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Members assess regional water quality progress

Tuesday, October 3, 2006 by

It’s been a year since the Regional Water Quality Plan (RWQP) core committee has met, and in that time, only the City of Dripping Springs has taken the full scope of measures under the proposed plan and attempted to fully incorporate those measures into city regulations.

Most jurisdictions on the RWQP core committee – city, county and groundwater districts – have looked carefully at the plan and attempted some portions of them. But it’s only Dripping Springs that has stepped out in front and made full use of the plan. That’s had some consequences for the tiny Hill County town, which just happened to be revising its codes at the time the regional water plan was completed more than a year ago.

In general, change has been positive, Mayor Todd Purcell told the core committee last night. Still, when a developer recently approached Purcell to say that, finally, it was harder to develop in the extra-territorial jurisdiction of Dripping Springs than it was in Austin, it gave Purcell pause. That was not an idea that Purcell liked.

“It’s important to us that everybody buys into this regional plan,” Purcell told his colleagues on the committee. “If we’re the only one doing it, it’s not going to work. We all need to buy into the plan, where the law allows each of us to apply it.”

Last night the group met to decide whether its work was done. Most of the work to date was funded by a grant through the Lower Colorado River Authority. Now they have to decide what more needs to be accomplished. Even Purcell, one of the more enthusiastic members of the group, admitted he was uncertain whether moving forward was worth the time and effort it would take. Dripping Springs provided the staff to supervise the creation of the plan, with the help of a consultant.

“It’s taken a lot of staff time to facilitate these projects,” Purcell told the group. “If we want to keep this thing going, then groups that are interested in this — like the Hill Country Conservancy and the Friendship Alliance – need to pony up some money. It just can’t be one entity to keep things going.”

In Dripping Springs, the City Council adopted various aspects of the plan, from setbacks to impervious cover to the removal of phosphorus from the water. Purcell said the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission had proposed some adjustments: offering some latitude on phosphorus removal; cash payments in lieu of mitigation lands; and the possibility of variances. Those changes have yet to make it to Council.

In a round robin session, other jurisdictions discussed the post-plan changes they had made. Austin, for instance, has looked at increasing setbacks for streams that drain as little as 32 acre-feet of land, which would make Austin’s water policies even more stringent, Nancy McClintock, assistant director of Watershed Protection and Development Review told the group. City staff has looked at land, on a parcel-by-parcel basis, and those findings soon will be presented to City Council.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who replaced former Council Member Daryl Slusher on the core committee, also spoke about his water quality task force’s work to codify existing policy for the city to push development away from the drinking Water Quality Protection Zone and toward the Desired Development Zone. One key piece of policy work that will come out of the task force will be a proposal to mitigate the impacts of redevelopment of property that currently is developed in the Barton Springs zone.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty mentioned the interim water quality rules Travis County has adopted. County leaders intend to make those permanent. He also spoke of efforts to deal with long-term water issues in western Travis County, either by creating a groundwater district or annexing the area into the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD). Various stakeholders are still weighing those options.

The three water districts – the BSEACD, the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District and the Blanco-Pedernales Groundwater Conservation District– have no ability to control land use. BSEACD Director Craig Smith said the Barton Springs district was looking at new safeguards for the district, including limits on pumping and a habitat conservation plan to protect endangered species. The aquifer is at a critically low level, Smith said. The Trinity District also is working on a habitat plan.

The Blanco-Pedernales has only a tiny part of the headwaters of Barton Springs, said General Manager Ron Fieseler, who joked that most of the area landowners were “old Austin hippies” who prefer conservation to development. Right now, pumping is so low that there is little threat to the water source. Fieseler, who also represents Blanco County on the core committee, noted that the county has taken an aggressive stance on new development, requiring developers to complete a “water availability study” and drilling test wells on any 100 acres of development. One recent developer was actually required to put down 40 wells on his 4,000-acre development recently to prove it was viable.

The Regional Water Quality Plan can be found at http://www.waterqualityplan.org/.

Planners to revive TOD administrative waivers

The Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances committee will review a proposed change to the city’s Transit-Oriented Development ordinance that would allow the Director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department to grant administrative waivers to the interim TOD rules. Those waivers, staff told commissioners, would be necessary to allow new projects that meet the spirit of the guidelines but do not necessarily comply exactly with the detailed regulations.

“There could be alternative design scenarios presented in projects…that meet the intent of the TOD ordinance to create a pedestrian-friendly transit-oriented environment,” explained Sonya Lopez with NPZD. “The interim regulations were more or less blanket regulations put in place to try to capture the majority of the situations that could occur prior to having an adopted station-area plan. However we couldn’t anticipate every scenario.”

One example, Lopez said, was the redevelopment of the Huntsman Petrochemical tract near Lamar and Airport Blvd. The proposal brought forward by the developers includes some innovative ways to promote pedestrian access along that high-traffic part of Lamar, Lopez said, but would not meet the provisions of the TOD ordinance. “From an urban design perspective, it’s a really good idea. However, in the ordinance that type of development would not be allowed.”

