Hitting the Trails

City Trails Vision Provokes Suburban Wrath

Envision this: more than 400 miles of new hike- and-bike trails along creeks throughout Travis, Hays, and Williamson Counties. City dwellers could hop on their bikes and ride one continuous trail from Town Lake to McKinney Falls. Or how about a long, scenic trail along Walnut Creek that East Austinites could hike or bike up to northwest Austin or down to the Colorado River? While this may sound like a dream to the folks at the Austin Metropolitan Trails Council (AMTC) -- the trail advocacy coalition that recently distributed its proposal for just such a plan -- some property rights advocates predict that the proposed trails linking the city to the 'burbs will give rise to a nightmare.

"If you make continuous trails out to these rural areas, you're going to be reading about rapes and murders," warned Slaughter Creek resident Eric Anderson at the Austin Transportation Study's meeting on October 14, adding that he has already had to hold off a burglar at gunpoint and break up transient camps on his land. "These are vicious people coming out there. You'll condemn us to a life of living hell."

Another irate property owner who surprised the usually thick-skinned ATS politicos last month with the intensity of her speech was Suzanne Gasparatto. "I can tell you and you and you that none of you are getting my land," declared the Onion Creek property owner as she stared daggers at the members of the ATS panel. "It's my land, it's my creek, it's my home."

Ye Olde Property Rights Fight

That the AMTC's recently released Vision Map has already stirred up such a hornets' nest of opposition from residents along Onion and Slaughter Creeks south of Austin has caught quite a few trail advocates off-guard. Only a year ago, the AMTC appeared to represent environmental interests so broad-based as to be beyond political controversy. After all, the trails advocacy coalition's only pitch is for preserving greenways and building more hike-and-bike trails along area creeks, goals that it looked like everyone from the Real Estate Council to Earth First! could support. In fact, the list of 25 organizations and government entities that form the AMTC reads like a pantheon of municipal respectability. AMTC members include the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), Austin Parks Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Save Barton Creek Association, Travis County, and the cities of Austin, Lakeway, Round Rock, and Pflugerville.

In 1994, when the AMTC helped win over $4 million in federal grants to expand hike-and-bike trails on Town Lake, and along Barton, Shoal, and Waller Creeks, environmentalists were jubilant. But trail advocates forgot to factor in the local property rights movement that has sprung up in recent years in opposition to such nature preserve programs as the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP). When creekside property owners became aware of AMTC's plan to link their neighborhoods to foot traffic from the city, some of these irate landowners sprang to action.

Property owners descended on the ATS last month after Travis County requested that federal funds controlled by the ATS be allocated to build an AMTC-proposed trail along Slaughter Creek between Slaughter Creek Metropolitan Park and Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park. To listen to the fiery speeches of the protesters, one would have thought the proposed Slaughter Creek trail was to lead to their front doors. However, residents like Anderson, who are opposing the trail, live on a section of Slaughter Creek downstream of Searight Park where trail extension is not proposed. The fear for the neighborhood is that trail advocates, despite present assurances to the contrary, will eventually decide to "fill the gap" in the trails system. And, the logic goes, in will rush the criminal elements from the city.

Ironically, the proposed trail would most benefit the subdivisions of Circle C and Shady Hollow. Many cyclists still remember with disgust how $368,000 of the $2 million that Austin voters had approved in the early 1980s to improve bicycle mobility on city streets instead went to build Circle C's veloway, a circular bicycle track they say primarily provides weekend exercise for suburban commuters. Were the ATS to go ahead with the Slaughter Creek trail plan and spend $660,000 of the $2.68 million it has set aside for bicycle/pedestrian funding to again benefit the swank Edwards Aquifer subdivision, howls of protest from inner-city cyclists might join the chorus now coming from the property rights group. (Travis County has also asked the ATS for $240,000 to fund a project not in the AMTC Vision Plan: a bicycle tunnel under Slaughter Lane to connect the former Maple Run MUD to Circle C's veloway.)

Takes a Child to Raze a Village

Because of the vocal property owner opposition, Travis County is likely to pull back its plans for Slaughter Creek, and instead focus on getting $768,000 for a concrete bike trail along Gilleland Creek in Pflugerville. Meanwhile, Slaughter Creek residents remain unimpressed by official assurances that no one is after their land. "I see an orchestrated effort coming out of the Clinton Administration," says Anderson, "It's the same social engineering mindset as Clinton's `It takes a village to raise a child.' They think that if you put gang kids in the backyards of everybody that lives on hike-and-bike trails, somehow we're going to hold the little vipers to our hearts and love them and hug them and they'll have a miraculous change of heart."

Gasparatto sees the proposed trails system as part of a greater scheme by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to make Austin the national model for a socialistic land grab in the name of environmental protection. To substantiate her view, she points to a September article in a Wall Street Journal publication called Smart Money. The article's author, John Anderson, argues that the BCCP is a Babbitt-backed scheme in which developers and environmentalists banded together to deprive property owners of fat capital gains they would have otherwise realized from selling land lying on the fringes of metropolitan sprawl.

AMTC representatives protest that their Vision Map showing a 400-mile trail system is designed mainly to provide an inventory of creeks where trails could potentially be built, and to rank proposed projects for need and feasibility. The trail system would take decades to implement, they say, emphasizing that it is better to have trail plans in place before subdivisions spring up along the creeks. Skip Cameron, president of the Bull Creek Foundation, says that the AMTC always works with landowners, and will not encourage use of public condemnation proceedings to acquire land for trails. He points out that national trail experts say that they know of no case in the United States where private land has been condemned for the building of hike-and-bike trails.

