Naked City

Gracywoods Saves the Trees

Neighborhood victories are so rare these days that when they do happen, the residents get so tickled with disbelief they take to drink – the bubbly variety, of course. Tom Coburn, a leader of a North Austin group organized to save more than a hundred trees from getting axed or sheared by the Lower Colorado River Authority, had told his fellow neighbors to meet in Gracywoods Park last Thursday evening – but he didn't know at the time if they'd be gathering to celebrate or to cry.

Coburn found out soon enough when he attended a meeting that day in the office of state Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, and learned that the LCRA was ready to strike a deal that would spare, at least for the time being, the majority of the trees that the agency had wanted to cut and trim to leave clearance for their overhead transmission lines. "So after the meeting I asked my wife to go out and get some champagne," Coburn said. "We had something to celebrate."

After growing frustrated with the LCRA's insistence on slicing and dicing the trees in the neighborhood park, Coburn and fellow residents turned to Baxter, their man at the Capitol. It took two meetings between neighborhood reps, Baxter, LCRA officials, a Public Utility Commission representative, and a staffer for state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, before everyone came to an understanding, Coburn said. "The LCRA has enough power and money and guts; they could have fought us and probably whipped us, but they did the right thing instead."

As part of the agreement, LCRA will spend the next 90 days trimming the trees – "and I want to emphasize the word 'trim,'" said LCRA spokesman Bill McCann – and will then work with residents and city officials to develop a master plan that balances protecting the natural landscape and the public's safety where transmission lines are concerned. If some trees do need to be removed, LCRA will create a plan for planting slow-growing or shorter vegetation that's more compatible with the power lines. The agency will also re-evaluate its transmission line maintenance practices in park areas, McCann said. He added that most of the authority's 2,300 miles of power-line right-of-way lies in rural areas in Central Texas, "but as rural areas urbanize we're going to have to deal with this kind of issue more and more."

The tree experience gave Coburn and other residents renewed faith in the power of organizing. Before now, the neighbors had been deflated after losing a couple of development battles, he said. "This has helped us realize that we need to work on becoming more of a political force, so if another battle comes along we'll be able to ring that bell again."

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Gracywoods, Tom Coburn, Lower Colorado River Authority, Todd Baxter, Gonzalo Barrientos, LCRA, Bill McCann

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