Naked City

Turning Whine Into Water?

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Six months after the well at Northridge Acres went dry, and nearly five years after the subdivision first began petitioning the city for service, the City Council approved plans Thursday night which would extend water service to the tiny neighborhood just north of Austin's city limits. The proposal to extend the pipeline was made by freshman council member Danny Thomas over protests from other members, who said they would prefer a four-inch line to the six-inch line approved Thursday night.

In fact, Northridge has been within a few hundred yards of Austin's water system since February, when the city finished extending the line north to serve La Frontera, a mixed-use development in Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction. Since then, the Austin line has sat tantalizingly close, while residents continue to get all of their water through a Round Rock-owned fire hydrant down the street.

To some residents, the delay is one more example of Austin's reluctance to settle a contentious situation that has dragged on for years. "It's one thing after another," says Nettie Brown, vice president of the Northridge Acres Water Supply Corporation, which has overseen the subdivision side of the negotiations. "It's just stall, stall, stall."

But according to Mike Erdmann, wholesale services manager for Austin's water and wastewater utility, the city has been more than generous. Austin assumed the entire cost for the water system's extension north, an unusual measure since the subdivision was de-annexed in 1989. "It became obvious that they couldn't afford that kind of money," Erdmann said of the subdivision, which is populated mainly by retirees and low-income families. Even so, he added, other subdivisions in similar economic circumstances have paid for their own water lines. Erdmann cites Pamela Heights, which he calls a "twin" to Northridge, as an example. "They collect enough money to pay all their bills and they've been a good customer," he says. "Northridge believes that some way, somehow, society has neglected them. They believe society owes them something. They want someone else to build their water system."

The difference of opinion over exactly how generous Austin has been is typical of the ongoing struggle among council members over what Austin's obligations are to neighborhoods on its outskirts. "You need to get water," Erdmann told Northridge residents, "and we need to build a pipe. And you need to pay for it. Now let's get on down the road."

But Brown has her doubts as to how far down the road the plans will get. Connecting Northridge's water system to the city's will be a good thing for the subdivision, Brown says, "if it ever happens. They've said they would do things before and haven't done them. That line's been out there for months."

Erdmann gives two reasons for the city's delay. The first, he says, is that the city was uncertain about where Northridge's water line lay. The second is that the city wanted to give the subdivision time to find another contractor who might do the work at a lower cost.

The city estimates that Northridge could hire an independent contractor and do the job for as little as $20,000. If the city did the job itself, Erdmann says, it would cost around $46,000, due to the high standards to which city projects must be built. Northridge has opted to have the work done by the city at the higher cost, agreeing Thursday night to pay the city back within seven years.

"We want it built up to state standards," says Brown. "Why would they want to put something in here that's not up to standard?"

Then Brown answers her own question: "They would like to just wipe us off the face of the earth," she says.

Brown contends that the city is deliberately delaying the delivery of standard service to the area in an effort to keep the property values low. Then, she suspects, either Austin or Round Rock will buy up the area, which is already surrounded by development on three sides, and build over it.

"They're surrounding us," Brown says. "This is a poor neighborhood. They want to keep the property values very, very low so they can buy it very cheap."

Whether or not Northridge itself is threatened, some council members are apprehensive that extending the pipeline to Northridge might create a conduit for urban sprawl in the area. A flare-up Thursday night over what size meter to install -- Northridge requested a six-inch meter while the city estimates recommended four inches -- may have been more than a quarrel between plumbers and engineers.

The larger meter, which eventually won out, could serve more customers than presently occupy Northridge Acres, Erdmann said, and Council Member Beverly Griffith expressed concern that the increased capacity might encourage uncontrolled growth. "We will need to watch carefully to make sure that this is not a promotional move," Griffith said.

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Northridge Acres, Danny Thomas, Nettie Brown, Northridge Acres Water Supply Corporation, Mike Erdmann, Pamela Heights, Beverly Griffith

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