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Environmentalists hand wish list to city hall

Monday, June 29, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

Mayor Lee Leffingwell told the crowd gathered at city hall Thursday that he hoped to make environmental issues the centerpiece of his administration and to build on the legacy of former Mayor Will Wynn.

And the crowd was more than happy to let him know what they expect. Leffingwell was at the EcoChange Exchange , an event thrown by most of the environmental groups in town, and designed to give the new Mayor and City Council a list of environmental priorities. (All other City Council Members made brief appearances except for Mike Martinez, who was out of town.)

The highlight of the evening was when participants got to choose what they believe should be the top priorities for the city and incoming City Council. They were given green dots to place on eight white poster boards set up on easels around the Council chambers. They were told they could place only four dots next to the about 100 issues that were listed on boards.

Former Council Member Jackie Goodman , a board member of the Save Barton Creek Association , paused as she was deciding which issue to choose for one of her green stickers. She said the activity forced participants to prioritize. “It boosts your energy, directs your energy and focuses action,” she said.

Colin Clark of Save Our Springs Alliance , the nonprofit advocacy group for the protection of Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer, likened the activity to “speed dating,” since each person only had a few minutes to learn about and then pick ones they think were most important for the city to address. It’s not an exact science, but it does give an idea of what committed environmentalists would like to see change in the city.

These are among the issues that ranked the highest:

  • Alternative transportation
    • Fund world-class bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure, including public showers.
    • Oppose State Highway 45 SW extension over the Barton Springs Recharge Zone.
  • · Clean energy
    • Prioritize efficiency and renewable energy over fossil and nuclear fuel in the city budget.
  • Environmental justice
    • Relocate Pure Casting Co.’s foundry at 2101 East 4 th Street and oppose the building of an incinerator at the East Austin animal shelter at Lavender Loop.
    • Relocate more than 400 properties operating as industrial and CS-1 (cocktail lounges) in East Austin ; redevelop these sites with compatible and sustainable residential land uses.
  • Local and sustainable food economy
    • Support organic and sustainable food farms and farmland through tax relief, zoning protection and affordable water rates or rebates.
    • Promote community and private-yard gardens.
  • Participatory democracy
    • Reaffirm policies for meaningful public review, participation and input in decision-making processes (possibly creating a “citizens’ bill of rights”).
    • Begin community dialogue on looming and existing environmental problems, including drought, global warming and energy depletion.
  • Responsible land use
    • Support sustainable land use and alternative transportation in core transit areas while upholding and enforcing the SOS ordinance and water-front overlay districts.
    • Also, require a super-majority of the Council to approve PUDs, or planned unit developments, zoning districts approved by Council to preserve the natural environment and encourage high-quality developments. The Council has already rejected this change to the ordinance.
    • Oppose Wildflower Commons PUD, a mixed-use project planned for Southwest Austin , and “up-zoning” in the Barton Springs watershed.
  • Water stewardship
    • Change laws and building codes to allow and encourage gray-water re-use, composting toilets, rainwater collection, waterless urinals, air-conditioning condensate, etc.
    • Increase water conservation funding to 4 percent of Austin Water Utility’s annual budget, up from a goal of 3 percent currently.
  • Zero waste
    • Expand the recycling ordinance to include all residences, businesses, industries, festivals, etc.
    • Get organics out of landfills, and promote and create incentives for neighborhood, community and curbside composting.

Organizers said the event was a natural follow-up to a candidate forum that the environmental groups sponsored to hear from City Council candidates in April. While the candidate forum was organized around receiving information from the candidates about their platforms, the EcoChange Exchange was a way for citizens to tell Council what are they consider most pressing issues.

“A lot of this was sending a message to Council that we’re organizing, and we’re serious and we want accountability,” said Lisa Fithian with the Alliance of Community Trainers. She was one of more than a dozen people who helped organize the event.

Organizers said they plan to compile the results of the voting and post it on a Web site, www.AustinEcoNetwork.com , and present it to Council Members.

Organizers and participants were clearly riding high from the energy and hopefulness people brought to the event.

Robin Rather, founder of Livable City, a nonprofit profit Austin community organization, said the Eco-Change Exchange brought together activist groups that usually work in their own silos. Unlike events in the past when organizers came together to fight over some issue, this was “very positive,” “a proactive” effort to try to set the agenda for the city.

“I can hardly wait to see what comes out of it,” Howie Richey, an Austin tour guide and activist, said as he was looking over the water stewardship issues board. “I’m involved with many Austin groups and they’re all talking about it.”

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