Your handy guide to the march of 'progress' in Austin's new western suburbs
Enjoy the wide-open spaces west of Austin while you can before the creeks turn muddy, the swimming holes run dry, and the tree-covered hills give way to subdivided lots and shopping malls. Thousands of green acres from Bee Cave to the Pedernales River are primed to become the next generation of concrete-and-asphalt sprawl over miles of environmentally sensitive terrain. Right now, a few developments are already in progress, and a hefty grab bag of proposed major residential and retail projects is in the wannabe queue and those are just the ones we know about. Indeed, the wheels of cement trucks generally move faster in this New Western Frontier, outside the restrictive confines of the city limits, where developments proposed in delicate watershed areas typically undergo a rigorous public process.
"It's a free-for-all out there," said Phillip Poplin, an attorney who, with law partner Stuart Henry, is representing the "Guardians of Lick Creek," a group of Hill Country residents in a fight with a developer who built a dam across Lick Creek, turning the once clear-as-glass waterway into a mud-colored mess. "It's amazing the speed with which someone sells his land to a developer and construction begins," Poplin said.
In one case, however, this go-go mentality came to an abrupt halt last week. In a surprise move, the Lower Colorado River Authority the water-management agency partly responsible for driving reckless growth in the Barton Springs watershed put the brakes on the asphalt frenzy, at least until December. Bowing to public pressure, the board decided on a six-month delay before voting on pending surface-water pipeline projects, to allow a regional planning effort enough time to craft a set of water quality protection measures for the area. Pipeline opponents, pleasantly numbed by the shock of LCRA's reversal, praised the LCRA for recognizing that rapid growth in western Travis Co. really was speeding toward a train wreck. "No one was predicting this," environmentalist Mike Blizzard said after last Wednesday's vote.
At the same time, LCRA General Manager Joe Beal made it clear that as he sees it, those pipelines will eventually go through, come hell or high water or no water at all, a prospect that seems increasingly more likely.
"The board just wasn't prepared for this controversy," said Linda Lowenthal, who lives in the Hamilton Pool Road area, where a coalition of residents had advocated for a delay. Lowenthal and her neighbors learned just over a month ago that two major projects were planned along rural Hamilton Pool Road: a 1,300-home residential development on neighboring property and a $5 million LCRA water pipeline to the project. "Two months ago, people were saying, 'Why bother fighting this? It's a done deal,'" Lowenthal said, a few hours after LCRA announced its postponement. "Today, it was clear that the board did listen to us, and they did get the message people really care about the heritage of this land."
In a letter to the LCRA board, Council Member Daryl Slusher, a co-founder of the regional planning effort in the Barton Springs Zone, cited specific examples of ongoing developments in western Travis and northern Hays counties where no oversight or enforcement measures are in place despite the developers' commitments to adhere to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service environmental standards. In one case, he said, buffer zones along streams were nonexistent; in another, wet ponds were proposed in a critical water quality zone, even though USFWS forbids them. "I feel strongly that the stakes are too enormous and the breadth of community concern too great to move ahead now," he wrote.
By appearances at least, the LCRA appears to have gotten some religion out of this ordeal, which shined a light on the agency's secret negotiations with developers and its all-too-eager willingness to extend surface water services westward despite the lack of enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure that developers properly establish water quality control measures. Many regional leaders would prefer to see as much time and money spent on conservation efforts and the promotion of rain harvesting as on the proposed pipelines. The LCRA is not willing to go that far. But the agency has retooled its water quality mission, and, as approved in a board resolution last week, will now require developers in the Barton Springs watershed to follow Fish & Wildlife water quality protection measures in exchange for LCRA water services. The same restrictions would not apply to developers in the Lake Austin or Lake Travis watersheds, however. Just how those more stringent commitments would be enforced, once water is flowing, remains an open question. But for the moment, it's as if the LCRA is asking for a second chance to do things right, after years of letting revenue drive its stated mission to protect water quality.
While the LCRA hangs fire at least until December the developers and the Authority are literally all over the map with big plans for western Travis Co.
Let's take a long, wistful look read the map and weep:
Shops at the Galleria (or "The Lawsuit at Little Barton Creek")
An engineer for the Village of Bee Cave found 99 things wrong with this big-box development, so village officials gave him the boot. That's how badly the powers of Bee Cave want this 88-acre retail project with the tony suburban name, which would spread out literally in the back yard of the Backyard, home of live music, cold beer, mighty oaks, and a Hill Country backdrop. Under the Shops' scenario, the Backyard would be encircled by a $72 million sea of asphalt, anchored by a Lowe's on the banks of Little Barton Creek. So, despite the engineer's findings of 99 faults with the development's proposed pollution control measures or lack thereof and despite a lawsuit, a court injunction, a pending trial, another lawsuit (since settled), and an assortment of conflict-of-interest questions between the developer and former and present elected officials, Shops developer Chris Milam can always count on a friendly face at city hall, where he received approval of his site plan this week. Opponents of the project had hoped to topple the Shops-friendly board of aldermen in the May 15 election, but the mayor and her alderman husband proved as resilient as the project itself. The proposed development still faces a legal challenge to its environmental soundness, however, brought by the Save Our Springs Alliance, and that case is set for trial June 28.
