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Council reluctantly rejects appeal of on-site sewage line permit

Tuesday, August 2, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

A Council discussion about an on-site sewage facility turned into a debate about the city’s authority over infrastructure in far west annexed areas of the city. Even as they voted against an appeal to stop construction of the facility, Council members admitted they were doing so with “trepidation” and not a little confusion.


Nathan and Farrah Chelstrom, who are building a house on Edgewater Drive, on Lake Austin, got the city permit on April 4. On April 22, the Chelstrom’s next-door neighbor David Rodewald filed an appeal of that permit, claiming the septic tank and drain field were installed in violation of city and state law and “do not provide the minimum required distance (buffers) to protect human health and the environment.”


According to Rodewald’s representative, attorney Helen Gilbert, the city made those decisions in violation of the law concerning setback distances. Without those setbacks, Gilbert wrote in her appeal letter to the city, “both Appellant, other members of the public and the environment may be exposed to untreated or only partially treated wastewater …”


At last week’s Council meeting, Gilbert argued that the tank is in violation of state statutes because it is not at least five feet from surface improvements to Edgewater Drive and is within 10 feet of a public water line. In addition, she said, the system’s drain field is both not big enough and is not set back far enough from the main waterline located under Edgewater Drive. He said both violations could lead to “runoff of wastewater into Lake Austin” and “contamination of the public water supply.” The drain field is also too close to a slope, where seeps may occur, he added.


“This is a very big house on a very small lot. There is enough room for a septic tank and other proper setbacks,” Gilbert told Council. Despite that, she continued, staff merely issued variances, something the property owners had not proven were necessary.


“They haven’t exhausted every alternative, as state law mandates,” said Gilbert. “Inconvenience is not grounds for a variance.”


Gilbert said she just wants to see the right thing done, both for her client and for Austinites in general.


“We’re not keeping them from their dream,” she said. “We just don’t want that person’s dream to become a nightmare for the neighborhood, this neighbor, and for the users of Lake Austin, who will be impacted by partially treated sewage when – not if but when – it runs off this very small site. We are only asking the state rules and that you require this property owner to install their septic system properly.”


However, city staff said that all the variances they granted are legitimate and more than sufficient for protecting the city’s water. They include a variance to locate the tank closer than five feet to the foundation of the home’s garage, provided that the tank has high hazard traffic-bearing lids, and a liner to protect against effluent emitted from the tank’s drip line in the drain field seeping into the French drain, an addition designed to prevent seepage.


The Austin Water Utility inspected and approved the septic system on July 25 and issued a license to operate the next day.


Council members admitted they were struggling to understand the ins and outs of the case but decided in the end to support staff’s conclusion and reject the appeal. However, they didn’t do so without reservations and asked staff about the options the city has for better serving the area.


“The problem as I see it is not just this system; it’s all the systems adjacent to it as well,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “And the solution to that is a sewer line for all these properties.” Acknowledging that the property under discussion is part of a Limited Purpose annexed area, and therefore not in the city limits, Leffingwell asked staff, “What is the projection for when sewer service might be available for this whole area?”


AWU Assistant Director David Juarez was not optimistic that such service could happen anytime soon.


“We don’t have a system anywhere near that area, so it would very cost-prohibitive to extend any service out there,” Juarez said. “It’s not adjacent to any service. It’s not a city-maintained roadway, so we’d have to work through that issue as well.”


Council Member Mike Martinez told Juarez that the city should be exploring “every option” to provide wastewater service to annexed areas in the far west. “Not just where our closest facility might be or our closest wastewater line might be but where we might be able to join in interlocal agreements with other entities that are providing service in those areas so that it may be cost-effective to pay for that infrastructure because the value we place on water quality would far outweigh the cost,” he said.


Council voted 6-1 to reject the appeal, with Council Member Laura Morrison the only nay vote.


Rodewald had previously sued the Chelstroms over construction on the property.

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