If anyone is feeling nostalgic for a 1980s or early 1990s style Austin growth battle they might want to check in on Bee Cave and the surrounding area. There, residents are locked in a fierce, high stakes battle with the City Council and the West Travis County Public Utility Agency (WTCPUA) over a development off Hamilton Pool Road near Little Barton Creek. The outcome could have huge consequences not just for the Bee Cave area, but also for the Edwards Aquifer, Barton Creek and Barton Springs.
For any longtime Austin resident who has visited or driven through the Bee Cave area in recent years, it might come as a surprise that the Bee Cave City Council or the WTCPUA has been enforcing any environmental regulations whatsoever. That’s because urbanized development packs once bucolic Bee Cave Road and can be seen in all directions — perhaps most notable, but far from alone, is the sprawling Hill Country Galleria. (Of course, folks in Bee Cave could say some similar things about Austin.)
Nonetheless, Bee Cave does have some environmental protections and so does the WTCPUA. Many area residents in fact are trying to preserve one of the strongest water quality measures in the area.
As with Austin in the 1980s and 1990s, week after week of stories could be written about this saga. The issue, however, is receiving virtually no media coverage. A decision to settle a developer lawsuit on the matter and potentially to expand the pipeline could come as early as this Thursday, November 19. So in this installment, we will try as best as possible to cut to the core of the matter — and likely return with further coverage later.
The central issue at hand is the number of hook-ups to a water line, living unit equivalents (LUEs), that the WTCPUA will grant to the developers of the Provence Development off Hamilton Pool Road. Currently the development is approved for around 700 LUEs, but the developers believe they are entitled to 1,800. Going up to 1,800 could mean an expansion of the existing water line.
The Provence development is outside Bee Cave’s regulatory jurisdiction, but Bee Cave has two representatives on the WTCPUA board. Also, the Bee Cave City Council has been on record since 2013 opposing Provence developing at the developer proposed build-out level of 1,800 homes. The Council cited Provence’s location upstream of Bee Cave as a primary reason for its opposition.
The water line was originally built by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) around the turn of the century — out along Highway 290 into Hays County with another pipe into the Bee Cave area, including along Hamilton Pool Road. Later, the LCRA got out of the water utility business. After legislative and other wrangling, the WTCPUA was created to take over from the LCRA. The WTCPUA has a five member board. Two members represent Hays County and are appointed by the Hays County Commissioners Court. Two others represent Bee Cave and are appointed by the Bee Cave City Council. A fifth member represents the Lake Pointe MUD (Municipal Utility District) and is appointed by the MUD Board. The WTCPUA also handles wastewater service for much of the area — a related, but different issue that also merits discussion.
The LUE numbers are at the core of a lawsuit against the WTCPUA by the Provence developers. A potential settlement of that lawsuit is on the PUA agenda this Thursday.
Implications Flow Well Beyond Bee Cave and Hamilton Pool Road
What happens with water quality protections at Provence and all along the WTCPUA water lines has huge consequences not just for the Bee Cave area, but also for for the Edwards Aquifer, Barton Creek and Barton Springs. That’s because runoff water from the area eventually flows into Barton Creek and then along the beloved Barton Creek Greenbelt where generations of central Texans have enjoyed swimming and hiking. Along the way the water passes over the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. Some of the water, at times all of it, seeps through fissures in the limestone down into the the recharge zone. Then that water comes up at Barton Springs where people have swam since way before Austin was a City and well before the region was discovered by people of European descent. Water from five other creeks also contributes to Barton Springs through the recharge zone.
That history and geology are the core reasons why protecting Barton Springs has been a major issue in Austin since at least the 1970s. Many, many Austinites have worked to preserve this treasure, both for their time on Earth and for future generations.
Over the years, this intense citizen commitment resulted in, among other things, the Barton Creek Greenbelt and the 1992 passage by referendum of the Save Our Springs (SOS) Ordinance. Since SOS passed, the City has also purchased almost 30,000 acres of water quality protection lands in the Barton Springs Zone, many of those lands outside the City’s regulatory jurisdiction where water quality ordinances are weaker and sometime non-existent.
