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Monday, March 31, 2014

Friday Video on Monday: Conserving Castner




Introduction to Conserve Castner Range Video

Welcome. The Frontera Land Alliance and The Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition are proud to bring you Conserving Castner Range.  We have been working hard for more than 35 years to ensure that the remaining land of Castner Range is preserved forever and included in the Franklin Mountains State Park.  The video takes you on a bird's-eye ride through Castner Range to showcase the land's natural beauty and its position right next to the State Park. The video also gives you an idea of the amount of city growth around the range.  It offers a brief historical profile and explains the unique qualities of the range with crisp photos and informative interviews.  The video closes with a call to action and provides information on how you can get involved in preserving, forever, what’s left of the beautiful land on Castner Range.

Be sure to subscribe to El Paso History TV on YouTube.

Stick to the Plan


This whole business with the NW Master Plan is really quite simple and can be addressed simply: Stick to the Plan. If the City just follows the Northwest Master Plan and the ensuing regulating plan for development, thus, abiding by the compromise worked out between citizen petitioners and city government, then there is no need for a conservation easement. Period. 

There is only one possible sticking point: the SmartCode T-1 designation can be changed administratively. That is, as an "Adjustment" to the Plan, it could be up to the discretion of the Consolidated Review Committee (CRC) to review and approve or disapprove the change. The CRC, which hasn't met in 2 years, is composed of the Planning, Transportation, Fire and Parks and Recreation Departments. 

SmartCode Transect-1 is the "Natural Zone" - lands "approximating or reverting to a wilderness condition, including lands unsuitable for settlement due to topography, hydrology or vegetation." For El Pasoans these include our arroyos.  In the NW Master Plan there are existing hike and bike trails in the Natural Zone Transect (T1) which so many want to see preserved. An administrative approval by the CRC to undo the designation would just be too easy.

What Planning will recommend tomorrow to Council is that, for the Northwest Master Plan, any amendment of the T1 Stormwater Open Space boundaries must be reviewed and approved by City Council. The change would not be an "adjustment" by the CRC. In fact, this tougher process of making any changes to T-1 would be part of the bid documents. That is about as close to putting the preservation of the arroyos in stone. Keep in mind that a conservation easement on land with bridges and some utility infrastructure may be improbable. 

If City Council reaffirms the Master Plan and agrees to a recommendation to tighten how a T1 designation might be changed, then it will be worthwhile to take this next step of seeing how the land might be sold for development. Taking this next step may result in some real benefits to the City: it may show that SmartCode development is not as costly as some contend. And, it might show that SmartCode development can be very profitable. Thus, it may alleviate the last fears about SmartCode in El Paso.

Bottom line: Stick to the Plan. Keep your promise. That makes a conservation easement (even if possible) unnecessary.

City Council will consider proposals to do just that tomorrow. It is the last item on the Regular Agenda - Item 12.2.

Finally, do read Dr. Bonart's excellent op-ed piece in yesterday's Times: Impact fees protect rate and taxpayers. One suggestion in his essay that can't work is increasing the stormwater impact fee by 5 percent annually until parity. The City can't do this because a State statute disallows it. Otherwise, Bonart states a self-evident truth in the form of a rhetorical question: "If growth did pay for itself [as the sprawlers would have us believe], then wouldn't it also be true that the larger the city becomes, the lower your taxes and water rates would be?"

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What's Next with the NW Master Plan


After a discussion in City Council last week I voiced the concern that the NW Master Plan could be in danger of becoming a conventional development and its arroyos just a memory once the bulldozers started up. I wondered whether Council was ready to jettison their agreement with the 2011 petitioners, the PSB, city staff and many others who worked for about a year to forge the Plan as part of a win-win solution.

This past Sunday, the El Paso Times published a story about the same concern by investigative reporter, Cindy Ramirez. 

Mayor Leeser invited me to a meeting at his office yesterday. Also in attendance were John Balliew, Lupe Cuellar, Kristen Hamilton and Taylor Moreno. The Mayor said that he had no intention of changing the plan. His main concern was to sell some land. He stated and Balliew confirmed that Balliew had said that the Plan must not be violated. I told the group that I was delighted but that it would be good for the City Council to follow the Mayor's lead and reaffirm the NW Plan and its use of smartcode.

A number of us had met at my home on Sunday evening and agreed that I should ask Council to place on its agenda an item reaffirming the NW Plan and its use of smart code. In addition, we agreed that Council should show good faith by placing PSB Open Space in the NW Master Plan under a conservation easement.

With a large group behind me, I made these requests at Council this morning. Rep. Ann Morgan Lilly said that she would place our requests on the City Council agenda.

Here is the text of my words to Council this morning:

I was the author of and principal organizer for the 2011 initiative petition to save 900 acres of natural open space associated with the Transmountain scenic corridor.

We successfully gathered the necessary signatures from over 1600 people. 

Rather than voting on the petition wording, City Council members, along with petitioners, agreed on a process which culminated in a new NW Master Plan. During that process a vote on the petition was routinely postponed and then finally deleted when we agreed on the compromise. 

