Monday, November 30, 2009

City Council to Consider Expanded Roles for Open Space Board

At the November 19, 2009 Planning LRC meeting, committee members (Ann Lilly, Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke) unanimously recommended to the Mayor and City Council that action be taken to expand the role of the Open Space Advisory Board. Here is their full recommendation:



Click on image to enlarge and read

At the November 23, 2009 City of El Paso Open Space Advisory Board meeting, board members unanimously to make the following recommendations to the Mayor and City Council:

  1. Reinstate verbatim Paragraph Two, Article One, sub paragraphs a. through e. of the El Paso Mountain Committee enabling Ordinance 014790 in order to transfer all the duties previously enjoyed by the El Paso Mountain Committee to the Open Space Advisory Board. [To see the enabling ordinance, go here. To see comment, go here.]
  2. Apply those duties and expand oversight of the Open Space Advisory Board to projects in the Open Space Master Plan, new Open Space acquisitions, the Mountain Development Areas, and the hill side Development Areas.
  3. Permit the Open Space Advisory Board to participate in prioritization and budgeting of the Storm Water Fees and other revenue sources allocated for Open Space Projects.
  4. The Board shall be advisory to the Department of Planning, Research & Development, the City Plan Commission and the City Council.

Board members in their resolution also made it clear that they were fully aware and willing to increase the number of meetings necessary to satisfy any statutory development guidelines.

The Board requested the above changes in order to effectively implement the Open Space Master Plan and Council's policy regarding open space.

Tomorrow, December 1, 2009 the Mayor and City Council will hear the recommendation of the Planning LRC as well as the Resolution of the Open Space Advisory Board. It is Item 15B on the regular agenda.

OSAB Chairman, Rick Bonart, stated: "If Council approves this item on Tuesday, it will place day to day supervision of Open Space in the hands of passionate citizen advocates and not with staff and developers."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Mount Franklin" by Eula Cates Oliver

From the ridge above Fusselman Canyon looking south

Enjoy the poem below by Eula Cates Oliver from the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Park Master Plan and Long Range Development Plan of the City of El Paso, Texas. It is simply titled "Mount Franklin".

In the dust time and the dawning
Old Mount Franklin, gaunt and bare,
Holds a wondrous compensation
From the desert's heat and glare.

Etched against the blazing skyline,
Sunset paling into night,
Purple shadows lovely vistas
Vying with the holden light.

Sunset sprays the sky with splendor
Mount Franklin's topped with glory rare,
Slowly dying, crimson shadows
Bring the hush of ev'ning prayer.


Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

GLO's Respect for City Zoning Ordinances Not Pressed in the Case of Jobe Lease

According to a State of Texas document, the "GLO [General Land Office] almost never exercises its immunity from local zoning ordinances . . . " If that is the case, then why can't the City of El Paso assert its zoning requirements over the GLO land which includes the planned Mountain to River corridor now leased to Jobe Materials? In fact, the land in question is governed by some of the strictest ordinances in the City of El Paso. Again, if so, shouldn't the GLO not exercise immunity in this case as well.

Decisions about such land "are made publicly and with ample opportunity for public input." That hasn't been done in the case of the Jobe leased land that would destroy Arroyo 41A. In fact, some of the public input should come from nearby schools: El Paso Community College and Canutillo High School. Even the Jenna Welch and Laura Bush Community Library is nearby.

Environmental activists are asking how it can be good for school children (the very people the GLO oversight is supposed to benefit) to be so close to the pollution of a quarry. Even the vibration from the blasting will be near a major gas pipeline!

I suspect that some City of El Paso officials well understood that the GLO would respect City zoning laws. Nevertheless, they didn't say a word when Jobe signed the lease or when the City adopted the Open Space Master Plan and, even earlier, the Mountain and Hillside Development Districts. Hmmmm . . .

Thursday, November 19, 2009

City Council Members See First Hand What Open Space Board Contends With

I am so elated by today's Planning LRC (Legislative Review Committee) of the El Paso City Council. This committee is chaired by Representative Ann Lilly. Also present were Representatives Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke.