Full Disclosure: The author has been a participant in the struggles to save Barton Springs; as a community organizer, writer, City Council Member, and water utility executive with the City. As an Assistant Director at Austin Water from 2007 through 2019, I also had some interactions with the WTCPUA, although not on the Provence Development.
Austin’s SOS Ordinance is built around requirements for strong water quality control measures and strict impervious cover limits. Those limits range from 15% over the recharge zone up to 25% in areas outside the recharge zone. Critically though, Austin’s jurisdiction only covers roughly one-third of the Barton Springs Zone. Until recently, however, the Hamilton Pool Road area was protected by a WTCPUA policy that limited impervious cover to 20%. That policy resulted from an agreement LCRA made in consultation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service — back in the days of yesteryear when the Fish and Wildlife Service actually enforced the Endangered Species Act.
The Independent is still doing historical research on the matter, but it appears that at some point the 20% impervious cover limit for the Hamilton Pool Road line was temporarily abandoned. In November 2013 though, the Bee Cave City Council passed a resolution opposing the Provence development at the level proposed by the developers. Following that, in early 2014, the WTCPUA Board put a 20% impervious cover limit on development along the Hamilton Pool Road pipeline, including the Provence Development. The Provence developers opposed that change. The WTCPUA Board, however, led by Bee Cave Council Member Bill Goodwin and Don Walden, — a citizen appointed to the Board by the Bee Cave Council — were leaders in keeping the limit in place until recently. They also managed to limit the number of LUEs for Provence to around 700.
On October 5, the PUA board — with Goodwin and Walden no longer members — voted unanimously to discontinue the 20% impervious cover limits. As WTCPUA General Manager Jennifer Reichers explained in an October email response to earlier questions, this was done “due to the administrative burden on WTCPUA staff in monitoring, inspecting, and enforcing compliance with this provision.” (In an October 22 story on this subject, The Austin Independent reported that the WTCPUA board was scheduled to vote that day on removing the impervious cover policy. That was incorrect. They voted earlier at a special meeting on October 5 to end the impervious cover limits. The Provence related item on the October 22 agenda was for consideration of a settlement of the lawsuit, discussed above. That item was postponed until November 19.)
The Always Uphill Battle to Protect the Environment in Texas
Given that the Provence development is not in Bee Cave’s jurisdiction, the removal of the PUA’s impervious cover limits leaves Travis County as the protector of water quality in the immediate area. Travis County has both staff and elected officials who are strongly committed to protecting the environment. For instance County Commissioner Brigid Shea was a leading spokesperson for the SOS campaign in 1992 and remains fiercely committed to protecting the springs. County Commissioner Jeff Travillion was also instrumental in the SOS victory.
Counties in Texas, however, have extremely limited environmental and developmental regulatory powers. That is because the state of Texas gives counties virtually no development regulatory authority. That means, among other things, that counties have little to no authority to protect water quality.
County Judges in urban and rapidly urbanizing counties have for decades now sought development regulatory authority from the state legislature, and not just to protect water quality. Every time they try, however, County officials basically get laughed out of the Capital. For instance, H.T. Wright, the late County Judge of Caldwell County, used to irritably invoke a statement from one legislator who said giving development regulatory powers to Commissioners Courts “would be like giving machine guns to monkeys.”
This lack of any serious regulatory authority leads to another dilemma that will sound familiar to veterans of Austin’s environmental and sprawl battles. Environmental and neighborhood forces find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to protect the environment through limiting water service to an area. Denying utilities is almost always a very difficult strategy to pursue. Groups like the ones involved here don’t do it because they want to keep people from having water and wastewater services — as they are often accused. They do it because it is one of the few avenues available in Texas to potentially protect environmentally fragile areas.
