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New Watershed Protection Ordinance up for Council consideration

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members may offer only limited approval to a series of dramatic changes to the city’s Watershed Protection Ordinance. The rewrite, a document that exchanges small allowances of additional impervious cover for more protection of the city’s creek watersheds – among other items – is set for a vote and public hearing on Thursday.


It could be approved on all three readings, or Council members could – as they hinted at a work session Tuesday – opt for a slower approach. Some language in the revisions applies to the city’s Save Our Springs Ordinance, and will thus require six votes for passage.


Some in the environmental community are concerned that city officials may only be dragging their feet to allow for additional grandfathering of properties that might otherwise be affected by the rules. Grandfathering – and how much the city can afford to allow until it faces some sort of legal or legislative backlash – continues to be a significant issue for Austin decision makers.


Matt Hollon, Environmental Division Manager at Austin Watershed Protection,  told In Fact Daily that neither he nor his department were dragging their feet. “Obviously, that’s not what we want to do,” said Hollon. “This has been a long process…we have been really careful in this thing to get it right and be responsive (to stakeholder) input.”


Hollon also suggested that the department was still engaged with stakeholders, and that the possibility remains that the ordinance could be ready for full approval Thursday. He added that a Council delay would not make a huge difference for staff.


That opinion echoed what Hollon’s colleague Jean Drew told Council members Tuesday. Drew cited the rule-making that would follow Council approval of the ordinance. “It really won’t have much of an impact because the rules are done in quarterly cycles,” she said. “It takes probably a minimum of three months to go through the rules-posting process and that’s really assuming we have no stakeholder input.”


The resolution calls for changes in a broad watershed protection rules first set by Council members in 1986. The update features an extension of the “critical water quality protection zone buffer to streams with 64 acres of drainage citywide,” according to a takings assessment prepared for the State of Texas. Watershed officials also say that the document will strengthen floodplain protection, improve storm water controls with a change to how the city calculates site area, improve mitigation options, and aim to streamline regulations.


Council Member Kathie Tovo offered Hollon some cover for a quicker approvals process. “It sounds to me like your timeline is…most benefitted by us considering and passing this on all three readings on Thursday,” she said. “If we passed it on first reading, it delays the rules process to an extent that makes it challenging.”


Hollon affirmed her take on the matter, later noting that a minor delay would not have too much in the way of a negative impact, but that a pause of a month or more could be problematic.


Council Member Bill Spelman offered his read. “If we postpone for a couple weeks, even a month, it wouldn’t have any effect because you are going to have to post (the rules process) within two months,” he said. “But there are some people that are suggesting that we not take this up on third reading until the rules have been promulgated. That won’t work for you because you need the ordinance before you can post the rules.”


Drew confirmed that that was the case – and that the delayed third reading scenario might allow a set of emergency rules set in place as part of the ordinance process to expire. That eventuality could allow for a more rough transition to the new watershed protection rules.

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