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Environmental Board votes against expanding West Lake water pact

Friday, January 20, 2012 by Michael Kanin

A second city advisory body has weighed in against the idea of allowing the City of West Lake Hills to expand its wastewater contract with the Austin Water Utility.


On Wednesday, the Environmental Board voted 4-2 to deny a request that it recommend that the Austin City Council approve an amendment to the parties’ wastewater contract. That amendment would allow West Lake officials to connect two new commercial properties to the system.


Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell and Vice Chair Robin Gary joined board members Jennifer Walker and Mary Ann Neely in voting for the motion to deny. Board Members Robert Anderson and James Schissler voted against the motion and Marisa Perales was absent.


With the vote, the Environmental Board joined their colleagues on Austin’s Water and Wastewater Commission, who took the same action on Jan. 11 (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 12, 2012).


At issue is a contract that was contentiously negotiated 10 years ago. In it, officials from both cities agreed to restrict West Lake Hills’ Austin sewer service to primarily handle failing and expiring septic systems. The deal was limited to serve only existing commercial properties.


Officials with West Lake Hills, representatives of the developers, and commissioners who remember the fight all concede that discussions for the deal were heated. Neely told her colleagues that she remembered the fight.


“It was essentially an environmental initiative to keep dense development on wastewater out of West Lake,” she said of the eventual contract.


Wastewater lines can provide support to more dense development than a septic system.


Still, West Lake Hills Mayor Dave Claunch felt like he should re-visit the deal. “When this development on one of these tracts started gaining momentum, it occurred to me that we really needed to open a conversation with the City of Austin about how best to address this issue of development on tracts that were previously undeveloped,” he told the Environmental Board.


“In our opinion it would be preferable to have them on wastewater,” Claunch told In Fact Daily.


Members of both advisory boards were concerned that opening the agreement up to new commercial development would jeopardize space set-aside for expiring septic systems and encourage future growth. Claunch disagrees with these suggestions.


Several people commented that they believed that approving this contract change would reduce the amount of capacity that is available for residential customers to join the system at a later date when their septic systems reach end-of-life,” he told In Fact Daily via email. “(Austin Water staff member) Bart Jennings explained that our contract caps the available capacity at 800 gallons per minute and he estimated that we are currently using 350 gallons per minute. Nobody made the next obvious statement: that leaves more than half of the capacity available for future growth.” 


Claunch continued. “Our wastewater engineer has stated that he firmly believes that we have more than enough available capacity to serve both of these proposed commercial developments, and all existing commercial and residential customers, and every residence in the service area that is not currently connected,” he wrote. “In other words, it’s a non-issue. There’s plenty of capacity.”


As for future development, Claunch echoed statements West Lake Hills officials made to the Environmental Board. “Amending the WLH-Austin contract would affect only these two commercial properties,” he wrote.


The matter is scheduled to go before Council next Thursday. Should the amendment fail there, developers at both sites have indicated that they will move forward with construction and install septic systems.

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