The Austin Chronicle

Turbulent Waters (Updated)

By Brandon Watson, February 28, 2013, 4:00pm, Newsdesk

Over the years, it has become a tradition. Boaters cluster at the eastern cove of Hippie Hollow, sunning buns over long weekends. But on February 7, boaters were surprised to find a line of buoys cordoning off the area for swimming only. Travis County Parks may have been trying to calm the waters; instead, they triggered a backlash.

Within days, a group called Friends of the Hollow sprung up with a petition. At issue, at least, is the transparency of the decision. Travis County Parks did not consult with the park-goers or nearby businesses before making the decision, nor did they offer any documents backing up the decision. According to Friends of the Hollow's website, Parks initially offered slim justification for the move – instead offering vague concerns about underage access and the popularity of the cove with "a certain demographic."

But according to Travis County Parks District Park Manager Dan Perry, the agency's concern is safety. "I don't care who or what is operating it. Power boats and people don't mix." Perry cites that the new swimming area is merely a reversal to the original lines of the cove. When the eastern cove was opened to boats in the 1990s due to concerns with water lines, the boats docking in Hippie Hollow were typically small. Today party barges and other large crafts have become increasingly common. Since those boats also bring more swimmers, accidents are more likely.

Thus far, however, Travis County Parks has not explained the timing of the decision. February hardly attracts hordes of swimmers to the area and no accidents have been recorded recently. Indeed, the timing may hurt businesses that rely on park traffic. Park regular Jordan Herman points to restaurants like Carlos 'n' Charlie's that have been suffering from less covers due to the drought's lower water levels. Commenting on the petition, Oilcan Harry's co-owner Larry Davis notes that the decision could have an affect on the overall Austin economy, especially if it affects events like the LGBT Labor Day "Splash Days" celebration that bring thousands of out-of-towners to the Fourth Street bars.

For now, Rick Luisi - the owner and promoter of "Splash Days" - is taking a measured tone. Although he has some concerns, he is waiting to see how the situation will play out. If boats will be allowed to dock 100 feet from the rocks, he says "I don't think that will be a big issue. One hundred feet back from the cliffs isn't that far away, and I would agree it is safer for those on the rocks and those on the boats. Docking and/or tying up boats just a couple feet from the cliffs is not a good idea for anyone."

Chris Vee, the organizer of long-running adult boat rally "Butts, Boobs, and Boats" is taking a a wait-and-see approach too. "We believe that the main thing is that more and more people are going to Hippie Hollow by boat and the park isn't making enough money to cover the parks upkeep. I hope at the very least they come up with some kind of boat anchoring/parking permit."

Due to the public response, parks officials have scheduled a public forum Wednesday, February 27, 2013 from 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.

Update: After Wednesday's meeting, Travis County Parks announced that they will open up further space in Hippie Hollow's eastern cove for boaters. To the crowd assembled at the forum, Parks Director Charles Bergh admitted that "We really didn’t understand how you guys used that part of the park."

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