FWS Approves Stratus-pheric Development

A plan by Stratus Properties to develop its Circle C property has received the all-important blessing of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, laying a significant piece of groundwork for an overall development that could be the size of a small city in 30 years. The Circle C site is one of three large pieces of top-drawer property destined for single- and multi-family residences and commercial space. Stratus officials were notified of the decision last Friday, which effectively gives Stratus the green light to submit a formal proposal to the city of Austin.

David Frederick, regional administrator for FWS's Austin office, could not be reached at press time (nor could Council Member Daryl Slusher, who as a former Chronicle muckraker filed weekly dispatches on this issue when Stratus Properties was known as FM Properties). On this particular front, the federal agency determined that the company's proposal for a 1,253-acre, mixed-use community on environmentally sensitive terrain in Southwest Austin is "not likely to adversely affect" any threatened or endangered species. Circle C and Stratus' Lantana and Barton Creek holdings total nearly 5,000 acres of watershed property over the Edwards Aquifer.

Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong seeks rezoning approval that would allow him to build some 2.5 million sq. ft. of office space on land zoned rural residential, and to build a residential segment on a tract originally slated several years ago as an R&D site for Motorola -- before public outcry convinced the company to build its facility far from the aquifer. Since the summer, Stratus officials have held informal meetings with environmental groups, neighborhood associations, and city leaders in an apparent attempt to convince anyone with political sway that the proposed Circle C development would not jeopardize the environment.

Armstrong has sweetened his Circle C proposal considerably since he first approached the city more than a year ago and tried to strike a deal on House Bill 1704 in the 1999 Legislature. HB 1704, which allows developers to build under older, less stringent environmental regulations, gave Stratus considerable leverage in its negotiations with the city. (These negotiations veered sharply off-course last December when Stratus and the city turned their attention to the possibility of swapping aquifer land for city-owned Mueller airport property; the talks stalled and eventually dissipated.)

Now, under Stratus' new-and-improved community outreach efforts, Armstrong says he'll not only comply with the strict water-quality SOS Ordinance (by way of higher density in some areas in exchange for wide-open spaces in other areas), but also by deeding about 150 acres of prime property to an important cast of characters in the deal: the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the city of Austin, and the Circle C Homeowners Association.

The largest carrot of the bunch would include a 104-acre gift to the Wildflower Center, whose officials had initially feared Circle C's "commercial development on our doorstep," said Center Executive Director Robert Bruenig. The free land would encompass the center, essentially guaranteeing undeveloped land in every direction of the center's doorstep. The other 46 acres would add to existing Prop. 2 preservation land owned by the city, and also anchor a trail system used by existing Circle C homeowners, who had expressed concern about more development in their back yard.

Bruenig says it took more than the promise of land to convince him that the Stratus development wouldn't destroy the environment. "That, of course, was a strong offer, but our response was, 'We would love to accept, however, we would have to have some guarantees that the development does not result in a net degradation of water quality.'" The Center enlisted environmental engineer Lauren Ross to conduct an environmental assessment of the Circle C proposal, and when she deemed it acceptable, the Wildflower Center decided to take Stratus up on its offer. "We couldn't accept this land if [the development] was going to be on the back of the aquifer. Lauren Ross' opinion was important to us," Bruenig said.

That acceptance may go a long way in some environmental circles, but not all greens are ready to sign off on the proposal. Stratus officials met last week with several environmentalists to go over some of its plans. Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch, for one, remains skeptical, saying he'd prefer that Stratus' Armstrong meet with all stakeholders collectively to ensure the developer is not tailoring his assurances in order to please each group that he addresses.

While Fish & Wildlife gave its approval to Stratus based in part on the company's willingness to comply with the agency's recommendations for water-quality protection, Bunch noted that the guidelines, while "very helpful," fail to adequately address pollutants such as pesticides and petroleum hydrocarbons. "We would disagree with Fish & Wildlife's assessment that the Stratus proposal is not likely to harm the Barton Springs Salamander," Bunch said.

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