Rock Creek Rolls Forward

Cypress' Rock Creek project moves along after Fish & Wildlife approves its permit.

Cypress Realty's proposed Rock Creek residential community is part of the former Rutherford Ranch -- and lies atop the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
Cypress Realty's proposed Rock Creek residential community is part of the former Rutherford Ranch -- and lies atop the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

A closely watched development project planned on a 2,700-acre Hill Country spread southwest of Austin has gotten environmental clearance from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). The proposed Rock Creek residential community -- a part of the old Rutherford Ranch that lies on top of the Edwards Aquifer's recharge zone -- got the green light last week, although FWS laid out a series of conditions that require the developer -- Austin-based Cypress Realty -- to alter parts of the design plan, such as whittling the impervious cover a couple of percentage points to 15.9%.

Approval from FWS comes as no surprise; rather, it serves as the starting point for the actual nitty-gritty development process, said Rob Baxter, president of the Friendship Alliance coalition of neighborhood associations. "It wasn't unexpected at all because they've been working with Fish on this for quite a while," he said. "But we're going to be watching it like a hawk. Clearly, they're seeking our input. We're at the table, although how much our input will matter remains to be seen."

On a broader scale, the agency's concurrence in the project further illustrates the need for a regional growth plan in Hays County, where local officials, mindful of the need for a healthy tax base, have historically favored development interests over environmental concerns. FWS recognizes the county's growing pains; that's why the agency is prohibiting Cypress from drawing ground water from the increasingly challenged Edwards Aquifer. But that leaves open the question of where Rock Creek will get its water. Developer Stephen Clark said he will likely ask the Lower Colorado River Authority for permission to tap into its new water pipeline built to serve the city of Dripping Springs. The pipeline is a sore point for environmentalists and other residents who argue that the availability of surface water would make it all too easy for developers to continue their march across the sensitive Hill Country terrain.

Another option, Clark said, would be to look southward for surface water from the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, or groundwater from the Trinity Aquifer, an idea that would probably run up against opposition from folks who depend on that water source.

In delivering its approval of the project, FWS officials praised Cypress' participation in the negotiation process. "We were genuinely pleased with their cooperative approach and think the project will set a new standard for development in a community which is sensitive to the environment," regional supervisor David Frederick said in a statement. Cypress' willingness to include extensive buffers, setbacks, and water-quality features apparently met the agency's requirements for protecting the Barton Creek salamander and other endangered species. "The Central Texas community should be proud of this effort," said Frederick, "and we hope other landowners will strive to achieve similar levels of environmental protection."

Despite strong opposition from neighboring forces for more than a year, Clark says his experience with the project is not much different than other cities where he's laid sticks in the ground. "The process is the same everywhere," he said. "But here, I'd say it's more grueling than Houston and probably less grueling than South Florida."

Cypress still is about two years away from turning dirt on what Clark expects will be a 10-year project. Meanwhile, the Dripping Springs City Council still must review a legal analysis of the controversial development agreement that it inked with Cypress last year. The council, under pressure from neighborhood leaders who questioned the legal validity of the agreement, retained Austin attorney David B. Brooks to render an opinion of the document. Brooks, a former state assistant attorney general, said he has completed his review and submitted his findings last week. He would not comment on his report. No word yet on when the city will address the issue.

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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Cypress Realty, Rock Creek, Rob Baxter, Friendship Alliance, Stephen Clark, David Frederick, Barton Creek Salamander

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