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Boundary change puts landfill site under Travis County’s watch

Monday, September 23, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council voted Thursday to change the boundaries of its extraterritorial jurisdiction, in essence giving up regulation of more than 800 acres that includes the controversial Austin Community Landfill property.

By a unanimous vote, Council approved an ordinance change amending the ETJ boundaries to put the property, which sits between Giles Lane and Springdale Road and north of U.S. Highway 290, in total control of Travis County, which two days earlier had voted to amend the section of its code governing the siting of solid waste facilities.

That change by the county opens up questions about how the property will be regulated going forward, including whether an expansion of solid waste disposal will be allowed on some currently inactive portions of the area.

Most of the property in question is owned by Waste Management of Texas, excepting some parcels that are owned by BFI Waste Systems of North America.

Representatives from Waste Management asked Council to delay a vote and possibly schedule a public hearing on the matter, in part to give the company time to update two site plan applications it had been preparing. One of those site plans could have opened up the possibility of expanded waste activity.

Attorney Pete Winstead said the county’s action and the item on the Council agenda coming in quick succession caught the company and other involved parties by surprise, adding that “the timing on this is very unfortunate.”

“We’re not exactly sure if (adjusting the ETJ boundary) is a wise move for the city of Austin,” Winstead said. “We’re OK with regulation in the ETJ by the city of Austin. Our concern is that there’s a lot of stuff under the Travis County ordinance that this would put us under and they’d not be able to do a lot of things on the property. We think the city of Austin might have some real interest in doing recycling on our property, and other stuff like that.”

Steve Jacobs, director of disposal operations for Waste Management, said the ordinance change puts into question what activities will be allowed on the property because there hasn’t been enough time to examine how the county’s new ordinance will mirror or clash with how the city has traditionally regulated landfill sites.

“This is the first time I’ve been requested to be removed from an ETJ,” he said. “We’re at a loss for how all those regulations work. If you remove us from the ETJ, so all those rules and regulations and all of the things that we’ve agreed to work through with the city staff, do they just go away tomorrow?”

Activist Melanie McAfee, who has spent years pushing for restrictions on the landfill, said this year residents experienced the worst odor and quality-of-life problems ever as a result of waste storage there. Like other speakers, she worried that Travis County’s regulatory practices will allow for the expansion of solid waste activity on the site.

“Waste Management and the landfill is a threat to the health and ability to use and enjoy our property,” she said. “We don’t want to be the armpit of Austin. Upper East Austin is a growing vital asset that is north of us. In the past, the city took a stand against Waste Management and its last expansion.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he was looking forward to the county having decision-making responsibilities over one of the more problematic sections of the city.

“Since it appears that the change doesn’t affect their current operations, what it seems to do is clarify that future debates over landfills happen at the Commissioners Court, and I kind of prefer them to happen there, frankly. Maybe they can earn their major recent pay raises by dealing with landfills,” he said.

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