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BCP balances public access with isolation in preserve

Tuesday, November 21, 2006 by

Members of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Coordinating Committee caught heat from both ends on Monday over the issue of public access to the land set aside as habitat for endangered species. Mayor Will Wynn, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Bob Pine of the US Fish and Wildlife Service serve on the committee. The city’s BCP manager, Willy Conrad, serves as the board secretary.

The head of the group’s Citizen Advisory Committee urged the coordinating committee to remember that the land had been paid for with public funds with an expectation of some public access, while a respected member of the Scientific Advisory Committee asked the committee to remember that the point of the preserve is the keep the land undisturbed.

The Citizen Advisory Committee last week passed a resolution urging the staff to press forward with efforts to develop guidelines for public access on two tracts within the BCP, the city-owned Emma Long tract and the county-owned Canyon Vista tract. “Hundreds of citizens have testified to us in two public hearings and through our email that in these two particular cases, there’s a strong desire for public access,” said Citizens Advisory Committee Chair Ted Siff. “So we are simply voicing that for them to you.”

The staff of the BCP is working on a formalized system for allowing access to the preserve land on a limited basis for citizens or groups that have received the appropriate training in minimizing their impact. “We’re actually finalizing right now how those applications would be reviewed,” said Conrad. “We’ve also put together an example of an acceptable public access application. Our concern about the resolution is that we feel like we’ve revised this access application process to accommodate these public comments, but now we’re being asked to work outside of that process on two different sites.”

Siff countered that the intent of the Citizens Advisory Committee was not to make an end-run around that application process, but simply to speed it up. “The process is not published, is not finalized, has not been approved,” he said. “We’re ten years in to the BCP. At the current expectation through next June there still will not be any formal application. It’s in draft.” With a growing number of groups and western Travis County residents willing to go through the training process for permission to access the land, Siff said, the time had arrived to begin allowing that access.

“It’s not to go around them,” he said of the staff’s application criteria, “it’s to go happily go through them, but not wait another six to eight months minimum before they’re available to fill out.”

Following Siff’s presentation, two other citizens with a long history with the BCP offered their insights on public access. Skip Cameron of Save Bull Creek told officials that thousands of people had participated in putting a plan together that would have allowed public access to the lands, but that a few scientists had taken public access out of the plan.

But David Steed, who stressed that he was speaking in his capacity as a private citizen and not as chair of the BCP Scientific Advisory Committee, strongly disagreed. "I wanted to remind you and I have a copy of a document that was prepared by the Scientific Advisory Committee,” he said, “that documents the policies governing land use and activities on the BCP preserves. There seem to be a lot of people that just don’t accept the creating documents that set forth the purpose of the preserves. These lands are to mitigate the taking of habitat or of taking of the birds. We have already pared down the (acreage) in a political process, mainly by reducing the recommended size. So we’re dealing with something that is far more precious than it would have been if we had preserved the acreage that was recommended,” he said, “by a much larger scientific advisory group during the formative stages of the BCP.”

African-American commission pushes toward goals

The African American Resource Advisory Commission – created by Council at the urging of then-Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas– met in a retreat last night to outline a strategy intended to keep city staff on course toward goals to improve the quality of life for African-Americans in the city.

Council Member Sheryl Cole opened the meeting, noting gains in budget funding for sickle cell support and the Urban League, as well as more general expenditures in the recent bond issue to support issues such as street improvements and creek erosion. Projects such as the Waller Creek tunnel, Cole said, may not be in East Austin, per se, but provides benefits that enhance connectivity and activity in East Austin. She told In Fact Daily that the creek’s proximity to East Austin would help economic development on the east side of I-35.

Cole also expressed support for a city-backed solution to the Oak Springs shopping center. The shopping center was planned on land that turned out to contain the headwaters of a natural spring in East Austin. The solution, supported by city staff, is either to buy the land for the city or restrict construction of the shopping center to land away from the spring, she said. Both Cole and Council Member Mike Martinez have expressed a strong interest in purchase of the property.

During last night’s session, facilitated by Darrell Pierce, AARAC reviewed the history that led up to the Quality of Life report and then outlined some strategies for providing proper oversight for implementation of the 55 initiatives in the QOL report. The discussion was more of the process of oversight – and the resources necessary to provide that oversight – than it was a rehashing of particular issues.

Divided into two work groups to develop short-term goals, one group said the report should be prepared in a user-friendly format and a report card used to grade the city’s progress toward the goals set out under the quality of life report. The group talked about using community resources – such as Nokoa News and KAZI Radio– to publicize progress and possibly put together a survey to be distributed to the community.

The other team also spoke to the need for a review of progress on various initiatives and suggested that special attention be paid to the affordable housing and gentrification issues. The group suggested that AARAC make a special effort to identify and join citywide groups on the affordable housing issue to reflect its point of view.

Both groups wanted to make sure that community input continues to play role in the ongoing implementation of the study. Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald, who was at last night’s meeting, will serve as liaison to city departments, making sure that dialogue continues and resources are provided for various initiatives.

As the city approaches the first anniversary of the QOL, AARAC plans a citizen dialogue session on the city’s goals. That meeting is planned for Feb. 7.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Oops! . . In Fact Daily erred in its original publication Monday concerning changes to definitions of drought within the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. General Manager Kirk Holland sent us an email stating, "As has been publicized many, many times, a Critical Stage Drought may be declared by the Board when Barton Springs flow drops to 20 cfs or below. The proposed Rules were referring to an Emergency Response Period, deep within a Critical Stage Drought, that would be triggered by Board Declaration if Barton Springs flow fell to 14 cfs or below." We regret the error . . . New hire for Cole . . . James Anderson has joined the staff of Council Member Sheryl Cole. Anderson, an intern, is studying public affairs at Texas State University and is doing research in Cole's office . . . Holiday closings . . . It's already quiet at City Hall but ranks will thin even more by Wednesday. Most City of Austin employees will have a holiday Thursday and Friday and all city offices will be closed. Austin Public Library facilities will close at 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. The Austin Nature and Science Center and city museums will be closed Thursday and Friday. Those facilities will operate as usual during the weekend. All recreation and senior activity centers will be closed Thursday. Several recreation centers will be operating on reduced hours, Friday. Call locations for specific hours of operation.

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