The Other Sister
Through the middle of this diamond cuts Spicewood Springs Road, one of the oldest streets in Austin (first laid before the Civil War by Judge Lyman Wight and his Mormon millers), which is actually three streets uneasily sharing one name. The lower third, between MoPac and Loop 360, anchors what by now is quite close to being Central Austin, or at least the grooviest and most graceful of the suburbs. The upper third, connecting to US 183 at one of the city's worst traffic bottlenecks, verily defines what many mean by "sprawl" and "Californication" -- rooftop after rooftop, with more on the way, climbing up higher and higher slopes, commanding views of more of the same, in tracts with oxymoronic names like "Canyon Mesa." (The "Californication" thing is inflammatory in more than one sense; all those West Coast neighborhoods that get wiped out by brush fires look much like this.)
In the middle, Spicewood Springs Road runs right along Bull Creek, fording it at seven different low-water crossings but not one actual bridge, and through here one finds the Austin That Time Forgot, a terrain of horse stables and ranch homes with actual ranches attached and driveways that are washed over by the creek. It would be stretching to say that the middle Bull Creek valley has not changed since its pioneer days as "Horse Thief Hollow." But unlike other scenic roadways into the Hill Country, like RM 2222 or City Park Road or (of course) Southwest Parkway, which cut bluntly through what was formerly Terra Incognita, Spicewood Springs travels lazily, at a human scale, through what for generations -- indeed, for several thousand years -- has been a lightly settled, but nonetheless settled, place.
Among the settlers are Austin's favorite feathered friends, the Black-capped Vireo and the Golden-cheeked Warbler. As a consequence, about 40% of the Bull Creek watershed, including almost all of the west side of Spicewood Springs through the middle Bull Creek valley, is within the far-flung boundaries of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, and indeed forms one of its critical-habitat "macrosites." This will certainly help ensure that at least one side of the valley remains "unspoiled," but the BCP is hardly without its skeptics and detractors, even -- perhaps especially -- among folks who want the Bull Creek valley to be spared from the Boom.
The reasoning is twofold. For one thing, many, if not most, of Bull Creek's friends and neighbors use the valley for recreation, including the riders from the horse stables and mountain bikers who traverse the undeveloped ridges. When they realized that the "passive use" allowed by the BCP does not include such pursuits, they were mighty aggrieved, and in late June vented their grievances all over the public officials moving to close the Forest Ridge tract, a 1,000-acre chunk of confirmed vireo habitat due west of the Spicewood Springs/Loop 360 intersection.
The question of public use has, of course, long bedeviled the BCP, which citizens are continually surprised to find is not parkland with unrestricted access but a real-life wildlife preserve. Some of the BCP is actually city and county parkland, but compared to other parts of the foothills, the Bull Creek watershed has little dedicated parkland, and the vast bulk of BCP land is hands (and hooves) off.
"People's expectations and the reality of the land management plan are not one and the same," says County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, who sits on the multijurisdictional BCP coordinating committee. "Now that people who used to have access don't have -- and should never have had -- that access, it refreshes BCP as an issue up there. It makes things more complicated. I'd rather use this energy to find new places to ride, rather than butting our heads against concrete by taking on the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service. But maybe we do things differently at the county." Both city and county are exploring alternatives to Forest Ridge as bike-riding sites in the Northwest Ridge.
What's complicated, in the eyes of some of the locals, is the land-management plan itself, and the bureaucratic rationale that keeps them out of BCP lands. "Birds nest right up against the 3M building [off RM 2222], so people simply using the land doesn't affect the birds," says landowner Tom Kam, president of the Middle Bull Creek Neighborhood Association, one of several community groups representing the Bull Creek valley. "Certain kinds of use do harm the birds, but we need people in here with the intelligence to make a decision about coordinating these uses, and get rid of the people who are black-and-white only." (The latter group would be led by the current staffers at the Fish and Wildlife Service.) "And once that happens, the whole area will open up. It'll be a great area."
The Sprawl Scare
"Opening up" may not be what Bull Creek preservationists really want, but it highlights the other fear about the BCP -- that it will force the other half of the valley into the sprawl belt. Already, the ridge opposite Forest Ridge is lined with Great Hills view homes, and there's plenty of room for more. "The worst-case scenario," says Sonleitner, "is that in 20 years the only lands that are green are the ones put into the BCP."
