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City moves forward on Onion Creek buyout

Thursday, November 16, 2006 by

Exactly five years to the day after a deadly flood in Southeast Austin, the city is moving forward on a $70 million Flood Hazard Mitigation and Ecosystem Restoration Program for Onion Creek. Heavy rains during a 48-hour period on Nov. 15-16, 2001, flooded more than 1,000 homes, leaving thousands homeless and at least 10 dead in Central Texas.

Experts called that event a 50-year flood, or a flood event with a 2 percent chance of happening in any given year. One of the hardest hit areas was along Onion Creek in the southeast part of the city and Travis County, where 600 homes experienced flood damage after 14 inches of rain pounded the area.

The city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department and the Army Corps of Engineers have studied the flooded areas and are ready to move forward with plans to buy out 410 homes, and restore the area along the creek as green space and recreational areas.

“Ironically, one of the reasons for this flood was a 10-foot error in the flood plain map back in the 1970s,” said George Oswald, a WPDR engineer who worked on the project. “Homes were built in areas where waters rose quickly in an area where floods were supposed to happen.”

The city also studied flood mitigation measures for the Williamson Creek Area between South Congress Avenue and Westgate Boulevard, but determined that the project would be deferred due to high land costs. Authorization recently came from the Corps of Engineers to go forward with the Onion Creek project.

“We will first complete the buyout of the 410 homes,” Oswald said. “Then we will move into the design phase, where we will create recreational areas, green space, and will make channel improvements on the creek itself.”

After reviewing a variety of options, the city decided to purchase homes that fell within the 25-year flood plain. The cost of the buyout will be about $26 million. For the overall program, the federal government will fund about $46 million and the city will kick in $26 million, for a total of $72 million.

Oswald said the city has held several public meetings on the program over the past four years with the affected property owners.

“They had a bit of a mixed reaction to the proposals,” he said. “Most of the people wanted the buyout, but there were a few that wanted to fix the structures and re-occupy their homes. We told them that just wasn’t feasible.”

Oswald said the city estimates that the annual benefit of the mitigation program will be $5 million a year to the city, mostly in cost-savings for flood damage and time and materials for Fire and EMS first responders. He said the environmental benefits include the restoration of the natural channel for Onion Creek and the preservation of a nearby riparian zone.

The Environmental Board approved recommending the program on a 7-0 vote. The measure will go to City Council early in 2007.

Kim says she won't accept Council pay raise

Council Member Jennifer Kim said Wednesday that she will vote for the Council pay raise on today’s agenda but she will not personally accept the increase. If approved, the raise would provide a cost of living adjustment covering the past six years and bring the pay to $57,736. The Mayor’s salary would increase from $52,998 to $67,981.

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken are sponsoring the item.

Kim said she was disturbed by negative public comments on blogs. “I don’t know if it’s worth it to explain what a Council Member does and that it’s not taking a vow of poverty, so I support the other Council Members taking it—but since I have a new job, I'm able to not take the pay raise,” she said. Kim recently was named Vice President of Vias International.

The Place 3 Council Member said she understands that some of her colleagues have families to support, which she does not.

Council Member Sheryl Cole and her husband have two sons at home and a third in college. Cole said, “It’s a full-time job to adequately represent the city.” She pointed out that she had planned to continue her career as a lawyer when she joined the Council but doing both jobs proved too difficult.

Council Member Mike Martinez said, “Whether you think Council deserves a pay raise or not, the fact that we’re voting on our own salary causes controversy. We’re caught up in that.” Martinez said he would like to see Council pay moved into the City Charter so that citizens could decide the Council salary. But other Council Members want to put the item in the yearly budget deliberations.

Dunkerley explained that the new Council salary will include 8 percent deferred compensation, which is comparable to what city employees receive. However, employees are part of a compensation system that takes the money from their paychecks to invest it. Since the Council can’t join that system, each individual will be responsible for investing that extra income in an IRA or similar plan—or not.

