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Environmental Board holds off on recommending Cascades MUD

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

With conflicting city interests at play, the Environmental Board is taking a little more time to weigh the potential impact of a proposed Municipal Utility District just south of Austin.


The Cascades MUD is much closer to Austin city limits than is typical, and includes about 223 acres along the south side of Onion Creek, east of I-35. Developers Onion Associates, Ltd. are proposing to build 370 single-family units, more than 1,000 condominiums or townhomes, 63,555 square feet of retail space and 62,000 square feet of commercial space that will not be retail.


The Environmental Board will take a closer look at plans for the MUD through its Urban Growth Policy Committee meeting, before making a recommendation to Council, but city staff may not be as helpful as usual.


Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak explained that because of the unique circumstances surrounding this proposed MUD, there would be no staff recommendation to City Council. Instead, Lesniak offered his opinion that the proposed MUD would be environmentally superior to what could be built otherwise.


Lesniak described the fractured opinions about the proposed development. He said that the Planning and Development Review Department felt as though it should be annexed by the city, as the MUD is much closer to the city than is typical for districts. On the other hand, the  Austin Water Utility expects to save around $4 million from its creation.


“There’s different issues and interests here, and I think the decision has been made that there won’t be a staff recommendation on this MUD to Council,” said Lesniak. “It will be up to Council to make the final decision.”


Armbrust and Brown Attorney Richard Suttle said he expected a recommendation from Lesniak, given the “substantial” environmental benefits offered by the plan.


“I’m usually not this bold, but I will tell you that I’ve looked at it and this one has very solid grandfathering. We knew that was the trading card. It’s not a very attractive preliminary (plan.) The land uses are not what the land use guys want, the environmental protections are not what you all would want,” said Suttle. “That’s the only card that we have to trade in coming in to ask for a MUD.”


Suttle explained that a preexisting agreement with AWU could cost the city between $3.5 and $7 million in reimbursements if the property was developed under the original plan.


Chair Mary Gay Maxwell explained that she was looking to require strict environmental requirements on the project.


“You’ll have this for 30 years before the city annexes it. So I would really wish that we could get the strongest possible measures in place at the beginning,” said Maxwell. “We know that the science changes through the years.


“I don’t fault you all for going for a MUD. I can see the value in that. I am kindly disposed towards doing this, but I want us to keep in mind that we’re talking about 30 years here.”


Though the city has historically opposed MUDs, they shifted that opinion in 2011, laying down criteria under which they would support their creation. Though MUDs can be created through City Council consent, that process can also be circumvented, and they can be created through special legislation or through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.


The city does not collect property tax from MUDs, which are actually governmental entities unto themselves, and a sub-division of the state.

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