It was apparent from the beginning that the Council members want the Open Space Advisory Board to be more pro-active and less reactive and that they see a need for the Board to become more empowered to carry out its mission of reviewing information and making recommendations to the Mayor and City Council regarding preserving, protecting and acquiring open space for the benefit of all El Pasoans. Mr. O'Rourke clearly voiced that Council wants the Board to be able to have "power and purview" to get to where the City needs to go and to be able to implement the Master Plan and stay on an ambitious schedule.

Representative Susie Byrd made it clear that the intention of Council when giving OSAB the duties of the sunsetted Mountain Committee was the inclusion of the broader responsibilities of the Mountain Committee. The language used by legal when writing the ordinance actually passed by Council had not reflected the intention of Council.

When some staff members tried to minimize the value of the Mountain Committee duties, developer Richard Thomas spoke of his experiences developing an area - an area that withstood the flooding of 2006 because of the MC advice as opposed to the problems experienced at other developments. Mr. Thomas is also a member of the OSAB.

Most of all, Council members got a first hand experience of the kind of contentiousness by staff that members of the OSAB have experienced from the very beginning. I'm not going to go into all of the gory details now - but various staff members kept objecting to the legitimate concerns of the OSAB. I myself pointed out how an action item requested by the Chairman for the next meeting was arbitrarily taken off of the agenda by Parks and Recreation Liaison, Shamori Whitt and that time was of the essence to put it back on the agenda in order to meet with public notification laws. With a copy of the most current agenda in hand, Chairman Rick Bonart and I were able to correct the record when Parks and Rec Director told the Council members that the agenda had been taken care of when it had not.

My example was the least of the problems. Again, Rick Bonart and Charlie Wakeem gave a presentation that included the solutions that will empower the OSAB to fulfill its duties to Council. The LRC directed the City Manager's office to re-do the enabling ordinance for the OSAB to include all of the suggestions made by Dr. Bonart and Mr. Wakeem.

I will post more later. For now, I'm so happy and excited. Let's chug some Fosters and celebrate that today the good guys won. Here's another rousing Waltzing Matilda:


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Welcome Home, Judy Ackerman!

Hope you like the Queensland Version of Waltzing Matilda. The Seekers are one of my all time favorite groups and this rendition is one of the best.


Of course, there is this by Slim Dusty:




Great to have you back!

Why Is the Open Space Advisory Board Being Hindered from Preserving Open Space?

The City Council of El Paso passed the ordinance which created the Open Space Advisory Board because it deemed that doing so "will benefit the City in preserving and acquiring open space, which will benefit the residents of El Paso."

Unfortunately to reach the goal to protect and preserve open space, there remains some lingering obstacles. The Chairman of the OSAB, Rick Bonart, enumerates:
  1. The enabling ordinance of the Open Space Advisory Board does not allow the board to provide any input into the development process to implement the Open Space Plan.
  2. The Ordinance transferring duties of the Mountain Committee to OSAB removed authority to 'review and comment' creating barriers that block effective input necessary to protect the Planned Mountain Zone.
  3. The only source for open space funding is 10% of the stormwater fees; yet OSAB is not allowed to review or comment on the budget or expenditures of these monies. Understand that the Storm Water Committee has yet to reconvene and has no fiduciary authority over the fees either. Therefore, no citizen oversight exists for these important quality of life funds.
  4. Current Ordinances are incapable of persuading developers to preserve open space, eliminate large ponds and cement-lined channels. The City has to rely on handouts from the development community.
What are the solutions? Bonart suggests the following:

  1. Replace OSAB duties with those from the old Mountain Committees' enabling ordinance to include the review, monitoring and expenditure of open space funding especially stormwater fees.
  2. Expand duties so that the OSAB has purview not just to open space assets in the Open Space Master Plan and to Planned Mountain Development (as part of the ordinance transferring duties of the Mountain Board to OSAB) but also to the Hillside Development Zone as one City plan suggests.
  3. Amend the drainage design manual to require submission of alternate drainage plans with the Public Improvement District and Stormwater.
  4. Amend subdivision code to include standard methods for calculating open space requirements and to quantify 'substantial change' (suggest push-pull type test) that prohibit vesting and require new applications.

