Austin's War of the Watershed

Businesses oppose environmental statute that would limit development in river area

THIS city has the toughest watershed protection ordinance in the United States, but voters tomorrow may supplant it with an even tougher one.

Saturday's election represents the latest battle between developers and environmentalists in Austin's acrimonious, decades-long war for the watershed. Observers say it is emblematic of a national trend of greater public control over "environmental resources" that frequently are privately owned.

"It's getting harder and harder to do things with your land," says Timothy Beatley, a professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia.

At stake in Austin's case is the way development will occur southwest of the city, an area of rolling limestone hills that is now largely rural. This is where runoff water from Barton Creek and five other rivers seeps into the porous Edwards Aquifer and gushes forth almost unfiltered at Barton Springs, a popular swimming spot regarded as the crown jewel among this outdoorsy city's natural attractions.

Edwards is "the most susceptible aquifer in the state" to contamination, says Raymond Slade, a hydrogeologist with the United States Geological Survey.

"With increased urbanization you have increasing water quality degradation" from such sources as lawn fertilizers, pesticides, and motor oil, he says. Moreover, streets, parking lots, and other "impervious" ground-cover reduce natural filtration.

Last fall, the city council passed the current ordinance, which many citizens felt left the Barton Springs watershed vulnerable to pollution. Save Our Springs (SOS), an environmental coalition, drafted its own statute and forced it onto tomorrow's ballot through a petition drive.

SOS predicts that its initiative will pass with more than 60 percent of the votes. Opponents, including developers, say only that the election is "a horse race."

The ordinance would restrict "impervious cover" so greatly as to exclude high-density commercial and residential development. Very small businesses and up to two single-family homes per acre would be allowed.

"It's a takings issue, to kind of shuck it down to the cob," says Sally Caldwell, an urban sociologist at Southern Methodist University. "Are you going to take away someone's reasonable use of the land without just compensation?"

The fact that some "economically beneficial" use would remain puts the ordinance above constitutional challenge, according to Joseph Sax, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor cited by the US Supreme Court in the recent Lucas case involving waterfront lots in South Carolina.

Nonetheless, there will be "a barrage of lawsuits" by people who want to develop their land, predicts Phil Deming, a realtor who works in the watershed area.

Ironies abound in the ordinance and the election.

Environmentalists say the city council shut them out at the end of the process of crafting the current watershed ordinance. Opponents say the same about the SOS ordinance."They crammed it down the throat of people like me," says developer Peter Dwyer.

The SOS ordinance would pertain only to the 150 square miles of watershed within the city limits or its extraterritorial jurisdiction. Another 200 square miles will not be protected. Nor does the ordinance deal with existing development in the area under city control.

Of the 150 square miles of watershed under city jurisdiction, three-fourths is outside the city limits. Thus, the 30,000 people who live there will not get to vote on an ordinance that affects their land.

On the other hand, ballots will be cast in Austin, although only 20 percent of the city lies within the watershed. In addition, renters make up 60 percent of the city's households

"You can make some deduction from that," says Bruce Byron at the chamber of commerce. Renters don't feel as concerned about increases in property taxes that, he says, the SOS ordinance would necessitate.

Because of the spacing that the ordinance would mandate, "the whole area will become non-affordable to all but the very wealthy," Mr. Deming says.

Owners of existing homes in the watershed stand to see their values soar. That includes John Stratford, who leads the anti-ordinance Citizens for Responsible Planning. "People ask me, `What in the world are you doing this for?' " he says.

His answer: Burying Austin in lawsuits would take money from essential services. And if those lawsuits don't come? "Then we're wrong - happily."

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