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City, Hill Country Conservancy draft agreement for regional trail

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 by Bill McCann

City of Austin and Hill Country Conservancy staffs have negotiated a draft agreement needed to begin transforming the planned Walk for a Day regional trail from a long-held vision to the real thing.


The trail, which has received widespread praise and support, is envisioned to extend about 35 miles from the Barton Creek Greenbelt in Zilker Park to city-owned water quality protection lands in Hays County.


The agreement, which spells out the roles and responsibilities of the city and the conservancy, is crucial step to getting the project on the ground. Most of the trail would be on lands the city owns or has a conservation easement.


Representatives of several city departments and conservancy officials have been working on the agreement since early 2009 and believe they have come up with a workable document, said Willy Conrad, the Austin Water Utility’s wildland conservation division manager.


“The trail is a complex concept that involves multiple organizations, multiple land units with different missions and purposes, and careful, thoughtful planning,” Conrad said. “An important first goal in making this trail happen is a good rock-solid agreement. It has taken some time, but we think we are there now.”


The proposed agreement is making its way through several city boards and commissions and is expected to go to the City Council for approval on Nov. 5 or Nov. 19. The Water and Wastewater Commission voted its support of the agreement earlier in October. The Parks and Recreation Board is due to take up the item tonight and the Environmental Board on Nov. 4.


The idea for the trail emerged from activists a decade ago after the city began acquiring undeveloped lands with voter-approved bond money to help protect the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, said Hill Country Conservancy Executive Director George Cofer. The conservancy took the lead on the project and dubbed it, at least for now, the “Walk for a Day” trail because hikers could spend a day getting from one end to the other.


The concept has been slowly coming together, with a number of activities occurring simultaneously. Initial planning has been going on for more than a year, and the conservancy is now working on getting federal, state and city approvals, Cofer said. A public involvement effort also is under way.


In January 2009, the City Council endorsed the trail concept and directed city staff to come up with an agreement with the conservancy to plan, build and operate the trail. The Council made it clear in its resolution, however, that the city would not be responsible for operations, maintenance and security for the trail, nor would the city purchase or acquire access rights for non-city lands needed to fill in any missing links on the trail.


Among other things, the draft agreement specifies that the conservancy will acquire easements, rights-of-way or other land rights to ensure that the trail is continuous, and will establish a perpetual endowment for operating and maintaining the trail. These commitments were made by the conservancy when it initially proposed the project to the city.


The endowment has been a sticking point in discussions, according to an August memo to senior staff from Daryl Slusher, the Austin Water Utility’s assistant director of environmental affairs and conservation. During negotiations on the agreement in February, the conservancy indicated it would not be able to meet a commitment for a perpetual operations endowment, according to the memo. 


As a result, city staff proposed – and the Conservancy accepted – developing the trail in phases, with endowments tied to the phases, rather than requiring a lump-sum endowment for the entire trail, the memo states. This new approach required a complete revision of a draft agreement that was then on the table.


The trail got considerable public attention and news coverage earlier this year. But groundbreaking for the trail’s six-mile first phase – which will extend from the Zilker Park area to Highway 290 at Brodie Lane – still is several months away.


“Lots of things are coming together and there’s been a lot of hard work put into this,” Cofer said. “We are on track to break ground in the first quarter of the year and we are excited because it will be a great new trail for the community.”


The Austin Water Utility, which manages the city’s wildlands, has hired the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to conduct environmental studies of possible trails routes through city lands. The conservancy has hired a nationally respected trail planner, Greenways, based in North Carolina, to plan the trail and related facilities.  A draft of a master trail plan is due in November, Cofer said.


Meanwhile, the conservancy has assembled a long list of partners for the project, Cofer said, including the City of Austin, Austin Parks Foundation, American Youthworks E-Corps, City of Sunset Valley, Texas Department of Transportation and Hays County. The conservancy also has gotten considerable pro bono technical help from some local businesses, including Bury + Partners, PBS&J and the law firm of Drenner & Golden Stuart Wolff LLP, he said.


In addition, the conservancy has financial commitments from the federal and state governments for trail construction, including $405,000 from the federal government ($105,000 of it through the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) and $200,000 from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, he said. But that money, while considerable, is just a start of what will be needed.


Estimated completion of the 35 miles is four to seven years, depending on the availability of funding, Cofer said. Trail construction is projected to cost $5 million to $8 million and trailheads with parking and restrooms could cost another $2 million to $5 million, he said.


Annual maintenance for the entire trail is projected by the conservancy to be $200,000 to $300,000, he said. (The city’s estimate is $600,000 annually.) The conservancy will be counting on volunteers for considerable help on the project, he added.


The conservancy plans to begin talking to key potential donors over the next few months, once a project vision document is completed, Cofer said. A public fundraising campaign should start in the spring, he said.

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