There was an attempt to make Rick's first solution a reality when Council abolished the Mountain Committee at their regular September 22, 2009 board meeting. The planned ordinance was to move the duties of the Mountain Committee to the City Plan Commission. Bonart and others had convinced Representative Susie Byrd that those duties would be better placed under the OSAB. She moved to do just that at the Council meeting and her motion passed.

So far so good until the next Open Space Board meeting when members were told that the ordinance did not contain any of the duties enumerated in Ordinance No. 014790 that changed the duties of the Mountain Committee to read as follows:

"Review and make recommendations on proposed changes of zoning, detailed site development plans, special permits, subdivision plats/replats, land studies, righ-of-way dedications or vacations, and other land development applications received on property within the Mountain Development Area. In its recommendation of these items, special attention shall be given to drainage and flood control, open space requirements, grading impacts, and developmental controls, etc."

In other words, what Council may have thought they were doing was possibly changed by legal since the hard copy words in front of Council had been amended and the hard copy ordinance that was substituted a day later was different. (See pages 4 and 5 of this document.) The ordinance before amendment (the one that would transfer duties to the CPC) simply transferred the duties of the Mountain Committee to the CPC without the added verbiage of the document of the ordinance actually passed that watered down those duties.

Was Council's intent met? My opinion is that it was not and I suspect legal knows that it was not.

Item #3 on tomorrow's Legislative and Review Committee for Planning and Development agenda is the discussion and action on clarification of the role of the Open Space Advisory Board - an item requested by Representative Susie Byrd. It certainly will entail more than the duties of the Mountain Committee and whether the ordinance written as a hard copy after passage is correct.

The Open Space Board has been denied several duties that are critical if it is to "benefit the City in preserving and acquiring open space, which will benefit the residents of El Paso." These duties are:

  1. Earlier input in the development process.
  2. The ability to review and comment at appropriate stages to the CPC, various departments and Council
  3. Expanded review to all open space categories, Planned Mountain Development Zoning and foothills development
  4. Inclusion in the budget oversight for the 10% stormwater fee.

LRC meets tomorrow at 9 AM tomorrow in the City Council Chambers on the 2nd Floor of City Hall.

By the way, as Chairman of the Open Space Advisory Board, Rick Bonart wants the members of that Board to discuss and act possibly by a resolution to City Council on the issue which will be discussed at the LRC meeting tomorrow. A city staff member, Shamori Whitt, attempted to short circuit his privilege to have this item on the agenda for its November 23rd meeting. In an email to Bonart and others dated yesterday, November 17th, she writes:

Rick,

The way it works with the LRC is that they decide if matters need to be forwarded to City Council as a whole, almost like a pre-trial. This is done so that City Council meetings flow more efficiently. Typically, if the Planning LRC wants to take action on an item it will be sent to the City Council to be heard at a general meeting. Then, City Council will direct the City Manager how to proceed with their wishes and she will delegate responsibility to staff. In the event the LRC were to take action on the OSAB item at the LRC, it will not be heard by the entire City Council prior to the OSAB November meeting. (Provided we're not asked to return to the LRC.) Therfore, I think any action from the OSAB on the matter would be pre-emptive. City Council is to dictate to us how to proceed.

For the information of the OSAB, I am happy to add a report on the outcome of the 11/19/09 LRC.

Maggie,

Please add 'Report on the outcome of the Open Space Advisory Board item from the Nov 19, 2009 Planning LRC'

Maggie is Maggie Binkley, the Administrative Assistant who acts as Recording Secretary for the OSAB.

I don't want to dissect Ms. Whitt's comments too much except to say that a citizen's board (advisory or otherwise) has every right to let City Council know its position (it provides recommendations to the Mayor and Council not to staff and/or a department) and a resolution made next Monday will be in time to reach Council by next Tuesday when it may hear the findings of the LRC.

