Thursday, September 23, 2010

1,000 Visitors Attend the Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta

Cesar Mendez discusses wildlife habitat with a visitor

Last Saturday's Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta was a bigger success than last year judging by the attendance at the State Park that day. Park Superintendent Cesar Mendez said, “The attendance was close to 1000 persons including visitors, exhibitors, volunteers, and park staff. Some people only attended the Chili Cook-off.”

A number of organizations including the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition, Sierra Club, Master Naturalists and Native Plant Society offered educational public displays.

Master Naturalists teach children how to make flour from mesquite seeds

Friday, September 17, 2010

Extending the Scenic Corridor on the TxDOT Trans Mountain Project

City Council Representative Susie Byrd intends to put forth at the October 5 regular Council meeting the following plan to extend the scenic corridor along Trans Mountain:

  1. Direct the City Manager to initiate a zoning change on three tracts of land owned by City of El Paso and managed by the El Paso Water Utilities (Parcel #1: 637.5 Acres legally described as Nellie D Mundy Survey 246, Parcel #2: 125.3360 acres legally described as SJ Larkin, Survey 269 Abstract 10070 Tract 1 and Parcel #3: 155.4651 Acres legally described as SJ Larkin Survey 269 Abstract 10070 Tract 1-A) from R-3, Residential District and PMD, Planned Mountain Development to Natural Open Space (See map for more information).
  2. Direct the City Manager to put this land into a conservation easement so that it be preserved in perpetuity as open space.
  3. Direct the City Manager to amend the Master Thoroughfare Plan to remove the Paseo del Norte arterial; and
  4. Direct the City Manager to work with TXDOT to remove the Paseo del Norte overpass from the Transmountain Freeway design.

The TxDOT project may face new obstacles. The earlier 4 lane project was presented to the public. The new $80 million dollar freeway with four overpasses has never been vetted by the public. In addition, there has yet to be a NEPA study. Yet, at the Open Space Advisory Board meeting yesterday, Mr. Esparza of TxDOT said that TxDOT had presented an alternative plan at its March public meeting. Selecting an alternative before a NEPA study is illegal. The City Council is being asked to make a decision before a NEPA - this alone should be a reason to go slow. Also, at the September 2nd OSAB meeting, OSAB members made a request that the City Manager consider expanding, if possible, the Dover Kohl contract and scope of work to include a review of TxDOT's design for Trans Mountain and then to make its recommendation before City Council approves the TxDOT plan. City Manager Joyce Wilson has agreed to the request depending on the cost. Mr. Matt McElroy is in conversation with Dover Kohl about the cost for expanding their contract

Elpasonaturally hopes that Ms. Byrd's recommendation is accepted by the full Council. Additionally, elpasonaturally hopes that all land in the NW Master Plan be rezoned at NOS and that the TxDOT plan be fully vetted by the public along with consultants, Dover Kohl and that a NEPA study be done. If TxDOT has selected an alternative before the NEPA, then elpasonaturally wishes to see appropriate action be taken by federal highway officials. The Scenic Corridor should be preserved and Representative Byrd's plans for expanding it is an excellent one.

There should be no overpass at Paseo del Norte. In fact, the entire freeway plan should undergo public, NEPA and Dover Kohl scrutiny. Is it really what El Pasoans want or just what a few persons want in order to benefit financially?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Zoning Has Nothing to Do with Bond Ratings

Back on February 9, 2010, the City Council effectively nixed a proposal from Open Space to down zone some PSB land. The proposal had already won the approval of the Legislative Review Committee. No sooner had the LRC said "yes", EPWU top brass and City of El Paso staff went to work to defeat it in regular Council. The motion was finally made to delete the item so that no action was ever taken on it.

I remember that City Council meeting well. There had also been a lengthy debate about the United States drug war and whether Council should recommend that drug legalization be taken up by Congress. It was a long day. The minutes of Council do not reflect what really happened. The item regarding down zoning was moved to just about the very end of the meeting. Many who wished to speak in favor of down zoning had to eventually leave. Ed Archuleta had conveniently disappeared and did not re-appear until the end of the day. The Mayor insisted that he needed to be there for the discussion. The minutes only show the item discussed in the same order as posted in the agenda.

During the discussion about down zoning, EPWU officials argued that down zoning would affect their bond ratings. I sadly recall that they trotted out an older gentleman as an expert (and he probably was) who couldn't quite spit out the words that zoning affects bond rating. They whisked him away and brought another man to the podium who backed Archuleta's contention that, indeed if Council down zones, PSB's bond ratings would go to hell in a hand basket.

I write this only because we will soon face a Council decision on the public land (our land) managed by the PSB that is east of gas line road in the scenic corridor of Trans Mountain - land described in the NW Master Plan. EPWU brass will resist re-zoning to Natural Open Space. I will bet you nothing that they will resort to the same false argument that zoning affects bond ratings.

El Paso Water Utility bonds are rated by Fitch Ratings. In a conversation with one of the directors from the Austin, Texas office, I was told that zoning is not specifically mentioned in their criteria. They consider 4 areas: financing, debt and capital, service area, and legal documents. Over the last many years, zoning was not a major part of any discussion about bond ratings. Another El Pasoan had already learned that there are about 100 parameters Fitch uses to establish bond rating. 20 are objective and 80 are subjective. Zoning was not a parameter. A long-term, expert observer in El Paso told me that "the idea that downzoning PSB land damages their bond rating is crap."