The Saga of Council Member Bill Goodwin
A key turning point in Bee Cave’s approach to the WTCPUA was the ouster of Bee Cave Council Member Bill Goodwin in June. He was removed from the Council by his colleagues, ostensibly for reasons totally unrelated to the WTCPUA, the Provence Development, or water quality. Goodwin had served on the Council since 2005 and, as previously mentioned, was one of Bee Cave’s representative on the WTCPUA Board. He ran into trouble while serving briefly as Acting Mayor in March. It was in the early days of the pandemic although local emergency orders had already been issued. Bee Cave City Management decided to hold its March 24 meeting virtually. Goodwin decided he preferred an in person meeting and relayed that in a March 21 email to City Manager Clint Garza and several other Bee Cave employees who report to the City Manager.
Goodwin wrote, “I insist that the regular City Council meeting scheduled for the 24th go forward as planned, as a meeting at City Hall open to the public. . . I would like all members of staff that have business on the agenda to be in physical attendance, and urge you to tell them that I expect that of them.” Goodwin added, “Feel free to remind them that they are under your supervision and that I have no authority to require anything of them, that I am cognizant of that and nonetheless want them there.” After pushback from the City Attorney, Goodwin partially relented and sent a second email, “We will have the meeting at City Hall and those that want to teleconference can do so.”
Goodwin’s original email led to accusations that he had violated the Bee Cave Charter by giving direction to the City Manager and employees as an individual Council Member. The Council can only provide direction to the Manager as a body. Individual Council Members can not at all give direction to employees who report to the Manager. The Bee Cave Charter contains a provision that a Council Member can be removed for violating the Charter in this way.
In an amazingly honorable move, Goodwin concluded that he actually did violate the Charter and said so publicly. He apologized for his actions during a meeting on March 28, then resigned on April 1. Goodwin, however, remained on the May ballot and voters elected him to another term. He then took office to serve the new term. His fellow Council Members, however, launched a new investigation and removed Goodwin from office on June 17.
Goodwin has since sued to be reinstated. He is represented by Bill Aleshire, former County Judge and still a prominent political player. Aleshire maintains that Goodwin can not be removed for actions he took in a previous term on the Council. The lawsuit is pending.
Opponents of expanding the water line tend to see Goodwin’s ouster as part of a larger effort to abandon Bee Cave’s efforts to limit Provence and other developments along the waterline to 20% impervious cover. Some steam gets added to this contention, when one realizes that while much was made of Goodwin wanting to hold an in person meeting during the early days of the pandemic — which clearly was not the best plan — the Bee Cave Council is still holding in person meetings, including a meeting last Tuesday November 10.
The Post-Goodwin Bee Cave Council
On May 26 the Council removed Walden from the WTCPUA Board. With Goodwin off the Council, and neither he nor Walden on the WTCPUA Board, the Bee Cave approach to the WTCPUA has totally changed. Appointed to replace Goodwin and Walden were Bee Cave City Manager Clint Garza and Jack Creveling, the Senior Vice President of Real Estate at CCNG — a Bee Cave based development and energy firm. On its website CCNG advertises its Bee Cave area Spanish Oaks development which it heralds as “the most exclusive residential community in the Austin metropolitan area, with unparalleled 24-hour security and dramatic Hill Country terrain. Under development since 1999, the 900-acre community surrounds one of the finest private golf clubs in Texas with impressive estate homes that average more than $2 million in value.”
Garza and Creveling are not honoring the 2013 Bee Cave Council resolution and voted to remove the 20% impervious cover limit. With the shift of the Bee Cave representatives, the rest of the WTCPUA board shifted as well. One result was the five to zero vote to remove the 20% impervious cover regulation. The board now stands poised to settle the lawsuit with the Provence developers and potentially expand the waterline which will make much more additional growth possible.
This head spinning series of recent events has left a lot of angry neighbors in its wake, both people who live live along Hamilton Pool Road outside the Bee Cave city limits and a number of others who live in Bee Cave. Many of them gathered to protest outside the November 10 Council meeting (see photo at top, © by Nancy D. Hernandez). A lot of folks went inside as well, to speak and to listen to Council deliberations. The neighbors are deeply worried that the loss of the 20% impervious cover limit and the potential expansion of the water line will open up the area to even more intense development, beyond just Provence. They fear a steep decline in water quality, the loss of their Hill Country lifestyle, and more traffic packing roads in the area.