Rick Bonart responded to her and Nanette Smejkal, the Director of Parks and Recreation, in an email also dated yesterday:

Nanette and Shamori,

My concern is that all members of OSAB probably won't make the LRC; further, OSAB members attending the LRC (including myself) can only speak as individuals, as this issue has not been formally discussed by the Board.

I think the Board should have the opportunity to hear and act... ie, resolution to let Council know their position, as this is their charge.

With all due respect,

Please amend the agenda one more time and allow this to move forward as a discussion and action item so the Board can deliver a formal opinion to Council in a timely manner.

Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Rick
No amended agenda with Chairman Bonart's request has been sent out to OSAB members as of this posting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Media Begins to Wake up to Jobe Quarry Threat

Jobe bulldozer cut through arroyo next to Franklin Mountains State Park

Last Thursday Hector Montes had Master Naturalist Sal Quintanilla and environmentalist Maria Trunk on his talk show on KHRO, 1150 AM. I had been invited to call in and inform the audience about the planned quarrying next to the State Park. It would seem from the follow-up calls that we got some good coverage.

Prior to the talk show, Robert Gray wrote an article for El Paso, Inc. Quarry next to the state park? No problem! Hector Castro authored an enlightening piece in El Diario de El Paso: Genera polémica cantera de gravilla.

Since Castro's article is in Spanish, Franklin Mountain Wilderness Coalition newsletter editor, Kathy McConaghie, with Castro's help translated it. Both she and Castro gave me permission to print the translation:

Gravel Quarry Generates Controversy

A deposit of gravel located on the western slope of the Franklin Mountains is the center of controversy. Several city environmental groups point out that Jobe Material’s company practice of extracting minerals from the soil can create serious environmental and health problems in addition to the deterioration of the local landscape.

The quarry operation, property of the magnate Stanley Jobe, has a 20 year lease contract on a 480 acre area that belongs to the Texas Permanent School Fund. The property is administered by the General Land Office (GLO). According to GLO press secretary Jim Suydam, the principal motive for leasing to Jobe is simply economic: the purpose of the lease was to collect funds for the School Fund.

Nevertheless, several non-governmental organizations of El Paso expressed their dissatisfaction with Jobe Materials, among them the Sierra Club, headed by Laurence Gibson, who states that the principal problem with this quarry is that Jobe Materials is working on land that is a cultural bastion of the city, besides the fact that there are no guarantees that the environment will not be affected by the excavation.

“The only one responsible is the GLO since this entity does not have any sense of belonging within our habitat and little worries about the local environment”, Gibson declared.

Other organizations such as the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition are also opposed to the quarry and urge the local government and political leaders of the city to relocate Jobe Materials to an area where an important ecosystem will not be harmed.

“The GLO delivered an area that includes arroyo 41A, a treasure that links the Franklin Mountains to the Rio Grande which will logically be affected by the quarry. This property is part of the recreation and tourism plan of the city of El Paso, but now it is compromised for economic purposes,” said Jim Tolbert, a board member of the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition, in a written statement.

El Diario of El Paso tried to obtain a statement from Stanley Jobe but received no response from his office up to the moment this edition closed.

Without Hope

Despite this disagreement with the location of the quarry, the possibility that it will be relocated are minimal at this time, and presently the only possible recourse is to exercise pressure on Jobe Materials to leave the area the way they found it after completing excavation.

“I am very disappointed by the location of the quarry, it is practically impossible that the area will remain intact, and little by little we are going to see pernicious consequences of this mistake. I believe that there is nothing which can be done and it is lamentable that our environment suffers because of the economic interests of a few”, stated Susie Byrd, District 2 representative of the city, in a telephone conversation.

Stanley Jobe met recently with some members of the Borderland Mountain Bike Association and offered to pay the costs to build new bike trails in the vicinity of the quarry, a move that generated disagreement among participants who think that moving the trail would turn into an ecological fault difficult to correct.

