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Monday, October 23, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

AISD seeks environmental flexibility in redevelopment of Barton Springs schools

The Austin Independent School District is one step closer to reaching an agreement with the city that would allow it to redevelop some of its overcrowded campuses in order to accommodate growth in student populations. At its meeting last Wednesday, the Environmental Commission voted unanimously to approve staff’s recommendation to permit the district to reorganize its water quality treatment obligations for four schools in the Barton Springs Zone.

Nicole Conley Johnson, AISD’s chief financial officer, said at the meeting that the district faced limitations in complying with non-degradation regulations at Zilker, Barton Hills, Baranoff and Patton elementary schools, and that the flexibility afforded by the proposed agreement would enable these schools to continue on their current facility rehabilitation tracks.

“They may not be slated for this round of modernization, but certainly in the next few rounds these schools will possibly be slated for some substantial improvements,” Conley Johnson said.

According to the Facility Master Plan update, which the school board approved earlier this year, Zilker and Patton are both scheduled to undergo renovations as soon as six years from now, whereas Baranoff and Barton Hills will start seeing changes 12 years down the road. All besides Barton Hills are overcrowded, with the most being Baranoff at 124 percent.

The city made an agreement with the district in 1994 that had set a 25 percent impervious cover limit for all schools in the Barton Springs Zone, with a few exceptions, and at that time also established “no discharge” water quality treatment standards. However, Chuck Lesniak with the Watershed Protection Department explained that the reason a new agreement was necessary was because the old one had been drafted with the intent to create green spaces in the development of new campuses, but was less well-fitted to regulate the redevelopment of existing campuses.

The 1994 agreement only allows transfers of quality controls to contiguous sites, whereas the new agreement proposes that the district can meet treatment requirements for a school off-site, as long as those requirements are still met in full.

“If you look at a school campus, especially an elementary school, it may look like it’s got a lot of green space or open space, but a lot of that is playground (where) you wouldn’t want to have sprinkler heads and things like that,” Lesniak said.

Commissioner Hank Smith pointed out that portables are another impediment to keeping environmental standards at schools, because state law prohibits the city from regulating them as if they were impervious cover. However, if the district replaces those portables with permanent buildings as part of modernization projects, then the school has to start counting that square footage as impervious cover.

“From a water quality standpoint we’re getting a double benefit,” Smith said. “I think it’s a great agreement.”

The city had made an agreement with the district in June which will transfer 6.225 acres of impervious cover permitted on a 13 acre tract in the Travis Country subdivision in Southwest Austin to Bowie High School. However, Bowie’s redevelopment will not use all of the impervious cover borrowed from Travis Country, so the new agreement would allow other Barton Springs schools to use the remainder.

If this agreement is adopted by City Council, Cynthia Wilcox from the Travis Country Community Service Association said that her association would be seeking a conservation easement with the school district that would free all of the impervious cover from that site to be used by AISD schools in the area.

Conley Johnson promised that the district would not take advantage of this agreement to skirt its environmental obligations. “We do value the importance of sustainability,” she said, “but we may have to be innovative in how we treat water quality down the road at some of our campuses.”

Smith made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation with the added condition that no matter how much of the Travis Country impervious cover “bucket” is used, there will be no entitlements left that could be used for further development of a non-school entity. Commissioner Mary Ann Neely seconded, and the motion passed unanimously.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

AISD: Austin's largest school district, AISD is the Austin Independent School District.

Barton Springs Contributing Zone: The contributing zone of Barton Springs is the drainage or "catchment" area of the Edwards Aquifer that filters water to the recharge zone. It comprises about 5,400 square miles.

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.

Watershed Protection Department: The city's Watershed Protection Department works to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and water pollution in the city. The department is mostly funded by the city's drainage fee.

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