Approximately a year of work went into forging a deal. Dover Kohl conducted well-attended workshops, charrettes, and meetings with the community, the PSB, City Planning, Engineering, Parks and Recreation and other staff.

This plan, which cost $600,000, included smart code, state-of-the-art Green Infrastructure/Low Impact Development techniques for stormwater conveyance, and infrastructure designed to maximize arroyo preservation, open space, and the scenic corridor.  The PSB approved the plan and City Council adopted the NW Master Plan.  It was an example of a true collaborative ‎effort. 

The NW Master plan was and is an expression of the will of the people as was Plan El Paso that took two years and 2 million dollars and the input of thousands of El Pasoans.
 
‎I was shocked and dismayed when I watched this City Council at its March 17th meeting take action seemingly to begin to dismantle the agreement by removing smart code as well as  other agreed upon development  restrictions, and explore the sale of the land in small parcels for conventional style development.   Along with many others I noted with dismay that there are similar intentions with the NE Master Plan including Painted Dunes. There seems to be a material breach of all of our prior agreements and promises. 

If carried forward, action that would in effect scuttle the NW Master Plan would overturn the real, democratic, grassroots decision-making we did with Plan El Paso, the 2011 Transmountain petition and the NW Master Plan. 

I want to thank the Mayor who has given me his personal assurances that no changes to the NW Master Plan will be made. I ask for the same assurance from City Council. It would go a long way toward restoring trust and good will if City Council will put on its agenda an action item reaffirming the NW Master Plan. We would like the City Council to affirm the following at next week’s meeting:

1. First, that you are still committed to the NW master plan as adopted, and

2. Second, that you support the current smart code zoning and will not try to remove it, and finally

3. That as a sign of that reaffirmation, you direct staff to place a conservation easement over all of the Public Utility Open Space in the NW Master Plan.  

Without assurances, we may have no other choice except to get more signatures for a ballot referendum and/or pursue other legal means.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Happy World Water Day or Is It?

Dry Rio Grande riverbed. Photo from El Paso Inc.

Happy World Water Day!

Or is it so happy? Here's a sprinkling of stories just from this past couple of weeks:

Most of you have noticed that water has yet to begin flowing in the Rio Grande in our upper and lower valleys. But not only is water a problem here in El Paso and New Mexico but throughout the Western U.S. Read Sheila Collins for a global perspective: The West's Coming Tragedy of the Commons.

El Pasoan, Dr. Marshall Carter-Tripp, expands on the global issue and brings it home in her excellent article Where Have All the Rivers Gone in the must-bookmark blog, Border X Roads.

Many thanks to Michael Bray, owner and manager of  EXIT West Realty in El Paso. He shared another great web site with us: GreenBuilder. In it Sara Gutterman posts The Energy-Water Nexus and discusses water conservation-smart homes.

EPWU has a recommendation for a water smart home. Yet, like most things in El Paso City government, it sits on a shelf - the victim of disapproval by the El Paso sprawlers - those developers and builders who don't give a hoot that we have more land than water. Moreover they want you and me to pay for their expansions instead of accepting very affordable impact fees - and just 75% of those impact fees a couple of years ago. (Of course, those fees now only cover 40% of expenses.) They say that a Neal report for the City shows that their developments pay for themselves. I'll be discussing this week the limited number of expenses that Neal talked about - not the total package for new infrastructure, schools, police and fire protection, maintenance on that infrastructure, etc., etc. More in the days to come.

More than anything the City needs a long-term development plan. Wait a moment - didn't we spend two years, involve thousands of people and spend $2Million on Plan El Paso? Like smart homes, Plan El Paso sits on a shelf while the current City Council conspires to ditch it, ditch the codes for intelligent growth, ditch the NW Master Plan ($600,000 for that one), yadda, yadda, yadda.

The bottom line is this: we are running out of water yet we continue to follow the dictates of a building community that believes in sprawl as if Ike were still President and the V-8 wasn't a juice drink but the number of gasoline-guzzling pistons under the hood of your car. 

Time to wake up El Paso. If the sprawler's growth will pay for itself and leads to prosperity, why are you and I and small business owners paying through the ying-yang with our property taxes that keep going up and up and up?

We may have been mad about the past City Council taking away our vote so we voted out all of the progressives - but these guys and gals could care less about the real grassroots decision-making we did with Plan El Paso, the 2011 Transmountain petition and the NW Master Plan. Who is taking our vote away now?

Happy Water Day!

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Friday Videos: Little Boxes

Since the sprawlers have the best City Council money can buy and there is a land-seize effort going on now; and in the face of so-called moratorium on impact fees, calls to rollback smart code that protects our land unlike conventional development, the insistence on parcel sales of land and even the discussions about killing bike lanes and bike share, today's videos are dedicated to our sprawler friends. 

You all will remember the original theme song for Weeds. (I think that you can catch Weeds on Amazon Prime. I'm still in lust with Mary-Louise Parker.) Here it is again as well as the full version of the song, "Little Boxes", as written and sung by Malvina Reynolds. Enjoy, Doug and Bobby.




