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Environmental Board backs code variances for Formula 1 track

Friday, November 5, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The proposed Austin Formula 1 racetrack in southeast Austin got a green flag Wednesday from the city’s Environmental Board, which recommended on a 6-0 vote a set of variances that will be needed for its construction, including a series of conditions agreed to by the firm behind the track, Full Throttle Productions. The measure goes before the Zoning and Platting Commission on Nov. 16 for a final vote.


The board acted on the variances over the concerns of both citizens and the local chapter of the Sierra Club, whose worries revolved mostly around the lack of information that Full Throttle has shared with the public.


The project moved along despite recently published concerns that it might not be ready in time for the first planned race in 2012. That date is only a guess, however, as the Formula 1 governing body won’t set the 2012 race schedule until December of 2011.


Richard Suttle, an attorney with Armbrust & Brown who represented the track’s builders, emphasized to the board the overall benefits of facility. “The cut and fill variance and the construction on slopes –you’ve seen a lot of those and they’re fairly standard,” he said. “This event puts the spotlight on Austin, Texas, for the world to see. In fact, if you watched any of the Formula One races that have been on TV in the past five months, the talk has been all about Austin, and the United States Grand Prix.”


Suttle said the project will have numerous benefits for the Austin economy.


“What this project means is jobs and economic development for our city, our county, our region and our state,” he said. “It could be construction jobs, it could be operational jobs. And there’s the immeasurable spinoff that comes from the world looking at our city, and the world coming to our city to view the race. That transfers into hotel tax, sales tax, alcohol tax, rental car tax, in addition to the sales taxes that will be generated by this project.” 


To some residents of Del Valle, however, concerns remained. Richard Franklin wondered about the environmental impact of the project.


“There are a lot of different issues that haven’t been addressed, primarily the impact studies that we asked for,” he said. “Long term, we’ve got to consider the fact that there are going to be carcinogens in the air, carcinogens in the ground. They may be putting tanks in the ground for fuel—we don’t know, we haven’t heard.”


In response, Suttle told In Fact Daily that the track’s developers would not be putting any fuel tanks in the ground. Traditionally, Formula 1 race teams utilize above-ground tanks that use gravity to feed fuel to the cars.


Though the track’s builders have to produce environmental studies for permits they will need to complete construction, those efforts are specific to the requirements of each of those permits. Because the facility is in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction, a full environmental impact study is not needed.


Roy Whaley, vice-chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, also expressed some concern. “The city has spent tens of millions of dollars to advertise Austin to green businesses and green technologies to draw those jobs to Austin,” he said. “When you have a sport of such conspicuous, capricious waste, (I don’t see how) that jibes with our stated goal of being the greenest city in the world.”


In the end, however, the board could rule only on the two variances for which Suttle had applied. That they did, along with a series of conditions that included requests for the track builders to restore native prairie conditions in areas of the project that go undeveloped, examine the possibility of reforesting riparian areas along a creek at the site, and to comply with city regulations on parking lot shading. Suttle also said that several stock ponds on the site would be preserved as wetlands


The project is located in Austin’s ETJ, which greatly limits the amount of control the city has over its construction.


Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell made sure that track opponents knew that the body had heard their worries. “Many of the concerns that you all have raised are very valid,” she said. “Please don’t think that just because we couldn’t incorporate those into our motion, that they’re not valid. There are other bodies that this will go to where you can certainly speak and that’s where it’s more relevant in terms of what they decide to do and what kinds of requirements they put on this. So please realize we’re doing the best we can in terms of the environmental part.”

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