“The impact of this quarry to the environment and the landscape of El Paso is huge. Soon we will begin to see rock accumulation in the sector which will damage the image of our mountains. There is no benefit for the residents of the city. Jobe Materials is destroying the ecological system and nobody is doing anything to prevent it”, stated Dave Wilson, president of the cyclist’s association.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Keep El Paso Beautiful Holds Gift to the River Clean-Up

Keep El Paso Beautiful held its annual Gift to the River (GTR) Clean-up on Saturday, November 14, 2009. It is one of the four citywide annual clean-ups sponsored by Keep El Paso Beautiful in partnership with Environmental Services, the El Paso Street Department, the El Paso Fire Department and local volunteers.

The focus of GTR is to raise awareness and educate local high school and middle school students regarding the importance of having a clean community and its direct impact on everyone's quality of life.

According to Katherine Palafox, Director of Keep El Paso Beautiful, more than 425 students and community volunteers participated cleaning up El Paso this year. "The majority of the volunteers that participate in the GTR clean-up are are high school and middle school students," reported Palafox. "All tools and trash bags used in the clean-up were checked out from the KEFB Community Tools Sheds located at Fire Stations throughout El Paso."

Participating schools were: Franklin High School, Lincoln Middle School, Chapin High School, Radford and East Point Elementary. Additional volunteers were from the Stiles Garden Neighborhood Association and the Police Explorers.

Keep El Paso Beautiful's next citywide clean-up will be Gift to the Mountain in February 2010.

For additional information, call the KEPB office at 915-546-6742.

Pictured above: Mawby the dog, Nehaa Sohail, Jonie Fashing, Sarina Davidson, Treestran Vera, Tamara Vera, Tania Vera, Alejandro Dragon, Dustin Thorstad, Xavier Cooper and Julia Gilbert, Assistant Principal, Radford School

Thursday, November 12, 2009

SAVE EL PASO'S FRANKLIN MOUNTAINS - Sign the Petition

Quarry at McKelligon Canyon formerly operated by Jobe

Here's a picture of what the land next to the Tom Mays Unit of the Franklin Mountains State Park will look like if Jobe Materials quarries on land owned by the People of the State of Texas. The picture is the Cemex Quarry at McKelligon Canyon just off of Alabama Street. It was previously owned by Jobe.

Don't let this happen again on our mountains! Sign the petition sponsored by the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition. There is a link to that petition in the upper right hand column of this blog.

Here is how the petition reads:

"The City of El Paso's Open Space Master Plan calls for a mountain to river trail using Arroyo 41A, the last unobstructed arroyo connecting the Franklin Mountains to the Rio Grande. This arroyo can provide a unique setting for recreational activities for El Pasoans and visitors as well as maintain important wildlife habitat. Quarrying activities planned on General Land Office leased land adjacent to and including parts of Arroyo 41A threaten the integrity and viability of that trail and a portion of Franklin Mountains State Park. We the undersigned urge our political leaders to work with the quarry operator to prevent quarrying from occurring on land in or adjacent to the planned mountain to river trail and to maintain the original design of this valuable recreational and wildlife corridor."

Sign the petition because here is what we want to see:

Beautiful Arroyo 41A

We also want to see:

Javelina in the Franklin Mountains


Mule Deer in the Franklin Mountains

Why do we want to save javelina and mule deer (not to mention foxes, coyotes, horned toads, ring tail cats, bobcats, snakes and more as well as the plant life native to our Chihuahuan Desert)? A wildlife and environmental expert answered the question this way:

"We as humans are connected to the ecosystem. All parts of the ecosystem have a role to play in the bigger scheme of things. If we eliminate the natural world from our lives and try to survive on an earth dominated by buildings and concrete we simply will not be able to survive. Our connections with nature are too many and too great. And, if the world becomes unsafe for animals and plants, it will not be a safe place for people."

He suggested that we all take time to read the Living Planet Report 2008.