Get to the El Paso Heritage Tourism Summit Tomorrow


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Council Ready to Jetison Smart Code in Northwest Master Plan?

Click image to enlarge.

City Council may have taken the first steps toward re-zoning the NW Master Plan by going from smart code to conventional code. It is just one more way in which the El Paso sprawlers are on a land grab and arroyos and natural open spaces be damned.

Last week I announced a contest to identify a place in a picture. The prize: a $20 gift certificate to Amigos, 2000 Montana Avenue. (If there is better Mexican/Tex-Mex food in El Paso, I haven't found it.) The scenery in the picture no longer exists. That is why I asked for a place. The picture above is what you see today. It is on the west side of Mesa just past the new light at Montecillo and across the street from Montecillo. So much for El Paso protecting arroyos. One wonders how safe the deal with the City is regarding the NW Master Plan.

When our petition certified, a deal was struck with the City to redo the NW Master Plan as smart growth development. Land was transferred to the Franklin Mountains State Park. Arroyos will not only be preserved but roadways across them must be bridged. 

Yesterday City Council voted unanimously to reassess whether land in the NW Master Plan, NE Master Plan and Painted Dunes can be sold off in increments of less than 100 acres (I guess never mind a Memorandum of Understanding with the PSB); and whether or not to reconsider smart code. (Emma Acosta and Carl Robinson spearheaded the affront on smart code.) After the Council meeting, City Manager Joyce Wilson offered assurances that "Council did not take any action to undo the updated master plan for NW area, and that we were clear that it was a settlement that should not be tampered with." In an email to me she went on to say that "the focus is really the NE master plan and the two [NW and NE] are just getting comingled.  I have made it clear that your group bargained in good faith and expects the agreement to be honored."

However, in spite of her assurances, one must realize that Wilson's time with the City is about up and that she doesn't vote on zoning. Council didn't take any action on the NW plan but that doesn't mean that they won't. Moreover, this Council has already demonstrated that it favors sprawlers when it comes to discussions about growth, smart code, Plan El Paso, impact fees and land sales. The Mayor's office has kept all members of the conservation community out of discussions on land sales, impact fees and even considerations about the new City Manager. One can expect a City Manager who will be in line with those who want to sell and develop all the land that they can, believing that will be best for taxpayers in spite of the realization that our property taxes keep going up and up and up. Their building feeds their pockets, not ours.

I can tell you that my phone has not stopped ringing off the wall since Council voted yesterday. It's not just that yesterday was alarming (and it could be just by itself). It's a whole string of things.

The 2013 Petition (posted on another page) never really caught fire. Most of the signatures are over 180 days old and, so, invalid. Now there is a huge ground swell to do a new petition. People unexcited about the 2013 petition are suddenly excited. The energy is there. 

What Council, the Mayor, the sprawlers, the Chamber must understand is this. We don't want to preserve land just because it's pretty. The biggest issue is water and a sustainable future for El Paso. Is there a discussion going on at City Hall about water? Hell no and, in fact, the build-it-one-way-only-ers pretty much killed the EPWU smart home idea. The other issue is healthy living. Allergies, asthma, respiratory illnesses have gone up because of development. Moreover, El Paso also suffers from an epidemic of diabetes and obesity. Studies throughout the country for many years now show that you can't grow your way to prosperity. All we are really doing is taking away the future for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. We are heading toward extinction.

So, with a vote to reconsider smart code in spite of assurances from a lame duck Manager, those who care about the future of water and the health of each and every El Pasoan are rightly alarmed and have begun to meet and mobilize.

Finally, a number of you had good guesses about the place for the picture in the contest. Only Judy Ackerman got it right. She emailed: "[It] is the place where the new theater is going in, across Mesa from the Montecillo.  That’s how it used to look.  Now it looks like sh--!"

Memo to Judy: I love Amigos. Remember your friends.
  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Resler Canyon Needs Your Help!

Click to enlarge image.

The Frontera Land Alliance needs wattles and seeds to prevent erosion on the site of recent improvements to stormwater infrastructure in the Wakeem/Teschner Nature Preserve at Resler Canyon in El Paso.

Wattles are straw-filled, biodegradable net tubes staked out across areas subject to erosion. You see them next to highways. They’ll be used in t he Canyon to slow down rain runoff and let water slowly soak into the soil. The wetter the soil, the better the chance that seeds can germinate and hold the soil in place. And when plants take hold and grow, the leaves reduce the impact of raindrops, further cutting back on erosion. The wattles come in 100 foot lengths; we need over 5,000 feet to adequately protect the site. We’ll be gathering surplus seeds from Canyon shrubs, but we must also buy about 80 pounds of fast-growing, native grass seed to quickly generate ground cover. The cost of the erosion control and reseeding is $25,000.

You can help by sponsoring a wattle or a 10-pound bag of seed. Each wattle length costs $100. The seed is $200 per bag. Even smaller contributions will help. Your sponsorship is tax deductible. Your name will appear on a marker to celebrate your contribution.

