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City buys Hays County land to block development over aquifer

Friday, December 13, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Thursday unanimously approved the $18 million acquisition of land in Hays County that might otherwise have been developed as the Jeremiah Ventures project. With the move, Council members eliminated a long-running fight over grandfathering rules, environmental protections, and the regulatory reach of city government.


Though this specific issue appears settled, Council members Thursday also postponed action on a new iteration of grandfathering rules. Known as the Vested Rights Ordinance, the measure would take the place of the city’s former Project Duration Ordinance – a document that Council members repealed this year after intense legal and legislative pressure.


The delay means that the larger issue will not be settled before January. City staffers are reportedly in negotiations with the Real Estate Council of Austin over specifics.


The Jeremiah Ventures project would have created a development over the Barton Springs recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer. Long-debated, the project raised the hackles of environmental interests over its treatment of sewage and its general location in a sensitive region.


In August, Council members moved forward with an agreement to stop opposing the project, over vocal objections from the Austin environmental community.


That left the Save Our Springs Alliance more or less alone in pursuit of a legal remedy to the situation.


In addition to preservation of critical environmental features, the city purchase will reserve water rights associated with the tract for five years. As late as Thursday morning, that figure rested at only three years. With Council Member Chris Riley pushing staff to extend the rights to four years, owner’s representative Nikelle Meade of Husch Blackwell told Council members that her clients would extend those protections to the full term.


SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch told Council that he welcomed the agreement. “Buying this land for watershed protection is really the ideal outcome for this seven-acre struggle that we’ve been in,” he said. “We’re very happy to see this on your agenda (and) we strongly support buying it at a fair price.”


Bunch then questioned the figure tied to the deal. City staff told Council members, on prompting, that the property was appraised at $18.3 million, $300,000 less than what the city paid.

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