Hill Country Galleria (or "Milam's Monomania")
This is the Shops' evil first-born twin, long proposed across the highway on a site that village officials fear will go the way of a Wal-Mart, as the crotchety landowner keeps threatening to do if Milam's Galleria plan doesn't pan out. The Bee Cave governing board is doing everything in its power to make the Galleria happen hoping to raise a set of concrete-box dominoes setting the whole development scenario in motion. They first tried dangling a $30 million carrot as an incentive for Milam to attract high-end anchor department stores to what was originally planned as a gargantuan, upscale destination mall. But the proposal appeared dead in the water after the likes of Neiman Marcus, Saks, and successors on down the department store food chain, rejected Milam's invitations to do business in Bee Cave. The developer reconfigured the proposal and returned to the scene a year later with a scaled-down version of the plan, although some folks swear he has just shuffled things around on the drawing board to make the project look smaller. Anyway, the $250 million proposal now looks like money in the bank and asphalt on the aquifer thanks to the deep pockets of Milam's new financial partner, Cousins Properties Inc., the Atlanta-based real estate investment trust whose Frost Bank Tower recently transformed downtown Austin's skyline.
Hamilton Pool Road (or "The Consumer Colonia at Galleria Hills")
One of the reasons the Hill Country Galleria threatened to flop two years ago is the same reason it threatens to succeed today: rooftops, rooftops, rooftops. Retailers won't go anywhere without them. Now, there are thousands of new homes on the horizon among them a 1,300-household development planned on three separate tracts (the Hudson & Formby tracts) along Hamilton Pool Road. This narrow, meandering farm-to-market roadway wasn't built for tens of thousands of daily car trips, but transportation experts say that's what can be expected from a development of this size. Neighboring landowners only learned of the proposal last month, even though the developers have spent the last year in quiet negotiations with the LCRA, which was gung ho on extending a new, 16-inch pipeline to 1,300 potential new customers. In the end, the LCRA bowed to the wishes of area landowners and regional officials and postponed a decision on the pipeline until December, thus allowing a regional water quality planning effort to run its course. The big question remains: Just how serious the Authority and the developers are about adhering to a regional plan that might constrict their determination to spur growth? Incidentally, according to environmental engineer Lauren Ross, a 16-inch pipeline has the capacity to serve as many as 26,000 households.
Lazy 9 Ranch (or "The LCRA's Little Secret")
The cat's out of the bag on this project, too, thanks to the sleuthing work of western Travis Co. resident Christy Muse. "The rumors were just flying about a big development out here, and the guy down at the barbecue place kept saying 'It's coming, it's coming,'" she said, "but nobody was really looking into what was coming." Muse's investigation turned up something akin to the Hamilton Pool Road situation. This time, while Muse and her neighbors were kept in the dark, LCRA officials were secretly negotiating to extend surface water services, through a proposed new pipeline, deeper into the Hill Country for a portion of a 2,300-residence development called the Lazy 9 Ranch. The LCRA board had scheduled a vote on this action next month but delayed action for six months on this matter, too, to bring Muse and other residents into the stakeholder process. Lazy 9 is the brainchild of Austin real estate businessman Bill Gunn and Wilshire Homes president Ed Horne. Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and Rep. Terry Keel engineered the legislation (HB 3565) that created the development's municipal utility district, but Barrientos, in a letter to the LCRA board, argued for the delay of a pipeline vote to allow for more public input and regional planning forethought. "To fail to recognize that the provision of water by the LCRA is the primary engine of residential development in this area," Barrientos wrote, "is to ignore reality."
Las Ventanas (or "Welcome to the Rancho California")
Fanning out toward Lake Travis, weary travelers discover grandiose development plans for the mucho disposable-income crowd. A California investor, operating as Las Ventanas Land Partners LP, has placed 1,512 acres under contract with an eye toward a residential/retail/recreational project that would include 2,000 pricey homes, a yacht club, a swimming park with waterfalls, special housing for the oldsters, and neighborhood-style retail. The property is one of the few remaining undeveloped parcels in the Lakeway area, which still clings to its bedroom community identity despite the continuing spread of pavement.
Hogge Canyon Springs (or "Pigs Waiting at the Trough Inc.")
This proposed residential project is still in the early planning stages, and, according to a 2002 letter the landowner Hogge Canyon Springs Ltd. wrote to the county's Transportation and Natural Resources division, development will not begin until 2007. The size and scope of the project will depend on whether developers are able to secure surface water from the LCRA through a proposed new pipeline. With surface water, the developers would carve 2,500 lots out of 1,170 acres at the doorstep of the Pedernales River. Without water service, a backup plan would produce a project about one-ninth the size: 280 homes on 1.5- to 3-acre lots. In other words, eventual residential density is directly proportional to the ready availability of surface water a calculation that confirms LCRA's potentially enormous influence on Hill Country growth.
West Cypress Hills (or "The Big Mud Slide at Lick-No-More Creek")
This is a disaster that's no longer waiting to happen it already has. Developer Russell Parker is in defensive mode after discharge from a dam that he built to accompany a storm water detention pond turned the clear waters of Lick Creek into a dark, murky mess farther downstream, en route to the Pedernales River. "The pristine water is gone," environmental lawyer Phillip Poplin said. The contrast "is incredibly stark when you go from Lick Creek to the other creeks in the area." Poplin, one of the attorneys representing residents who traced the creek's demise directly to the development, described the dam as a massive engineering affront to nature, looming about 25 feet tall. "Good God, it's like putting a dam in a lake," he said. "They're the ones who started this mess, and they're the ones who need to clean it up." The development will include 435 lots squeezed onto 250 acres a risky prospect given the rugged terrain; environmentalists monitoring the increasing number of construction projects in this fragile area view this particular case as a poster child for an often repeated argument: "Water quality control" measures have very high failure rates. Additionally, they point to a lack of enforcement from the LCRA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the county, which, even though it approves the plats for these developments, has few environmental regulations on the books even to pretend to enforce.