Making Recycling Illegal?

Today (Thursday) the City Council is expected to consider on second (and possibly third) reading a downzoning recommendation that, if left untweaked, might forbid recycling activities at 2416 E. Sixth -- current home of Balcones Recycling's Central Texas operations. The recommendation would add conditions to Balcones' limited-industrial zoning that could outlaw all uses except light manufacturing and an arts-and-crafts studio. The company has filed a valid petition against the rezoning -- one of many changes being made under the Holly Neighborhood Plan -- requesting that the conditions be deleted from its property. But at its May 8 meeting, the council voted 7-0 for the rezoning -- which would grandfather Balcones but outlaw future recycling companies from operating on the property and which would also prevent Balcones from pulling permits to expand.

In the late 1990s -- not long after another East Austin recycling facility, owned by multinational trash kingpins Browning-Ferris Industries, burned down -- many East Austinites began to regard recyclers as hazardous to neighborhood health and safety. Balcones' move to its East Sixth location triggered the development of the East Austin Overlay, which made all industrial uses nonconforming between Town Lake, I-35, and Airport Boulevard. Companies like Balcones were required to get a conditional use permit to keep operating -- even if they had zoning that would permit the same use elsewhere in town. No fires or other major disasters have marred Balcones' relationships with surrounding neighborhoods.

Balcones has considered improvements to its facility, which includes indoor-rail access, that would be impossible with the zoning change, says company spokeswoman Sara Koeninger. "It's not like we're horse-meat processing or something," she protests. The proposed downzoning, she opines, "sort of defies logic."

Supporting the downzonings is Council Member Raul Alvarez, who says the city isn't singling out "good, clean" Balcones but is trying to deal with industrial zonings fairly. He's offered to support a different proposal that would enable Balcones to maintain the same zoning status with a restrictive covenant, but the company hasn't taken up his offer. Alvarez says he's trying to think of the long-term use of the property, which is stuck in the middle of a rapidly redeveloping area. Though Balcones might be a good neighbor, he points out, whoever takes its place might not be as conscientious. Given the council's unanimous vote on first reading, it appears he's not alone in that concern.

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