Tough pipeline rules passed as promised
By Stephen Scheibal

11 April 2003

Council discusses the legal risks, then backs building ordinance

Austin City Council members Thursday fulfilled a pledge to impose landmark regulations on underground pipelines that crisscross the city.

They now will wait to see whether their vote lands them in court.

A trade group, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, has all but promised to sue the city over requirements that pipeline owners and operators take out tens of millions of dollars in insurance for segments of large pipelines inside the city.

Builders also have opposed limits on construction near pipelines that could make some structures more expensive, and city lobbyists have warned of a possible backlash among legislators because the regulations might lower property values.

The council spent about a half-hour discussing such concerns with lawyers before approving the ordinance unanimously. Mayor Gus Garcia showed little fear of any court challenge.

"I feel very confident that the council has acted very responsibly," Garcia said. "The council's intention was to do whatever it could to protect (residents') safety."

The ordinance stemmed from the city's fight against the Longhorn Pipeline, a converted oil line that will carry gasoline from Houston to El Paso and cross under South Austin. The city joined an unsuccessful federal lawsuit against the line, citing possible threats to nearby residents.

Pressure to draft an ordinance increased when the council approved a development deal with Stratus Properties, which owns land near the line.

The ordinance bans new buildings within 25 feet of a pipeline route and increases construction standards on most structures within 200 feet of a line.

The council also mandated that structures requiring more evacuation assistance -- such as schools and retirement centers -- would be forbidden within 200 feet of a pipeline and would need a council-approved variance within 500 feet.

The rules would not apply to existing structures or those that have already received building permits.

Tim Taylor, president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, said he was disappointed by the decision. The group had asked officials to formalize standards for buildings near pipelines, but the council instead left the standards to the discretion of Austin's fire chief.

Taylor said he doesn't expect to challenge the decision.

"We'll just have to figure out how to live with it," he said.

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