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City starts WTP4 work at Bull Creek

Friday, September 29, 2006 by

Mayor confirms that site preparation is under way

The city has made good on its threat to start site development work for Water Treatment Plan 4 at the headwaters of Bull Creek, reaffirming the fact the city is serious about getting started on the water plant’s construction, with or without the Travis County.

Mayor Will Wynn dropped that fact in response to a question from the Travis County Audubon Society’s Jeff Munday at last night’s Chapter 26 hearing. The Chapter 26 hearing, of course, was intended to reaffirm the city’s commitment to the 45-acre Cortaña tract – that the city had “no prudent or feasible alternative” to the tract — even though, it appears, the city is moving forward on the less-than-prudent-but-already-permitted Bull Creek site.

During an exchange with Munday, Wynn revealed that work on the Bull Creek site had begun, as of Thursday. Wynn said engineers had moved a construction trailer onto the site, put up a gate and drive and begun the preparations necessary for silt fencing and survey work on the site.

This did, in essence, make good on the city’s ultimatum to Travis County. The city had promised it would begin work at Bull Creek, which is permitted, if the county refused to give its blessing to Cortaña by Sept. 27. The county’s own Chapter 26 hearing isn’t until next week, at which time commissioners can decide whether they agree to an amendment to an agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service allowing conversion of Cortaña from Black-Capped Vireo habitat to plant site.

“If they agree and join us on the minor amendment for the plan as soon as next week, I certainly would ask my colleagues on the Council to halt what little work would have been done on the Bull Creek site,” Wynn said after last night’s Council meeting. “We could then immediately move forward with the Cortaña site. Right now, they’re doing the survey work and the silt fencing, so, luckily, it will be a very modest amount of work.”

Wynn made vague, but careful, references to just what was going on at the Bull Creek site, then underlined the fact that it was work that could easily be undone if the right decision were made. Chris Lippe, director of the Austin Water Utility, confirmed after the meeting that work at Bull Creek was preliminary, at best, and included signing a letter with the engineering firm to begin the site preparation work. It does not, at this point, include any type of earth-moving equipment or bulldozers on the site.

Such promises are important to maintain the goodwill of groups such as the Audubon Society, which has pledged to support Cortaña if the choice comes down to either Cortaña or Bull Creek. That deal would clearly be off if ecological damage was done to the site. So Wynn must walk a thin line between a message that Travis County Commissioners could consider to be serious and one that environmentalists would consider objectionable. Put a piece of heavy equipment on the site, and it might be considered serious.

No one could be reached from the county for comment last night. The county’s Chapter 26 hearing is scheduled at 6pm next Wednesday in the Commission Chambers.

The Council approved the findings required under Chapter 26 on a 6-1 vote, with Council Member Jennifer Kim dissenting. She said after the meeting that she believes there are other alternatives to building a plant at either Cortaña or Bull Creek. Kim continues to support replacing the Green Water Treatment Plant with a location in East Austin.

FWS denies decision on vireo status

US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)

officials hastened to distance themselves from Thursday’s In Fact Daily report that the agency, which is charged with overseeing endangered species, had made a preliminary decision to downlist the Black-Capped Vireo from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Although there was plenty of behind-the-scenes talk about the vireo’s status and the possibility that it would no longer be in the most endangered category, no one wanted to say so on the record. And the FWS biologist who was quoted yesterday said through his boss that he had been misquoted.

Deborah Holle of FWS, the manager for Balcones Canyonlands Wildlife Refuge said, “Chuck (Sexton) said he didn’t talk about the status review.” She also said Sexton denied saying that a preliminary decision had been made to declare the tiny songbird threatened, as opposed to endangered.

Officials at the FWS in Arlington, not Austin, are charged with making the preliminary decision. FWS biologist Omar Bocanegra, said from Arlington, “We’re not finished with the review. We hope by the end of this calendar year we will have that completed.” After that, the proposed decision must be published in the Federal Register to allow the public to comment. Following the comment period, a decision will be made.

