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Mueller substation’s fate could be decided this month

Thursday, March 4, 2010 by Laurel Chesky

Austin Energy’s 10-year journey to find a home for the Mueller Substation in East Austin may finally be approaching the 18th green. The utility company’s proposal to build the power substation on a city-owned golf course is scheduled for a public hearing at the March 25 Austin City Council meeting, said Sonny Poole, supervisor for AE’s Public Involvement and Real Estate section. The proposed substation will distribute power to homes and businesses in the Mueller development and surrounding neighborhoods.


On Tuesday night, the Austin Parks and Recreation Board paved the way for the plan’s success by unanimously endorsing it. City Council approval is the plan’s final political hurdle. If Council approves, AE intends to break ground on the project early next year.


The proposal calls for constructing the substation on a section of the 18-hole Morris William Golf Course at 3851 Manor Road. The project requires moving the 14th hole and re-routing the cart path to accommodate the substation, which will abut Manor Road. In return for the space, AE would write PARD a $1.5 million check to renovate the golf course. The utility company also proposes to transfer the deed of a 4.43-acre parcel it owns on 51st Street to PARD, install up to $250,000 of solar panels on a planned golf cart maintenance building at Williams, and plant trees and provide landscaping around the substation in order to mitigate its visual impacts.


“This is an opportunity to make it a win-win for Austin,” said PARD Director Sara Hensley.


The plan resulted from three months of whirlwind bargaining between AE and PARD and five public meetings. While both PARD staff and AE representatives appeared happy with the outcome, an exchange at Tuesday’s meeting between Poole and Hensley hinted that the negotiations sometimes landed in the rough.


“Sonny will tell you we’ve had some knock-down drag-outs,” Hensley said. “I don’t think he likes working with me anymore.”


“It’s been very invigorating,” Poole quipped in response, evoking laughter from the board and audience members.


But nobody is as pleased with the proposal as the golfers who frequent Morris Williams Golf Course, represented at the meeting by Golf Advisory Board members Mary Arnold and Delano Womack.


Arnold compared the negotiations with AE to similar dealings with Austin Water in 2008, when the utility proposed digging up part of the golf course to install a wastewater line (also to serve the Mueller development).


“We had to fight every step of the way to get mitigation for the sewer line,” Arnold said. In contrast, AE has fostered “a much closer and friendlier working relationship,” she said. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel for the improvements at Morris Williams that everybody wants done,” she said. “We’re thrilled to be here in support of this project.”


Womack echoed Arnold’s enthusiasm. “We strongly support this (proposal),” he said. “It’s going to be good for the golfers, good for the city, and good for Austin Energy.”


The idea of sharing turf with a power utility doesn’t necessarily thrill golfers, but $1.5 million in funds earmarked to improve a public golf course in need of a facelift does. The course, built in 1964, needs about $4.5 million in repairs and improvements, Womack said. PARD has about $600,000 set aside for improvements at Williams. A pending $1 million grant from the State of Texas along with the AE funds would push the pot over the $3 million mark. Suggested course improvements include renovating the clubhouse, building a cart maintenance facility, improving the irrigation system, and revamping greens.


“This (substation) has been a blessing for us,” Womack said. “It was a natural for us when they came to us with the proposal.”


But just when Tuesday’s PARD meeting was about to turn into an AE love fest, Board Member Carol Lee offered a tempering thought. While Mueller may be renowned as a model redevelopment project, she said, it should have included a plan to power all those new homes and businesses. AE had selected a site for the substation on Mueller in the early 2000s, but the plan was scrapped over concerns that it might disrupt communications at the nearby 911 call center.

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