Austin City Council's Health and Human Services Committee is considering a resolution that could force barbecue restaurants to install scrubbers, or air pollution control devices.
District 3 Councilman Sabino “Pio” Renteria brought the proposal to council April 2 after residents who live near Terry Black’s Barbecue on Barton Springs Road said smokers behind the restaurant were threatening their quality of life.
However, restaurant owners argue scrubbers are a big-ticket item that could force many Austin staples out of business.
Council referred the issue to the HHSC. On May 4 council members on the committee held a public hearing to discuss a possible code amendment requiring barbecue restaurants located near residential areas to install scrubbers. Committee Chair Ora Houston said the committee needs more information from city staff before it decides whether to recommend the change to the full council.
Renteria did not attend the HHSC meeting, and no one spoke in favor of the code amendment at the public hearing.
Carter Hobbs of County Line barbecue restaurants, which has two locations in Northwest Austin, testified against the code amendment, saying it would invite litigation. Hobbs said the problem is isolated to one neighborhood, and a nuisance ordinance would be a better solution. A code amendment, he argued, would affect myriad establishments, from eateries to butchers to factories.
Skeeter Miller, owner of County Line and board member of the Texas Restaurant Association, said smoke scrubbers can cost up to $200,000 to install and another $1,000 per month to maintain. He said the expense would cripple Austin’s hospitality industry, and council should explore other options to mitigate air pollution coming from restaurants.
“To punish all of us that have been really good stewards is not the right way to go,” Miller said.
Vince Delisi, assistant division manager of Austin Health and Human Services Department, said his staff polled 73 of the city’s estimated 86 barbecue establishments, of which 54 have smokers on site. None of the restaurants uses a scrubber, he said.
The department asked seven other municipalities if they enforce similar laws and found that none required smoke scrubbers, Delisi said. He also pointed out the department has received only one complaint regarding barbecue smoke, related to Fresa’s Chicken Al Carbon at 915 N. Lamar Blvd. in September.
Delisi noted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality enforces air emission standards, not the health department.
Kathie Tovo, committee vice chair and mayor pro tem, said the city should explore creating an nuisance ordinance related to smoke emissions. She also asked city staff to come back to the committee with information on the health effects of restaurant smokers.
Houston asked staff to provide information from the TCEQ. She said the HHSC would discuss the proposal again at its next meeting June 1 at 4 p.m. but it would not hold another public hearing.
City Council also referred the issue to its Economic Opportunity Committee, which voted unanimously May 11 to recommend against an ordinance and instead deal with smoke concerns on a case-by-case basis in conjunction with TCEQ.