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Lakeside residents make waves as board backs bulkhead ordinance

Monday, August 30, 2010 by Laurel Chesky

To the dismay of some Lake Austin residents, new regulations for building bulkheads on the shoreline sailed through the Austin Parks and Recreation Board last week. The board voted 6-0 to recommend approval of a proposed ordinance that changes the city’s development code dealing with docks, bulkheads and shoreline access. 

The purpose of the ordinance is to create shorelines that can absorb waves created by boats and reduce erosion caused by those waves – a problem on heavily used Lake Austin that has escalated with the growing popularity of wakeboard boats.

However, the ordinance did not sail through with ease, as the Parks Board fielded a wave of opposition at Tuesday’s meeting. All 10 speakers signed up to comment on the proposed changes – most of them Lake Austin waterfront property owners – opposed the changes. In particular, speakers balked at the proposed ban on vertical bulkheads along lake shorelines.

Proposed new language states that a “bulkhead with a greater than 45 degree vertical slope for any portion greater than one foot in height is not permitted on or adjacent to the shoreline of a lake” except in man-made channels under 50-feet in width.

When an approaching wave hits a vertical surface, some of the wave energy is forced downward, which can cause erosion of the lake bed in front of the wall and degrade the shallow-water habitat for plants and animals,” said Andrew Clamann, an environmental scientist with the city’s Watershed Protection Department. Additionally, some of the wave energy is reflected back into the lake creating hazardous chop and wave action in addition to increased erosion on nearby shorelines.”

Sloping shorelines, according to city staff, better absorb wave energy and reduce erosion, and create a friendlier habitat for natural flora and fauna.

However, some of the residents opposing the ordinance questioned the city’s science. Others said they felt left out of the city’s process of drafting the ordinance. Still others argued that controlling boat traffic is a better way to abate waves and prevent erosion.

“The primary concern I have is the idea of banning vertical bulkheads. I think that’s insane,” said Lake Austin resident Sam Crowther, who said he has studied wave abatement issues while serving on the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Lake Austin advisory panel. He said that vertical bulkheads fitted with wave breakers provide the best way to absorb waves.

“If you have those horizontal wave breaks on a vertical surface,” Crowther said, “the wall will work very well. Lake Austin has them now and anybody can observe them in operation. They work, so there’s no sense in banning them.”

Lake Austin resident and dock builder Jeff Walker argued that lakefront homeowners need the ability to build retaining walls to protect their property from, ironically, the very erosion that the ordinance tries to slow. “If I did not have my stone retaining wall, I will guarantee you that, in the last five years, my house would have been in the lake,” he said.

Shoreline erosion is a “boat problem,” Walker said. “What are we doing about the boat traffic issue? I don’t see the people who are actually causing the problem … putting any stake in this. What (is the city) doing as far as restricting lake times or such?”

Clint Small, a former of both the Parks Board and the Planning Commission, said that city staff never met with lake residents, including Friends of Lake Austin, about the code changes. “I’m disappointed that the majority of work that’s been done on this has been staff work.”

Clamann, the lead staffer working on the ordinance, said that he contacted Friends of Lake Austin but never received a return call. “It’s hard for me to discuss these matters with people that don’t call me back,” he said.

Clamann also said that the city has studied boat traffic.  “We paid lots of money – through the nose – for a boat traffic study, and I think some of the conclusions and recommendation weren’t to the degree that we were hoping and expecting to see. But I agree with Jeff. I think the boat traffic cause should be forwarded. I think there should be some kind of committee to look into that specific thing.”

Parks Board Member Jeff Francell said that a lot of time and work had gone into the ordinance, and he urged the board to approve it. Board Chair Linda Guerrero pointed out that the public process around the ordinance will continue via stakeholders meetings with staff and with the Planning Commission and City Council.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to take action on the ordinance on Sept. 14. City Council is expected to tackle it on Oct. 28.

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