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County rejects Cortaña option for plant

Thursday, October 5, 2006 by

County commissioners rejected approval of the Cortaña site for Water Treatment Plant #4 last night, saying the city had yet to exhaust all feasible and prudent alternatives to the Balcones Canyonlands preserve land and urged city leaders to find some alternative to moving forward with construction on the even more sensitive Bull Creek site.

The City Council left county leaders with the task of choosing between two environmentally sensitive pieces of land on the shore of Lake Travis for a new water treatment plant, saying no other alternative sites were feasible. After four hours of wide-ranging discussion with a variety of speakers – from biologists to environmentalists to the Audubon Society – county commissioners made their choice – neither.

Officially, as part of the record of a Chapter 26 hearing, county leaders said they could not make the affirmative finding that the city had exhausted all “reasonable and prudent alternatives” to the Cortaña site and would not join in a proposed permit amendment of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, who made the motion, added that the court very respectfully encouraged Council to rescind their actions related to the Bull Creek site so the city and county could jointly find a new site.

County Judge Sam Biscoe called for a 30-day delay to find a resolution on the issue, but his substitute motion failed for lack of a second. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who sits on the coordinating committee for the BCP, was the one vote against the Sonleitner motion, a vote he made because he expected the city to move forward with the Bull Creek site, rather than work with the county to find a better alternative.

Daugherty said he had sat at the table, looked Mayor Will Wynn in the eye, and asked if the city was prepared to move forward on the Bull Creek site, and the Mayor said “yes.” City Manager Toby Futrell also assured Daugherty the city was fully prepared to put the water treatment plant on the Bull Creek site, if necessary. Daugherty said he took the city leaders at their word when they said what they were going to do.

“People think the city’s going to be backed into the corner, that they’re worried they’ll be sued,” Daugherty said. “I think they’re prepared to do that.”

Testimony last night was more detailed – and more wide-ranging – than it had been at any city hearing, including the city’s own Chapter 26 hearing last week. The heads of both BCP committees – citizen and scientific – spoke to commissioners and agreed they felt forced to make an “either-or” choice on the water treatment plant site.

Scientific committee chair David Steed said none of his committee members were happy with how the site selection study was done, but, given a two-week deadline, had little time to offer an alternative site to the city. Even in its recommendation, the committee said the choices had been “poorly implemented and communicated.”

Citizen’s committee chair Ted Siff said he had heard enough at the county’s hearing to question his own vote to approve the Cortaña site. Siff added that such basic information – such as which five sites made the final cut for evaluation – were not available until his committee specifically requested it.

“I, as the chair, and my committee – save one member – were convinced there were no feasible and prudent alternatives, no other sites available, based on the city’s criteria,” Siff told the commissioners. “I’m not convinced of that now, and I’m really, really surprised we didn’t get more information on the specific sites, in detail, like we got here tonight.”

County officials heard from a dozen other speakers. Former city biologists Jackie Davis and Melody Lytle said that both tracts were equally sensitive and that the Cortaña tract was home to both the Black-Capped Vireo and the Golden-Cheeked Warbler, a fact that did not emerge in city hearings on the subject. Property Owner Joe Lucas presented his own information about his tract – its benefits and advantages over the Cortaña site — and said the city had made its decision before even walking the tract. Ed Moore, Lucas’ engineer, presented drawings that showed that WTP #4 could fit on the Lucas site.

Former Commissioner Valerie Bristol, representing the Texas Nature Conservancy, said it would be a travesty to lose a site as valuable as the 102 acres on Bull Creek. The Travis County Audubon Society’s Jeff Munday presented site surveys, completed in 2003 and 2005, that showed the extreme importance of the Bull Creek site, and its stream, to the region’s Golden-Cheeked Warbler population.

“It is the single highest density of Golden-Cheeked Warblers I've ever seen mapped anywhere,” Munday said.

The county might choose to gamble and punt the ball back to the city, but under no circumstance should anyone be building on the Bull Creek site, Munday said.

“That is a gamble we cannot lose at any cost,” Munday said.

Bruce Bigelow told commissioners that the scoring in the Plummer & Associates study was skewed and that assembling multiple parcels should have been considered. Robert Singleton suggested that the city should have looked at expanding the Ullrich water treatment plant and downsizing the site on Lake Travis, requiring less land. And Mary Arnold questioned whether the city and county would eventually seal the BCP land as open space, in perpetuity, after the initial 30-year term of the preserves, or if taxpayers could expect little pieces to be ripped away, at will, by the city or county.

