Council Watch by Alex de Marban Like Water for Councilmembers
Conservationists fear the vote could open up to development thousands of pristine acres atop the ecologically sensitive Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in Southwest Austin, especially if the water system is extended to serve the southern, commercial portion of the proposed PUD.
"Jim Bob Moffet said in the recent federal trial that without the commercial development [of the PUD], the residential portion can't be developed," says Robert Singleton, a member of Earth First! "The council may have given Jim Bob what he needed. If so, then it's pretty much bye-bye Barton Creek and Barton Springs."
Already, Freeport is forging ahead with plans for PUD development. With the blessing of the latest state Legislature, the company applied for a special development permit at the Texas Natural Resources Conversation Commission (TNRCC) last month, skirting Austin's water-quality guidelines to develop the PUD under looser TNRCC regulations. A TNRCC decision is not expected for several months.
Politically, Thursday's vote could be just as monumental, as the decision compounds the schism between a core group of Austin's environmental community and Councilmembers Gus Garcia and Jackie Goodman.
"I think their vote has the potential" to distance them from much of the environmental community, says Bill Bunch, head of the 1,000-member Save Our Springs Legal Defense Fund. "Whereas the community was pleased with Jackie and Gus for standing up against pressure to throw in the towel during the PUD vote back in February, Thursday's vote raises a concern that they'll try to back off from environmental responsibility."
Singleton agrees. "I'm real dissapointed in both of them, probably Jackie more than Gus. Jackie's been doing [environmental work] long enough that she should know better."
Goodman sternly replies that the groups represented at the council meeting "are not the environmental community." Goodman's vote, however, even crosses her own environmental roots. The 6,000-member Save Barton Creek Association, of which she is a board member, voted against the Lantana deal in July.
Garcia says he voted for the agreement because Lantana "is inside the city [limits]. We have to provide them water, and I think that if we're going to annex communities, then we need to serve them." Like Goodman, Garcia felt that no legitimate environmental opinion was represented at the council meeting. "This is one of those deals where the hardcore environmentalists are going to fight every one of those things. The only credible person that opposed it was Mary Arnold [an ex-water and wastewater commissioner]. Bill Bunch was there, and he never says anything right. I didn't see any of the other traditional environmentalists come."
Criticism of Goodman and Garcia by both the traditional and "hardcore" environmentalists began in earnest last March, when the two attempted to negotiate a PUD agreement with Freeport after a majority of the council on February 23 had struck down a more liberal PUD deal. Both agreements would have permitted the PUD's development by extending a wastewater system to the area, and given Freeport a fee waiver of more than $3 million for the transfer of sewer rights.
In the proposed agreements, Freeport would have paid 75% of the Lantana water system. Now, Freeport promises to pay for the initial costs of the system if the city reimburses the entire cost in three annual installments beginning in 1996. The city will not have to pay interest. It should be noted, however, that the system in February was estimated to be only half as expensive as it is now, causing Lantana opponents to question the veracity of the city's current expense estimates.
Opponents of the approved Lantana deal are also wary of what seem to be arbitrary build-out projections. While the city projected in February that Lantana would add 99 living unit equivalents (LUEs, or customer hook-ups to the system), the city now projects 606 LUEs per year. To solve the problem, all of the aforementioned groups proposed a pay-as-you-go scheme where the city would pay back Freeport based on the number of LUEs that are hooked up. A proposal by Brigid Shea to do just that received the support of only Goodman and Nofziger.
Goodman admits that the build-out projections are questionable. "I would be surprised if [Lantana] built out to [Freeport's] projections. But if Lantana never uses it, we can tie into other people. Other development will happen there."
Such a scenario could turn environmentalists' concerns that Freeport's PUD could also hook up to the water system into a reality. "Freeport could tie into it," Goodman concedes. "Yeah, that's dangerous. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place. If we went to court and it was shown that we denied an interest-free loan from Freeport, I have the distinct foreboding we'd get slam-dunked."
To serve the PUD, a majority of the council would have to expand the city's water service boundaries to the PUD, which is outside the city limits. Such an occurrence would likely require a fourth councilmember with the same developer-mentality as Mayor Bruce Todd and Councilmembers Eric Mitchell and Ronney Reynolds. A true developer majority could come as early as May, especially if once-faithful Goodman supporters rethink their loyalties and split the environmental community enough to allow a Chamber-backed candidate to slide into office. Garcia's seat is not up for re-election until 1997.
"There were a lot of people there Thursday night, who have been active supporters of Jackie's campaigns, who were commenting that they've had it with her," says Singleton.
The vote also has the effect of fueling a recall petition for Todd and Reynolds. "The volume of phone messages I've been getting from people that want to work on the recall has taken a dramatic turn after Thursday," says Singleton, who initiated the recall petition three weeks ago.
Part of the inspiration for the increased interest may have been the mayor's haste to pass the Lantana item at the expense of public participation. To fit the Lantana vote onto the agenda before the meeting ended, the mayor tore through a public hearing on the budget at breakneck speed, allowing each speaker only two minutes, instead of the usual three, and occasionally asking the crowd after an inspiring speech to "Please hold your applause, it only takes up more time."
This week in council: Vote to appropiate $600,000 of Com-munity Development Block Grants for architectual work on the Central City Entertainment Center.