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Travis County wades into water-quality and land-use regulations

Thursday, August 2, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Travis County officials are preparing a major re-write of the county’s water quality protection regulations, which would lead Travis County Commissioners Court once again into the murky legal waters of county land-use regulation in Texas.

With the proposed new regulations, county officials hope to close what they see as at least one gap in Travis’ ability to protect its water resources. The new regulations would come via the amendment of portions of county code that would attach the new water quality protection standards to some plat and permit applications – and extend to mines and quarries. And, among other changes, it would codify the county’s existing water quality enforcement policies.


Familiar opposition to the changes comes from the development community. At the Travis Commissioners’ regular Tuesday meeting, Harry Savio of the Austin Homebuilders Association and engineer Hank Smith expressed reservations about the county’s capabilities in enforcing more restrictive water quality regulations.


There were also practical concerns. “The rules seem to go into effect in the (extraterritorial jurisdictions) of other cities,” Smith said. “Eleven years ago, the State of Texas put out a mandate, House Bill 1445, that says ‘Travis County will enter into interlocal agreements with all the municipalities within their (boundaries). That was 11 years ago.


“We’ve asked the question, (and been told), ‘well, we don’t have the staff, we don’t have the resources to enter into those agreements,’ ” Smith continued. “If it’s taken 11 years, and we still don’t have agreements with how we’re going to implement rules in the (extraterritorial jurisdiction) then why are we putting out more rules that are going into effect in the (extraterritorial jurisdiction)?”


County Judge  Sam Biscoe put the question of county authority directly to Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols: “Let me ask my question point blank.” Biscoe asked. “We are convinced that we have the authority to adopt these rules?”


“Yes,” Nuckols replied.


On top of his other concerns, Smith also wondered about the county’s ability to “inspect and maintain” the water quality ponds that would result from the stricter run-off restrictions that are part of the proposed new water quality regulations.


On this, Travis County Natural Resource and Environmental Quality program manager Tom Weber agreed “that this is going to be a challenge.” He added that limits on the restrictions would apply. “I think we’re going to be able to get our feet wet in seeing how these requirements work in a small, fairly finite set of circumstances.”


County officials and Commissioners drew fire from interested parties earlier this year when they approved a set of water-use regulations for new developments in the unincorporated regions of the county. There, opponents raised the question of whether the Commissioners had the legal authority to limit groundwater use through its platting process.


Again, Travis’ legal team argued that they did. “We are advised by our lawyers that we do” have the legal authority to enforce the regulations “in words that are convincing,” Biscoe told In Fact Daily at the time.I have no reason to think otherwise.” (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 1, 2012.)


Land-use regulation – or lack thereof – may be the most evident conflict with state policy on display by members of the Travis County Court. Among other examples, the issue also very notably reared its head when commissioners found themselves forced to rule in favor of a large-scale Texas Industries gravel mining operation, despite a nearby residential neighborhood. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 27, 2010.)


You can expect an ongoing debate over any new development regulations. The water quality rules will be back before Travis Commissioners next week.

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