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Split Council OKs settlement with Jeremiah Venture for development

Friday, August 30, 2013 by Charlotte Moore


After a contentious 6-year battle, Austin City Council members reached a settlement agreement Thursday with Jeremiah Venture LP. It came on a reluctant 4-3 vote. With the agreement, the group gets city support in a permitting process that could result in 1,000 single-family homes on the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer.


The deal gives Jeremiah Venture a major leg up in a hearing set for Sept. 30. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will hear arguments from both side of the issue over granting the group a permit to irrigate treated sewage in the recharge zone in Hays County.


Austin owns land adjacent to the tract and has spent tens of millions on preserving and protecting the water quality in the area.


“Basically, you’re inviting other developers to come irrigate treated sewage on a recharge zone,” said Bill Bunch, Executive Director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. “This is an extremely dangerous precedent. You’re opening the door to other plants coming in with more sewage directly on the recharge zone. That’s not raising the bar of higher standards. That is a dangerous and terrible lowering of the bar.”


In 2008, Jeremiah Venture applied for the wastewater permit to build on the 607 acres of land. At that time, Hays County, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, the City of Austin and SOS all opposed the plan.


Since, Jeremiah Venture has reached agreements with all of the entities except the City of Austin and SOS. Terms of the agreements effectively hold the developer to a number of environmental best practices aimed at protecting and preserving the land as much as possible.


In Oct. 2012, Council unanimously rejected a settlement offer.


This time, Council members supporting the settlement said doing so was in the best interest of the aquifer. With the permit, the developer is likely to build about 1,000 homes all operating on a wastewater treatment system. Without the permit, the development would likely consist of 400-450 homes each on individual septic systems.


Lawyers for Jeremiah Venture tell In Fact Daily that the city gets a state-of-the art wastewater treatment system as well as a measurable, legally binding agreement holding the developer to high standards.


“We have negotiated a settlement agreement with Austin that will make this wastewater treatment plant the most-restricted, highest-quality wastewater treatment plant of any with permits that have been issued in the whole state of Texas,” said attorney Nikelle Meade.


It was a point some Council members say they could not ignore.


“This is a tough case,” said Council Member Mike Martinez. “This property is owned and there are some entitlements to it. If we don’t enter into this agreement, we go into TCEQ with a fair amount of certainty that we will fail. I believe in 45 days we’ll be worse off. If SOS wants to move forward, I’m going to be glad. But if we stick with SOS and both move forward and we lose, then we all really lose.”


After a lengthy closed-door executive session with an expert scientist from the city’s Watershed Protection Department, Council Member Kathie Tovo returned to open session with a motion, seconded by Council Member Laura Morrison, for Council to reject the settlement.


“I think the city got involved six years ago for very good reasons,” Tovo said. “It seems very clear this application would result in contamination and we should continue to protest the settlement. I think we need to stay the course and stand up for the standards that we want to see development achieve.”.


Martinez followed up with a substitute motion to accept the settlement, which was seconded by Council Member Bill Spelman.


“I don’t support the settlement,” Spelman said, “but I accept the settlement.”


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole voted to support the settlement. Council Member Chris Riley joined Morrison and Tovo with votes against it.


“At the end of the day, we all have to make a judgment call on what is best for the aquifer and Barton Springs,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “Based on the advice we’ve been given and the technical expertise, and faced with the alternative of having the opportunity either to raise the bar for the worst case scenario or face the possibility of lowering that bar, or worse yet, to have between 300 and 500 single-family homes over the recharge zone with septic tanks…weighing all the factors, if we want to do what’s best for the aquifer, we should approve the settlement.”

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