Read the Fitch Rating publication, 2010 Water and Sewer Medians. (You may have to register in order to view this report.)

So, by law - by law - PSB cannot own land but can only act as an agent of the City and City Council can do whatever they want with land regardless of PSB's recommendations or the recommendations of the CEO of the EPWU . . . and, now it is clear that zoning does not affect bond rating as EPWU brass would have had us believe, then there is no excuse for this City Council not to re-zone everything in the NW Master Plan as Natural Open Space so that future City Council members won't claim that their hands were tied. Now is the time to do the right thing - preserve the scenic, natural Trans Mountain corridor.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Open Space Advisory Board: Goals and Duties

Open Space Advisory Board Chairman, Charlie Wakeem, gave a presentation to the Public Service Board this morning regarding the duties, goals, financing and strategic planning of OSAB.

This historic and important presentation lays out the future direction of OSAB and defines its ongoing relationship to the Public Service Board.

Archaeology Museum Sponsors Ben Brown Lecture

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

City and Not PSB Has Ultimate Authority

Please read Opinion No. DM-44 from the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Texas very carefully:

Attorney General Opinion

Although it is an opinion regarding the relationship between New Braunfels Utilities and the City of New Braunfels, it can apply to the relationship between the Public Service Board/El Paso Water Utilities and the City of El Paso. Here is what is relevant to the effort to re-zone land along the Trans Mountain scenic corridor as Natural Open Space:

  • Like the board of the New Braunfels Utilities, the Public Service Board (PSB) "is an agent of the city."
  • Paraphrasing: Because the City of El Paso, not EPWU, owns the property, the city has ultimate authority to determine the use to which property acquired for the EPWU will be put and how to dispose of the property.
  • ". . . a municipality cannot delegate to the board of its utility system ultimate control over city property"

Bottom line: City Council should just zone the entire land in the Northwest Master Plan as NOS. When they conceded that they had little authority over what happens to private land from Interstate 10 east along Trans Mountain, many representatives lamented that their hands were tied by mistakes made by City Councils of the past.

Well then, now is the time not to make a mistake. It is in their power to do the right thing or have future Councils cry that their hands were tied by the City Council in session in 2010. It is not PSB's decision. It is not Ed Archuleta's decision. It is City Council's decision. And, word to the wise, let us hope that they don't believe the hogwash about bond ratings and so forth that the PSB has used before to get their way.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

PSB Open Space Land Use and Recreation Policy? It Doesn't Exist

A simple hiker, mountain bike trail along the hill in the background would make this pond road a perfect recreational path

This pond road already is paved with crushed rock all the way to Scenic from the neighborhood below - another recreational treasure!

The two pictures above show two retention ponds along Scenic Drive that have recently been cleaned out. Both could also serve as recreational trails leading to Scenic Drive for neighbors and visitors.

The first just needs a simple trail along the gently sloping hill in the background to connect it with Scenic. The second already ends at the wall of Scenic Drive. That is where I stood the other day to take the picture. As part of my Scenic Sunday walk this past Sunday, I used the pond trail to lead me off Scenic to the neighborhood below and eventually home.

The trouble is this: PSB/EPWU has no intention for either ponding area to be recreational. In fact, they have no recreational policy for your land that they manage. They have no open space policy. They have no land use policy. I wouldn't be surprised, now that I have published this post, to see a big KEEP OUT sign soon - kind of like the one at the Palisades that people ignored for years.

Actually, PSB did adopt a land use policy at its July 28, 2010 meeting. The title is PSB Policy and Procedures on use of Stormwater Funds for Open Space, Green Projects and other related attribues. What this pedantically-titled policy says is simple: 10% of your stormwater fees for acquisition of open space does indeed go to acquiring open space and also to buy sod and shrubs for park ponds. Why? Because the City had already accepted bids and awarded contracts for the Saipan park/pond project and the project had already begun. Nothing in the ordinance really says anything about sod and shrubs. PSB's policy has yet to be approved by Council and has never been vetted by the Open Space Advisory Board. Simply put, it is a CYA for what was already taking place. (It would seem that Ed Archuleta had committed to Alan Shubert, head of City Engineering, to doing the Saipan project before permission from the PSB.)

Interestingly in a meeting of the Open Space Board after this policy was adopted, City Attorney Elaine Hengen gave her opinion about the stormwater enabling ordinance when asked to do so by Chairman Charlie Wakeem. She said that the ordinance only allowed the stormwater fee to go for acquisition of land not trees and shrubs! Oh shit! Had no one given her the memo. Had she not received the email or been visited by top brass from Engineering or perhaps Parks! I've disagreed with Ms. Hengen a time or two - but I've always known her to be honest and a straight shooter who does her very best to give her best advice to the City, its boards, staff and representatives.

Questions: will the $364,000 allocated for Saipan shrubs and sod be put back on the open space side of the ledger? (Acutally, the final amount will be around $150,000.) Will OSAB have advice to give City Council about this PSB policy and will City Council approve or disapprove? One thing that I know about written documents: they have power. This land use policy of the PSB wasn't just a CYA, it was an attempt to gain precedence.

Again, it is time - past time - high time for the PSB to adopt a policy that promotes eco-tourism and recreation on open space lands that it manages for the citizens of the City of El Paso - for you and me.