Want more info about contributing to this important conservation project contact JanaĆ© Renaud Field, Frontera's Executive Director, at (915) 351-8352 or janae@FronteraLandAlliance.org.  
Give at:  http://fronteralandalliance.org/site/how-to-help/donate 

THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Poppies Fest Update

View of Mexican gold poppies on the grounds of the
El Paso Museum of Archaeology,
courtesy of the El Paso Museum of Archaeology

The Poppies Fest Committee in Collaboration with theEl Paso Museum of Archaeology and MCAD AnnouncesUPDATE2014 Franklin Mountains Poppies Feston Castner Range March 29, 2014

The eighth annual 2014 Franklin Mountains Poppies Fest on Castner Range will take place on Saturday, March 29, 2014 from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm at the El Paso Museum of Archaeology at 4301 Transmountain Road. Map and directions

The Poppies Fest Committee welcomes everyone to this free family fun day which features a program of nature walks, educational exhibits and demonstrations by local environmental organizations and wildlife displays include a live socialized wolf from the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary and Houdini the Harris Hawk (winds permitting) from the El Paso Zoo. A children’s activity center will offer a variety of arts and crafts led by local community members including Girl Scouts. Local performing groups will provide music and dance. Local vendors will be offering original and hand-made merchandise for sale.  Lunch and snacks can be purchased from food vendors on-site.

UPDATES:
Free Parking and Free Handicapped-Accessible Shuttle Busses To and From the Event are at EPCC Transmountain Campus (Diana exit off US 54).  No public parking at the museum.

The first showing of a new documentary, Conserving Castner Range, by the Frontera Land Alliance and the Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition will be held at the Poppies Fest, running continuously in the auditorium of the El Paso Museum of Archaeology from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm.  These organizations have been working for more than 35 years to ensure that the remaining land of Castner Range is preserved forever and included in the Franklin Mountains State Park. This short TV documentary was produced and directed by El Paso documentary filmmaker Jackson Polk of Capstone Productions. The video takes the viewer on a bird’s-eye view ride through Castner Range to showcase the land’s natural beauty and its position relative to the State Park, and to give an idea of the amount of city growth around the range. It offers a brief historical profile and explains the unique qualities of the range with crisp photos and informative interviews. The video closes with a call to action and provides information on how the public can get involved to preserve the remaining beautiful land on Castner Range forever.

Six music and dance groups are scheduled every 30 minutes during the event. They are the Corpus Christi Catholic Church Aztec Dance Group, Papaya Riot, Danza La Palma y Los Listones de San Pedro y San Pablo, Ballet Folklorico Toltec de La Fe, Femmes de Fuego (Fire Dancing), and Casa Puente.
The Poppies Fest Committee thanks the Poppies Fest sponsors: Texas Parks and Wildlife/Franklin Mountains State Park, El Paso Community College, El Paso Times, El Paso Electric, Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition, El Paso Zoo, United Healthcare, Apache Barricade and Sign, West Valley Fire Department, The Wolf Lady, Northeast Rotary Club, City of El Paso Museums and Cultural Affairs Department, El Paso Museum of Archaeology

Another Yes for Impact Fees

Photo by Vanessa M. Feldman originally published
in the EP Times 11/20/2011
elpasonaturally has already posted one very thoughtful response to the Newspaper Tree's story. You can re-read that post HERE.

It has come to our attention that the NPT has failed so far to publish another response written as a comment online to their story. (Comments to this blog are monitored for profanity or spam. Otherwise, whatever the opinion, they are posted usually very soon after those comments are made.) Here is a very good response to the NPT by Mr. Benjamin (Jamie) Ackerman:

"Impact Fees – Yes!

"Ratepayers pay attention!  Your water / sewer bill will increase if impact fees are reduced!

"When new houses are built on undeveloped land in El Paso, El Paso Water Utilities must provide water and sewer infrastructure for those homes.  That costs money.  There are only two ways to pay for it:  impact fees or increase to the bills of existing ratepayers.   Let’s be fair.  Should developers and new home buyers pay that cost, or should YOU, the ratepayer, foot the bill?  Is it in your interest to subsidize the developer’s profits or should they pay their own way?

"In 2009, City Council decided to impose impact fees on new development instead of asking ratepayers to foot the bill.  City Council could have asked developers to pay 100% of the costs associated with new growth, but instead they only charge impact fees on 75% of the costs.  Ratepayers pay the remaining 25% of the costs of water and sewer infrastructure.  We have no impact fees for stormwater and other costs of new development.  Remember, all those new, impervious rooftops, roads, driveways and sidewalks cause more runoff.  Ratepayers like you, pay for all the needed increase to stormwater infrastructure.


"Do you want to subsidize developers?  Or, do you think they should pay their own way?  Contact City Council and tell them to continue or increase impact fees."

