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County rescinds its support for study of BCP trail system

Wednesday, January 9, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Travis County Commissioners took the rather odd step of rescinding their support for the study of a trail system through the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve at yesterday’s meeting, leaving County Judge Sam Biscoe to say he was “stunned but abstaining.”


On the surface, it appears that Commissioner Ron Davis won enough support to vote down a recent decision of the BCP Coordinating Committee to review the possibility of a trail system. That committee consists of Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Mayor Will Wynn – the two parties to the permit – along with the US Fish and Wildlife Service serving as an ex-officio member of the panel.


The coordinating committee had agreed to move forward with a year-long study to determine whether additional access – specifically, a trail system – would be a viable addition to the federal10-A permit, which allows development to continue in western Travis County, as long as the city and county set aside sufficient mitigation lands.


It was clear Tuesday that there was some confusion over just what this decision meant. Commissioners agreed there were two interpretations of the resolution passed by the coordinating committee, based on the “may” or “shall” of the provision. Either the study of the BCP lands, tract by tract, by city and county staff might lead to additional access or should lead to additional expected access to the lands.


Even Biscoe agreed that turning over the actual decision of the trail system – which would not involve a vote of county commissioners unless a permit amendment was required – was a bit more than he would like.


“The people over at the city are very intelligent people,” Biscoe said. “Sometimes I defer to their judgment… But often I do not.”


Ted Siff, who sits on the citizens’ advisory committee, noted that the study was intended to review all tracts but that three tracts were given priority for access: Canyon Vista; Turkey Creek Trail in Emma Long Park; and Forest Ridge.


Bill Warren of the volunteer board of the Wild Basin Preserve was on hand to protest any additional access to Wild Basin. Siff said Wild Basin – which does have some limited guided access – was not on the radar screen for additional access. Hamilton Pool and Wild Basin, both owned by the county, do offer some public access.


Daugherty told his fellow commissioners that it was the committee’s decision that residents were entitled to additional access to preserve lands but only if it did not require a major amendment to the 10A permit. US Fish and Wildlife has given the county little guidance on just how far the county would have to go to trigger such an amendment. An amendment would require a significant review of the current permit.


Daugherty told his colleagues he was aware of the political reality: Some commissioners might want to take a vote on whether or not to allow additional access to the preserves. What makes the vote odd – and what left Biscoe a bit flummoxed – was the fact that it is unclear what the vote might mean when it came to the coordinating committee’s action.


Assistant County Attorney John Hille said the coordinating committee had every right to take the vote that it took. The only thing the county could decide would be to deny the committee the use of county funds or county staff. County staff had suggested that it would require a $50,000 contribution to complete the study.


Yesterday’s conversation did take a number of twists and turns. First, the commissioners discussed an expanded reconfiguration of the coordinating committee – possibly adding non-elected members such as the Nature Conservancy or Lower Colorado River Authority – which eventually appeared to be discarded because the additional members appeared to have no direct stake, or financial participation, in the preserves.


Two motions ultimately were offered to address the coordinating committee’s resolution. One, proposed by Davis, opposed any additional access to the preserve. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt offered a substitute motion that would have delayed the study until the county completed its acquisition of land. That land – between 2,500 and 2,800 acres – could cost the county upwards of $50 to $100 million to secure. 


Eckhardt’s motion failed with only Gomez joining Eckhardt in favor, Daugherty and Davis voting against and Biscoe abstaining. Davis’ motion passed with Eckhardt, Gomez and Davis voting for it, Daugherty voting against it and Biscoe, once more, abstaining.


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