Monday, October 14, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Watershed Ordinance rewrite still has some hurdles to overcome

The massive Watershed Protection Ordinance passed its first official hurdle at City Council earlier this month, though a few bones of contention remain and much more discussion is likely on the horizon.


After unanimously approving the new ordinance on first reading at its last meeting, Council is expected to take up the ordinance again on Thursday.


The timing will give them a chance to take a closer look at the 166-page document which is the end result of about two and one-half years worth of work with stakeholders.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell noted the process had been going on much longer than that and was the result of something started about 12 years ago.


“When we address it again, and hopefully finally approve it, it will be the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one,” said Leffingwell, who served as chair of the city’s Environmental Board before being elected to Council.


Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch spoke in general support of the overhaul, but told Council that there were quite a few details he hoped would be looked at more closely between the readings.


Bunch said the proposed SOS Redevelopment Ordinance would represent a “significant backsliding on protection” from what is currently in place. He explained current standards require that redeveloped properties add water quality controls across the entire site. However, the new proposal says that the clean-up only has to be done on the redeveloped portion of the site “or some equivalent area.”


Bunch said the change was worrisome, and changed the intent of redevelopment ordinance from one that hoped to clean-up old sites to one that just attempted not to make things worse.


“That’s not enough,” said Bunch. “It’s especially not enough when you realize that it’s completely forgetting all of the pollution that happens during the demolition and reconstruction phase.”


After extensive work with the city, Annie Armbrust, the Director of Public Relations for the Real Estate Council of Austin, also spoke in favor of the new ordinance, praising its balance of environmental and development concerns.


However, Armbrust did express some concern with several details, including an on-site water quality control trigger. The original language put that trigger when impervious cover is 20 percent of the net site area. She said that RECA would prefer that threshold to be set at 10,000 square feet, instead of the currently proposed 5,000 square feet.


“Going from a percent to a raw number is a substantial change,” said Armbrust. “Ten thousand is what Travis County uses and we feel this is certainly fair. It’s not a huge ask, in our members’ opinion.


“If you think about it, it’s really as much (impervious cover) as a house and a driveway,” said Armbrust.


Leffingwell expressed support for raising the trigger in line with RECA’s suggestion, and asked for an analysis of the issue at the next meeting.


“I don’t think anywhere else would one house have to have its own water-quality treatment,” said Leffingwell.


Armbrust also returned to the floodplain modification criteria, which has been an ongoing concern for RECA. She asked for additional time to work out details of the assessment for this process.


Like everyone else who spoke, Austin Sierra Club’s Roy Waley had high praise for the process of the rewrite.


“Hopefully there will be some enduring relationships that come out of this long process. Some of us in the development and environmental communities are sitting down and talking about other issues now. And I think that is a direct result from the great job that Matt (Hollon) and his team did in getting us all together, in a room, every two weeks, for two years,” said Waley. “And that is as much fun as it sounds.”


Council Member Laura Morrison said she looked forward to coming back with “lots of questions” at the next reading.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Real Estate Council of Austin: 501(c)6 for "more than 1,700 commercial real estate professionals representing the top leaders in the Central Texas business community." RECA is a donor to the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent of the Austin Monitor.

Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS): An advocacy organization. According to its web site, Save Our Springs "works to protect the Edwards Aquifer, its springs and contributing streams, and the natural and cultural heritage of the Hill Country region and its watersheds, with special emphasis on Barton Springs."

Watershed Protection Ordinance: The city law, overhauled in 2013, that dictates Austin’s water and environmental code.

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