Since Mr. Ackerman urges readers to contact their city representatives (and we should be doing so continuously all during this year when they are "reviewing" impact fees), here are their addresses:

Oscar Leeser    mayor@elpasotexas.gov
Ann Lilly          lillyam@elpasotexas.gov
Larry Romero    romerol@elpasotexas.gov
Emma Acosta   acostaea@elpasotexas.gov
Carl Robinson   robinsoncl@elpasotexas.gov
Michiel Noe      noem@elpasotexas.gov
Eddie Holguin   holguinex@elpasotexas.gov
Lily Limon        limonl@elpasotexas.gov
Cortney Niland  nilandcc@elpasotexas.gov

Note that, with the exception of Mayor Leeser's, these are personal council addresses and not the generic addresses posted on the city's web site - addresses that go to a staff member and may or may not ever get to the Representative. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Contest


Click on image to enlarge. 
Photo courtesy of Mr. Bill Addington
Win a $20 gift certificate to Amigo's Restaurant. Be the first to identify the place in the picture above. Contest ends Monday, March 17, 2014 at 5 p.m. Email me directly with your answer. Answer should be a place rather than a name and should be as specific as possible.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Not Impact Fees but More Land is Goal of Developers

Damn the people's will by petition. Sprawlers want City to jettison NW Master Plan and Smart Growth so they can plow up more natural land.
elpasonaturally is going to be saying a lot about impact fees. As reported here, City Council last Tuesday decided to have a one-year moratorium on those fees and see if there was some other way to pay for water utility capital improvements - perhaps Prop 6 money from the State of Texas. I suggested to Council that they also have an objective study done about growth and prosperity - i.e., whether growth pays for itself.

Prior to last week's Council, the Newspaper Tree did an informative piece about the issue.

In it they report on the arguments by the builders against impact fees.

In response to their arguments, Charlie Wakeem wrote a letter to Anthony Halpern of the NPT. Here is his letter with my editing:


"This letter is a response to your February 27 article about impact fees in the NPT.  I served on the Capital Improvement Advisory Committee or CIAC for the first six years after it was created by City Council.  I was term limited off the committee at the end of last year.  This is the committee that reviews impact fees and makes recommendations to the City Plan Commission and City Council.  When the committee was first formed, there were five members from the development community and four members from the public at large, including myself.  Now seven of the nine members are from the development community.  That's why CIAC is "vehemently opposed to increasing the charges" as you state in your article.

"The proposed fee increases are not the real issue.  It's a side show.  The development community is using them as misdirection to get what they really want and they know they have City Council's political support.  They want more urban sprawl as cheaply as possible, both in the three impact fee service or growth areas and in the city-owned PSB land on both sides of the mountain.  The latter is the most egregious.  They are being supported by the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce.

"Here are some of their arguments.

Housing affordability

"They say they will have to pass the fee increase on to the new home owners, which could price them out of a home.  That's a poor argument.  The highest fee increase is in the East Service Area.  I'll use those fees to illustrate the facts.  The current East maximum is $2,156.00.  The city currently charges 75% of that amount, which comes to $1,617.00.  The proposed maximum increase is $3,835.00.  The difference from $2,156.00 is $1,679.00.  If City Council keeps the 75%, the fee would only be $1,259.25.  Amortized over a 30 year mortgage at the highest current rate of 4.25% the increase in a home buyer's monthly payment is only $6.20 a month.  Less in the Northwest and Northeast Service Areas.  Hardly unaffordable.

Leap Frog Development

"With the increase in impact fees the development community would build homes outside the city limits in order to avoid them.  According to city planners, the developers would have to get water to those subdivisions somehow. There are two ways to provide water to those subdivisions: Negotiate with El Paso Water Utilities to extend the water infrastructure outside of the city limits or create a MUD (Municipality Utility District).  

"Extending services does not guarantee that it will cost less than the impact fees.  In addition, home owners would pay higher water rates to EPWU than city residents. 

"Creating a MUD has several risks. Water quality may be poorer; building the infrastructure could be more costly than the fees; and it's not sustainable. It's up to the homeowners in a MUD to fund and maintain the MUD.

"With or without impact fees, developers go outside the city already to avoid other fees and regulations, such as development application fees, hook up fees, building permits, parks, street lights, sidewalks, paved streets and etc., etc. etc. 

WORST OF ALL!!   

"Here is the real issue and it's not impact fees.  Builders want the city to sell its PSB land to developers lifting the city's restrictions on the land, (viz., the Northwest and Northeast Master Plans), and sell the land piecemeal for conventional sprawl development.  Unfortunately, after hearing the debate at the February 25 council meeting, this is something City Council seems amenable to doing.  It would betray the public trust after the Northeast and Northwest Master Plans were fully vetted in public meetings.  

"The excuses the development community uses to justify these land sales is twofold: revenue to the PSB through sale of the land, and ad valorem taxes to the city with the new housing.  The revenue from sales to the PSB is minimal and unsustainable.  Revenue from ad valorem taxes in new growth has never paid for itself.  A study was done several years ago by John Neal, the city manager's special projects person, that bears that out.  With these revenues, the development community justifies not having to increase or even eliminate impact fees.  