Neal Wilkins, a professor in the Wildlife and Fisheries Department at Texas A&M University, is the lead author on a study done for FWS to assist in the federal decision on the vireo. Wilkins stressed that the study did not come to any conclusions about how or whether the bird should be listed. Instead, the report reviews the reasons the bird was listed, what was known at the time (1987) versus what is known now in terms of the number of birds and threats to its continued viability as a species.

The study says there has been “a large overall increase in the total number” of birds since the bird was listed. In 1987, the study says, biologists knew of only about 350 adult vireos and thought that the largest concentrations were in the Austin area. But now there are more than 6,269 breeding males, with about 75 percent in the Fort Hood Military Reservation, Kerr Wildlife Management Area, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, and Fort Sill Military Reservation. After citing a number of other studies, the Wilkins study says, the “evidence points to two likely conclusions:

1) At the time of listing, Black-Capped Vireos were more numerous across their breeding range than what had been documented in the listing decision because distributional information on the species was limited to a few locations at that time. We now know that the species occurs on private lands in Texas and across areas in Mexico not thought to be part of the species’ breeding range when listed.

2) The overall population of Black-Capped Vireos appears to have increased, at least in those areas receiving the most management attention and where surveys have been conducted most intensely (Fort Hood Military Reservation, Kerr Wildlife Management Area, Wichita Mountains WR, and Fort Sill Military Reservation). These areas contain most of the present known breeding population, yet only comprise 1 percent of the total area of rangeland in the Texas/Oklahoma range of the species. Outside of these areas, it is difficult to assess trends due to a lack of information.” There is a spotlight on the bird’s official status now because five pairs are nesting on habitat created for them on the Cortaña tract and because the city now wants to trade that tract for the Bull Creek site, the home of the endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler and the Jollyville Plateau salamander, which has been nominated for the endangered species status.

Council to Marriott: Work with community

Leffingwell, Martinez, McCracken ask for revised plan by Oct. 31

A trio of Council members have written to CEO J. Willard Marriott, urging the Marriott Corp. to come to the table with a new development plan for the 200 block of Congress that will incorporate the small, eclectic businesses on the downtown block.

Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez and Brewster McCracken wrote to Marriott, telling him that Las Manitas, Escuelita del Alma and Tesoros are revered local institutions with significant cultural and historic value. Leasing on those businesses end at year’s end. Losing those businesses – representative of what makes Austin unique – would be a losing proposition for everyone, the trio wrote in their letter.

The hotel needs the Council’s cooperation if it wants to vacate the alley behind the businesses and increase the density on the block. “As you may know, the development as it is now envisioned would appear to require several approvals by the Austin City Council,” they wrote.

“We are writing to request that Marriott work with community stakeholders to create a revised development plan that accommodates the ongoing operation of the block’s existing small local businesses,” they wrote. “Because lease arrangements are a consideration, we would ask you to propose a revised development plan no later than October 31, 2006.”

Marriott owns the name, but the corporation does not own the property, nor will the Marriott Corp. develop the hotel. Finley Co. owns the 200 block of Congress. The leases on that block expire at the end of December. Under the current proposal, White Lodging would lease the entire 200 block of South Congress from Finley Co. to build the Marriott complex, licensing the Marriott name. Attorney Richard Suttle, who represents White Lodging, said the developer is open to negotiations.

"As we've indicated throughout the process, we’re happy to work through the issues with the stakeholders involved,” Suttle said. “We want to continue to be a good partner to the city and find a solution to this."

Asked whether they could come up with a new plan by Oct. 31, Suttle said, "We've never submitted a development plan."

Leffingwell said it was important to him that Marriott knew that there was a community concern about the project. In many cases, developers can make creative accommodations for historic businesses, especially those that front on Congress Avenue. Martinez echoed Leffingwell’s comments, saying it was important to recognize the businesses as a cultural resource in Austin that the Council must take a lead to protect.

“We believe that both should be able to co-exist,” Martinez said. “It’s that unique character that attracts people to Austin. At the same time, we’re growing. We can’t forsake one over the other, and I think we have to try as hard as we can to protect these businesses; while, at the same time, develop economically.”