The Save Our Springs Alliance’s Bill Bunch, who sat on the original steering committee for the BCP, said the Bull Creek site was purchased by the water utility long before the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve was created – and long before the warbler and vireo were listed as endangered. But that still didn’t negate the fact the land was smack dab in the middle of the region’s most critical macrosite preserve. Finally, the city had decided to move the purchased site into the preserves system, but only under the most unfortunate conditions, Bunch said.

Given the choice, Bunch said he would have protected both the Bull Creek and Cortaña sites, but he also noted that Cortaña was put into the BCP for political reasons. The land was available for sale, through the Resolution Trust Corporation, at the time when the Balcones Canyonlands Preserves were created. Bunch said he could not tell the county whether to force the city’s hand, but that the city had a clear legal right to move forward with construction on the Bull Creek site.

In her own questioning of speakers, Sonleitner proposed other alternatives – keeping the downtown Green Water Treatment Plant open, expanding the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant, improving conservation measures or opening up collaboratives with cities to the north or east – that she said should have been considered.

Answering some of the questions posed during testimony, Water Utility Director Chris Lippe said that keeping Green online – or expanding Ullrich – would only be a short-term solution to the growing needs in Northwest Austin. The expansion of Ullrich, Lippe said, would ultimately service high growth in East Austin.

Lippe also produced plans from Carollo Engineering, dated August 18, that assessed the Lucas tract. While CB Hagar of Carollo Engineering could not guarantee one of his staff members had walked the Lucas land, he said that such an assessment could be done with topographic maps. A combination of factors –rim rocks, safety zone buffers and lines in and out of the water plant – were reasons why the proposed plant design did not fit on the limited space of the Lucas tract, he said.

Asked whether land bought with bonds – such as preserve land – could be used for non-preserves purposes, Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry said such information was privileged – between Council and its attorneys– but that an option such as the Cortaña would not have moved forward if it were not legally viable.

Now the question is whether the county’s gamble—with Sonleitner as quarterback—will result in the destruction of the Bull Creek site as the city has said or if environmentalists can convince the Council to call off its previous direction to proceed with construction of the plant.

Fairfield high rise at Hyatt moves forward

Plans to build a pair of 200-foot tall mixed use towers on what is now the parking lot of the Hyatt on Town Lake drew a lukewarm recommendation last night from the city Environmental Board.

Informally referred to the Environmental Board by the Planning Commission, the project’s developer seeks to have the property surrounding the Hyatt rezoned to PUD-NP in order to build the high-rise towers. The Environmental Board has no jurisdiction over the zoning case and developers are not seeking environmental variances.

Attorney Michael Whellan said the development is a natural fit with plans for Downtown Austin. “These buildings will both be mixed-use, with first floor pedestrian-oriented businesses, with sidewalks designed to Great Streets standards,” he said. “The project will actually lower the area’s impervious cover, remove surface parking lots that close to Town Lake, and will be built to 2-Star Green Building standards.”

Whellan added that the developer, Fairfield Residential, will donate $400 per developed residential unit, or about $200,000, to be divided between the Town Lake Trails Foundation and the city Parks and Recreation Department for improvements to the Town Lake Hike-and-Bike Trai l.

However, even before Whellan got to pitch the idea, some board members were already criticizing city staff’s recommendation of the project based on the lack of detail in the description of the project. Teresa Alvelo with the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department outlined the development before the board, but Vice Chair Karin Ascot began an immediate line of questioning about her omission of one of the buildings being planned 15 feet into the setback of the Town Lake Overlay.

“I was made aware of the request for the variance on the setback, but I didn’t hear about it in your presentation,” Ascot said to Alvelo. “It’s an important point. I find it sad that it’s not mentioned in your presentation.”

Another party opposed to one building’s shortened setback was the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association. The area is within the boundaries of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Plan, and is designated for mixed use in the area’s future land use map, but Neighborhood President Kathie Tovo said the setback variance would set a bad precedent.

“Many people believe that the Hyatt should not have been built there in the first place,” she said. “But we are opposed to having more buildings that close to Town Lake.”

Tovo said Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association was still negotiating with Whellan over the setback and other matter regarding the project. Tovo said Whellan had suggested at one point that Fairfield said it might be willing to move the building in question back 15 feet, but Whellan said with the space constraints on the building, that would not be possible.