This vision is made more pungent by the fact that the BCP coffers have not been full enough to acquire all the land the plan calls for, even from willing sellers who'd rather not deal with the birds and their regulatory protections. "The landowners perceive that the Balcones Extortion Plan is broke," says Kam, "and several have been beating the heads of Fish and Wildlife to buy them out and have been told there's no money, so some of them have already started development plans."
To that end, a delegation including not only public officials and civic leaders but landowners went to Washington to lobby the Senate as it marked up next year's federal budget, and as of last week a Senate subcommittee recommended $4 million in new money for land acquisition, earmarked as much as possible (Fish and Wildlife is "encouraged ... to consider carefully") for the BCP. "The landowners understand their situation -- the only way out is acquisition, and they're ready," Sonleitner says, "and by sending a delegation that put a face on our problem, we got a foot in the door." (It should be noted that by far the bulk of land already in the BCP was obtained without federal money.)
But if asked to choose between a checkerboard of heavy sprawl and empty green space, or a less intense but more unified and integrated development pattern for the entire valley, more than one Bull Creek neighbor will take the latter. "Landowners are sensitive both to the development issue and to the land," says Kam. "They've held it a long time, and if they develop, [the valley] will be a fun place. It won't look like Jester Estates or The Mountain at all." (Jester is just over the hill on RM 2222; The Mountain overlooks the valley from the north end.) "I think the uses will be compatible with the birds -- that the birds and people can be together -- and would blend into the rural character of the existing Spicewood Springs Road."
It's the holistic "character" of the Bull Creek valley, rather than its splendid isolated features, that its partisans want to protect. The main effort right now to preserve it is being spearheaded by the Bull Creek Foundation (BCF), which itself leans toward gestalt; its mission is "promoting a harmonious balance between nature, recreation, and sustainable economic development within the watershed. ... The Foundation pursues innovative ways to protect Bull Creek's unique and fragile resources and to encourage compatible growth."
Back in March, the Foundation held the inevitable charrettes -- actually, "community design workshops" -- to identify priorities for what it calls the Old Spicewood Springs Corridor. (Many locals call the road through the middle valley "Old Spicewood Springs," even though the street with that official name is some distance away. The Corridor also includes Old Lampasas Trail, which veers off below The Mountain to the west.) This effort -- part of the BCF's larger Watershed Plan project -- produced a recently released list of "major options," including linking and extending trails, creating an interpretive center and education sites, and reducing the speed and volume of traffic along Spicewood Springs (much of which is cut-through from US 183 to Loop 360).
How one attains this last goal is a good question, but sentiment along Bull Creek runs pretty heavily against either widening the road or building bridges over its low-water crossings. The latter do an admirable job of reducing traffic -- to zero -- during the storm season. "Flooding is part of life in the corridor, and people are afraid it'll get worse with all the impervious cover going in elsewhere in the watershed," says BCF staffer Dianne Fish. "Residents along the road say it's a real pain, but they're afraid that if they ask for a fix, then the road will lose its character and be ripe for development." So many folks -- though certainly not all -- are fairly happy with it the way it is.
The first step BCF aims to take is securing a "special designation" for the corridor. There is no such thing on either the city or county's books right now -- there is the Hill Country Roadway designation, but as RM 2222 shows, that hardly controls development -- and both the city and county would have to adopt the tool, since the corridor straddles the city limits. The city could do this with minimal difficulty, but the county has, as we all so sadly know, no real power over land use. "We think we know what they're asking for," says Sonleitner, "and we don't think it'll have any adverse impact on us, but it doesn't give us any teeth to do anything about regulation. All I can do is give [developers] free advice about planning for livability and sustainability -- though often it gets put into their plans."
But there are always those who, in Fish's words, "are leery of anyone telling them what to do with their land." An obvious way around the county's lack of land-use power would be annexation by the city, but even limited-purpose annexation (wherein the city would not provide services, and which can only happen at residents' request) would fly in the Bull Creek watershed about as far as a fledgling warbler. "Anything that deals either with changing zoning or annexation is going to be very tricky," says Fish. "We need to move very slowly to make sure residents are comfortable."
So far, time has been on the side of the Bull Creek valley, but "there are large parcels that, if developed to their full potential, would definitely change the character of the corridor," Fish says. "That's why we're trying to get the designation -- to build awareness that this place exists. It's still there, it's close in, and it hasn't gone yet."