A new designation for about 155 acres of land downtown and along Dallas Drive could ultimately provide for the cleanup of soils contaminated years ago, even as it exempts developers from also cleaning up the groundwater underneath.
Ken Banks, Denton’s director of environmental services, briefed the City Council on the pursuit of another municipal setting designation during a workshop session this week. A state program adopted in 2003, the designation allows a city to forbid landowners to use certain aquifers for drinking water and thus steer property developers toward other cleanup standards.
The designation would not be the city’s first. That came in November 2007 when Denton received a designation for the southwest corner of Interstate 35 and University Drive so that land, once an unregulated dump, could be redeveloped. Later, in 2009, the city designated two lots on Locust Street as exempt when a developer found benzene in the shallow groundwater.
Municipal setting designations are not without critics who say the label ultimately rewards poor stewardship of the land.
But Banks told the council the designation could encourage the cleanup of historically contaminated sites in the center of the city, which has pockets of groundwater about 20 feet below the surface.
For example, he said, a downtown parcel might be the site of a former gas station that long ago removed the underground petroleum storage tanks when regulations were more lax.
A landowner hoping to redevelop the parcel might find that cleaning up the surface and the soils would cost about $100,000, a job that would still be required with a municipal setting designation. But without the designation, the landowner would also be required to clean the groundwater and that has been known to increase the cleanup costs by a factor of 10, Banks said.
In other words, faced with the possibility of a $1 million cleanup, the landowner may abandon the project altogether, leaving contamination on the surface and soils unaddressed, a riskier proposition for residents, Banks said.
As the city prepares its application to the state, the staff and a consultant would research the location and use of any drinking water wells downtown, although, in a follow-up interview, Banks doubted any would still be in use. None were found when applying for the city’s other designations, he said.
The designation would limit landowners from tapping shallow groundwater. The Trinity and Paluxy aquifers, which are several hundred feet lower, would not be part of the designation, Banks told the City Council.
The city staff has recommended paying for the work, which includes a contract with a consultant, in next year’s budget. Depending on how many water wells must be assessed as part of the application, costs could reach as high as $238,000, Banks said.
The council informally agreed to pursue the designation Tuesday, although council member Jim Engelbrecht encouraged the city staff to look for financial partners.
“I would like to see how other cities have funded it,” Engelbrecht said. “There is a private sector benefit here.”
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.