Pondering Planning in Southwest Travis County
Citizens try to balance development and conservation in sensitive Hill Country land
You would never confuse Southwest Travis County with Austin at least not yet. The smell on the air is not exhaust fumes but cut grass. Broad expanses of fenced fields are yet unmarred by billboards or prefabricated fast-food joints. At night, you can even pick the Big Dipper out in the sky. They call it the Hill Country. It's easy to identify but it is hard to protect, as a county-appointed panel is finding out. The Southwest Travis County Growth Dialog, organized by County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, has been meeting for eight months, bringing together residents with business people and conservationists with developers.
Everyone on the 16-member panel knows what he or she wants to preserve, but they have yet to negotiate a strategy for that preservation. Reaching a final solution will require a balance of development and environmental protection.
For example, panelist Amy Wanamaker, who works for the Trust for Public Land, supports creating conservation easements, possibly funded by the county. It could be something like the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, although without the wide preserve and instead with open land scattered across Southwest Travis Co. "From the conservation side, conservation easements could be a way to protect the landowner's interest and to allow the landowner to live on the land," Wanamaker said. "It would give the rancher the ability to stay on their own land and not worry about the future."
Fellow panelist Robert Kleeman, who practices real estate law, does not agree, seeing conservation easements as a short-term solution without long-term stability. Kleeman says the answer, whatever it is, should create a stable regulatory environment. "This is not just the decision of one person," Kleeman said. "Other generations and other interests are involved. I think if a rancher decides to sell out the land by granting a conservation easement, he's going to regret that in 20 or 30 years."
Last week, the group held the first of two public hearings at Bee Caves Elementary School. The panel talked about the common vision it held for preserving the rural character of the county. Residents talked about traffic snarls and water woes. It was the usual fare for such meetings. But Southwest Travis Co. also is apparently home to more than its fair share of hydrogeologists, civil engineers, and land planners, who help pull the issue into sharper focus. Private land use planner Jesus Moulinet warned the panel that Travis Co. had yet to face the land and water challenges he had seen in Washington state.
"You discussed your vision of a charming place with Hill Country flavor, low density, high density, clustering around town centers," Moulinet said. "But you want to be very, very careful when you are defining those terms and making those clear. Everyone, including property owners and the entire community, needs to understand clearly what you mean or we're going to run into problems when we begin to implement that policy."
County Environmental Officer John Kuhl is certain that whatever plan the group adopts will be unlike any regulations currently on the county's books. Cities have broad latitude in development regulations under state law; counties have practically none. Travis County, however, could use Senate Bill 873. The bill, passed two sessions ago, gave urban counties the tantalizing possibility of a firmer hand on development regulations.
The use of SB 873, however, is untilled ground for Travis Co. Kuhl describes the language as "confusing." For instance, SB 873 doesn't give the county the ability to regulate density, Kuhl said, but it "does give an impression" that the county can take some measures to protect water quality and setbacks from creeks. The concrete strategy for development controls has yet to be developed. Kuhl says it could be a series of incentives to encourage conservation. The panel's final recommendation, when (and if) it is reached, will be taken back to the full Commissioners Court for consideration.