Remembering the Barton Creek Uprising of June 7 th 1990
The Barton Creek Uprising of June 7 th 1990 brings up plenty of memories from all who made the effort to be there – or were lucky enough to stumble upon the ruckus at City Hall that Thursday afternoon.
On the surface, and at the outset, it appeared to be just one larger-than-average fight over yet another proposal to the Austin City Council to approve development in the Barton Springs watershed. Just one more nail in the coffin.
The numbers were, however, quite stunning: 4,000 acres, the largest proposed development in Austin’s history; 3 million square feet of commercial development, 2,000 homes, 1900 apartments, and 3 golf courses (on top of the golf course already there). All would be locked in by a 30 year “Planned Unit Development” agreement, or PUD.
As the council convened that morning, City staff and PUD lobbyists were still drafting last minute amendments to be added to the numerous exemptions, exceptions, variances, and other species of loophole already incorporated into the PUD agreement.
The proposed development would be called “Barton Creek.” Not “The New Shopping Malls Above Barton Creek”; the “Tuscan Towers at Barton Creek;” “ The Paradise at Barton Creek,” or “Terra California at Barton Creek.” Just “Barton Creek.” As if that name weren’t already taken.
The Barton Creek PUD proponents, the villains that day, were straight out of central casting – too good to be true. If you made it up, no one would believe you.
There was Jim Bob Moffett, the ex-UT football player and CEO of Freeport McMoRan, the oil, gas, and mining giant that had been fingered by the EPA as the single largest discharger of toxic pollutants into the waters of the United States. Freeport’s waste from its fertilizer plant on the banks of the Mississippi River, not too far upstream from the water supply intake for New Orleans, was piled high above the river, uncovered. When it rained, toxic metals from the phosphate slag heaps washed off, into the river and the City’ drinking water, and out into the gulf. When it wasn’t running off the fertilizer plant site, fertilizer made from Freeport’s plant and its phosphate mines in Florida, drained from farmers fields in the Mississippi Basin, flowing out of the mighty Mississippi to create a giant, deoxygenated “dead zone” in the Gulf.
Besides being the nation’s top toxic water polluter, Freeport owned the world’s largest gold mine, in the Indonesian province then known as Irian Jaya. (The Indonesian controlled western half of the New Guinea island was later renamed West Papua as a concession to the aboriginal peoples.) The gold mining was actually an annex to the copper mining at FM’s Grasberg mine. Tailings from the mine were swept down the river and into the Arafura Sea.
West Papuan peoples had been forced off their lands to make way for the mining operations by Freeport and the Indonesian military, which served as Freeport’s security forces. Human rights and environmental violations, including disappearances of West Papuan community leaders, were well-documented by human rights activists and anthropologists working in the area. These records were woefully incomplete though: the military and Freeport made it almost impossible for outsiders to access the area and monitor Freeport’s operations.
At the time, Jim Bob lived in New Orleans, where Freeport was headquartered. A brutal legal and PR fight between Freeport and NOLA’s water utility over Freeport’s toxic runoff had left Jim Bob and FM’s reputation badly scarred. As rich as he was, Moffett wasn’t likely to be invited into the City’s elite, old money circles any time soon.
The real estate bust of the mid- to late 80s offered low prices for development land and what Jim Bob saw as a perfect opportunity to diversify Freeport’s operations. Diversifying in Austin would also allow Moffett to return to his football glory days in Austin, free and clear of his New Orlean’s faux pas. Or so he thought. FM’s Barton Creek Properties subsidiary was incorporated, assembling most of the 4,000 acres of Barton Creek lands from the bankrupt Barnes/Connally development company, which had been helmed by former Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes and former Texas Governor John Connally.
Jim Bob’s partner in the Barton Creek PUD was no slouch. Robert Dedman was the Dallas CEO of ClubCorp International, the single largest owner and operator of private clubs in the world. Country clubs, but also dining clubs. The kinds of places where deals are made. Dedman was also Chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, having voted to fast track the extension of Mopac down the center line of the Barton Springs recharge zone, connecting to Gary Bradley’s Circle C development.
On June 7 th Dedman and Moffett were represented by David Armbrust and his young partner, Richard Suttle, the top lawyer lobbyists at Austin City Hall (then and now). Armbrust and Suttle would not have pushed for a vote that fateful day if they weren’t assured of a “W” on their biggest game day.
The opposition embodied all that was and is good about Austin. Mothers, fathers, children, college students, professionals, laborers, slackers, local celebrities, a former Mayor, and a loose band of environmental and neighborhood leaders from the Sierra Club, Save Barton Creek Association, We Care Austin and the rowdy, well-informed upstart pranksters of Earth First!.
