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Council weighs mixed messages from staff on car dealership

Monday, February 11, 2019 by Jack Craver

City Council approved a request Thursday to provide water and wastewater service to a car dealership in northwest Travis County over the objections of the city’s Watershed Protection Department.

The car lot, 620 Volvo Dealership, is going to be built whether or not the service extension request (SER) is granted, said Jeff Howard, an agent for Budget Leasing, which owns the property at 10600 N. FM 620 Road, which is outside of the city’s full-purpose jurisdiction but in its “limited purpose” jurisdiction.

However, the dealership would rather be connected to the city’s water and wastewater systems than rely on an on-site septic system. That would make it “easier to design … easier to maintain,” said Howard.

In a memo to Council, watershed staff said that approving the extension request “would likely facilitate increased development intensity and the associated negative environmental impacts in a highly environmentally sensitive area.”

Austin Water recommended granting the SER.

The property is part of the Northern Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and drains to area creeks and “sensitive environmental receptors,” including the MacDonald Well, which is known to be a habitat of the Jollyville Plateau salamander, a species unique to Travis and Williamson counties that is listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Howard said that the surrounding area had already been heavily developed and that denying water service would do nothing to reduce development intensity. Council had already approved a previous SER in 2014 for a capacity that was six times greater than the current request.

Howard added that according to Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan aimed at facilitating sustainable growth, FM 620 links two “activity centers”: Lakeline Station and the Four Points Centre.

“It’s massively developed. It’s heavily trafficked. This is not an area where it’s a pristine area where we’re trying to prevent growth from happening. Growth is happening and will happen,” he said.

Council Member Kathie Tovo recalled that she was one of three Council members who opposed the original SER in 2014, along with former Council members Mike Martinez and Laura Morrison.

The Water and Wastewater Commission voted 7-1 in favor of extending service last month. However, when the Environmental Commission took up the issue, a motion to approve the service did not even receive the necessary second to prompt a vote.

To Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, the case was a frustrating example of city departments coming to contradictory conclusions over development. Planning and Zoning staff had recommended the necessary zoning for the dealership, which Council had recently approved with little issue. If there were environmental concerns, why weren’t they raised during the zoning process, he asked.

“We already decided that it was OK to build the thing here,” he said.

Council Member Greg Casar said he wasn’t particularly excited about new car dealerships or storage facilities, but suggested that it was better to extend water service than have the property drill wells and install a septic tank.

While he was sympathetic to the goal of preventing sprawl in environmentally sensitive areas, Casar said “this isn’t a site that we’re going to prevent from getting paved over.”

Chris Herrington, the environmental officer for the watershed department, said that septic systems were not necessarily an inferior method of water management. A study in the 1990s found that lower-intensity developments that relied on on-site wastewater disposal “actually had higher water quality than more intense developments that were utilizing centralized service,” he said.

While Council Member Leslie Pool called the decision “difficult” and said she saw “both sides,” she added that she was inclined to oppose the request.

Mayor Steve Adler voiced similarly divided feelings, saying he wanted to understand what would be best environmentally. Ultimately, he was convinced to vote in favor of approval.

The SER was approved 7-3, with Tovo, Pool and Council Member Ann Kitchen in opposition. Council Member Alison Alter was absent for the vote

This story has been corrected. Originally the property was identified as being in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction when it is, in fact, in its “limited purpose” jurisdiction. Additionally, Council Member Alison Alter was absent for the vote, and did not vote against the project as was originally reported. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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