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Colorado River corridor plan heads to Council

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The City Council is considering an ambitious partnership with Travis County and concrete firm Texas Industries (TXI) to map development and preservation efforts for existing gravel-mining operations along the Colorado River in the eastern part of the county.


The project, called the Colorado River Corridor Plan, encompasses roughly 38,000 acres of land that extends east from US183 to the Bastrop County line.


Travis County approved the plan last week. Should the members of the Austin City Council sign off on moving forward, negotiations over a range of issues would commence. Council members have asked staff to bring any final agreement back for their approval.


Dallas-based TXI is a leading supplier of building materials, including cement, aggregate, concrete, sand and gravel.


Council heard a detailed presentation on the plan but took no formal action as part of their Thursday meeting.


The effort came out of a county desire to secure a future for that portion of its jurisdiction after the winding down of gravel-mining operations, brought to the area by deposits left by the lower Colorado, which are valuable ingredients for cement. Former Travis Executive Manager for Transportation and Natural Resources Joe Gieselman – who played a key role in the development of the plan – told the City Council that the plan was born out of a lack of land use regulatory authority.


“There is very little likelihood that the county – and for that matter the city,  through its regulatory mechanism — can restrict mining or alter the process that was going on, and it wasn’t likely that the Texas Legislature was going to grant the county any additional authority,” Gieselman said. “So we began to look at a bigger picture: Given the extensive ownership of these properties by mining operations and the fact that the urbanized area was migrating out into this area, we needed to have a plan.”


Faced with those prospects, the county began exploring a way to protect neighborhoods in the region, set aside land for preservation purposes and look forward to a post-mining era. The plan for the corridor mixes county land purchases and land donations from TXI with promises from the company that it will erect berms throughout the region to cushion neighborhoods against the impact of mining operations.


TXI has also agreed to practice concurrent reclamation as it mines its property. That approach would have the company more-or-less covering its excavations as it works, as opposed to leaving gaping pits in the landscape until it concludes operations in the area.


“Just as quickly as they pull … materials out, they’ll replace it, which minimizes the footprint of the actual mining,” said Gieselman.


In return, TXI asked for permission to build a private haul road that would allow it to transport alluvial gravel – which it uses to make cement – around and out of its facilities. Though Travis County officials were careful to point out that the agreement does not come with guaranteed permits, which would include a handful of environmental variances that would allow it to bridge Gilleland Creek, it does set out the path for the company to acquire that authority.


TXI’s involvement in the process has brought some concern from area neighbors. Council member Chris Riley wondered about the level of public participation in the city’s approval of the agreement. The city’s Environmental Program manager, Chuck Lesniak, told council members that “the negotiated draft agreement would follow the same path these variances would normally follow.”


“Which means environmental board and land use commission,” Lesniak added. 


The head of Austin’s Planning and Development Review office, Greg Guernsey, told the council that the agreement would also go before the city’s Zoning and Platting Commission.


Council member Laura Morrison asked if a provision that would grandfather current mining rules for TXI as it moves forward with its operations might also exempt the company from improvements in health and safety standards. Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols told her that health and safety standards were exempt from grandfathering in this case.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell asked Gieselman about the next moves for the plan. Gieselman asked for council approval sometime in June.


TXI has set up a website at outlining what it calls the Hornsby Bend project. In a FAQ about the proposed mining activities, TXI says “the operation will conclude in approximately 15 to 20 years as determined at this time.”

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