"Of course, another risk to selling the PSB land is water.  The main purpose for the PSB holding the land is for aquifer recharge to the Hueco and Mesilla Bolsons.  There is more land than locally available water to serve development on all of it."

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Friday Video: Arithmetic, Population and Energy, Part 1

Can El Paso prosper by growing and growing and growing? That's what the building sprawlers tell us and they have a City Council that believes them.

Watch Dr. Albert A. Bartlett's extraordinary lecture: "Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101." You can watch these in 8 approximately 10 minute segments or all at once. Al Bartlett was Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at the University of Colorado. Here's the first segment. Go to www.albartlett.org and see this talk and others. Take the time to watch it. You'll know the answer to the question and you'll know that the El Paso sprawlers are wrong and only protecting their own greedy skins. You'll also realize why your onerous property taxes keep going up and up and up and never down. You'll have the answer to many more energy, conservation and sustainability issues.


elpasonaturally will be saying more about Dr. Bartlett and why his insights are important for El Paso today. Today's Friday Video is just a taste.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Texas Unlikely to Act Soon Due to TCEQ Director and Solicitor General

Click to enlarge. Visit America's leaking natural gas system needs a fix, study finds.

Check out the story below from the Texas Tribune. Key paragraph:

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does not officially recognize greenhouse gas as a danger to the environment, and the state refused for years to issue federally required greenhouse gas permits to companies that needed them. Last month, the state’s solicitor general, Jonathan Mitchell, argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that the permits are illegal. And the TCEQ's director, Bryan Shaw, has repeatedly questioned whether climate change is caused by humans. 

[Emphases mine]

Sad. Sad. These same guys probably also believe that Adam walked with TRex. "Here, Rex, Rex. Good dino. Fetch the bone. Atta boy. Oh God! My rib cage aches so. What the..."

The subtitle should have been: "But Texas Is Unlikely to Act Soon".

Texas Could Lead on Methane Reduction, Report Says

Oil and gas companies could play a major role in slashing emissions of methane, and Texas, the nation’s top energy producer, could help lead the way, environmental advocates say.

The industry could curb projected emissions by as much as 40 percent in the U.S. by 2018 through actions that could save it money in the long run, according to a report released this week by the Environmental Defense Fund
But it is unlikely that Texas environmental regulators will embrace the message. And industry representatives disagree about the urgency of curbing methane emissions at a time when cows — through their flatulence — are actually a larger emitter.

Power plants that burn natural gas spew far less carbon dioxide than traditional coal-fired plants, helping to reduce impacts on the climate. But extracting oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide.

The new report suggested several ways for drillers to curb those releases, such as by finding and repairing pipeline leaks, replacing compressor equipment and capturing the gas before it escapes. Those changes would cost the industry some $2.2 billion up front but would yield savings in the long run as companies capture and reuse the stray methane, the study said.
“There are balanced, real solutions available that can make natural gas a less risky fuel source,” said Mark Brownstein, an energy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Brownstein said that drillers could achieve some of the goals through voluntary actions that some companies have already taken, but that state regulations would also be important.

His group and others have hailed rules recently implemented in Colorado, another hotbed of drilling. That state now strictly regulates greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas extraction, and if Texas were to follow suit, the impact on emissions would be much larger.

“What happens in Texas can have a great deal of influence in what can happen in the states and federally,” Brownstein said.

But Texas is unlikely to act soon.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does not officially recognize greenhouse gas as a danger to the environment, and the state refused for years to issue federally required greenhouse gas permits to companies that needed them. Last month, the state’s solicitor general, Jonathan Mitchell, argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that the permits are illegal. And the TCEQ's director, Bryan Shaw, has repeatedly questioned whether climate change is caused by humans. 

Meanwhile, opinions within Texas' oil and gas industry differ.
Bill Mintz, a spokesman for Apache Corporation, a Houston-based oil and gas producer, called the EDF report “an important contribution to the discussion of cost effective opportunities to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas industry.”

Apache, he said, has already implemented some of the practices mentioned in the report, but “we know there is a lot more work to do, and we encourage all of our industry colleagues engage in the race to minimize methane emissions in the oil and gas business.”

Deb Hastings, executive vice president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said she knew of several drilling companies that are working to reduce methane emissions largely through capture and recovery techniques.
She said her group was still reviewing the new study, but worried that researchers underestimated the cost of regulations and overestimated the benefits.

“We aren’t one of the biggest emitters of methane, but we try to reduce it,” she said. “We do believe that our emissions are dropping.”

Nationally, industry members have widely cited newly released data from the Environmental Protection Agency suggesting that the U.S. is emitting less greenhouse gases overall, and that emissions can be attributed not to oil and gas drilling but to the cattle industry — in other words, cow farts. (For years, experts have worked with cattle farmers to reduce animal emissions through grazing techniques and better nutrition.)

