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Environmental Board says no to sewer line in creek bed

Monday, September 21, 2009 by Bill McCann

Plans to install a sewer line in and along a creek bed for a proposed mixed-use development in Austin’s northeast extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) got a thumbs-down from the Environmental Board last week.


The board recommended denying a variance for the developers of the Village at Northtown to put the sewer line in the floodplain of a tributary of Harris Branch Creek. Portions of the creek have had water quality problems over the years, but city staff said the new line would not make the creek’s water quality any worse.


Representatives of the development said they were limited in where the line could be built because of the terrain and also to avoid two water runoff detention ponds already on the site. City staff supported the variance from the city’s Land Development Code with the condition that the developer re-vegetate disturbed areas.


The development site is east of I-35 in the area of Wells Branch Parkway within the Northtown Municipal Utility District (MUD). It also is in Austin’s two-mile ETJ and therefore under its development purview. Current city regulations prohibit  installation of a sewer line in a creek. However, the site in question falls under older regulations, so construction in and near the creek (Critical Water Quality Zone) would be allowed if the construction gets a variance, according to city staff.


Board members balked at the thought of putting the sewer line by the creek, and voiced concern that when the city eventually annexes the area, the city could end up having to pay to move the line.


“I can’t support a sewer line going down a creek,” said Board Member Mary Ann Neely. “We have spent a lot of dollars as a city getting wastewater lines out of creeks. There is no point in doing the same thing over again.”


Future plans by the developers of the Village at Northtown call for commercial, multi-family and single-family construction on 325 acres of undeveloped land extending from Howard Lane on the south to the north side of Wells Branch Parkway. The proposed sewer line would pipe waste from the development to an existing line in the MUD and eventually to an Austin wastewater treatment plant.


Representatives of Cunningham-Allen, an Austin engineering firm heading the project, appeared before the board for the second time this month to seek support for the variance. The first time, on Sept. 2, the board postponed action after requesting more details about the project. At the board’s Sept. 16 meeting, Cunningham-Allen representatives Ruben Lopez and Tony Shaleesh got off to a difficult start when maps they were projecting on a viewing screen were confusing to board members, prompting Chair Mary Gay Maxwell to chide them.


When asked whether the company could redesign the sewer line to limit the line’s footprint in the creek’s floodplain, Shaleesh and Lopez said other options were very limited and would cause increased disturbance in any redesigned area as well as in the creek where the line would need to cross it. 


But the argument did not hold water with board members.


“This is a case where rather than adding to a problem that is going to have to be fixed later, we ought to at least explore alternatives,” said Board Member Robin Gary.


A motion, made by Board Member Jon Beall to recommend denying the variance, passed 4-1, with Rodney Ahart dissenting. Two members were absent. The board’s recommendation will be forwarded to the Zoning and Platting Commission, which is scheduled to hear the case on Oct. 6.

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