Friday, November 11, 2005

AGUA speaks to San Antonio City Hall

Council advised on aquifer rules


Jerry Needham
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

As the City Council heard advice from attorneys Wednesday on how far they might press in trying to limit development to protect the Edwards Aquifer, an aquifer protection group announced that it has given the council suggestions on how to toughen the city's water quality ordinance.

Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas is asking city officials to close what they say are loopholes in the 11-year-old ordinance by pushing for a strict limit on how much land can be covered by roofs, sidewalks, streets and driveways.

"This has been a really exhaustive process," said the group's Annalisa Peace. "We've pulled in all sorts of people to devise what we think is the best and the simplest way to protect the aquifer recharge zone in Bexar County."

Chief among the group's recommendations is an across-the-board 15 percent limit on so-called impervious cover. The current ordinance allows 80 percent impervious cover for commercial property at major intersections, 65 percent for commercial property, 50 percent for multifamily developments and 30 percent for residential developments.

A city committee has been working on revisions to the ordinance. Its latest working draft is recommending 50 percent for commercial property, 40 percent for multifamily developments and 20 percent for residential developments.

"We didn't think that the draft we saw was really sufficient to protect the aquifer," Peace said, adding that scientific evidence points to 15 percent impervious cover as the point above which a watershed cannot absorb polluted runoff.

Doug Young, an Austin attorney who represents several Austin-area cities with tough water quality ordinances, told the council in a briefing session that many cities in that area have concluded that limits on development are more effective at controlling pollution than relying on engineered controls such as sedimentation ponds and vegetative buffers.

Russell Johnson, a former San Antonio Water System attorney now in private practice, told the council that it would have to be careful in limiting development rights or it could face lawsuits for taking away property rights.

Both attorneys agreed that state law generally favors landowners over cities when it comes to recognizing prior development rights.

Johnson said much of the recharge zone land in Bexar County already is slated for development.

Several council members expressed a desire to get on with whatever changes need to be made.

"I believe there's a lot of consensus already existing to try to do what we can to protect our water source," said Mayor Phil Hardberger. "The dissension is not really dissension of purpose, but how to do it."

The mayor said Wednesday's session added to the council's body of knowledge on the topic.

"I think in the next few months you'll see some proposed ordinances make their way onto the agenda to be voted on," Hardberger said.

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