4, saying they had to have their own hearing on use of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve tract known as Cortaña.

Last week, the City Council took a vote that told county commissioners to decide in favor of the Cortaña tract for Water Treatment Plant 4 by Sept. 27 or force the city to put the proposed water treatment plant on the more environmentally sensitive, but fully mitigated, 102-acre Bull Creek tract. Oddly, at the same time, the city scheduled its own Chapter 26 hearing on the tract on Sept. 28, a day after the county’s proposed decision.

It was a game of chicken, but it looks like–after yesterday’s executive session–that two can play that game. Following a city presentation on the water plant that included Commissioner Karen Sonleitner peppering city officials with a long list of questions — and an executive session on the issue – county commissioners sent a message back to the city: If this issue is important enough to you to have your own Chapter 26 hearing on it, then it’s important enough for us to have a Chapter 26 hearing on it, so we won’t be ready to given you a decision on the site until early October.

Chapter 26 specifies that governmental entitities must hold a public hearing if they propose to use parkland or similar property for something other than a parkland purpose. The provisions of Chapter 26 apply to parks, recreation areas, and wildlife refuges, among others.

In fact, County Judge Sam Biscoe estimated it would be the second week of October before County Commissioners would be ready with an answer, after three weeks of published notice of the meeting, the actual meeting, the review of written comments and, hopefully, a review of the transcript of the city’s hearing. Biscoe asked for a realistic drop dead date from the city on the water treatment plant decision.

“If it’s important enough for us to consider, then it’s important that we don’t rubber stamp it,” Biscoe told reporters after yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting. “We take our responsibility in this case very seriously.”

Yesterday’s exchange between Sonleitner and city officials, led by Interim Assistant City Manager Juan Garza and Austin Water Utility Director Chris Lippe, was the most revealing exchange on the water treatment plant in a number of weeks.

During her series of questions, Sonleitner asked why replace the Green Water Treatment Plant with WTP 4, at cost of $250 million, if both have about the same capacity ? Why should the city choose to build a new plant rather than expand the existing Ullrich plant site?

Sonleitner has made it clear in recent months that she is more than willing to speak her mind in her few remaining months on the court. She has nothing to lose, having lost her re-election bid to Sarah Eckhardt, and no topic is as near and dear to Sonleitner as the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. It was clear from Sonleitner’s list of questions yesterday – and she had 28 of them– for city officials, that she was not going to give the city an easy answer on the Cortaña site.

For those keeping score, the answers to Sonleitner’s questions, from Garza and Lippe, were: The Green Water Treatment Plant is a failing plant in poor condition and must soon be replaced. The Ullrich plant, recently expanded to 167 million gallons per day, could be expanded to 225 million gallons a day on a tightly configured site but the transmission lines and intake lines are only built for current capacity. Added capacity, and additional pump stations and transmission lines would be required, to push water to new areas of the city. And putting capacity on the city’s north side is cheaper, and more cost-effective, than trying to force existing infrastructure to handle new growth to the north.

The proposed plant has much greater capacity than Green, which currently puts out 20mgd or less.

“I think what we need to remember about the Ullrich treatment plant is that it’s not just about getting water into and out of the plant,” Lippe said. “It’s about getting water from Ullrich up to Anderson Mill, which would require a number of additional pump stations and transmission lines.”

Sonleitner asked, rather pointedly, whether those pump stations and transmission lines would be more or less than the $250 million to build a new plant. City staff had to admit that such an assessment would require further analysis.

Sonleitner, who covered the original 1984 acquisition of the Bull Creek site as a television reporter, noted that the Cortaña site didn’t even make the list of desirable sites for the water treatment plant at the time. At the time, the prime sites were considered to be the Ribelin tract, Steiner Ranch, two LCRA sites and the Wilson property, which is now part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

“That was pre- Wal-Mart, pre- Target, pre- CVS,” Sonleitner said. “How is it that Cortaña is suddenly such a great place to build?”

BCP Manager Willy Conrad told Sonleitner she had already answered her own question. Twenty years ago, the city had a whole lot more available attractive land. Today, that available land – and land in the quantity the city needs – is a much scarcer commodity.

Travis County is likely to post its Chapter 26 hearing immediately. The posting notice must run for three weeks, putting the county hearing at the end of September.

Hays hires water resources attorney

County may participate in regional water plan

As the drought that has hammered Central Texas for the last several months stretches on, the thoughts of county officials throughout the region are turning to water, and Hays County is no exception. During their weekly meeting Tuesday, Hays County Commissioners voted unanimously to hire a lawyer to provide the county with legal counsel for water related contracts.

Edmond McCarthy, an Austin-based lawyer from the firm Jackson, Sjoberg, McCarthy & Wilson, L.L.P., has worked with the county in the past. McCarthy will help commissioners decide what water resources the county should acquire and what steps need to be taken in order to participate in a regional water plan, County Judge Jim Powers said.

McCarthy’s work for the county will include providing counsel for the county in its efforts to develop contracts with potential water resources, renewing and negotiating contracts with potential water suppliers and negotiating contracts with third party users of those water resources.

Hays County, like Williamson County, has its own water and wastewater authority. But with the exception of one water line maintained by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) that runs along US 290, the county doesn’t have any water resources of its own. Cities within the county like Buda and Kyle have traditionally maintained their own water permits and pumping rights.

Now Powers says he thinks its time for the county to take a more active role in providing water to its residents and businesses by looking into the possibility of water service contracts between the county’s water authority and entities like the LCRA.

