Photo by Piershendrie
Friday, April 30, 2021 by Seth Smalley

In Earth Day win, Environmental Commission sides with salamanders over developer

At its April 21 meeting, the Environmental Commission fielded discussion over a wastewater service extension request (SER) from a prospective developer of a property located at FM 620 and Anderson Mill Road. Kaela Champlin, an environmental program coordinator with the Watershed Protection Department, presented the case to commissioners, ultimately recommending the commission nix the request due to environmental concerns.

“So this proposed SER is for a 34.4-acre property located partially within the city’s full-purpose jurisdiction and partially within the two-mile, extraterritorial jurisdiction,” Champlin said to the commission, before explaining the reason for the application. “The applicant is proposing to develop a 350-unit, multifamily development with 175 ‘living unit equivalents.’”

Environmental features on the site include two springs, one recharge critical environmental feature and four wetlands. The site contains critical water quality zones and water quality transition zones and is home to the federally threatened Jollyville Plateau salamander.

“Runoff from the development could flow downstream into the Jollyville Plateau salamander habitat and thus negatively impact that salamander population,” Champlin said.

A service extension request, as the name suggests, is an application for city water or wastewater service extensions. It is required when properties are located more than 100 feet from accessible water or wastewater systems, or when current infrastructure is not adequate for a proposed project. In this case, the proposed development fits the latter description because of an existing inadequate “force main,” or pressurized water line that moves wastewater uphill when gravity doesn’t do the trick.

The property in question is located within a drinking-water protection zone, Bull Creek Watershed, as well as the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

The Environmental Commission reviews any SER that also requires approval from City Council.

“The applicant is proposing to upgrade the existing Volente Lift Station, upgrade the existing force-main that serves the lift station, and upgrade the downstream gravity collection system to provide the capacity necessary to serve the proposed development,” a description of the application reads.

Similar SERs on the same property were shot down in 2016 and again in 2018 by the Environmental Commission and the Water and Wastewater Commission.

The developer proposed two options within the application for service extension. The first option requires the applicant to obtain a temporary easement from a nearby HEB that would allow for room to upgrade its insufficient force-main.

“In the second option, the proposed wastewater main runs behind the HEB shopping center,” Champlin said. The second option would only apply if the applicant is unable to get permission for the temporary construction easement.

Any construction required for the project would be funded by the applicant.

The request will be considered by the Water and Wastewater Commission on May 5, and will subsequently go to Council for approval.

After presentations both in favor and opposed to the development, the commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of denying the developer’s request.

Andrew Creel, the dissenting commissioner, said, “You know, it does make a lot of logical sense, but at the same time I can’t in good conscience vote in favor of this motion, because it feels like you’re weaponizing our process against private property owners. Things that would otherwise be able to be accomplished on a piece of property are no longer able to be accomplished simply because of the SER. And I don’t think that’s what that was intended to be used for.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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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.

Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone: A narrow belt of contributing water features that is part of the Edwards Aquifer.

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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