Estimates on exactly how much methane is emitted during fracking vary widely. Last fall, a high-profile study from the University of Texas at Austin measured emissions directly from oil and gas producing wells across the country. The results suggested that environmental rules have already helped to reduce emissions, and that without proper regulation, fracking might cancel out the benefit of natural gas to the health of the climate. But Texas researchers cautioned that the study focused only on the drilling process itself and do not measure pipeline leaks, another source of emissions.
Other scientists have come to very different conclusions, however, when studying the amount of methane in the atmosphere, rather than measuring emissions on the ground.

A peer-reviewed study published late last year by scientists from Harvard University and elsewhere suggests that the federal government has been vastly underestimating methane emissions in the U.S., especially those coming from the south-central portion of the country, where fossil fuel extraction is most prevalent. 

The scientists said methane emissions from oil and gas drilling could be underestimated by as much as five times.


Disclosure: At the time of publication, Apache Corporation and the University of Texas at Austin were corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.)
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/03/06/texas-could-lead-methane-reduction-group-says/.


For further reading:
New Study Finds U.S. Has Greatly Underestimated Methane Emissions

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sprawlers' Agenda Revealed

Sprawl results in blight such as this in Central El Paso and burdensome property taxes but not prosperity.
City Council voted unanimously today to postpone raising impact fees for a year. Their vote followed a revelation by the Mayor that he had spoken with the CEO of the EPWU, John Balliew, and builders. Balliew apparently indicated in private conversations what he stated today: the EPWU's budget is set for the year and funding for the water plants would not be necessary for a year. Balliew also stated that there would not be a rate increase as the result of postponing the impact fees. There was some discussion at Council that perhaps the recent passage of Proposition 6 in the State of Texas might mean some money for water infrastructure here in El Paso.

Certainly I appreciate the Mayor's efforts behind the scenes so to speak. On the other hand, he (and El Paso) would benefit more from the expertise from City Planning. The introduction of the ordinance should have come from Planning Director, Matthew McElroy. Instead, the Mayor interrupted Mr. McElroy and had Mr. Balliew come to the podium in order to circumvent (and I'm not using this word pejoratively) the original proposal to raise the fees and, instead, to explore postponing the fees.

Dr. Noe stated that he understood that impact fees is a matter of fairness: you use something, you pay for it; you don't, you don't. However, he also stated that to have infill there had to be incentives. When I addressed Council I agreed with him about incentivizing infill projects. What concerns me is that by  "incentives" he and others mean doing away with Smart Growth and shelving Plan El Paso - the very Master Plan that sprawlers hate. (I would look for incentives in terms of reducing permit fees and hook-up fees from EPWU.) In fact, as I expressed to Council, I hope that, during this coming year, that the City will pay for an independent study to verify whether we have grown and can continue to grow ourselves to prosperity. Study after study across the nation shows that sprawling does not pay for itself but rather is a drag on the economy of a municipality. In the case of El Paso, sprawl puts the burden on the property owner with burdensome property taxes - especially the low to middle/low income families who are in a majority in El Paso. It wouldn't hurt for the City to find out for sure about growth, sprawl and prosperity.

By the 1950's El Paso was the leading city in the southwest. It occupied just 25 square miles of land - a modest growth from its beginnings with 8 square miles. With the advent of the automobile, the freeway, and the suburban model of development, El Paso today occupies 260 square miles and is one of the poorest cities in the country. Certainly, it is not the leader in the southwest or Texas. Sprawl has not brought prosperity. It has brought burdensome property taxes and increasing blight.

The agenda of the sprawlers became obvious today. They loathe impact fees and hope that a State proposition will soothe the unfairness of putting the burden on ratepayers. They want no impact fees. Moreover, they want to abolish Smart Growth and they want to rezone the Northwest and Northeast master plans so that there are no smart growth requirements. Unfortunately they own this current City Council and may succeed with their agenda.

I do hope that a study about sprawl and prosperity can be conducted during this coming year. The downside to my proposal is that the Council can always cherry pick a consultant who will tell them what they want to hear - sprawl makes us more prosperous; build, build, build to your greedy heart's content, Mr. Sprawler. The builders control CIAC which will continue to advise against impact fees. Surprise. Surprise.

One hopes that the Mayor will listen to good scientific data about sustainable growth. There are very knowledgeable people here in El Paso who can help him: people from Eco El Paso, people already in city government in Planning and Sustainability. They need a place at the table as well. My guess is that, just like the stakeholder meetings that were held for selecting a new City Manager, there will be no one with environmental engineering and planning expertise and what gets done will be mere window dressing. The real decisions will be behind closed doors - Mayor with John Balliew and with builders and the chit chat of Representatives outside of City Council.