"Water will be an issue from now on," Powers said. "It’s a question of what we’re going to do as a county. Our county has always been aggressive with water issues, and we will continue to be so."

In July several residents from the northwest part of the county complained to commissioners about wells going dry. While Powers talked about hiring a consultant to look into the issue, the court hasn’t taken any action on the issue yet.

But looking at the bigger picture of water resources, Powers said it’s wise to start thinking ahead about providing residents with an adequate supply. Brad Bailey, assistant to Powers, said it’s not yet certain if the county will pursue pumping rights for groundwater, surface water or both. While surface water is far more plentiful than water from underground aquifers, it also costs nearly three times as much to deliver than groundwater.

Austin Java opening set for December

Rising construction costs have slowed building of City Hall café

It has been a long time coming, and city officials say it will be just a little bit longer before it's finally here. Officials with both city staff and Austin Java say the much delayed opening of coffee shop and café in City Hall is now planned for December.

Austin Java won the award to operate the café back in March, 2005, but construction has been delayed several times. The most recent opening date was scheduled for July of this year, but Jan Stephens with the city’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Department said unexpected costs scuttled that.

"We are on the eve of construction," she said. "What they have found is that Austin is experiencing a lot higher prices for these smaller jobs. There’s just so much activity going on."

She said Austin Java has gone through two rounds of re-engineering to get the cost down, and it’s now within their cost range for building out the space.

"The building permit was awarded last Thursday," she said. "The construction contract between Austin Java and its contractor should be signed sometime this week. That will put them on track to open in December."

Austin Java owner Rick Engel confirmed the revised opening date in an e-mail to In Fact Daily.

"All I can say is that the City and Austin Java have been working very hard together as a team to get through the process," he wrote. "Building inside a City Government Building can be challenging. We are doing everything we can to open by the holidays."

The café will be located on the ground floor corner of Second and Lavaca streets, with entrances from both inside City Hall and from the street. There will also be seating on the sidewalk.

The cafe will keep full business hours, serving breakfast and staying open late most nights to cater to Second Street crowds. In addition to coffee, Austin Java will offer, breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare, and will offer beer and wine.

Austin Java operates two other locations in Austin, one at 12th and Lamar, and the other on Barton Springs Road.

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Opt in or not? . . . On Thursday, the Council will consider enacting an ordinance placing new restrictions on the operations of mobile taco stands and other mobile food vendors. Council Member Mike Martinez says he has some reservations about a recommendation to require neighborhoods to opt in to the ordinance. "If it’s good for one neighborhood it should be good for all. When you create ordinances that are opt in, generally what happens is the communities that aren't as active, that aren't as informed end up being relegated to, in this case, all of the mobile food vendors that don't want to be compliant with the ordinance, " Martinez said. So, historically what that means is minority communities end up taking the brunt." He said the neighborhoods that have opted in to the anti-lawn parking ordinance love it. But enforcement is based solely on complaints. He added that he doubts Austinites want the police to be involved in enforcing the mobile food vendor ordinance—especially in the early morning hours when most of those complaints would arise. But he said he thought that enforcement would not be a very big issue because most of the vendors had been involved in rewriting the ordinance . . . Fundraiser for Bolton . . . Bettye and Bill Nowlin will host a fundraiser tonight for Democratic House Dist. 47 candidate Valinda Bolton. Their message: the district can go Democratic this year, making the whole Travis County delegation Democratic. For more information on the party, call 589-4104 or 440-8791. Bolton is facing Republican Bill Welch in November . . . Todd, Christian say helmet law fight not over . . . The folks opposed to requiring adults to don bicycle helmets declared themselves the victors after last week’s hearing and lack of action by the City Council. Not so, says Elizabeth Christian & Associates Public Relations. 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PeopleFund clients have created 1,500 jobs and invested $7.8 million in physical improvements in their neighborhoods. For more information, visit . . . Sanchez named to Healthcare District . . . Travis County Commissioners have named Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, soon-to-be former commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, to a seat on the board of managers of the Travis County Healthcare District. Sanchez, who announced his resignation earlier this year, will assume the post of director of UT’s Institute for Health Policy next month. Sanchez replaces Thomas Young, a former Brackenridge Hospital administrator, who is leaving the healthcare district’s board of managers…. Travis County Commissioners agreed to put off discussion of a conservation district ordinance for a week and final resolution on the use of metal detectors at county parks for another three weeks … Electric car dealer . . . Mayor Will Wynn will be on hand Thursday for the grand opening of Electric Cars of Austin. The new dealership, located at 704 N. Lamar Blvd., will initially offer low-speed urban cars capable of traveling about 75 miles per charge. The ceremonies are set for 9am at the car lot, and the Mayor will recognize the dealer later during the 5:30pm award presentations at Council . . . New Hutto Annex . . . Pct. 4 Commissioner Frankie Limmer and Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace Judy Hobbs invite the public to the groundbreaking for the new Williamson County Hutto Annex building at 9am on Sept. 6. The building is located at 350 Exchange Blvd. in Hutto. The one-story building is 7,154 square feet and will house a satellite office for Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace (J.P.) court and the Pct. 4 Commissioner's office. The satellite office for J.P. 4 is needed to handle the increased volume of traffic violations anticipated with the opening of the SH 130 toll road as well as the increasing case load from booming Round Rock, Hutto area. The commissioner's old space is needed for the expansion of the Juvenile Services offices in the county's Taylor Annex building. The Hutto Annex was designed by Di Stefano/Santopetro Architects, Inc of Houston and is being built by RGD Builders of Austin. It will likely open in the spring of 2007.

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