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City Environmental Officer Pat Murphy to retire after 25 years

Monday, November 29, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

After more than 25 years, Environmental Officer and Assistant Director of Watershed Policy Pat Murphy will be retiring from city government at the end of January. Murphy, a lifelong Texan who came to Austin after college, worked his way up from assistant city arborist to help create some of the most significant environmental policy in the city’s history. He has also been at the center of innumerable negotiations between the environmental community, the city, and private developers.


“Ive always treasured the environment and protecting the environment has been my number one priority,” Murphy told In Fact Daily, “but my perception of protecting the environment often means finding a solution that will balance the different public policies of the city in order to be able to achieve a level of protection that you might not otherwise be able to achieve if you just had divergent views.”


I see that you cant really protect the environment without balancing all the public policy initiatives. So I think that environmental protection demands that you find solutions through compromise in order to achieve the greater goal.”


For Murphy, it all started with the trees. He moved to Austin in 1985 to manage tree work and consulting for a Houston company that was opening a branch in the city. While working on the development of the Arboretum project for developer Trammell Crow, Murphy became friends with the then-Austin city arborist. When the city forester position opened up not long after his arrival, Murphy applied. Though he didn’t get that job, he was offered a job as assistant city arborist.


In his new position Murphy said he learned quickly that he would have to be more involved with the overall environmental impact of development if he hoped to preserve trees. 


“It became painfully obvious to me that I was trying to save trees but I didnt have any idea of all the other requirements that were going on around me that were determining whether I could save trees or not,” he said. “So I became interested in expanding my knowledge. I started doing landscape review in addition to arborist review to help put things in context. Then I started realizing the environmental regulations were also driving a lot of the development in terms of how it was positioned on the site, with setbacks, and it became obvious to me that thats how we should save trees onsite.”


In the early 1990s, there was big turnover in the environmental review section, and Murphy went to work in that department. “I was doing the big-picture look at the environment on a site rather than just focusing on individual trees,” he said.


By the mid-90s, Murphy was the environmental division manager, overseeing all of the city’s environmental inspectors, review functions, and water-quality engineering.


Murphy’s rise came during a particularly volatile period in the city’s environmental history. He was there when the Save Our Springs Ordinance was passed and when it was negated by the Texas Legislature. He helped negotiate several other ordinances that sought to strengthen the citys environmental power. “The pendulum was swinging back and forth and we had lots of legal and legislative issues, lots of fights going on over municipal utility districts and water quality protection zones,” he said.


One of the things I’m proudest of for the city is our retaining our rights and our ability to protect the environment from the legislature, which has been a long, ongoing issue. What we were doing in the mid-90s, we were the only ones doing that. Now its becoming a little more mainstream. We were out on the front lines.


Murphy also helped resolve several longstanding disputes between the city’s environmental community and developers like Stratus and Gary Bradley.


“That era is when I started developing into my full career in terms of dealing with all those environmental issues,” he said.


To this day, Murphy says he views his ability to find common ground between seemingly intractable opponents as his greatest asset and the compromises he helped mediate between them as his proudest achievements. The city’s environmental officer since 1998, Murphy has been involved in most of the big, often controversial, development issues facing the city over the last 20 years, from Circle C to the Domain to the upcoming Whisper Valley Public Improvement District, set to be built in the far eastern part of the city. 


“My primary goal is to protect the environment to the best of our ability, given that there are conflicting policies and issues that are of equal importance in the community and youve got to find some balance,” Murphy said. “I’ve worked hard to gain the respect of both sides, environmentalists and developers. We dont always agree but we always respect each other. My reputation is what I’m proudest of, the fact that people trust me, that Im able to facilitate and mediate solutions because people feel like they can speak openly and I can understand their issues and help them find a compromise or a balance that I don’t think you could do if you didn’t have that kind of trust.”


When Murphy first took the job as assistant city arborist in 1985, he swore he’d only be in Austin five years. A quarter of a century later, he is retiring to spend more time with his wife, Sarah, and their two sons, Ryan and Jack.


It’s been a long but incredible experience for me, he said. “But now its time to take a step back and focus on my family.

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