But Cameron's reassurances do not satisfy Slaughter Creek resident Bettie Carrington. "Their intent is to take one creek at a time and one property owner at a time -- thereby preventing a massive united front in opposition," says Carrington. She fears that not only will city and county bureaucracies allied with the AMTC condemn property for trails, but that they will declare that owners' properties in the flood plain have little value and hence pay them little compensation.

Fat Isolationists

On October 29 and 30, the AMTC hosted a series of public meetings conducted by Charles Flink, a nationally recognized authority on trails and greenways. Flink stresses the importance of greenways for preserving quality of life in the wake of rapid population growth and urbanization. In automobile-based urban development, roadways and parking areas typically use about one-third of available space, says Flink. Water pollution, flooding, and erosion caused by rainwater runoff from this mass of impervious cover can be partially mitigated by preserving a wide buffer of natural area along streams, he says. This natural area would soak up rainfall, allowing water to percolate more slowly into aquifers, rather than running off rapidly into the Colorado River. The same buffer zones would provide spaces for trails, which are increasingly needed for the health and recreation of city dwellers, Flink maintains.

Health experts blame much of Americans' problem with obesity and heart disease on an automobile-dominated transportation system that has eliminated the need for walking as a part of the daily routine. People need natural walking areas protected from the rush of traffic and located near where they live and work in order to get regular exercise, stresses Flink. He also touts trails as a way to unify communities. "People smile, greet each other and feel more human on greenways," he says. "It's a place to meet people when you're not travelling 50-70 miles per hour in a mechanized box." Cities like Chattanooga and Louisville have systematic programs to combine trails with greenway corridors for water protection, while Portland and Denver already have extensive networks of commuter trails linking the inner city to the suburbs.

However, some Austin suburb dwellers see no value in trails leading to their backyards. "You can make a case for hike-and-bike trails in the inner city," says Anderson, "but these little Sierra Club yuppies with their $200 hiking shoes and $1,000 bicycles don't know what we have to put up with in rural areas with no protection. I can't go down to the creek without carrying a weapon. People throw trash on my property and cut down trees. I've had them throw rocks at me and threaten to come back and get me at night."

As for Flink's contention that creek buffer zones are needed to control flooding and prevent water pollution, Anderson sees this as a BCCP style trade-off in which environmentalists get preservation of wide swaths of creek greenways, while developers are allowed to cover surrounding areas with subdivisions. Meanwhile, creekside dwellers will be cheated by having their property declared to be in a redefined flood plain, and hence devalued for development. Anderson predicts a Take Back Texas style revolt when "thousands of people with homes backing up to creeks in the three metropolitan counties wake up to the fact that their land can be condemned and given over to the public." Furthermore, he accuses the AMTC of pretending that what are essentially recreational trails will have practical use as transportation corridors in order to justify receiving federal transportation funding. Happy Trails,
or Crime Corridor? What the city needs is a model to show how trails can benefit the economy and provide viable commuting corridors as well as recreational opportunities, counters AMTC president Ted Whatley, who also serves on the Austin Independent School Board. Whatley believes that a proposed trail along Walnut Creek could well serve as Austin's model. The trail would pass through the center of much of north Austin's high-tech corridor, providing commuting connections to IBM, Austin Diagnostic Clinic, ACC's Northridge Campus, National Instruments, the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission and several elementary and middle schools as it winds between MoPac and I-35.

The city already owns 98% of the right of way on this 4.3-mile corridor, which also includes Balcones Park and Walnut Creek Park. East of I-35, Walnut Creek turns south and passes through mainly undeveloped rural land, passing near the future site of Samsung, as it cuts through Pioneer Farm and Big Walnut Creek Nature Preserve on its way to the Colorado River. Whatley says that a Walnut Creek greenbelt would be North and East Austin's version of the Barton Creek greenbelt. Winning the $2.75 million needed for the segment between MoPac and I-35 is a high priority for the AMTC, which may ask the ATS for partial funding. Whatley also hopes to get contributions from corporations near the trail by emphasizing the health and recreational benefits for their employees.

Ted Siff, director of the local field office of The Trust for Public Land, says that nationwide experience shows that opposition to trails usually fades after they are built and the public's fears about them fail to materialize. He points to Austin Police Department statistics that show that fewer than 1% of the city's crimes occur along hike-and-bike trails or on parkland.

René Barrera, president of the South River City Citizens' Neighborhood Association, agrees that the notion that trails are crime corridors is a myth. His association supports the continuation of the Blunn Creek trail from Travis Heights' Stacy Park to Town Lake -- even though a homeless person was murdered at the creek underpass at Riverside Drive this year. The area is also littered with used syringes, graffiti, and other signs of gang and transient activity. "We've given up that area like we have much of the inner city," says Barrera. "But we can do something about it by integrating a trail system through it. The community polices itself when it has a stake in coherent amenities like trails. Where you have a continuous flow of people, there is less opportunity for crime."

Property owners' fears of city-based crime commuting to the suburbs could throw a monkey wrench into AMTC's Vision Map, but Siff says the plan is still in "the beginning of a process." He predicts that the Vision Map -- which represents the work of more than 2,000 volunteers over a two-year period -- will go through many changes in routes, corridors, and trail designs. Siff points out that the momentum helped along by the $4 million in funding that Austin scored two years ago for some major new trail connections should bring confidence to trail advocates. Siff says, "Austin is destined to become one of the nation's great trail and greenway cities." n Note: The ATS will hold a public hearing on Monday, Nov. 18, at which citizens may speak their minds on new trail proposals, as well as on dozens of other transportation projects that the ATS is considering. The hearing begins at 6:30pm at the Thompson Conference Center on the UT campus, next to the LBJ Library at 26th & Red River. The ATS will vote on the projects on Dec. 9.

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