The residents are demanding that the Bee Cave Council follow the 2013 resolution and, as part of that, instruct its two representatives to the PUA to oppose the water line expansion and support the 20% impervious cover limit.
Members of the Council counter that they cannot instruct their appointees how to vote. Neighbors think this is ludicrous, and point out that the Council appoints the Board members and has the power to remove them, so should be able to instruct them.
It is true that appointees of this sort are often expected to use their own judgment on the boards to which they are appointed, with Councils retaining the power to remove them. At the same time, it seems pretty clear that in this case the Council chose people who would vote differently than the previous appointees. It also seems rather apparent that the Council Members are choosing not to exercise a power that they have — while pretending not to have it.
After all, one of the appointees is Bee Cave City Manager Garza. A core part of a City Manager’s job is to carry out the policy directives of the Council — making the argument that they can’t direct him even weaker.
The protesting citizens particularly single out Council Member Jon Cobb as a leader in the string of recent events and as a harsh combatant at Council meetings.
A Talk With Council Member Jon Cobb
Earlier this week, The Austin Independent talked with Jon Cobb, the man widely credited with orchestrating the turnaround on the Bee Cave Council. Cobb was vocal about removing Bill Goodwin and in his conversation with the Independent criticized the approach both Goodwin and Walden took during their time on that board. Though the Council has now replaced Goodwin and Walden with appointees more to Cobb’s liking, Cobb denies any predetermined role in the events that led to this point. The Independent asked Cobb if he went into the string of events with “any kind of intent of expanding the water line or anything like that.”
Cobb replied, “Absolutely not. That’s what shocking to me is that anybody who knows me, anybody who knows me, knows that if I had an end goal there I would have stated it at the beginning.”
Asked his views on citizen demands for the Council to follow the policy laid out in the 2013 resolution regarding Provence, Cobb responded, “I disagree with pretty much every word of the resolution.” He added that it was passed by a “previous Council” and he sees no reason to follow it.
The Independent also discussed water quality protection with Cobb. He pointed out that he lives along Little Barton Creek and said of course he wants to keep the water clean. It proved difficult, however, to find a way to protect water quality that his ideology would allow him to support.
On Provence and water quality for instance Cobb began the discussion with a query of his own query, “Why would we give an opinion on it if it’s (Provence) not in our jurisdiction.” The Independent pointed out that the development is upstream of Bee Cave, but Cobb said that is still not Bee Cave’s responsibility, but that of Travis County.
“If Travis County is worried about pollution then Travis County should deal with it. It’s a Travis County issue, not a city of Bee Cave issue,” he said.
The Independent then pointed out that counties in Texas have virtually non-existent powers to protect water quality. So would he support counties seeking more development and water quality regulatory powers from the Texas Legislature.
“Of course I would be opposed to that,” Cobb replied, adding that he “would fight it at the legislature” where he has testified around 100 times “against anti-growth environmentalists.”
What though if a wide range of people in the region got together, agreed on what needs to be done to protect the aquifer and Barton Springs, then went to the legislature and asked for specific legislation solely to protect the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer; would he support that. No, because he believes there should be “uniform laws” that apply everywhere.
The Independent then pointed out that the Edwards Aquifer is particularly fragile environmentally and that it wouldn’t make sense to place rules there that would apply everywhere. The answer was still no, because trying to put together a regional plan is “a game” that “leftists and anti-growthers love” because “normal people cannot show up at a meeting at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.”
Cobb also expressed irritation that State Representative Vikki Goodwin and Travis County Commissioner-Elect Ann Howard wrote him “nasty emails” urging him to support environmental protections. “Don’t browbeat me because of your inability to do your job,” he said, referring to Goodwin.
The WTCPUA Board is scheduled to take up the Provence related items at 1 PM Thursday. Anyone who wants to sign up to speak remotely or view the agenda can do so here.
Anyone wishing to contact members of the board can find their email addresses here.
In closing the Independent feels it is important to note that WTCPUA management did not respond to questions for this article, including fact checking questions. Also, the WTCPUA has not posted any backup materials online as the Independent goes to press, some 18 hours before the WTCPUA Board is scheduled to discuss the Provence and waterline items.
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