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SOS, Save Oak Hill sue TxDOT, other agencies

Wednesday, July 31, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Two different lawsuits were filed Monday seeking to change the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans for the Oak Hill Parkway. One suit emphasizes protection of endangered species; the second seeks to change the design of the parkway, not only for environmental protection but for the good of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Save Our Springs Alliance filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and TxDOT. At the same time, five different groups – the Save Barton Creek Association, Fix 290, Clean Water Action, Save Oak Hill and the South Windmill Run Neighborhood Association – and nearby property owners sued TxDOT and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Attorney Kelly Davis filed the suit in federal court on behalf of the SOS Alliance. The suit says TxDOT and Fish and Wildlife have violated federal law by failing to ensure that the proposed parkway will not jeopardize the survival of the Barton Springs salamander and the Austin blind salamander.

The sponsors of the other lawsuit also filed in federal court, but without designating an attorney. The signers of that suit are Clark Hancock, president of the Save Barton Creek Association; Alan Watts for himself and for Save Oak Hill; David Foster, state director of Clean Water Action; and Carol Cespedes for Fix 290 and South Windmill Run.

Angela Richter, executive director of the Save Barton Creek Association, told the Austin Monitor, “There was not explicit coordination” between the two groups of plaintiffs, but each generally knew that the other was heading toward filing suit.

The plaintiffs in both lawsuits say that TxDOT has made a mistake in choosing to build the 12-lane highway project instead of the Livable Oak Hill parkway concept.

In a news release, Oak Hill resident Cespedes said, “TxDOT’s current plan doesn’t consider the unique nature and history of the Oak Hill area. We don’t want even one minute’s delay on the project’s completion. After all, we’ve waited decades for traffic relief. However, the scale of construction in this plan – with its massive clearing, grading and digging – will force years of congestion delay before it’s all finally done. We can put off the start to get a plan with a quicker finish.”

Her group of plaintiffs is seeking an order that would require the defendants to participate in supervised mediation with the Oak Hill parties.

TxDOT spokeswoman Diann Hodges and CAMPO spokeswoman Emily Hepworth each said their agencies do not comment on pending litigation. The Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

TxDOT is already facing delays at what is called the MoPac intersections project near Circle C at La Crosse Avenue. The recent discovery of 72 fissures and caves means that TxDOT must redesign its project and take steps to mitigate damage to the karst features. TxDOT has said those changes will postpone opening the new intersection until at least the end of this year.

Bobby Levinski, a staff attorney for SOS, said TxDOT brought in an expert with a good reputation to help design the karst mitigation features for the intersections project. However, he said the expert “was brought on way too late in the process,” and should have been part of the design process. The same could be true of the Oak Hill Parkway, he said. “They’re basically saying when they find the cave they’ll come up with a mitigation plan. They’re not doing any proactive planning to avoid caves and come up with mitigation plans ahead of time.”

The Oak Hill project is estimated to include 2.65 miles of ground excavation, averaging 25 feet deep and 150 feet wide, within the contributing and recharge zones of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer.

Davis, who filed the suit on behalf of SOS, said in a prepared statement, “in terms of environmental sensitivity, there couldn’t be a worse location for this amount of excavation. The recharge zone is highly vulnerable to pollutants, such as silts and fuels, which can impact the underground water quality upon which the endangered salamanders depend.”

Rendering courtesy of TxDOT.

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