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City plans to move forward with hearing on Spicewood Springs shaft

Friday, October 29, 2010 by Michael Kanin

(Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the hearing date will be set on Nov. 18 but the hearing will not actually be until later.)


According to a chain of emails among various city officials, the City Council will consider a request to set a public hearing on the controversial site of a proposed shaft associated with the Water Treatment Plant 4 project on Nov. 18. The Chapter 26 hearing on use of parkland for the shaft would then be scheduled for sometime in December.


On Monday, Marsha Schulz in the city’s Office of Real Estate Services sent a copy of a Request for Council Action about the hearing to the city’s legal department. Taja Beekley, aide to Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, was copied on the email.


The Parks and Recreation Board held its inconclusive hearing on Tuesday night but declined to make a recommendation.


On Wednesday, Department of Public Works Water Treatment Plant Project Manager Stacie Long sent an email with the request directly to Garza and Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros. In it, she wrote that the process had been launched and that she assumes “we are still moving forward.”


Long then referenced the Parks Board meeting that had happened the night before. “I do need to know the wording that you would like me to put under the ‘Board and Commission Action’ section,” she added. “One thought is ‘Presented to the Parks Board on 10-26-10, no action was taken.’”


Garza responded to that email. “Correct,” he wrote. “We are moving forward.”


On the same day but later in the chain, Long noted that, as part of the backup that will be submitted with the request for the Chapter 26 hearing, they needed “a cover letter to (a memorandum of understanding) signed by both (Parks and Recreation Department) and (Austin Water Utility) directors.”


Garza responded that he had “already notified Sara and she is in agreement with our plan.” The director of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department is Sara Hensley. Hensley confirmed that she and Garza had discussed the Request for Council Action.


The shaft and its siting have been before three Parks Board-related bodies. They have also been the subject of Environmental Board scrutiny and an evening of protest at the Water and Wastewater Commission.


Shaft opponent Sharon Blythe and Save Our Springs Alliance head Bill Bunch were in Council chambers on Thursday to protest the $2.24 million acquisition of land that would be used for the treatment plant’s main lines. Still, that action passed by a 4-3 vote, with the anti-plant Council faction of Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison, and Chris Riley voting against it.


Blythe represents a group of Spicewood Springs Road-area residents who have been vocal in their opposition to the shaft. The group’s concerns range from the scope of the project to the noise that will be associated with it to the process by which the city has picked the site.


In response, the water utility has shrunk the role of the shaft from its original status as a working shaft to a retrieval shaft. Unlike working shafts, retrieval shafts are not chiefly used for excavation, which can be environmentally damaging.


During Thursday’s meeting, Morrison tried to pin Meszaros down about a date when a final environmental assessment of the project would be ready. Though Meszaros pointed out that much of the information that would be included in it was already available, he did not give a specific date for the final report.


Texas law mandates that a Chapter 26 hearing occur to justify the taking of any parkland. Because the proposed Spicewood Springs shaft site is on such property, it is subject to the hearing.


Opponents of the shaft have argued that the land has a deed restriction that would prevent the city from using it for anything other than a park. However, City Council can vote to override that restriction after the Chapter 26 hearing.


The parks board, like most city boards and commissions, serves only in an advisory capacity. Though the Council may rely on their input, their recommendation is not necessary for the Council to take action.

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