It's not good.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Tell City Council that You Favor Impact Fees

Although it appears as an introduction with a public hearing later, City Council will hear from the public tomorrow morning regarding impact fee increases. The proposed increase is the first item on the Regular Agenda - Number 6.1. If you can't make Council to speak in favor of the proposal, please contact your Council representative:

Ann Lilly          lillyam@elpasotexas.gov
Larry Romero    romerol@elpasotexas.gov
Emma Acosta   acostaea@elpasotexas.gov
Carl Robinson   robinsoncl@elpasotexas.gov
Michiel Noe      noem@elpasotexas.gov
Eddie Holguin   holguinex@elpasotexas.gov
Lily Limon        limonl@elpasotexas.gov
Cortney Niland  nilandcc@elpasotexas.gov

The issue is a matter of fairness as I have written in two previous posts HERE and HERE and one just posted today. The need for the EPWU to make improvements at the Bustamante and Jonathan Rogers Water Treatment plants as well as other infrastructure expansions is new development particularly in east, northeast and northwest El Paso. If you buy a new home in a newly developed area, then in all fairness you should pay for the improvements the utility has had to make. You shouldn't expect others to pay for it.

Besides the highest increase (on the east side) is only an additional $1,259.25 per home or just $6.20/month on a 30 year loan at the highest current rate of 4.25%. $6.20!!!

One expects builders to add on more per home not only to cover the impact fee increase but to garner some more profit. So why are some builders adamant that there not only be any further impact fee increases but that impact fees should be done away with altogether? The increase of $6.20/month on a mortgage payment doesn't threaten the sale of a home nor justify an outcry.

I suspect that some builders truly believe that more development means more in the City coffers via property taxes. I don't think builders are bad people. I just don't think that they realize that the additional growth means higher property taxes for all of us to pay for the additional infrastructure and services for new development. Growth doesn't pay for itself as study after study shows. In a town of lower incomes, the burden of development becomes a real drag on the family income because of higher property taxes.

Studies show that each new home built in a new development will cost an extra $18,000. Multiply that by the number of new homes in a new development and you have the additional tax burden for all of us to pay. That's why Smart Growth which cuts that expense in half makes more sense. Builders don't like smart growth. Again, I don't think they want in their heart of hearts to burden low income El Pasoans to subsidize their work; I think that they just believe something that isn't true - viz., growth pays for itself. Sprawl hurts the family income. It hurts that income a lot.

So, in all fairness, those who use something should pay for it. Those who don't, shouldn't. The increase isn't extravagant and quite affordable under a 30 year mortgage. Opposing this small increase may be a belief in something that just isn't true: that we can grow our way to prosperity. In fact, we can't and the way we are growing is adding greater burden on the property tax of all El Pasoans.

Please read Michael Kingsley's short paper "Sustainable Development: Prosperity without Growth" which he published in 1992. His conclusion: "In summary, while growth is often perceived as the only path to economic viability, the good news for both declining and growing communities is that there is an alternative. Prosperity does not require growth; it requires development that is sustainable. The global perspective makes it painfully clear that, if our strategies for economic development are not sustainable, they will be terminal." [Emphases are mine.]





The News about Impact Fees Just Gets Better!

I made a mistake in my February 24th post on impact fees. I didn't do my arithmetic. It turns out that the increase is much less than I reported. This means the increase will be only a tiny portion of a monthly mortgage payment. Tiny!

It also means that the El Paso Times can't be trusted when it comes to reporting the seriousness of something. You will see below why this tiny increase hardly deserves the headline: "Sharp increase is possible if City Council approves ordinance". Take the Times with a grain of salt. They also love using the verbs "would" and "could" in their major headlines. Anxieties not realities are their forte.

Here's a chart that will make it clear that the current brouhaha over an impact fee increase is a tempest in a teapot:


You can enlarge the image of the chart by clicking on it. You can also hit Ctrl along with the key with the plus sign and enlarge this entire page.

First, remember that the developers (and in the end the homeowner) pays just 75% of the impact fee. Even though you and I don't use or require the additional capital improvements at the Bustamante and the Jonathan Rogers Treatment Plants, etc., we still pay 25% of those fees. (I'm going on a shopping spree at Union Fashion. I'll pay 75% but you need to kick in the remaining 25%. That's how it works with impact fees.)

So the total amount that the developer paid for 2009 impact fees for east side development was $1,617 or 75% of $2,156. (See chart.) 

The 2014 Impact Fee Calculation for the east side is $3,835. That's the total that I mentioned yesterday as did the El Paso Times. The real increase is this: 75% of that $3,835 is $2,876.25. Subtract the 2009 total of $1,617 and you come up with the increase on the east side of just $1,259.25! 

The current rate on a 30 year loan is 4.25%. That additional $1,259.25 means an increase of a lowly $6.20/month on a 30 year loan. 

$6.20!

Hardly worth the words "Sharp increase is possible if City Council approves ordinance".

It is worth all of the thousands of dollars of ad revenue from home builders in the El Paso Times every month. 

Please plan to be at the next City Council meeting on March 4. City Hall is located at 300 N. Campbell. (Map)

The issue is about fairness. The increase is just a modest $6.20/month on a house payment for a new home built on the east side. Less elsewhere. (Actually it will be much more because you can be sure that the builders will jack up the price of a home to make some more money above and beyond the impact fee.) The increase pays for the capital improvements necessary to support new development. Nobody is arguing here against development - just who should pay. 

Fairness - that's what it is all about. If not, then please pay for my new swimming pool and wardrobe. Thanks.