Commissioner Cid Galindo questioned whether allowing the department head free reign to waive the rules would effectively render them useless. “Would there be any kind of limit to the degree of that waiver? What’s the check and balance? It seems like staff can now write a blank check to a developer in a TOD,” he said. “In what other instance does the director have that authority?”

There are other cases where administrative waivers are allowed, but Lopez said they generally included concrete guidelines and the option for review by a board or commission. Staff has drafted some criteria for the waivers, but Lopez said it would be difficult to cover every eventuality.

While the commission followed Galindo’s recommendation to send that proposed change in the ordinance to their Codes and Ordinances committee for further analysis, commissioners did vote 7-0 to endorse two other proposed changes to the TOD ordinance. Those changes will add Highland Mall and a future Capital Metro Park and Ride for Rapid Bus service on I-35 in south Austin as TOD districts. Those districts are specifically named in the ordinance.

The TOD at Highland Mall will be for the transit stop along Capital Metro’s commuter rail line. It was not included in the original TOD ordinance, since at that time Capital Metro did not plan to have a stop at the shopping center. But the agency recently revised those plans to include a stop at the mall. The proposed change to the TOD ordinance will add that location to the list of approved TODs, but will not set the boundaries for that TOD. With those boundaries, Lopez said, would come new regulations which could hinder development at the mall. “The regulations didn’t anticipate a suburban mall development,” she said. “While probably unlikely that the mall would want to change its footprint, it’s possible. If it needed to expand its footprint at all, the interim development regulations wouldn’t make any sense.”

For the same reason, the new Park and Ride at I-35 south of William Cannon will also not have its boundaries defined just yet. “If we apply the interim development regulations right now as part of a TOD district, there would be problems when Capital Metro actually went to build their Park and Ride. They are going to the Zoning and Platting Commission next Tuesday for LI-PDA. It’s cleaner to not add the boundaries in.” Once the Council gives its approval for the change to the TOD ordinance, the boundaries and transition zones can be established as part of the station-area planning process.

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

SOS comments on WTP 4 . . . At last Thursday's public hearing on locating a new water treatment plant on the Cortaña site, Colin Clark of the Save Our Springs Alliance signed up to comment but could not stay for the hearing. Mayor Will Wynn read into the record that Clark had signed up "neutral, not wishing to speak." Clark explained Monday that he was unable to register his comments on the city's automated system and ended up sending the Council an email instead. He wrote, "The Save Our Springs Alliance requests that you not approve the new Water Treatment Plant proposed by the utility at this time. Council Member Leffingwell's water conservation task force will have a recommendation in 120 days on reducing 1 percent peak day demand. With aggressive water conservation, we should be able to keep total water use constant even as we add water customers, thereby delaying the need for expensive additional capacity. However, we recognize the likelihood that you will move forward with WTP 4 now, and we offer that the Cortaña site is preferable to the Bull Creek watershed site." The Bull Creek site is home to the endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler and the Jollyville Salamander. SOS filed suit in August against the US Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to take action on the organization's petitions to list the salamander and another species, the San Felipe gambusia . . . More TOD news . . . During a presentation by PB Placemakers on transit-oriented station plans at Monday's Land Use Council Subcommittee, Council Member Brewster McCracken stressed that the final work product needed to be form-based, so that it would not collect dust on a shelf. Since the stations need to be opened by mid-2008, he said, there's "precious little time to get this right." City planner George Adams said the city would have "detailed standards" for each station. Those standards will be presented, at final draft, to the Planning Commission, City Council and Capital Metro for review . . . Council Members Mike Martinez and Brewster McCracken will be bringing forward a proposal to put Saltillo in the first tier of station plans at Council on Thursday. At the Land Use Council Subcommittee, McCracken said that Saltillo was the plan he was "personally the most excited about" with the "great opportunity to capture the existing community and improvements on that." Saltillo already has a community action group and McCracken said that the Saltillo plan reflects the Hispanic heritage of the area rather than an "urban hipster" model that would be more appropriate for a location like Lakeline. . . Meetings . . . The City Council Audit and Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 10am in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The City Council will hold an annexation hearing at 6:30pm at Holy Word Lutheran Church, 10601 Bluff Bend Dr. for annexation of that area . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will meet at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. . . . The Mexican-American Cultural Center Advisory Board will meet at 6pm at the Parks and Recreation Department, 200 S. Lamar . . . The MBE/WBE Advisory Commission meets at 5pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . Also at 5pm, the Airport Advisory Commission will meet at ABIA, Room 160, 2716 Spirit of Texas Drive . . . The Kyle City Council will meet at 7pm tonight. Like larger cities, Kyle is striving to update its downtown area and improve mobility for both pedestrians and automobiles, say Kyle spokesman Jerry Hendrix. The Council will review and discuss the downtown streetscape project, which is scheduled to begin around the first of the year . . . It's HAAM benefit day . . . The Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) is providing live music all day long-beginning with breakfast at Whole Foods at 6am and ending with Marcia Ball and friends at Antone's at 8pm to help local businesses raise money for musicians' health care. Participating businesses will donate 5 percent of their proceeds for the day to HAAM. For more information, check the website www.healthallianceforaustinmusicians.org.

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