Wednesday, April 9, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Environmental Board OKs affordable housing project despite concerns

The Environmental Board was the scene of a showdown last week when a proposed affordable housing project faced environmental concerns from city staff.

                                                                               

Developers of the Windy Ridge Apartment Homes at 10910 FM 620 were requesting water and wastewater service from the city. The 12-acre property that is slated to be home to the project is located in Austin’s two-mile extraterritorial jurisdiction.

 

The project is not an area where the city is encouraging development. The land is located in the city’s Drinking Water Protection Zone and the Northern Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, with 74 percent in the Lake Travis Watershed and 26 percent in the Bull Creek Watershed. Additionally, the site drains toward the threatened Jollyville Plateau Salamander habitat.

 

After an initial environmental assessment, staff believes the land is quite environmentally sensitive, with many critical environmental features. Currently, a more extensive environmental survey is being done on the land in order to determine whether or not they will require protective buffers.

 

“This site has an unusually high density of karst features. I think that it will certainly impact the development,” said Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak. “We don’t know what those are right now, but our geologists believe that there will be a fair amount of CEF (critical environmental feature) buffers required. We just don’t know what those might be.”

 

Watershed Protection staff recommended against the request because it would mean increased development in an environmentally sensitive area. Unlike other nearby service extension requests that have been granted, the city is under no obligation to grant this one. Nor will the water and wastewater system solve any potential environmental harm, explained Kelly Gagnon with the city’s Watershed Protection Department.

 

What the project will provide is affordable housing.

 

“This is a very important affordable housing project, and affordable housing is very important to the city of Austin, and we need it desperately,” said Hush Blackwell attorney Jerry Harris, who explained the expense of drilling a well would be cost-prohibitive for the project.

 

Though the land is in the ETJ, it is subject to the Watershed Protection Ordinance. Staff said any project built would have to maintain buffers around critical environmental features. This fact offered some board members peace of mind.

 

“I feel more comfortable because of the fact that the required buffers have to be included in the site plan,” said Board Member Mary Ann Neely. “So I feel like there are safeguards for this development. And they may end up limiting, greatly, their ability to build in certain areas. I see the protections for the environment in this particular case.”

 

It was enough to win the support board of most members, who voted 4-2 to approve the request. Board Members Jennifer Walker and Robert Deegan voted in opposition, and Board Member Marisa Perales was absent.

 

“I recognize the benefits of affordable housing in this location may outweigh…the environmental costs here,” said Deegan. “But I do feel like the role and the purview of this board are to make recommendations to Council primarily based on environmental costs and benefits.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

Drinking Water Protection Zone: This is a portion of western Austin and Travis County subject to more stringent development regulations.

Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone: A narrow belt of contributing water features that is part of the Edwards Aquifer.

Husch Blackwell: The legal firm formerly Brown-McCaroll, a locally-based practice, before that entity was purchased by the national Husch-Blackwell. Practice areas include Real Estate and Development.

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

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