Also in attendance: a local press corps eager to tell a story that had blown up much bigger than any news hound could have hoped for; a pro-business mayor with six liberal council members, including Austin’s best hippie official, Max Nofziger; a smattering of pro-PUD chamber representatives; and a roomful of Freeport-paid supporters, occupying the limited seating in council chambers, all wearing “Quality Development” buttons.
The city council meeting started that morning. It reached the Barton Creek PUD agenda item about 3:00 p.m. The Applicants spoke first.
While represented by more than able counsel, Moffett and Dedman felt compelled to speak on their own behalf. Moffett went first, bringing down the house with his claim that, as a geology grad with the “highest grades on the UT football team,” that he “knew more about Barton Creek than anybody else in this room.” He promised there would be no pollution from the development.
Then Dedman took the podium, seeking to balance Moffett’s hoot-worthy geologist bombast with liberal arts refinement. Quoting Longfellow’s The Psalm of Life, Dedman spoke of “great men” inspiring “lives sublime” and “leave behind, Footprints in the sands of time.” The silver-haired Dedman then turned to Kipling’s “If,” – “If you can If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, /If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,/But make allowance for their doubting too.”
Dedman’s soft words nevertheless carried a big stick message to the council: if you don’t ignore these crazy people and join with us as “partners” in the PUD, we’ll do it anyway – we can run over you.
Then it was time for the citizens to speak, one after the next, through the night. The emotion, knowledge, wisdom, and love came shone bright, hour after hour, speaker after speaker. The speakers weren’t losing their heads, they were finding their voices, speaking truth to power. The wisdom of crowds was on fine display. Long-time community activists and leaders Mary Arnold, Shudde Fath, Phyllis Brinkley, Joe Riddell, Roger Baker, former Mayor Frank Cooksey, Dorothy Richter, and many others all spoke eloquently against the PUD. Younger and relatively new-on-the-scene environmental leaders, including Cedar Stevens, Neal Tuttrup, Brigid Shea, Tim Jones, Jenny Clark, George “Buzz” Avery, Jack and Jackie Goodman, Bill Bunch, Jim Bordelon,
Austin Music icon Susan Walker spoke on behalf of herself and her husband, Jerry Jeff Walker. Esther’s Follies star comedienne Shannon Sedwick sung “Cry Me a River” with new words urging council to “run those developers out of town.” Geologists Raymond Slade and Dan Mueller, who had both researched the vulnerability of the Edwards Aquifer to pollution from urbanization spoke against the proposal.
Austin radio legend Cactus Pryor opposed the PUD, while his then Austin radio DJ son Paul Pryor sided with the developers. With UT and Jim Bob Moffett football coach Darrell Royal and his son Mack, the roles reversed, with Mack speaking that night against the PUD.
It was the passion and eloquence of the hundreds of other citizens who broke with their daily routine to speak out in favor of saving the soul of Austin from the Barton Creek PUD’s excessive development schemes.
Finally, at about 5:00 a.m. the next morning, the last public speaker concluded the public hearing. It was time for the City Council to vote.
While Armbrust, Suttle and company had made a grand exit from the council chambers many hours earlier, pretending to concede defeat to the outpouring of community sentiment, environmental leaders knew it wasn’t over until the council voted. In the days before cell phones, developer lobbyists could still call in and speak to council members on the phone in a council-only lounge to one side of the chambers.
Councilmembers George Humphrey, Max Nofziger, and Robert Barnstone spoke eloquently in favor of doing the right thing. Mayor Cooke remained mostly silent. Councilmember Sally Shipman, a lame duck councilmember who had just been voted out of office a few weeks before, made a motion “to deny the PUD” but to grant environmental variances that had been recommended by the Planning Commission. This “motion to deny” sounded good, but taken as a whole, would have tied the City up in knots. It was almost certainly crafted by Armbrust.
Thankfully, Council member Robert Barnstone, one of the first Austin developers to promote the environmental benefits of living central and supporting environmentalist efforts to limit sprawl over the Edwards Aquifer, spoke up promptly and forcefully, making a substitute motion to deny the PUD with no string attached. Humphrey seconded. After brief comments from all of the council members, council voted 7-0 to deny the PUD. The council chamber, still packed to capacity, erupted in whoops and cheers.
That historic night changed the course of Austin’s future. The spirit and vision of saving Barton Springs and minimizing development in the Barton Springs watershed continues to guide Austin policies to this day.
The “lessons learned” from that night are many, but chief among them is that sometimes citizens must stand up, protest, and demand, loudly, with many and diverse voices before there is any real change. The “powers that be” are entrenched, and elected officials are loath to cross them. Democracy only functions when citizens participate; simply voting every two years is not enough. The struggle to save our springs continues, with previous efforts reignited that night 30 years ago.
Watch an edited 24 minute “highlights” version of the June 7 th 1990 Barton Creek Uprising on this webpage, or watch the entire hearing on the City’s website here.
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