Frenzied Rush

Big Water Deal

The most serious casualty of last Thursday's overstuffed meeting was the scheduled public hearing on a plan that would have the city buying water from the Lower Colorado River Authority. With the hour nearing 10pm, and with hordes of budget hearing attendees waiting patiently (and with prompting from Garza that the "budget hearing is the required public hearing"), Mayor Kirk Watson decreed a postponement. The vote on the item was scheduled for tonight, Thursday, Aug. 26, but that too has been postponed. Instead, look for a public hearing, and another next week, with a vote to follow in subsequent weeks. (The city has obtained a month-long reprieve from the LCRA board's original end-of-August deadline, and after that, it's anybody's guess what could happen.)

But will it be enough for more than a cursory examination of the facts? Probably not, say members of the SOS Alliance. Anxious not to repeat the mistakes they made by not scrambling fast enough to counter the Forum PUD, the Alliance is making a strong case against immediate approval of the deal, and working hard to get their message out to anyone who will listen. They've succeeded in making mischief with the city's boards and commissions, stirring up concern if not dissent among the ranks. The city's Resource Management Commission and Environmental Board have passed resolutions recommending a delay of the plan's approval so the issues could be vetted, and the Planning Commission is adding its own scrutiny.

Bill Bunch, who had planned to take a sabbatical from SOS to write a book, may postpone his leave to try and nip the LCRA proposal in the bud.He's been doing some serious sleuth-work on the deal -- filing open records requests, and piecing together internal city of Austin, LCRA, and state documents that cast a reasonable doubt on the deal's suitability. Bunch argues that the proposal is based on faulty assumptions and projections in a variety of categories, including population growth, conservation and demand for water, and the nature of the legal water rights the city would be buying.

City staff have misrepresented some key data, even to the council, Bunch insists. City Council members, for their part, are the missing links in this dispute, as most have not taken sides, or even indicated their attitude toward Bunch's question-raising. In the meantime, the council will consider a Water Conservation Plan as stipulated in SB 1, the state-mandated water management plan passed during the last legislative session.

SOS argues that the water purchase, which will cost more than $1 billion over 50 years, will subsidize LCRA policies that are antithetical to the Alliance's -- and the city's -- Smart Growth goals. One such example is the proposed LCRA water line to Dripping Springs, over which SOS and the Hays County Water Planning Partnership say they are planning to sue the LCRA. A threat of a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act was enough to give the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority pause, and it informed the LCRA Wednesday it was pulling out of its end of the water line arrangement (The GBRA was going to be a partner in the LCRA in construction of the Hays County water line). Austin's water ratepayers will face a 10% increase (though such a thing might have happened regardless) -- while LCRA plans to cancel a scheduled increase for its own customers.

A conversation with Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell indicates that the city staff are not going to take Bunch's criticisms lying down. Upon a chance meeting, Futrell was ready with figures -- off the top of her head -- which she said refuted several of Bunch's criticisms. She further implied that the city of San Antonio, which has long been a water-torn city, was prepared to buy the water out from under Austin if we don't act fast. Then she quickly turned philosophical: "Bill believes in the theory that if you don't build it, they won't come." Futrell said that back in the no-growth 1980s, she was "chained to trees just like everybody else, but the growth came anyway, and now the name of the game is controlling and managing that growth through, among other things, water policy. "If we stay in control of our resources," Futrell said, "we stay in control of our destiny."

It's Impervious

"I believe every member of the council is in agreement that the impervious cover limits need to be reduced," said Mayor Watson by way of opening last week's public hearing on tightening impervious cover limits around the intersection of RMS 2222 and 620, as well as some other tracts along the city's western boundaries, in the Lake Travis and Lake Austin watersheds.

That said, however, the council went on to squabble off and on for hours, interspersed with the often redundant testimony of the three main parties to the debate. (Those being environmentalists, property owners/developers, and the 2222 Coalition of Neighborhoods, many of whom have only recently found themselves bedfellows with some of the city's fiercest environmental advocates.)

The conflict was again over whether to enact the ordinance ASAP, though with a "due diligence" hardship clause, or to allow for one more cycle of the city's development review process to allow any landowners who are on the verge of submitting plans to the city to do so under the old rules. Spelman used his usual number-crunching ways to hypothesize that fewer projects could be approved under his plan, which postponed enactment of the ordinance for one more city development cycle, but it was viewed by some observers as the more developer-friendly (or fair to landowners with projects in advanced stages of development, depending on how you look at it) of the two. (Though its delayed effective date (September 8) does build in more land-rush potential into the front end, the ordinance does not include a hardship provision, which could serve as a loophole further down the road). Spelman's version of the ordinance was supported by Mayor Watson and Council Members Lewis and Garcia over the objections of Council Members Goodman, Griffith and Slusher, was eventually approved by a vote of 7-0.

Act Two in this drama begins today, when the council will start talking about impervious cover-related remedies to growth/water pollution in the Bull Creek watershed. Since the ordinance passed last week affected only development at a certain major intersection in Bull Creek, the upcoming ordinance has much bigger implications for the Lake Travis and Lake Austin watersheds, where future development at the city limits' outskirts will be henceforth limited to 20% impervious cover. Slusher is leading the charge, joined by co-sponsors Griffith and Garcia, with the rest of the council likely close behind. The only matter of dispute, once again, will be whether to make allowances for "hardship" cases -- and when to make the changes effective. Though Slusher is pushing for fast-track action, to prevent the dreaded land rush effect, Assistant City Manager Futrell has said that 90 days is a more realistic time frame for getting the new rules in place (especially since the events of the past two weeks have proved that the city has to come up with some way to notify affected property owners of any proposal).

Turning to the Budget

Wrangling for 1999-2000 budget dollars began in earnest last week, with several factions on hand to ask for more money for their respective interest. The overflow crowd caused Watson to divert some petitioners to private hallways with city budget officers during the impervious cover hearing, but others waited until the late hours to plead for, among other things: more medical social workers in the city's health clinics (whose numbers have been cut in this year's draft budget), funding to keep the South Austin Dental Clinic open, lower monitoring fees for home security systems, and a slower phase-out of funding for the city's ethnic chambers of commerce.

This Week in Council: At its morning work session today, the council will receive briefings on the budgets for various departments, including Parks and Recreation, Library, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, and Health and Human Services, as well as "the Neighborhood Services Initiative," otherwise known as neighborhood planning.

Several public hearings are on the docket for 6pm, including one on the LCRA water deal, and another on a tax increment financing (TIF) district for the blocks surrounding the CSC/City Hall project which would funnel about $100,000 of the area's annual tax revenue into funding for maintenance and improvements in the area.

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