I write in response to my friend Kent Keahey’s column in last Sunday’s Trib regarding the proposed U.S. Highway 84 landfill site. I have the utmost respect for Kent, who has spent his professional career working for the betterment of Providence Hospital and the greater Waco community. He speaks from the heart regarding what is best for Waco and our next landfill. But I feel the need to answer some inaccuracies and give a different perspective.
When Mayor Bob Sheehy appointed me to the Plan Commission in the early 1990s there was significant disagreement about how and where Waco should grow, or if it should expand at all. The council asked the Plan Commission to explore areas and strategies where smart-growth principles could or should be applied. One of the primary requirements was a modernization of the subdivision ordinance. It was more than 50 years old and not in keeping with then current standards of design.
Commission Chairman Kent Keeth convened a broad cross-section of builders, developers, engineers and planners to collaborate on a new ordinance that could benefit all stakeholders. Prior city councils had made a policy decision not to enforce the city’s extra territorial jurisdiction authority to require all subdivisions in that five-mile radius to meet city standards. There was development pressure already along the Highway 84 corridor. None of the streets met city standards, there was no sewer system so every home had a septic tank, and there were no safety standards for fire protection due to the city’s lack of enforcement.
Bill Falco and the planning staff conducted numerous trips for the Plan Commission to see first-hand the consequences and continuing pressures. This provided a significant impetus to the rewriting of the subdivision ordinance as everyone realized it would not be in the best long-term interest of the residents in this area or the city to enforce an outdated, archaic ordinance. The new ordinance was adopted by the council after a sometimes long and grueling deliberative process but one that everyone could agree on. We then began consideration of what was best for the city and the areas of potential growth in terms of annexation. This was not an easy decision due to the enormous cost of providing the Highway 84 corridor with sewer service due to the ridge between the river valley and the treatment plant on the Brazos.
Growth may have been looming, but it was a leap of faith to commit the resources necessary to properly serve the new area. Eventually, after a very long process of public hearings and public input, the Plan Commission recommended the council approve the annexation. Council member Alice Rodriguez still remembers the nasty, sometimes disorderly outbursts at public hearings and council meetings from residents in the proposed area.
Today there is little doubt the annexation was best for the residents and the citizens of Waco at large. The city’s primary goal in annexing the Highway 84 corridor was not future tax revenue or to regulate builders and developers. It was to protect our most precious water supply and the quality of life primarily for the people who lived there or would be moving there once services were provided. Keep in mind this was after the current landfill was in operation. The growth in this corridor has come about in an orderly, quality-driven process because of planning and capacity-building by the city. The landfill has not stopped or hindered the growth and wealth of Midway Independent School District, continued development and job creation in the Waco Industrial Foundation’s industrial zone or McGregor’s or in the unincorporated area between.
To Kent’s comments that the city has secretly been assembling the land for the new landfill and spending “millions of dollars buying and preparing land…” I have to say nonsense. The city was negotiating to buy the land in 2010 when I was appointed to the council. As in every single instance of the city buying or selling land or facilities, there are discussions in executive session of the council and management, but there was never land bought or money spent without public posting of the agenda item and opportunity for public input before the council vote.
If people have not been paying attention, don’t blame the current mayor or council. The land under consideration for this new landfill was purchased primarily as a buffer to the current landfill. It was not bought with the intention of building a new landfill. The same can be said for the money spent on engineering studies for this new landfill while I was in office: They all required public meetings, hearings and votes. I distinctly remember a council work session spent on the projected life of the current site and what it would take in terms of time and money to prepare for a new one. This was no sneak attack.
Kent’s call for a more balanced approach to fees based on waste generation makes sense. If we left it to outlying areas to supply the landfill and collection and management of waste, Waco would suffer. We are the only governmental entity with the capacity in terms of personnel and financial means to do this most critical job right. I have complete confidence in city public-works director Chuck Dowdell and his team. On the other hand, if Waco outsourced these functions to the private sector, we would greatly impact our long-term financial competitiveness. I have looked at other cities that outsource and the costs are higher, the citizen satisfaction lower and public safety/health is often compromised. And they too operate landfills in developed areas.
Whether this new site is used or an alternate site is found, the cost to Kent and me will be tolerable. But to most of the parents in Waco Independent School District or the elderly living on fixed incomes, the increased cost will be a real burden. As Councilman Wilbert Austin often reminded me, someone must look out for these folks, and the council will in the end do what they think best for all the citizens, not just the people who live off Highway 84 west. Waco will require a landfill regardless of our ability to agree on the location. It will always be a matter of contention to someone.
There is a long history of public opposition to large-scale public works. There were very vocal protests to the recent dissolved air flotation plant built behind the dam, and it is now one of the greatest single investments in our community’s water supply. There was a vocal, very public disagreement about construction of the original Lake Waco in the 1920s and the building of the new dam for the current lake in the late 1950s. And there was no end to disagreement over the city’s assuming operations of the animal shelter. In each of these a greater good was the ultimate choice for the city council, and the citizens of Waco have benefited.