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Environmental Board postpones considering changes to Barton Springs Pool

Monday, February 11, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though its been years in the making, the Environmental Board has asked for a little more time to consider changes proposed at Barton Springs Pool. The renovations require variances from the Save Our Springs Ordinance, and last week the board came to the conclusion that they did not have enough information to determine whether those variances are warranted.


Among the changes proposed are the addition of an ADA-compliant path and overlook on the slope and an expansion of the parking lot that will result in 57 percent impervious cover. The Council approved a portion of project to upgrade Barton Springs last summer, giving the go-ahead on repairing the culvert and dam at the pool. That work is underway and should be completed by the end of March.


“I’m sorry. In terms of this, I am with all of the people that are so passionate about Barton Springs,” said Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell. “Everybody wants to move so fast in this country. I can’t get over how fast everybody is moving – and they just run over each other all the time. In this situation, with this pool, we need to just take time to get things right.”


Board members asked that staff return next week with the information they felt was lacking. They asked for an updated plan that shows all of the currently proposed changes, including a map that detailed the impervious cover. Adding to that, Board Member Mary Ann Neely said that she would like to see options for reducing impervious cover presented.


Right now, the plan calls for an increase in impervious cover, which has been unpopular with vocal stakeholders. The board also asked for a record of stakeholder input, with responses from appropriate parties, a discussion about the possibility of relocating an ADA-compliant path and overlook in the south slope, and more information on a proposed irrigation plan that would draw water from the pool.


Wary of the adversarial tone that meetings about the renovations had in the past, Maxwell limited the large group of speakers, asking them to organize their arguments. Two main disagreements with the plan emerged, both on the south side. Many speakers singled out the increase in impervious cover from the expanded parking lot and the path that will lead to the monument on the south slope as sources of angst.


The ADA-compliant path that is proposed will feature an overlook, enabling those with mobility issues to access the monument, and the south slope for the first time in Barton Springs history. Opponents of the path cite the Barton Springs Master Plan, which stipulates that impulses to alter the slope should be resisted, and it should remain a “natural place.”


Board Member Bob Anderson took issue with that argument.


“This is not a ‘natural area.’ Barton Springs Pool has been very highly disturbed for the last 158 years. Any time you have a smooth lawn area, that is not a natural condition,” said Anderson. “It’s hard to hear what your impression of natural is. It’s highly modified parkland and turf.”


Anderson stressed the importance of maintaining the health of the soil, saying he hoped that was something everyone could get behind. Neely also spoke in support of the trail.


“I do think the ADA trail is important. I think it’s the right thing to do, and I think that it speaks to what Austin is really about – to provide access to all people,” said Neely.


Executive Director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, Bill Bunch urged the board to postpone action, or vote against the variances. He stressed the need for a plan that would minimize the variances from the Save Our Springs Ordinance.


“This is basically a redevelopment project for a park. When developers want to develop under the SOS ordinance, we ask them to reduce their impervious cover, and at a minimum, we ask them to keep it the same. And that’s for development. Here we are in a park, and we’re asking to increase impervious cover. That’s backwards.”


“It would be a terrible precedent. And it would be hard to explain why we can increase impervious cover under SOS, but developers should not.”


Bunch said that any increase in impervious cover from an expanded parking lot should be offset by reductions in other areas.


“We’re not looking at this holistically,” said Bunch. “Yes, we’ve had a whole lot of meetings. But it’s been more combative than collaborative. It’s been piecemeal, and it’s been confusing.”


“We’ve been compromising and compromising. We’ve been listening and tried to get this thing to where everyone feels like they’ve been heard,” said former Parks and Recreation Board Chair Linda Guerrero. “This is a public facility. This is a public pool. This plan has to meet many needs of all citizens. It’s not a private pool.”


“It’s important that you know that we’ve been working extremely hard these past five years trying to get the best scenario we possibly could,” said Guerrero. She added that while the south parking lot was not originally in the purview of the plan, many complaints about dust and erosion led to its inclusion.


Maxwell said that she thought the board would be able to vote at the next meeting, after their questions had been answered. The board voted 5-1 to postpone the item, with Board Member James Schissler voting in opposition. Board Member Marisa Perales was absent.


Currently, City Council is slated to hear the plan at their March 7 meeting.

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