The Austin Chronicle

Then There's This: City May Buy Aquifer Land Slated for Sewage

Judge's order offers only clue that talks are in progress

By Amy Smith, October 4, 2013, News

There may be a happy ending to the otherwise grim prospect of a sewage treatment facility ending up on a 604-acre tract in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone: The city of Austin and the Nature Conservancy have begun negotiating the purchase of the environmentally sensitive property from landowner/developer Jeremiah Venture LP.

If the sale goes through – and at this point that's a big if – the property just south of Austin in northern Hays County would be set aside as water quality protection land, joining an existing portfolio of 26,000 protected acres the city manages in the Barton Springs recharge and contributing zones. Funding for the property would come from the $30 million that voters overwhelmingly approved for land acquisitions in last year's bond election.

As in most city real estate negotiations, very few details are available for public consumption, leaving several questions hanging: What's the price? Who initiated discussions? Did Jeremiah Venture see the writing on the wall at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency charged with deciding whether the porous property is really the best place to irrigate with effluent?

A weeklong hearing before a TCEQ administrative law judge was set to start Sept. 30, after developers had unsuccessfully tried to remove the Save Our Springs Alliance as a party to the contested case. But before the hearing got underway, Administrative Law Judge Rebecca Smith issued an order declaring the matter abated "pending the finalization of [a] settlement," and setting a Nov. 12-15 hearing in the event a settlement fails to materialize. Smith also set an Oct. 31 deadline for Jeremiah Venture to "file a status report indicating whether the sale of the property is going forward and whether a hearing is necessary."

The property price may also be influenced by the fact that the parcel has development entitlements from Hays County and a water commitment for half of the development from an entity that took over a portion of the Lower Colorado River Authority's water systems. "I'm sure the developer will argue the value includes a wastewater permit they don't have," said SOS executive director Bill Bunch. He hopes none of these factors become deal breakers. "A purchase of the 604 acres at a fair price is the best possible outcome," he said. "The tract is classic Edwards Swiss cheese, riddled with caves and sinkholes. It really should be protected."

The Six-Year War

Jeremiah Venture has spent years trying to turn dirt on a planned residential subdivision, which initially called for building 1,400 homes and a facility that would dispose up to 330,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day. Because the treatment plant required a state permit, several governmental entities – the city of Austin, Hays County, the LCRA, and the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer – filed in opposition to block the approval. Until recently, the city and the SOS Alliance were the lone contestants in the case. Last year, the City Council unanimously rejected a proposed settlement agreement, but when a modified offer was extended this year, the Council vote narrowed to 4-3 to accept the deal on Aug. 29 (Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo, and Chris Riley voted no).

That left SOS to pursue opposition on its own, but armed with ample exhibits and evidence compiled in a last-minute report filed by Nico Hauwert, a city hydrologist who was wrapping up field work at the site on the same day Council deliberated the offer. Bunch urged Council to delay a vote until Hauwert was able to write up his findings, but Jeremiah Venture's attorneys wouldn't budge and in fact threatened to pull the offer if the vote was postponed. As the Council majority saw it, the risk was too great: Either approve the updated settlement – about 1,000 homes, 270,000 gallons of effluent, and a significant cap on total nitrogen – or risk the developers moving forward on an alternate plan that would site several hundred homes on septic systems only.

Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of the settlement is that it nailed Austin to an agreement to testify in support of the permit – if the case were ever to go to a hearing. Pray that the city doesn't have to stoop to that.

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