“We believe that the quality of this development offsets our request for the variance,” said Whellan. “We can build basically the same buildings without the PUD. This is just part of the give and take.”

That comment drew laughter from some board members, who clearly took it as more of a threat.

Board members continued to ask questions about various parts of the project, but Ascot eventually returned to the subject of the setback variance, which she said had not yet really been answered. But she got no more information from the developer.

Board Member Phil Moncada moved to recommend the project back to the Planning Commission, with several conditions. The measure passed 5-2, with Ascot and Chair David Anderson noting no and Board Member William Curra recusing himself.

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

Leffingwell dissents . . . Council Member Lee Leffingwell said Wednesday he would likely vote against directing the Ethics Review Commission to make recommendations about City Council salaries. "If the Council wants a salary of X, they don't need to have a recommendation from the ethics commission," he said. The Council appoints members of the commission and it would not be right for them to make a recommendation on the pay of those who are, in effect, their bosses, Leffingwell said. Council Member Brewster McCracken, Mayor Will Wynn and Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley are of the sponsors of the resolution, which is on today's agenda. The Council makes $45,000 a year, a figure that has not changed during the past eight years . . . Downtown plan dust-up . . . Another item on today's agenda that is stirring some dissent is awarding of a contract for professional planning services for downtown. The staff chose Roma Design Group, with Crandall Arambula as an alternate on the second time around, after rejecting bidders who own downtown property-most notably architect Sinclair Black . . . Gas franchise plan . . . The Council will also be considering its franchise agreement with Texas Gas Service for a third and final vote. The Council voted last week to change the arrangement for some large users of natural gas. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 2, 2006.) Otherwise, there's little of general interest and absolutely no reason to stay late at Council today. Only one public hearing graces the agenda, the hearing on an ordinance to establish Highland Mall and South I-35 TOD districts . . . Another lobbyist registration . . . Former Council Member Jackie Goodman has registered with the city as a lobbyist. She did not list any specific clients . . . At the Capitol . . . The non-partisan group Texas Watch, which takes the side of consumers against insurance companies, will hold a press conference at 10:30am this morning in the Speaker's Committee Room at the State Capitol. The event will highlight the group's Supreme Court scorecard . . . Kyle wins award . . . The City of Kyle received a Recognition of Merit/Economic Development Award from the Texas Economic Development Council (TEDC) at its annual conference Sept. 28 in Houston. Kyle was one of five finalists receiving the recognition among cities with a population between 15,001 and 40,000. Pedernales Electric Cooperative nominated the city based on Kyle's forward thinking and progressive approach to economic development. Kyle was recognized for its progressive transportation plan, business incentive program and its innovative approach to managing the water needs of the community through diversification of the City's water resources. Kyle is currently the sixth fastest growing community in the state of Texas and has seen its population explode from approximately 5,000 in 2001 to approaching 30,000 in 2006 . . . First Night sponsors to be announced . . . Mayor Will Wynn and First Night Austin Board President Jeff Trigger will announce major Central Texas employers as sponsors of Austin's signature New Year's event – First Night Austin 2007, the public celebration of the arts that revives the ancient tradition of marking the passage of time with art, ritual and festivity. The news conference will also include a sneak preview of art and performance scheduled for this year's event, to take place Dec. 31, 2006. Last year, the event attracted more than 100,000 people downtown for a family-friendly and alcohol free New Year's Eve celebration. The announcement of this year's sponsors will take place at 12:15pm today at City Hall Plaza . . . Novare Group and its Austin partner, Andrews Urban have won the right to redevelop the downtown post office site. The post office, a one-story box in a sea of parking lot, has drawn a lot of architectural criticism during the past 10 years. Redevelopment will mean a chance to start over for the site at Guadalupe and 6th Street . . . Smoking ruling . . . Federal Judge Sam Sparks has ruled that the requirement in the City of Austin's smoking ban that business owners take all "necessary steps" to prevent their customers from smoking is unconstitutionally vague. "We're very pleased," said attorney Marc Levin, who represented several of the bar and nightclub owners who filed the original suit. "Frankly, there's not any teeth left in the ordinance at this point." Under Judge Sparks' ruling, bar owners can avoid a ticket by posting "no smoking" signs and removing all ashtrays. But Sparks' ruling leaves room for the city to fine customers individually if they smoke in violation of the ordinance. A member of the city's legal team said late Wednesday that the city intended to enforce the voter-approved smoking ban in compliance with the judge's ruling.

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