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Council puts off fixing environmental rules for east side

Friday, May 20, 2022 by Jo Clifton

At the urging of Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Paige Ellis, City Council postponed voting on a resolution Thursday that would begin to equalize environmental regulations in Central and East Austin with protections that have long been standard in the Drinking Water Protection Zone of West Austin.  The resolution is now scheduled to come back before Council on June 9.

Two of the resolution’s sponsors, Council members Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen, argued early in the day that the postponement was unnecessary. However, when the item finally came back up for consideration toward the end of the afternoon, Tovo agreed to the postponement.

Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, expressed his strong support for the additional protections in remarks to Council.

He also pointed out in a letter to Council that “water pollution continues to be a serious problem in Austin. At least seven dogs have died from exposure to toxic algae in area lakes playing in Lake Travis and Lady Bird Lake since 2019. According to the Watershed Protection Department, 36 percent of the city’s creeks have levels of fecal bacteria that make them unsafe for swimming, wading or fishing.”

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison asked Metzger to confirm his statement about the city’s creeks and he verified that 36 percent is correct.

Signing the letter along with Metzger were representatives of Clean Water Action of Texas, the Save Barton Creek Association and EA Environmental Co. The letter writers pointed out that the policies put forth in the resolution have already been vetted by staff as well as boards and commissions. Many of the proposals embedded in the resolution were approved by a majority of Council with the passage of the ill-fated rewrite of the Land Development Code.

During his appearance before Council Thursday, Metzger responded to a question from Tovo about how much consideration had been given to various parts of the proposed rules.

“Many of the items in your resolution, as you know, were proposed five years ago,” Metzger said. “They were fully vetted through the land code rewrite process, passed through boards and commissions and the Council on two different readings. As I’ve frustratedly communicated to many of you over the last year or two, we can’t wait any longer for action to address the water pollution crisis in this community …. It’s just been years and years and we are not seeing the action we need to clean up these waterways.”

Among the techniques proposed as part of what is called a functional green policy are requirements for green infrastructure in urban settings where traditional landscape requirements are not possible. In response to a question from Kitchen, Metzger said previously approved techniques include “tree islands” in surface parking lots, as well as rain gardens and green islands in very dense parts of the city that have already been vetted by Council.

Adler said, “I think everybody on this dais are champions of the environmental goals, and in a comprehensive way in a larger scheme a lot of these items were passed” when Council approved the ill-fated Land Development Code revision.

“When we passed the (Land Development Code) … we passed greater entitlements … so we didn’t have to make a forced choice,” he said. “So, my reason to request the delay – and I recognize the need to move forward quickly – is to give us a chance to make sure we’re finding those trade-offs.”

Kitchen responded, “What I would really find distressing is if we felt we had to postpone to spend a lot of time thinking about all the aspects of this … we’ve done a lot of that work already.” Noting the July break ahead of budget deliberations in August, she said, “I certainly would not want to postpone this while we’re continuing to think about the other things … this is just to initiate changes. It still has to go through the whole vetting process … and we need to be mindful of the time.”

Adler concluded, “We could tell them to craft mitigating measures so it’s not a forced choice between affordability or the environment.”

Toward the end of the afternoon, Tovo volunteered that she would be willing to postpone the item to June 9. At the same time, she pointed out that the item had six sponsors, implying that it would have passed if she had chosen to fight about it.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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