Rose-Colored MUD

After weeks of phone calls and much secretarial sympathy, Mark Rose finally agreed to an interview with the Chronicle on February 3. He spoke to me while comfortably sipping tea in his LCRA digs -- a highly stylized office with an interior design that capitalizes on Texas history; a saddle with a cowboy hat hanging from the horn and hardback books on the Old West complete the look.

Austin Chronicle: Why is the LCRA getting into the water and wastewater business?

Mark Rose: It's our mission. It's really more a function of opportunity than a changed business plan. We're one of the very few river authorities in Texas that is not handling water and wastewater.

AC: What were some of your environmental accomplishments when you were on the city council?

MR: When I was elected to the Austin city council, Austin was the biggest polluter in the state. Its sewer plants were all out of compliance. We were given the largest fine in the state of Texas for dumping raw sewage in the Colorado River. Nobody could swim at McKinney Falls State Park and the river below Austin stank. So we decided enough's enough and took a bond election to the Austin folks. I told the daily I didn't care if it was a billion dollars to fix this mess, and we did take the largest bond election to the voters, and they overwhelmingly supported it. We rebuilt the water and wastewater infrastructure in this community and because of that the Colorado River is in the good condition it is today. And I probably made the motion to annex more land than anyone in the history of the city of Austin. It was over 10,000 acres of land of limited purpose annexation, and I said then that if we're not careful and we're perceived to have abused our annexation powers, then Austin could lose that authority.

AC: So were your motions for so much annexation an abuse of that power?

MR: No, what we subsequently did with our growth-control ordinances [caused it]. Many people outside the city of Austin began to feel they were being abused by Austin and they went to the Lege and Austin has now lost most of that authority.

AC: You were also responsible for approving a number of MUDs (municipal utility districts)...

MR: I made the motion for several of the MUDs. I made the motion for the Circle C MUDs. At that time, there wasn't a question about whether there would be development out there, and there was no question about whether the Water Commission would approve a stand-alone MUD. Under state law, if you own the land and you can irrigate on golf courses, they can't deny you, particularly if the city next to you is denying you service. I felt the city should create the MUD and not let Circle C build a separate sewage treatment plant and infrastructure because that's how cities get built. Lakeway went from a stand-alone MUD to become the city of Lakeway. I felt like it would be best for the city to serve Circle C and hook them into our system. We were able to put all kinds of things in the contract, including the right to annex it. I understood then that there would be a fight some day, and I said then and say now it all depended on our relationship. That relationship soured and they were able to go to the Lege and get relief. Had I not voted for the MUDs it would have been guaranteed that there would have been a separate community out there, with no relation to the city. People love to look back and do some revisionist history, and say, "Oh my god, you created the Circle C MUDs and if you hadn't there wouldn't be any development out there." Well, that's absolute hogwash. There's gonna be MUDs, they're all over Houston. So the real question becomes, which kind of MUD will be out there?

AC: Doesn't LCRA's utility service to the MUDs help keep them from becoming a part of Austin?

MR: No, our goal is to do things on a regional basis, where Austin can be a regional partner. It's time for all of us to recognize that Austin is either going to be a regional player or not. All these communities are going to grow and Austin cannot determine that. Austin has to decide whether it will benefit it to participate. Our role is to get the partners and the parties together. We're off to a good start. We got into a tussle with Davenport. We were working with them, but Austin said we want to serve Davenport, and we stepped back and said fine. We're not here to have those kinds of battles. But if Austin says they're not going to serve those areas, then it's my job to go out there and serve them. Austin should have served FM Properties in my opinion. The development is there, and will continue to be there. You can't beat development by trying to withhold infrastructure. The battle about how much to develop, the land-use controls -- that is between the developers and the city of Austin. That is not my concern.

What I'd rather not see happen is someday FMP develop into another Circle C, and we have a separate district, and they're running the system. You think in that point of time, they'll want to have a relationship with the city of Austin? By the LCRA serving them and us owning the facilities, maybe we won't have that fight and at some point in time, maybe it will make some sense to do things on a regional basis. But as it stands, we're content if it's done on a sub-regional basis. If all we ever do is serve that area, that's fine. Our goal will be to run absolutely the best system.

I am acutely aware of where [Freeport Properties] is. We're more accountable than a developer is and ultimately we'll be better able to run it than a resident group that's taken control of the system. I'd suspect that their goal with choosing the LCRA is getting out of the operation of their sewer system, rather than increasing density. But I don't know that for a fact. I'm not having that discussion with those folks about that.

AC: Is it preferable that the city take over the utility service of the MUDs, not the LCRA?

MR: That's a question only Austin can answer and they don't ask it because they seem to be suffering under the purity of the argument that if they don't serve it they won't come. The city has said no, so the LCRA becomes the next best thing. On the grand scheme, Austin probably becomes a regional provider, and we work with Austin to make that happen, but Austin hasn't gotten to that point.

As long as Austin continues to determine growth policies by withholding service, they'll simply be a side participant in these discussions. You can't say I won't provide you services and then say this is how you're going to grow. That's the dilemma Austin faces. And Austin better wake up, or it's going to end up with a ring of cities around it and it won't be the LCRA that did it, it will be the city of Austin.

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