Regional Planning Marches On
June 30th, the self-appointed stakeholders were back (nearly 100 of us this time), ensconced in the Oak Hill Waldorf School’s auditorium for a marathon, 5.5 hour, convocation
The fun began with a string of presentations from the distinguished panel of consultants and assorted experts. For some of the assembled masses, many of whom had already put in full days, the lengthy talks with accompanying text-shows proved a near sleep-inducing experience. At least the projections and text were large enough to be readable – a major improvement over the previous meeting.
The first presenter was Susan Zachos, a lawyer with Kelly, Hunt & Hallman, a law firm that seems to specialize in environmental issues. Susan was a practicing geologist before she became a lawyer so she brings a scientific background to her legal ponderings. Her presentation focused on her firm’s role as consultants to the project - to "help implement the plan in legally enforceable ways". This is to be accomplished by integrating the plan, as much as feasible, with existing rules and laws of local governments or other existing authorities, combined with the possible creation of a "new regional authority".
Along with Susan was Steve Dickman, another lawyer from her firm who is quite familiar with Texas environmental laws (or the paucity thereof) by virtue of the fact that he had earlier put in some years working for the TNRCC (predecessor to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ).
Representing the Austin of6fice of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was Alisa Shull, who went into some of the technicalities of how the Endangered Species Act of 1973 can be used to protect habitat on which these species depend.
Then Paige Najvar, also from the Austin office of the Fish & Wildlife Service, discussed the recovery plan for the Barton Springs salamander. This comprehensive plan, which is currently being reviewed in Washington prior to full implementation, includes protection from chronic water quality degradation and from catastrophic events. It makes use of regulations regarding impervious cover, buffer zones, clustered development, structural water quality control mechanisms and other strategies to reduce pollutant loads. According to Paige, the FWS "supports the regional planning process" as it can be "instrumental" in helping to protect the Barton Springs salamander and other endangered species.
Patrick Murphy of the City of Austin gave a talk on city programs to protect watersheds. And last but certainly not least, Heather Beatty presented an overview of the TCEQ’s applicable regulations and Best Management Practices (BMPs).
After all that, the breakout sessions began. Each of the 8 interest groups met, with a consultant/moderator, to further hash out issues of importance to the group members. Within each group, members also selected 3 of their own to be delegates to the working stakeholder committee. They also each selected an alternate delegate to serve in the event that one of the 3 committee members is not available.
The method devised for refining the issues of interest was somewhat complex but interesting. Each group member was given 5 stick-on dots of a color that signified their group. Each individual placed his or her dots on a big board next to issues of highest priority to them. Then the boards were set out before the larger assembly. There, other interest group members were each given 5 dots at each board, which they used to specify their choices from those presented by other groups. In the end, there were 8 huge displays, some made up of as many as 3 large pieces of foam core, all covered with dots of many colors. Presumably, the dots will be tallied to determine the priorities of the full congregation.
Once all individual decisions were pondered and dots were placed (and eyed), the 24 delegates from the 8 interest groups convened at a big u-shaped table set up on the stage, for the first official meeting of the stakeholders' committee. Names and affiliations of the members of this group can be found in the report distributed by Terry Tull a few days after the meeting.
At the after-hours meeting, Tull reiterated his message of inclusion, a song he has been singing frequently throughout the process. Then the idea of accelerating the planning process to have something for LCRA in December was set forth as something to consider at the next meeting. To quote a member of the group (who shall remain anonomous) "instead of accepting it on that level, several people who seem to be in love with the sound of their own voices seemed to think it was appropriate to say the same things about this over and over, and we didn't get out of there till 11:30".
As to the further smooth functioning of this diverse and potentially polarized committee, we shall see. It should be interesting.