The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Chasing Gary, Part 2

October 24, 1997, News

Annex 4,600 acres and what do you get? In the City of Austin's case, a little bit bigger and deeper in debt. The 4,600 acres in question are within the four municipal utility districts at Circle C, the upscale development southwest of Austin that has, so far, been able to escape the city's annexation plans. But last Friday, in a small ad in the local daily, the city made known its plans to annex the development. If the city succeeds, it will gain tax base -- and a sizable debt.

But the debt burden that will come with the land -- about $13 million -- should be outweighed by the present and future taxable value in the area. In addition, the city will be able to control land use in the development, which lies over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. Councilmember Gus Garcia explained that the decision to annex the property was made by city staff members. "We have an enormous amount of money invested out there and I think staff is trying to make sure that our investments are protected," said Garcia. Adds Daryl Slusher, a former Chronicle reporter and now a city councilmember: "This has been the plan all along, that the city would annex Circle C."

While Slusher may be quietly gloating, flamboyant developer Gary Bradley is probably sulking. The guiding force behind Circle C for the past 17 years, Bradley is mired in a legal fight with Freeport-McMoRan over $3.8 million in MUD fees and is rumored to be involved in internecine squabbles with other former allies. If the property is annexed, Bradley could see the development potential of his residential property dramatically reduced. Under the Save Our Springs Ordinance, the land at Circle C would be limited to no more than 15 percent impervious cover. Calls made to Bradley and Bill Collier, the spokesman for FM Properties (FMP), which owns commercial property at Circle C, were not returned.

By adding Circle C to its list of annexation targets, the city may be biting off more than it can chew. A few weeks ago, the city announced plans to annex about 15 square miles of property around the city. Circle C -- which contains some of the city's most vocal critics -- could add another seven square miles. That makes 22 square miles of new territory that the city must provide with fire and police protection as well as libraries and other services.

Despite the potential stumbling blocks, the city made the annexation move in order to short circuit any plans that Bradley or FMP might have had to create a water-quality zone. In 1995, the Texas Legislature passed a law that allows large developments near Austin to circumvent the city's laws by creating a water-quality zone. It was one of two laws engineered by Bradley and FMP that allowed them to escape the city's jurisdiction. The other law, HB 3193, which allowed Bradley to create a water district with an appointed board, was ruled unconstitutional by District Court Judge Scott McCown in August.

City officials contend that if Circle C tries to initiate a water-quality zone now, it will help prove the city's contention that the water-quality zones are designed to escape Austin's annexation power, which could help prove that the law allowing the zones is unconstitutional. Councilmembers Slusher and Beverly Griffith have an item on today's (Thursday) council agenda to affirm the city's plan to annex Circle C. -- R.B.

The EPA Cometh

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) manages one of the best highway systems in the country, but it's also one of the dirtiest, according to testimony presented earlier this month to officials of the Environmental Protection Agency, in town to review TxDOT's stormwater management policy.

In the Austin area, the EPA grants permits for stormwater discharge to TxDOT, the City of Austin, and the University of Texas. Because the EPA had received so much public interest in its review of TxDOT's practices, officials took the unusual step of holding a public hearing, which garnered a roomful of unhappy neighborhood reps -- from the Southeast Corner Alliance of Neighborhoods (SCAN), the Austin Neighborhood Council, the Dawson, Bouldin, Travis Heights, and other neighborhood associations, as well as environmental justice and preservation groups, such as PODER, the S.O.S. Alliance, and the Sierra Club.

The most popular point of discussion at the hearing was the Williamson Creek Tunnel -- held by many to be the epitome of TxDOT's environmental shortcomings. Suggestions abounded about how the EPA's Region 6 office might prod TxDOT -- which maintains that it has no general obligation to treat highway runoff in Austin -- into improving its compliance with the Clean Water Act. Joe Pantalion, of the city's Drainage Utility Department, urged the EPA to force TxDOT to bring its stormwater discharge policy in line with the city's -- which (although not without its own shortcomings) clearly defines treatment responsibilities and provides for significant community involvement in each of the city's watersheds.

Additionally, Pantalion pointed out that TxDOT's failure to treat its own runoff jeopardizes the city's program, since Austin's waterways and subsurface water systems are all interconnected. "Common sense mandates that the definition of best management practices should not have two different meanings in the Austin area," Pantalion observed. As a SCAN rep noted, the TxDOT tunnel, which as designed provides no pollution mitigation, will share an outfall into Williamson Creek with an already existing retention pond right next to it. The pond was built by Wal-Mart in compliance with the city's drainage requirements -- making Sam Walton a more compliant public citizen than TxDOT.

Pantalion further noted that TxDOT had fallen far behind other states such as Florida, Washington, and Maryland, all of which have responded to EPA regulations by developing progressive stormwater treatment programs over the last five years. This has always been TxDOT's worst nightmare. Depending on what Region 6 decides over the next year, TxDOT may be forced to wake up. -- N.B.

Making a Joyful Noise

Organizers billed the event as a local "holy day of atonement." But a solemn tone never really took over the rally of 500 blacks on the state Capitol's south steps last Thursday. It was the second anniversary of Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March on Washington. And without the stinging oratory of Farrakhan, the poets, dancers, drummers and rappers set a tone of celebration. "If you're out here to atone, make some noise," one of the speakers said. Drummer Lee Washington, dressed in a dashiki suit and gold-rimmed shades, performed with his 10-year-old son Paul Washington. "I understand atoning," the older Washington said. "I pray one on one. I try to atone daily. I'm not really here to atone, but I understand." Washington said he attended the Million Man March in 1995. "I'm married with two sons. I've always tried to raise my boys in the right way. I can't say how I've changed in two years. I worked on those things before the Million Man March, and a lot of brothers didn't."

The Austin event was one of several held in cities across the nation. Earlier this year Farrakhan asked the nation's blacks to stay away from food, work, and school on the day of atonement. Nathan E. Flowers, student body president at Huston-Tillotson College, said he would have liked a larger turnout in Austin. "This park should be filled," Flowers said. "It's indicative of how our community is involved. Sometimes I think we operate as yo-yos. We are happy-go-lucky one year. The next year, we're down." -- S.F.

Aquifer Conference

The Austin-San Antonio region is growing dramatically. But with that growth comes threats to the Edwards Aquifer. On Saturday, the Save Our Springs Alliance will hold a conference to discuss those threats. The keynote address at the conference will be delivered by Stuart Udall, the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Udall is scheduled to speak about managing urban growth.

Other speakers include Thomas Schueler of the Center for Watershed Protection, San Antonio hydrologist George Rice, and Mayor Kirk Watson. The conference is part of a long-range plan by S.O.S. to focus attention on the entire Edwards Aquifer, which extends from Brackettville near the Mexican border almost to Fort Hood. The conference, which will be held at the LBJ Auditorium, begins at 1pm. Udall is scheduled to speak at 7:30pm. Admission to the conference is $5. There's also a separate $5 fee to hear Udall's talk. Call 477-2320 for more information. -- R.B.

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