Please sign the petition to help save El Paso's Franklin Mountains.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Is Sustainability a Goal or Just Words?

The City Council of El Paso recently approved a sustainability plan. The mission plan is:
"By 2014, El Paso will be a model of sustainability and smart growth by building on its roots as an international hub, promoting sustainable enterprises and wisely using natural resources."
2014 may be too far away. Judging by the overuse of rock and gravel in private and public landscapes all over the City, the possible overbuilding of public facilities and Jobe's plan to quarry next to the largest intra-urban State Park in the country, El Paso is far from wisely using natural resources.

One wonders whether master plans such as the Sustainability document are not just words. After all, Arroyo 41A was designated to be preserved as the Mountain to River corridor. Once the General Land Office leased property containing a portion of that arroyo to Jobe Materials, public officials acted much like ostriches with their heads in the ground. Now that Stanley Jobe has made it abundantly clear that he intends to quarry all 480 acres, City officials say that there is nothing that they can do - City zoning laws apparently do not apply to State of Texas land managed by the GLO even if that land is within the city's limits.

Recently, Public Service Board/EPWU officials proposed an Alternative route for the Mountain to River Trail. One of the top officials of the EPWU told me that they had decided on the route once they realized that Jobe intended to mine limestone in Arroyo 41A. The implication was that the realization was fairly recent. However, they must have known that he would do so when they gave him access to the land. By law you can't landlock someone else and so El Paso Water Utilities had to grant Jobe an easement through their property to the GLO land and did so on May 20, 2005.

It would appear that EPWU/PSB officials have known for a number of years now that a portion of the proposed Mountain to River corridor could very well be mined. If they knew, then shouldn't the City Council also have known? After all, Mayor Cook is a board member of the PSB. If City Council knew so early on, what was the point of accepting in its entirety the January 2007 Open Space plan ("Towards a Bright Future: A Green Infrastructure Plan for El Paso, Texas") that called for preserving all of Arroyo 41A?

Click on image to enlarge

The alternative route is the light blue line on the map above. Note that only a small - yet critical - portion of 41A goes through the very bottom of the GLO land leased to Jobe. One wonders why pressure cannot be applied from elected and other officials and the public at large to make Jobe forsake that small portion of land. If sustainability and the wise use of resources is the goal, why not start right here?

Of course, there is yet another threat to Arroyo 41A a bit west of the GLO/Jobe Quarry: the Desert Springs development currently plans reducing the 1200 foot arroyo to just 120 feet, concreting the sides and building some roads over it in several places. To say that the developer's plans may be grandfathered so that he doesn't have to comply to codes requiring keeping the arroyo to at least 300 feet, is still missing the larger point that El Paso envisions one thing and does another.

An insider recently informed me:
"Individual City staff may or may not be in favor of "economic development" as exemplified by Jobe and the homebuilders' style of growth. The staff is mainly concerned with staying out of trouble, and the developers can make big trouble if any legal boundaries are crossed.

"The zoning and subdivision codes are the legal tools that have to be followed. The developers worked very hard to ensure that those codes were "vetted" by their own lawyers, lobbyists and friends before they were adopted by the City. If the land is zoned for whatever the developer wants, the law allows them to do it. If it's not zoned for what they want the law allows them to request a zone change and the Council can grant it.

"The Open Space plan and the General Land Use Plan are legally just "guides" to decision making by the Council, so they can approve zoning that is not in conformity with the Plans. (There is actually some legal precedent for holding Councils more accountable to such plans, but it is rare in Texas. There may be some precedent on the GLO immunity issue as well, but of course not from Texas.)

"Botttom line- the developers have the law on their side in most cases and there is too much apathy to try to change the laws again. (Look at the all the fighting over the subdivision code rewrite last year that resulted in nothing more than some very minor changes.)"
If El Paso wants to make sustainability and the wise use of resources its goal, it must begin to stand up and, at the very least, use the bully pulpit, or even more, grow a backbone and start standing up legally to those who would destroy riparian corridors and thus cheapen all of our lives and fortunes.