Martinez is not certain he wants to go as far as the Planning Commission’s proposal for an “iconic preservation” ordinance. Cases need to be considered on an individual basis, balancing the value of the business with the property owner’s rights.

McCracken said Council – concerned with a lack of progress on the case — has a strong interest in bringing Marriott to the table for negotiations with local stakeholders. Downtown needs to be a mix of big buildings and local business.

Development around the Paggi House on South Lamar– which will incorporate the restaurant into its development – is one example of a peaceful co-existence between old and new, McCracken said. If that land is valuable enough to preserve, Congress Avenue is even more valuable to the character of Austin. McCracken said he is convinced that Marriott can have its conference center and still respect the existing businesses.

“We’re expecting them to come to the table,” McCracken said. “In this community, we have a successful and established way that we work together on land use issues, and that is that we sit down at the table and work on a solution that is best for everyone involved. We don’t have an expectation that someone can stonewall or not participate, and I am sure that Marriott will come and participate and produce a total winner for them and for the community.”

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

Garcia Recreation Center approved . . . Construction will soon begin on a recreation enter honoring former Mayor Gustavo "Gus" L. Garcia after the Austin City Council approved selection of a contractor Thursday for the Northeast Austin facility. The $6.2 million 19,200-square-foot center at Rundberg Lane and Fiskville Cemetery Road will include a gym, computer lab, a multipurpose room, an art room and a tiny tots room. Garcia, the first elected Hispanic Mayor in Austin, served in that role from Nov. 2001 to June 2003. He also served three terms as a Council Member (Mayor Pro Tem, 1996-1998) and previously was an Austin Independent School District and Austin Community College District Board President and Trustee. The Parks and Recreation Department anticipates completion and opening of the center in late 2007 . . . McMansions amendments approved . . . As part of their consent agenda this morning, the City Council approved the proposed new Residential Design and Compatibility Standards and the other Code amendments on second and third reading to reformat the "McMansion ordinance," including: a change in how height is measured for uses subject to the new standards that apply within the limited area; amends the provisions that govern when and how one can rebuild and modify a non-complying structure; and to clarify when building and demolition permits are required. The Council also approved two amendments to the revised ordinance requiring a duplex be connected by a common wall, floor and ceiling, and exempting new construction that is less than 2,000 square feet in gross floor area and that that is less than 32 feet in height from the articulation requirement. The new standards and the other Code amendments listed above will go into effect on Oct. 1 . . . New zoning designation . . .Council has approved the zoning designation of "medical office" to include small pharmacies that are 3,000 square feet or less. The suggestion came from a pharmacy owner and was endorsed by the Planning Commission. Trips and parking will be the same as a medical office. It passed Council unanimously . . . Taxicab regulations changed . . . Following protests earlier this summer that choosing a taxi franchise by lottery wasn't the best way to go, Council Members approved on second and third reading a merit-based new system Thursday for choosing cab companies. The new system, according to Public Works Director Sondra Creighton, rates competing companies in areas such as financial resources, criminal history, equipment, service plan, related experience and other criteria. One item that some Council Members objected to was the use of individual credit scores as a ranking. "That's a very subjective ranking for the companies where all the drivers are owner-operators," said Council Member Jennifer Kim. "I want to make sure the little guys get a chance and I don't think this system allows that." Council approved the new system 7-0 with the credit score provision removed . . . Appointments . . .Council members made several appointments to city boards and commissions Thursday . . . Debasree Dasgupta was a consensus appointment to the Asian American Resource Center Advisory Board; J ohn Montgomery was appointed by Dunkerley and Kedron Touvell was appointed by Martinez to the Technology and Telecommunications Commission; Frank Fuentes was a consensus reappointment to the Board of Adjustment; Jon Kyle Holder was a consensus reappointment to the Child Care Council; Sylvia Kauffman was appointed by Martinez to the Commission for Women; Myron Smith was appointed by consensus to the Community Development Commission; Girard Kinney was reappointed to consensus to the Design Commission; Helen Varty was a consensus reappointment to the Community Court Advisory Commission; and Jon Beall was appointed by Kim to the Environmental Board.

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