Dunkerley and Council Member Lee Leffingwell believe that future Council pay raises should be decided during the annual budget deliberations. Leffingwell opposed an early proposal to have the city’s Ethics Review Commission make recommendations on Council salaries.

Asked whether the process had been a hurried one, Council Member Brewster McCracken, a co-sponsor of the raise, said, “We’ve been at this for several months,” referring to the earlier failed attempt to send the matter to the commission.

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

KBDJ quarry granted air permit . . . The controversial KBDJ rock-crushing quarry at the Ruby Ranch near Buda said Wednesday that it has been granted an expanded air permit by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that will allow them to increase crushed stone production to 1,000 tons per hour. Since December 2004, KBDJ has been crushing rock at a rate of 200 tons per hour under a permit-by-rule from the TCEQ. Kirsten Voinis, KBDJ spokesperson, said the road building boom in Central Texas has greatly increased the demand for aggregate, and KBDJ's new permit will help meet that need. "At the same time, KBDJ is committed to safeguarding the air and water in Central Texas," she said. "We constantly monitor the environmental factors at the facility and operate within the guidelines set by state and federal regulatory agencies. To date, the quarry has passed every inspection." The quarry has stirred controversy because of its location over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies drinking water for more than one million people. KBDJ is currently in the process of obtaining a permit to drill a well to pump water for use in its operations. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District denied its initial attempt to obtain a drilling permit but a settlement was reached later to allow KBDJ to drill a test well, and apply for a pumpage permit next year. . . . Kyle hires development consultant . . . The City of Kyle has hired TIP Strategies, an Austin-based economic development consulting firm, to create a strategic plan and target market study for the community. Specifically, TIP Strategies will develop an analysis of economic challenges and opportunities facing the area, including issues related to demographics, economic base, housing, education, and transportation. Additionally, the target market study will highlight prospects for industry growth. Once complete, the report will outline specific actions the City of Kyle can take to foster a healthy and sustainable economy . . . Today's meeting . . . The Council hopes to have all their early items done in time for an 11am news conference to talk about the renaming of the Congress Avenue Bridge for Gov. Ann Richards (See In Fact Daily, Nov.15, 2006). The heavy lifting may come late in the afternoon as contentious zoning cases come up. Previously, we had heard that the question of historic zoning for the Peter Gardere's house on Enfield might be postponed but the Council may have to resolve the matter today. They will also have the thorny question of old but affordable apartments versus new condos. Neighbors and those who live in the current complex will be prepared to argue that the city should step in to prevent the displacement of those who can afford only $400-600 rents, far below the market average. But odds are good that the owner, promising to set aside a small number of units and build what the city desires-mixed-use buildings-will get his way. The Parker Lane, Riverside and Pleasant Valley Neighborhood Plans are up for consideration, including at least one tract that may bring out neighbors to argue against requested changes. Owners of a dental clinic seeking mixed use designation in the Govalle/Johnson Terrace area have an uphill battle, with both city staff and the Planning Commission recommending against the change. All this could push zoning past the 5:30pm musical deadline. But the 6pm hearings look like they will spur little interest . . . Then we can rest up for Friday's Water Conservation task force meeting and a big weekend of Thanksgiving shopping . . . Art project chosen for Mueller . . . Following a comprehensive selection process, "SunFlowers," a collection of sunflower-shaped sculptures containing solar collectors, will grace the west entrance of Mueller along the frontage road of I-35 near Barbara Jordan Blvd. Mags Harries and Lajos Héder, co-founders of Harries/Héder Collaborative, Inc., have been commissioned to install the sculptures, each up to 14 feet across and 16 feet high, along the Northwest Greenway in front of Mueller's retail center. The "SunFlowers" are designed to collect solar energy while providing shade to walkers and cyclists along the trail. "We wanted to create a piece of artwork that would generate interest and value for the neighborhood," said Lajos Héder. A panel of visual art and design professionals selected Harries and Héder's work from a pool of 37 artists that submitted proposals for Mueller's signature public art gateway. Installation is planned for late second quarter 2007.

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