Another Springs/Aquifer Development Fight

Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District finds itself on wrong side of environmental fight as its board continues determining whether it should build new headquarters on donated parcel inside aquifer recharge zone

The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District finds itself on the wrong side of an environmental fight as its board of directors continues to determine whether it should build its new headquarters on a donated parcel inside the aquifer recharge zone.

It won't be without a lot of opposition. The Save Our Springs Alliance considers this a ploy by developer Bill Walters to get zoning approval for the Wildflower Commons planned unit development inside the ecologically fragile recharge zone. For groups such as SOSA and the Sierra Club, the fact that BS/EACD would even consider Walters' offer is hard to fathom.

"There is the issue of the Wildflower Commons development and what part granting the land to the BS/EACD plays in their PUD application," says Jennifer Walker of the Sierra Club, who was at last Thursday night's board meeting with Sarah Baker of SOSA. "The developer says that their development deserves a PUD designation and is environmentally superior to what is currently allowed on the property due to the fact they are granting land for the BS/EACD office, among other reasons."

At last Thursday night's meeting, Baker said no group committed to preserving the aquifer would even consider relocating on land inside the recharge zone. Director Jack Goodman argued that point, saying he's confused. First, SOSA proposed a limit on how land was developed. Goodman asked if they were now going to propose who should or should not be building on the land.

"It does matter who you are," Baker argued. "I think your level of impervious cover and the intensity of use is setting an example for other developers' development patterns."

Those were fighting words for some members of the BS/EACD board, who consider themselves to be card-carrying environmentalists with only the best interests of the aquifer at heart. In fact, at one point in the meeting, the discussion broke down to the level of a challenge from Goodman to members of the audience over who has been active in the Austin environmental movement the longest. Needless to say, there were a number of people – board members and non-board-members alike – who could trace their environmental lineage all the way back to the drafting of the SOS Ordinance in 1992 and beyond.

Goodman argued that SOSA would only be satisfied with no growth on the aquifer, adding that it was certainly a switch from when he was in the organization, and walked away because the group proposed 15% to 20% impervious cover limits when scientific research shows no more than 8% impervious cover is best. The final tally on the building BS/EACD is proposing is no more than 2.6% impervious cover.

District manager Kirk Holland presented a list of criteria the proposed building met for the district, which has outgrown its small lot on Manchaca Road in far South Austin. Among his requirements for the tract: a location that would not promote growth that would not already be happening; a small office that could be built without a negative effect on the recharge zone; a master plan that would produce less impervious cover than the SOS Ordinance allows; a site that would provide for low-impact, sustainable construction; a location that's convenient to stakeholders and employees; and an opportunity to educate builders and others on low-impact development.

Opponents argued that the site is still in the middle of entanglements, including the Bradle settlement and a consent decree that could limit driveway access. BS/EACD has planned for this, offering an alternate route out through the Wildflower Center.

Director Chuck Murphy said the initial question to be decided is whether the board could agree if it's possible to build in the recharge zone. Board members were unwilling to take a vote on that issue, however, with director Craig Smith absent. The vote was deferred to the board's next meeting. In the interim, they intend to continue studying some of the legal issues surrounding the property.

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