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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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Travis County commissioners OK proposed deal with TXI
Travis County Commissioners signed off Tuesday on a retooled agreement between the county and aggregate mining concern Texas Industries (TXI). When completed, the deal will transfer more than 300 acres of open space currently owned by the company to county control.
In exchange, the county will work with TXI as it operates its gravel mines in the eastern Travis County. Official cooperation will extend to county support of either a private haul road or a conveyor belt that would allow the company to transport materials between two sites. Some of TXI’s residential neighbors have been against that idea – and oppose mining operations in residential areas in general.
In response to an hour of questioning from two TXI neighbors, Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt suggested that the contract allows the county to better monitor the mine operations. “Without this contract we wouldn’t have any regulatory authority,” she said.
The deal is contingent on approval from the Austin City Council because, although the site is in the unincorporated area of the county, it is also in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. That gives the city some regulatory authority.
The city will consider a set of four environmental variances that would allow the building of either the road or the conveyor for TXI to haul aggregate. Council members are set to discuss the matter during Thursday’s meeting. Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols told commissioners Tuesday that the City of Austin’s Environmental Board and the Zoning and Platting Commission had both signed-off on the variances after attaching a handful of conditions.
The pending agreement between TXI and Travis County is a two-party version of a very similar effort that initially included the City of Austin. According to a presentation that was given by city staff to the city’s Zoning and Platting Commission, TXI decided to look for a variance via ordinance instead of including the city directly in the deal while the parties were negotiating.
Texas Industries is a Dallas-based cement manufacturing firm. The gravel it mines along the Lower Colorado River is used in its products.
Lack of authority has been a continuing complaint from county commissioners. In January, 2010, the Court awarded TXI a mining permit on a 3-2 vote. The discussion of the issue came with much chagrin about what the county can and can’t do in the regions it has authority. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 27, 2010.)
In addition to buffer zones around residential areas, and the transfer of open space (both through purchase and donation), TXI has also agreed to environmental monitoring.
At least some neighbors have remained actively involved in deliberations over TXI’s mining, even after the company acquired the permits to operate it. In addition to other concerns, TXI neighbor Susan McHenry asked commissioners to look into extending buffer zones agreed to by the company. “There’s a lot of gaps in the so-called thousand-foot buffers,” she said.
County Judge Sam Biscoe told McHenry that the county would look in to the idea, but that he wasn’t sure how much they could do. Biscoe suggested this would depend on the market conditions that surround the property that the county would have to acquire to complete the buffers. “Ultimately, it kind of boils down to whether owners are motivated to sell and whether we have the financial ability to do more,” he said.
Eckhardt added a bit of legislative perspective to that discussion. “We tried to get legislation last session on incompatible uses in order to get a level playing field on buffers,” she said. “We even had the support of the Home Builders Association (of Greater Austin), locally, to get performance-based buffers for industrial users who move in next to residential areas. The initiative was absolutely crushed in committee.”
Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the deal. Commissioner Ron Davis, who told his colleagues that he wanted to send a message, voted no.
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