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Austin and West Lake Hills again discussing controversial sewer pact

Thursday, January 12, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin will consider adding an amendment to a controversial wastewater agreement with the City of West Lake Hills. The action comes at the request of West Lake Hills Mayor Dave Claunch. If approved, the new language would allow the Austin Water Utility to provide centralized sewer service to at least two new commercial developments in West Lake Hills.


The idea did not sit well with the City of Austin’s Water and Wastewater Commission. On Wednesday night the group voted 4-2 to recommend against it.


Though he wouldn’t say whether he was for or against the amendment, Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros outlined some of the potential negatives that could result from the new agreement. He cited two chief concerns, namely that centralized sewer lines could bring more intense development to the area—which sits above the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone—and that any amount of sewage capacity allotted to commercial use takes away from the original purpose of the agreement. That, Meszaros suggested, was primarily to relieve failing septic systems in West Lake Hills.


Indeed, Meszaros argued that the original intent of the 2001 contract was fairly limited. “That agreement is centered on providing centralized wastewater service only to relieve existing septic tanks,” he said. “With regards to commercial development, the agreement is very clear. The language says, ‘without exception, only existing commercial tracts are eligible to be served…’ The contract provides no provisions whatsoever for new commercial and only the (Austin) City Council can modify that.”


West Lake Hills Wastewater Commission Chair Steve Hudson told his Austin counterparts that it was time to extend the agreement to new commercial properties. “Both of these properties are zoned commercial…and will be developed at some point,” he said. “We feel that it would be much better to put them on sewer rather than have them on septic.”


Lobbyist Richard Suttle represents one of the West Lake developments, an assisted living facility. He told the commission that his clients would move forward with or without the amendment, thanks to a backup plan that includes a septic system for the project. Still, he suggested that it might be time to reopen the old contract.


“This contract was heavily debated,” he said. “(And) it is very clear. But it’s been a while now, and we thought it doesn’t hurt to open up the discussion.”


Some commission members didn’t agree. Bill Moriarity asked Meszaros if “part of the caution here (is) that you open the barn door on this thing and you have more requests.”


Meszaros replied that it was. “If you start down the path of new commercial, I don’t know how exactly you can shut that path off,” he said.


Ultimately, Moriarity voted against recommending the change, as did commission chair Gwen Webb, commission vice chair Dale Gray, and commission member Sarah Faust. Commissioners Chien Lee and Aaron Googins voted in favor of recommending a change to the contract. Commission member Mickey Fishbeck recused herself.


The city’s Environmental Board is scheduled to weigh in on the matter next week. It could go to Council on Jan. 26.

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