The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Blame It on Grandpa

In search of heroes and villains over AMD

By Michael King, December 30, 2005, News

"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got, 'til it's gone; they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot."

– Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"

Last week I wrote about the dubious environmental logic underlying Advanced Micro Devices' defense of its corporate move to the Lantana site in Southwest Austin, specifically the likelihood that however ecologically sustainable its own construction plans turn out to be, the secondary development inevitably associated with a major employer hardly bodes well for the Edwards Aquifer beneath it. AMD corporate has responded with a resigned, pragmatic shrug; this land, long held against a profitable day by Stratus Corp., is going to be developed, willy-nilly, and therefore it might as well be developed by a deep-pocketed patron that can afford the safeguards that will make the Lantana campus an environmental showplace. AMD's recent agreement to purchase the land outright, rather than rely on the blandishments of Stratus to protect the site, gives evidence of both the company's seriousness about its construction plans and its determination to defy public opposition and settle at Lantana.

As to after AMD? Le deluge.

The political logic of the battle over the aquifer is something else again. Save Our Springs Alliance, the most prominent of the several environmental organizations opposed to AMD's move, sees this decision as the potential tipping point in the three-decades-long battle to protect both the aquifer and the waters fed by it, most importantly Barton Springs. "Barton Springs may be lost in 2006," SOS wrote to supporters last week, pointing not only to the AMD decision, but to the Lower Colorado River Authority's continuing extension of water lines feeding development sprawling westward, and the long-term highway/tollway plans of TxDOT and its unholy stepchild, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. Against such political and bureaucratic behemoths, who will stand for the rest of us?

Well, there's the Austin City Council.

Alas, don't laugh. Still looking for a villain – apparently AMD CEO Hector Ruiz is too shy and roly-poly to sufficiently fill the bill – SOS has lately settled on Mayor Will Wynn as a likely suspect, because in the Alliance's judgment he has been inadequately stalwart in opposing AMD and persuading the company to look elsewhere. (Wynn insists that he and city staff did everything they could, but company officials were unmoved.) "Mayor Wynn is not alone in his silence and backroom dealings as this irreversible train-wreck happens," SOS director Bill Bunch declares, in his best Sal Costello-esque mode. "This silence from City Hall is deafening."

Legislative Handcuffs

That suggests we can expect pitched rhetorical battles in the next few weeks over the council's allegedly turpitudinous timidity. It's true the council hasn't had a great deal to say on AMD matters of late, glumly acquiescing to the advice of city staff and attorneys that AMD is "entitled" to its plans for the Lantana tracts under rights "grandfathered" by the Legislature under HB 1704. As Amy Smith reported a few weeks ago, the phrase "lead-pipe cinch" was tossed about liberally in connection with AMD's entitlements ("Back to the Trenches," Dec. 16), and the current council is visibly lacking a heedless standard-bearer willing to charge up Lantana Hill against the lead pipes of the corporate legal hordes. Ergo, the "deafening silence."

Those council members willing to talk about the AMD issue told me bluntly, in the words of Raul Alvarez, "Legally, I don't think there's anything we can do." Like his colleagues, Alvarez said he is opposed to any major employer locating over the aquifer, on its own merits, and because "it goes against three decades of city policies." Whether the council might use its bully pulpit to fulminate against AMD remains an open question; Alvarez said he would be open to considering a resolution "that reiterates our decades-long opposition to a major employer locating in this ecologically sensitive zone." Likewise Jennifer Kim said she would consider such a resolution, "depending on what it says," but considers it much more important to move forward on a regional water-quality management plan that would involve Austin and all the neighboring jurisdictions in establishing specific policies to protect the aquifer.

Mayor Wynn and Lee Leffingwell dismissed any such symbolic resolution as pointless. "It would be without any practical effect," said Wynn. "And I've been consistently opposed to political statements that declare a position while accomplishing nothing truly constructive." Leffingwell described such a resolution as a "pointless exercise," and even counterproductive if it obstructs any future ability of the city to "build good will." Whatever the council does, Leffingwell says, "I don't think they [AMD] are going to suddenly change their mind" about locating at Lantana. "I'm absolutely convinced they are dead set on having this project out there."

Leffingwell argues that the best way to protect the aquifer now is to negotiate the best possible mitigation on the land itself – "It's good so far, but it could be better" – and particularly to find ways to exclude nearby open lands from further development. "There are very few properties left out there with 1704 protections," he said. "We need to try to negotiate the best possible protections for those lands."

Blues for Barton

Such temporizing is unlikely to satisfy the hard-core opponents of the AMD move, and it's likely we'll see a court fight before the bulldozers begin serious churning. As it stands, the environmental opposition can claim a victory of sorts, in that the site plan finally adopted by AMD goes about as far as possible in environmental safeguards. Whether that victory will be finally a pyrrhic one, and the AMD move in fact will mark the tipping point for this region's protection of the northern end of the Edwards Aquifer, the contributing streams, and Barton Springs eternal, is something we are unlikely to know for certain, even long after the deluge. As Lightnin' Hopkins used to sing, "You don't miss your water, 'til your well runs dry." end story

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