Austin @ Large: Time to Repeal SOS?

What's really at stake in the Temple-Inland deal

Austin @ Large: Time to Repeal SOS?
Illustration By Doug Potter

The above headline ends in a question mark, not an exclamation point. I don't know whether the city and its citizens should repeal the Save Our Springs Ordinance and pursue other strategies for managing growth and protecting water quality in the southwest quadrant of town. But I have a pretty low tolerance for hypocrisy and cant, and I've wondered for a while, both silently and aloud, whether City Hall's history of cutting one deal after another with aquifer landowners, allowing them to evade the restrictions of SOS, means Austin has already executed a de facto repeal of the ordinance.

Back in mid-2002, when I argued against the Stratus deal, I suggested that the City Council should just repeal SOS -- and was told I was nuts, because Stratus was claiming grandfather rights and had legislative stroke and whatnot, and City Hall had no choice. It didn't mean they didn't support the ordinance. Now, here we are at Temple-Inland -- the Fortune 500 firm whose headquarters campus on South MoPac is one of only two major commercial projects ever to be built in full compliance with SOS. Apparently, the goodwill T-I has earned for years from this distinction is no longer so shiny and valuable; the company now wants a waiver of the ordinance so it can expand its campus as it restructures and expands its ever-growing business. (T-I, which used to just make lumber and cardboard, is now a major player in financial services as Guaranty Bank, and in real estate as Lumbermen's Investment Corp.).

Temple-Inland enjoys no grandfathering rights, has little flexibility on the site to cluster or engineer its project into quasi-compliance with SOS, and has so far offered no specific mitigation scheme to offset density on South MoPac with open space elsewhere over the aquifer. As the proposal looks and smells in the test tube, T-I basically wants a free pass -- something that would take six council votes, which would have seemed impossible not too long ago, but seems possible enough now to Mayor Will Wynn and several other council members. If even Temple-Inland is being encouraged to get in line for an exemption, then City Hall must be in an SOS-waiving mood.

Why would the council want to do such a fool thing? Well, jobs, of course -- "up to" 800 new jobs, some of them high-dollar Fortune 500 management jobs, on South MoPac. The notion that a T-I deal will "create" jobs is entrenched among its supporters, even though nothing -- certainly not a shortage of available vacant Austin office space -- would seem to be stopping the firm from bringing in or growing those jobs now. Would T-I really forgo future opportunities to make money through growth, or save money through reorganization, if it didn't get a waiver from SOS?

Wynn wants to see an "objective analysis" of the costs and benefits of waiving SOS to "create" these jobs, rather than simply stretching out the decades-old Barton Springs debate, with its "predisposed political positions," for another angst-filled round. This seems a pretty cavalier way for the Mayor Himself to conceive compliance with what is not only a long-established law of his city, but one made by the direct action of his subjects. You should ask for an "objective analysis" the next time you get a speeding ticket. And it is naive -- charming, but naive -- for the mayor to envision all the variables at play here, in such a politicized context, as being reducible to a spreadsheet.

Just Trust Us

The most "objective" attempt Austin has yet seen to manage the aquifer is the SOS Ordinance itself -- the fruit of "the best science," a collection of quantified, "predictable" rubrics that evolved in pursuit of the perfectly objective goal of "non-degradation." The ordinance allows scant room for judgment calls, avoids inherently value-laden variables like land use, and defines its purposes in terms -- the purity of drinking water -- that no sane person can oppose. It is precisely to avoid subjective quandaries like the one Wynn has set up for Temple-Inland that we have an SOS Ordinance. But while I think the environmental purposes of SOS have, in fact, been thoroughly embedded in the Austin consensus, champions of the ordinance itself appear to be thin on the ground at City Hall -- where subjective, political judgment calls about the aquifer have proven to be rather attractive.

I realize full well that the mayor does not always Wynn and has often chosen not to: His support of a T-I deal, like his protest votes against the city budget, may be designed to please his own friends and fans, not necessarily to sway council colleagues. But though he and Temple-Inland may not realize it, they have struck a raw nerve. Enviro leaders who -- unlike the SOS Alliance itself -- were willing to countenance, or even call victories, earlier deals that waived the ordinance are now rather breathless over the T-I proposal's direct challenge to the sacred truths of the Green Machine era: that protecting the environment is and has been good for the economy, and that Austin not only can but must see enviro-preservation and economic prosperity as co-equal components of its quality of life and regional competitive advantage.

Instead, we're back to the pre-SOS era, when business interests who did not wish to make less money than possible, or spend more than necessary, promised that nebulous feats of engineering magic, and not hard choices and restraint, would keep the water clean. Quality-of-life goals were vaporous compared to the "objective" value of economic prosperity. How many angels can dance on the seat of a three-legged stool?

Back at the height of the boom, we did not really "resolve" the tension between economic and environmental goals; we could simply afford to ignore it. When the streets were paved with gold, our environmental rigor -- "We have the nation's strongest water-quality ordinance!" -- seemed essential to Austin's recipe for success. Now it sounds like a cheap boast, like having the nation's largest ball of twine. And so the Edwards Aquifer risks transformation from the hallowed space cherished by SOS backers, surmounted by as little development as necessary, into a roadside attraction on the New Economy highway, allowing Austin to call itself pretty or funky or Weird and covered with as much "responsible" development as possible. The aquifer and springs and their ecosystem are becoming part of Austin, not the other way around.

Enforce or Repeal

Now is the time for Austin to decide whether Wynn and Temple-Inland are right and this really is a zero-sum game. If the SOS Ordinance should mean what it says and is not only compatible with but essential to the kind of place Austin wants to be, then y'all need to start demanding that the City Council enforce it and start voting out the council members who fail to comply. You'd think this had already been settled, but the T-I proposal makes clear that it hasn't been; I suspect that many Austinites agree with many council members that, while "protecting the aquifer" is a worthy goal in the abstract, it is abstract.

I think Wynn has heard from plenty of Austinites who've lost their jobs and seen their finances shot to hell; they may not see such a bright line between protecting the springs and paying their bills. This makes them susceptible to what I'd say are fallacious links between waiving SOS and "creating" jobs, and creates large cracks in the foundation of the city's modern-day environmental edifice. Today's enviro-progressives need to either work harder to repair those cracks or start planning for a new edifice, based on a new set of plans. If the Mayor Himself doesn't think SOS was written on stone tablets, then what good does it do to pretend that it is?

Certainly, the easiest way to keep SOS from being "bad for business" is to not enforce it, which City Hall has been willing to do with alacrity in recent years. But it's always had an excuse before -- grandfathering, Austin-bashing, litigation, whatever. With Temple-Inland, it would have no excuse -- a waiver will effectively exempt SOS out of meaningful existence, because absolutely nobody will thereafter have any incentive to willingly comply with it. That's why I'm willing to use the word "repeal" here -- if the T-I deal goes down, either we get rid of this council (so far, not an attractive prospect to most Austin voters), or we come up with a new ordinance. I'd rather have the SOS Ordinance than no protections at all, but preferable to either would be an official, coherent, legitimate water-quality policy that is actually supported within City Hall. end story

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Save Our Springs Ordinance, SOS, SOS Alliance, Edwards Aquifer, Barton Springs, Temple-Inland, T-I, Will Wynn, waiver, job creation

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