County presents water-quality regulations

Audience reaction mixed

County presents water-quality regulations

Audience reaction mixed

By Marty Toohey AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Wednesday, July 20, 2005 A proposed set of Travis County environmental and building rules got mixed reactions Tuesday, with some saying they would be too lax and others saying they would be illegal.

The rules, presented during the Commissioners Court’s weekly meeting, would cover numerous topics, including new steps in the permitting process and new rules designed to protect the area’s water quality. They would affect only unincorporated areas of the county, which make up about 20 percent of the land.

The Commissioners Court is scheduled to decide on the regulations next week, County Judge Sam Biscoe said.

Officials said the rules would be a short-term fix, designed to beef up the county’s weak regulatory authority while discussions continue on long-term regulations. Joe Gieselman, head of the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department, said Tuesday that the rules are a fair short-term solution but “are not perfect, and we’ll admit to that.”

That appeared to be the general consensus among the handful of people who spoke about the regulations.

Brad Rockwell, a lawyer with the Save Our Springs Alliance, said the rules don’t do enough, particularly for the Edwards Aquifer. The rules, Rockwell said, should include additional measures, including limits on the percentage of a property that can be paved or otherwise covered by materials that keep water from seeping into the ground.

Neighboring jurisdictions, including places such as the cities of Austin and Sunset Valley, have such limits in place.

But Larry Niemann, an Austin attorney who said the rules would affect property he owns, told the commissioners that the county does not have the right to regulate water-quality issues.

“I beseech you to proceed carefully,” he said, “before you bring the county into a declaratory lawsuit judgment.”

At issue is the interpretation of several laws, including some passed in 2001 that gave urban counties greater latitude to regulate subdivisions.

The county contends that those laws give it the authority to regulate environmental issues that relate to subdivisions, such as the distance houses must be built from ridge lines and creeks.

Niemann and other landowners and developers present Tuesday said the county does not have the right to regulate those environmental issues and would land values. A legal brief from Alan Haywood, a lawyer representing several land- owners, said the county is interpreting the laws too broadly.

Biscoe disagreed. He said he didn’t think a court had ruled on the relevant issues, “so there’s two ways to read it now: their way and our own.”

“Our lawyers are still not wavering,” he said, “so we’re not either.”

mtoohey@statesman.com; 445-3673

Some of the proposed rules being considered

Many of the proposed regulations mirror ones enforced by other agencies, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Others are new. The proposed regulations include:

* Minimum distances that buildings must be from ridgelines and waterways.

* Extra building requirements for developments on sloped land.

* Steps for dealing with stormwater runoff matching those required by the Lower Colorado River Authority.

* A requirement that developers prove early in the approval process that water and sewer utilities will provide adequate service by the time residents move in.

To obtain a copy of the proposed water quality and subdivision regulations, contact the office of County Judge Sam Biscoe at 854-9555.