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Parks board to hear water utility’s request for use of greenbelt

Thursday, October 14, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The battle over the city’s Water Treatment Plant 4 project came to the Parks and Recreation Board’s Land, Facilities, and Programs Committee this week, with representatives from the Austin Water Utility and the Spicewood Springs Coalition butting heads over a proposed shaft site on city-owned parkland.


On one side was AWU Director Greg Meszaros, who was at the meeting to make an official request to the committee that it recommend to the full Parks Board approval of both permanent and temporary use of parkland within the Upper Bull Creek Greenbelt. AWU would use the site, located at Spicewood Springs Road and Old Lampasas Trail, for the installation of a retrieval shaft and piping.


According to the utility’s plan, in order to get treated, or drinkable, water from the future water plant on Lake Travis to the Jollyville water tower at 183 and McNeill, the system’s pipes need to go along Spicewood Springs through the greenbelt. In response to concerns from neighborhood and environmental groups, AWU changed its original plan to sink a “working” shaft at the Spicewood site in favor of sinking an “access and retrieval” shaft instead.


According to AWU documents, an “access and retrieval” shaft is smaller than a “working” shaft and is designed and built for less intensive use. “Access and retrieval” shafts, unlike “working” shafts, are not used for excavation, which can be environmentally damaging. Under the terms of the new plan, the utility has shifted all tunnel excavation from the Spicewood Springs site to the Jollyville site.


“ We’ve been trying to find a route that best balances environmental impacts on our community, mitigates neighborhood concerns and disruption with construction, (provides the) shortest schedule and the safest constructability,” Meszaros told the committee. “We’ve changed our approach to get at neighborhood concerns.”


Meszaros said the repurposing of the Spicewood Springs site would reduce construction days by more than 50 percent, from 1000 days of active construction to 400 or less, and truck traffic by over 90 percent.


On Wednesday, Meszaros told the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission that the city had spent $4 million dollars on Jollyville Main so far. That figure includes both the preliminary engineering stage and the reexamination of the route that had come at the behest of neighbors.


Representatives from the Spicewood Springs Coalition told the committee that they are unconvinced by the water utility’s claims. Member Sharon Blythe said that by approving the use of the parkland for construction purposes the city would be breaching a nearly 30-year agreement with citizens not to “impair or damage” the easement along Spicewood Springs Road near Bull Creek.


“Since 1984,” Blythe said, “there have been no water lines approved (in the easement), no construction, no convenience stores; the neighborhood has opposed anything but park land. This is a long-term neighborhood concern for that very piece of property. It hasn’t sprung up overnight. This has been a decades-long issue.”


Blythe said that this would be the first time the city approved building on the site, pointing out that when the previous owner, the Wheeler family, sold the property to the city in 2000, it did so on the contractual understanding that it could only be used for park and recreational purposes.


“I say if the city moves forward with the project, they’ve breached the public trust,” Blythe said, sparking applause among the 100 or so people in attendance. “No public parks will be safe from encroachment.”


However, this would not be the first time park land had been used for other purposes. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code, a municipality can “approve any program or project that requires the use or taking of any public land designated and used prior to the arrangement of the program or project as a park (or) recreation area” provided there is “no feasible and prudent alternative to the use or taking of such land.”


In the end, concerns about the environmental impact construction might have on the site kept committee members Hill Abell and Jerry Perales from supporting the request, though they did vote to pass it forward to the full Parks and Recreation Board with no recommendation.


“In effect, we were not in favor of the project,” Abell told In Fact Daily. “We feel like we need quite a bit more information from the water utility before we can make a decision in favor of the project.”


Abell said he would particularly want documentation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service clearly stating that construction would not harm the habitat of the endangered Golden Creek Warbler. During the meeting, Meszaros told Abell that despite the work site’s presence in that habitat, the lack of trees on the site itself would preclude any damage to the bird’s population.


Abell seemed skeptical and requested that Meszaros bring more information about that and other potential environmental impacts when he goes before the full parks board on October 26. The subcommittee has since scheduled a special called meeting on Friday to “review information” that was requested at Monday’s meeting but no action is scheduled.


“We want to see more information about the potential risks of a construction site and an assessment process of those risks,” Abell said. “For example any kind of hazardous-waste spill, how that would be remediated. In the event of a flood, any water that’s pulled out of the tunnel site, how it would be dealt with. And we want to know more about the water-quality studies in order to protect the Jollyville Salamander.”


“We recognize that we’re close to a critical (bird) habitat in Bull Creek, and we’re taking significant steps to see that is managed,” Meszaros told the committee, but he pointed out that the proposed work site is not in salamander habitat.


Abell told In Fact Daily that this week he and Parks and Recreation Board Chair Linda Guerrero would be compiling a list of information they would like to see from Meszaros before he speaks to the board.


AWU spokesman Kevin Buchman told In Fact Daily that the utility would be happy to provide the board with as much information as it has. “We’re confident with the analyses that we’ve done,” he said. “We’ll review their questions and we will provide them with as much clarification as we can.”


If City Council approves the water utility’s proposed plan, construction would commence in the fall of 2011 and be completed by spring of 2014.

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