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Travis County to seek City of Austin aid to finish Texas Industries deal

Wednesday, February 1, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Travis County will turn to the City of Austin for help in completing a deal that could both insulate neighbors from and provide elements of land conservation to a controversial Texas Industries (TXI) mining operation near the Austin‘s Colony subdivision. As currently discussed, the deal relies on a variance from the City of Austin that would allow TXI to construct a haul road across Gilleland and Elm creeks for trucks to bring raw materials to a near-by processing facility.


Joe Gieselman, former head of the County’s Transportation and Natural Resources division, is serving as a consultant for the county on the matter. Gieselman told commissioners that his successor, Steve Manilla wrote Austin City Manager Marc Ott to gauge the city’s interest in the deal. Gieselman added that the county received a response from Austin‘s director of Planning and Development Review Greg Guernsey that indicated the city’s potential interest in an agreement.


“The City of Austin stands ready to discuss this further with the county,” said Gieselman, who noted that City Council members had not yet been briefed on the matter.


The area contains a swath of land owned by TXI along the Colorado River near the Village of Webberville in southeastern Travis County. The company aims to use the property to mine for raw materials it uses to make cement. The project was met with stiff but late neighborhood resistance that – because of county limits on land use regulation – could do little to prevent commissioners from signing off on the effort (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 27, 2010).


According to a briefing paper, Travis County officials had classified some of the same land TXI would eventually purchase as “priority open space” that could be acquired via funds raised in a 2005 bond election. As the parties began to bump into their respective agendas, “both the County and TXI agreed to discuss each other’s objectives and see if there was common ground that could lead to agreement on terms for open space acquisition and mining, as well as for addressing some of the concerns of area residents about mining operations.”


In advance of a Tuesday public hearing on the matter, commissioners learned that they had three basic options. A comprehensive agreement could provide a buffer to insulate area residents from the sights and sounds of an ongoing mining operation. It could also, argues the briefing paper, provide “for a more comprehensive set of measures and considerations, such as open space acquisition and donations.”


This option would find the county, TXI, and the City of Austin working together on a host of issues. That would include the company’s effort to get a variance to construct its haul road.


The court could also try to buy a 587-acre tract of land from TXI that sits in the middle of its proposed operations. That move would have the effect of cutting off the potential haul road but, according to the briefing paper, mining operations would continue but TXI trucks would now use county roads instead of the haul road. The action would also likely take some form of condemnation for the city to acquire the land. That, according to the paper, could get expensive.


The third option for the county would be for it to do nothing. With that option, TXI would still operate its mines and the county would lose the ability to negotiate for additional buffers or conservation lands.


Developer Jim Carpenter, who is the managing partner for the Webber’s Crossing project, offered the court a fourth option. Carpenter told commissioners that he and his partners had offered to pay for a high-end conveyor belt that would replace TXI’s haul road. He suggested that the move would provide the parties with a more environmentally-friendly option and Carpenter and his colleagues with less dust than would be kicked up by trucks on a haul road.


Gieselman told commissioners that, though he had discussed the county’s take with TXI, they had yet to issue a formal response. “Everything that I have presented today has been presented to TXI. TXI has agreed to none of (it),” he said. “They understand that this goes to the city next so their question to me is ‘what else?’”


County Judge Sam Biscoe moved to bring the city in on the matter. “I think the logical next step is for us to touch base with the city staff,” he said.


In the end, all of Biscoe’s colleagues except Commissioner Ron Davis agreed. Davis offered a protest no vote. “I’m voting to let the state legislature know that we need more land use authority,” he said.

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