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Planning Commission declines zoning request from Austin Energy

Thursday, October 15, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Austin Energy has been trying to place a substation in the Mueller area for several years, but each time the utility finds a suitable location, a property owner or neighborhood says no. In the latest in a long series of rejections, the Planning Commission on Tuesday voted to recommend against a zoning change that would allow the utility to place the substation on property it owns in the Windsor Park neighborhood.

With growth in the area, Austin Energy needs an electric substation around Mueller, and soon. According to Sonny Poole, acting manager of public involvement and real estate for Austin Energy, “Our primary concern is our data says in 2011 we need that substation to meet that load. That’s our concern.” But, he concedes, “The location of the site has now become a political issue.”

On Tuesday night Commissioner Jay Reddy summed up the commission position by saying it is the commission’s job to protect land use for its highest and best value, and Austin Energy had failed to prove that the best use of that piece of property would be a substation.

Commissioner Danette Chimenti said the Austin Energy substation was primarily Mueller’s issue, and it required a Mueller solution.

The proposed substation location is across 51st Street, on a property at the gateway into the Windsor Park neighborhood. Windsor Park was clear at the last Planning Commission hearing: It had taken the region’s water tower;would it be required to take this substation, too?

The parcel in question was an alternative to the original proposal to use a portion of the regional emergency call center property. By the time the call center went operational, however, it declined to allow the substation to be placed there, citing the potential interference the site might present.

Following that, there was a proposal to put the substation on land owned by the General Land Office. They too were adamant. They would not OK placing the facility on GLO property next to land the state has leased to Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios. That left Austin Energy with a third potential site — the only land Austin Energy owns in the area — which sits at an entrance to the Windsor Park neighborhood.

Two weeks ago, it was the Windsor Park neighborhood that protested the location of a Mueller electric substation at one of its gateways. Tuesday night, it was Austin’s Islamic community – which, ironically, sold the property to Austin Energy – who were in line to protest the site of the proposed power lines.

At the previous Planning Commission meeting, Poole said he might be able to get an estimate of substation interference with Troublemaker Studios. However, on Wednesday, Poole said the consultant Troublemaker hired to determine how much interference there might be declined to give Austin Energy any real data, instead writing a report that merely reiterated the studio’s position that the substation would interfere with the filmmaker’s operations.

Discussion at this week’s meeting was brief, apart from the concerns of Islamic community members. Commissioners voted 5-1 not to recommend the zoning change, with Commissioner Clint Small in the minority. Commissioners Saundra Kirk and Dave Anderson were absent.

On Wednesday, Poole said he has run out of options and intends to take the zoning case to Council next week. “We’re going to have to ask Council for direction.” He laughed at the idea that Austin Energy would have any pull with the General Land Office. “I have no leverage just because I’m the power provider,” he said.

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