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Environmental Board votes to start process that will limit bulkheads

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The Environmental Board voted last week to begin the process of revising the city code that regulates what landowners on Lake Austin can do with their shoreline. 


The board and city staff both agreed that the Land Development Code with respect to bulkheads is unclear. The code currently bars “vertical bulkheads,” because they can increase waves on the lake and damage the aquatic environment. However, the code does not adequately define what a vertical bulkhead is, and the result has been that much of the shore is buffered by vertical bulkheads.  “We prohibit vertical bulkheads, but there’s no definition,” said board member Phil Moncada. “That’s just incredible to me.”


City Environmental Scientist Andrew Clamann agreed. “It needs clarification,” he said. “We need a public process. The property owners should have a say, we shouldn’t do it all ourselves.”


The changes would affect new development, but the plan is that existing bulkheads would be grandfathered. But even the details of that provision need to be worked out. “We say bulkheads are grandfathered,” said Moncada. “But what if an owner needs a bulkhead repaired?” Clamann responded that a failing bulkhead could be repaired to simply fail again, or the new regulations could make landowners replace failing bulkheads with something better.


Property owners use bulkheads to reduce erosion on their land, but there are other techniques that work just as well but also protect the environment. One method is known as “living shorelines,” where plants or fiber logs are used to stabilize the shoreline, but also absorb the force of waves (unlike bulkheads, which reflect waves back into the lake).


The code revisions may also include trams, which some lake dwellers use to get to the shore. City staff recommended reworking both at the same time, but Moncada questioned whether that made sense. “Bulkheads are in the water, and cause water quality problems,” he said. “Trams are on land, and have minimal impact on water quality. They shouldn’t be together.”


Marceline Lasater, the president of the Lake Austin Collective, addressed the board. She thanked them for finally looking at shoreline issue, but said, “I wish we could put a moratorium on all shore development – bulkheads, trams and docks.”


She also said the board was looking at symptoms more than causes. “Wetlands erosion won’t stop until wakeboards are off Lake Austin,” she said.


Pat Murphy, Austin’s Environmental Officer, agreed that wakeboards are a problem, “but I’m not sure about who has jurisdiction. It’s better to go after the cause then the effect – but we’re stuck with protecting land.”

The Environmental Board voted unanimously to start the process of revising the code, and broadened the scope to include Lady Bird Lake and Lake Walter E. Long, as well as Lake Austin.  The code amendments will be considered by the Parks and Recreation Board, and the Environmental Board again, before moving on to the Planning Commission and finally Council.

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