Save Our Springs Ordinance Turns 20
The year was 1992. The number one song in the U.S. was BoyzIIMen’s “End of the Road.” In Austin, the population was about half of what it is now. But things were changing rapidly. The city had a new Convention Center. The dot-com boom, which dramatically changed Austin, was on the horizon. “Old Austin” was fading into the sunset. And a two-year battle between environmentalists and developers was also coming to an end.
Daryl Slusher was with the Austin Chronicle at the time. He says when Austin’s unique beauty and skilled labor force began attracting national and international investors, environmentalists began to fret.
“One day, I was working on my column for that week,” Slusher said, “and Robert Brice, who worked with the Chronicle at that time, gave me a packet on this proposed development upstream of Barton Springs, about 7 miles upstream. And we were just horrified by it because it was really a serious threat to the survival of the springs to build that much upstream without strong regulations.”
The development was proposed by an international mining company called Freeport McMoRan. The Planned Unit Development or PUD was to have golf courses, a private park, residences and upscale shopping amenities.
Brigid Shea, one of the leading environmental voices of the 90’s, swims in Barton Springs Pool regularly. She says Freeport McMoRan had a reputation of poor environmental practices that appeared to have the company’s own employees willing to sabotage the project.
“I tell people it was like the French Resistance,” Shea said. “I mean, the bosses were on one side and virtually all the employees were on our side. Hardly a day would go by at the SOS office where somebody wouldn’t walk in and say, ‘I don’t know you, you don’t know me. But, I found this on the copier and I thought you’d be interested in it.’”
Shea worried about construction runoff into the springs and the habitat of endangered species.
All of the sudden the media — not just the Austin Chronicle — got on board with the environmental community. KUT’s John Aielli would often play Bill Oliver’s song “Barton Springs Eternal” as a show of solidarity.
The Slusher says in June of 1990 the paper went into overdrive, asking Austinites to go to a hearing set to take place on June 7.
“Louis Black, the editor of the Chronicle, was the one that came up with the idea for the cover,” Slusher said.
The cover had a skull floating on the waters of Barton Springs Pool, with the caption, “If you don’t read this issue, we’ll poison Barton Springs.” There was a disclaimer inside. No one was going to poison the waters. Still, thousands turned out to the hearing. Almost 1,000 signed up to speak. Their arguments were emotional and personal. Some talked about baptizing their children in Barton Springs. Jacqueline Thomas directed her comments to Freeport McMoRan’s representatives.
“Misters Muffett and Deadman, I am really sorry if you feel so bad and afraid of love and life that you are making so many simple people and creatures here and worldwide suffer and die,” Thomas said. “If you care so much about the environment, why are you holding it hostage before us today?”
The hearing started the afternoon of June 7. At around 5:30 on the morning of the 8, Council member Robert Barnstone decided he’d had enough. He sprung from his blue leather chair.
“Speaker after speaker for, now, more than 15 hours has come here and said to us that this is where we draw the line,” Barnstone said. “That, we’ll go to the wall or we’ll go to the hill, and if we were to deny this motion and this PUD — we could go to the hill and we will go see the devil himself to protect Barton Springs.”
The Council unanimously denied the PUD.
Soon after, the medley of environmentally conscious groups that had rallied Austinites merged. They decided to draft an ordinance that would protect the Edwards Aquifer from future development. Bill Bunch and Brigid Shea joined this group. They called themselves SOS — Save Our Springs.
Back at Barton Springs Pool, Bunch and Shea look puzzled — they can’t remember who came up with the name.
Bunch and Shea: “I don’t know for sure, myself. We were picking out names,” Bunch said.
“Was it Mark Ichnaga?” Shea asked. “I think I remember you or somebody advocating for a long, kinda scientific name — Committee for the Protection of the blah, blah, blah, or something like that. But somebody was really arguing for SOS. SOS because it’s sending out an SOS, the whole symbolism.”
In less than 2 years, SOS gathered signatures, drafted an ordinance that limited construction along the Edwards Aquifer to 15 percent, put the ordinance on the ballot and in 1992 got voters to pass it.
Tom Terkel is a developer who came to Austin in the 80’s. He didn’t work for Freeport McMoRan, but was part of the fight indirectly. Austin Mayor Bruce Todd had asked him to serve on a committee to find consensus between environmentalists and developers. Terkel says developers wanted to protect the springs — but, they relied on science that would allow for bigger construction margins
“Even if we disagreed with the technical details of the SOS Ordinance, it passed overwhelmingly,” Terkel said. “And, developers who want to do more than one project in a city learn quickly to accept and to adapt the values of that community and to interpret those values through the built environment that they create.”
Adapting was hard for some developers. It meant that for every piece of land owned along the creek, 85 percent of it could not be paved.
“Honestly, I’d say, I was probably portrayed as the villain since I was the most prominent developer at that time involved with SOS or developing over the Aquifer,” said Gary Bradley, who along with Freeport McMoRan decided to challenge SOS by taking their case up to the State Legislature. “From the Real Estate community standpoint, probably the most important piece of legislation that has ever passed and may ever will be passed was a thing called House Bill, 4 and what House Bill 4 said was if you start a project, then you get to finish it under the rules and regulations under which you started it.”
That bill — and some more recent revisions — “grandfathered” several contracts, letting them pave more than the 15 percent allowed by SOS. But over the years, the Austin City Council has still been able to negotiate construction and water quality on some projects to be done within SOS standards.
SOS has either been a blessing or a curse, depending on who you ask. Terkel says developers have accepted it and moved on. But Bill Bunch says moving on is not so easy.
“The Springs are never saved,” Bunch said. “Environmental battles are never won completely. You know? They are won for the day and then you have to win them again.”
So the fight goes on. But those who created Save Our Springs can take satisfaction from the ordinance that through those daily wins has defined the look of a city that continues to grow but also continues to preserve its beauty.
In the gallery below, the two newspaper photos are by Joy Diaz, KUT News. The others are courtesy of Alan Pogue with the Texas Center for Documentary Photography.