Tuesday, June 2, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Environmental Commission says Public Works project ‘flies in the face’ of environmental regulations

In order to create easy access and support increased traffic headed to a new Habitat for Humanity development in Southeast Austin, the Public Works Department is working on constructing a road that crosses a “classified waterway.”

Under city code, a classified waterway is a body of water identified in the Watershed Protection Ordinance that has restricted development permissions per its size and proximity to critical environmental features. Bridges spanning classified waterways are permitted under code. However, instead of spanning the waterway with a bridge, for this project, Public Works requested a variance at the May 20 meeting of the Environmental Commission to allow more than four feet of cut for a road in this protected area.

Both the Environmental Commission and Watershed Protection Department staff opposed the variance request due to the method of construction. The commission voted 9-1 to recommend denial of the variance with Commissioner Andrew Creel voting in opposition and Commissioner Ryan Nill off the dais.

“I just think Public Works can do better than this,” Commissioner Peggy Maceo said.

Public Works has assumed the responsibility for this road construction at 7051 Meadow Lake Blvd. to allow access to the housing nonprofit’s new development because Habitat for Humanity donated its easement to the city for a right of way. In exchange, the city made the roadway project one of its Capital Improvement projects.

June Routh, a civil engineer with Dunaway Associates who was representing the Public Works Department, explained that the grade of the road calls for a flat connection across the water channel. Building a bridge, she said, will not allow for a smooth transition from one side to another. She added that three gas lines and a water detention pond limit the engineering design flexibility for placement.

Commissioners pointed out that a cut so close to a waterway can lead to erosion and excess sediment in the water. There is also the possibility of destabilizing the stream bank and altering the flow velocity of the channel.

Although the body of water in question is a classified waterway in the Onion Creek Watershed, it is not a natural channel. Its location and man-made construction raised questions for Creel, who asked, “Is there some sort of environmental sensitivity that we’re supposed to be seeing here?” He said he was unable to identify any fragile riparian vegetation that would be damaged by the city’s proposed construction method.

Creel said in addition to the feasibility, the city needed to take the cost into account. “Even if it were feasible, the cost difference would probably be in the order of twice as much to install (a bridge),” he said.

Even with cost considerations, the other commissioners expressed concern about the possibility of contributing to the degradation of water quality through increased erosion and sedimentation. Commissioner Wendy Gordon said she was concerned to see a branch of the city prepare a project that “flies in the face” of the rules outlined in the code by another department.

In addition to opposition from Watershed Protection staff and the commission, Commissioner Curtis Smith said he had heard from the Save Our Springs Alliance that it was also concerned about the environmental impact of the project.

With considerable support to find another solution to construct the roadway, the Environmental Commission voted to recommend denying the variance.

“I’m strongly opposed to this,” Smith said. “This is a waterway that flows to the McKinney (Falls) reserve park and some precious natural locations.”

Map courtesy of Google Maps.

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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.

Public Works Department: This city department oversees major capital improvement projects; maintains the city's trails, roadways, and bridges; and promotes safe travel on city thoroughfares.

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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