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Travis County begins Colorado River Corridor planning effort

Monday, November 22, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court has acted to initiate a planning process for an unincorporated section of the southeastern portion of their jurisdiction. The region, which has been presented as the Colorado River Corridor, comprises a selection of land that currently plays host to — among residential properties and some pecan orchards — a variety of mining operations.


The commissioners’ action came as news broke that one of these firms, Texas Industries, is planning to turn portions of its operation into a mixed-use development. Questions about the connection between the company and the region’s development played into the court’s discussion.


The plan will lay out the future direction of the area between US 183, FM 969, and state highway 71 in three phases — at five-, 15-, and 25-year intervals. The county has hired Bosse and Pharis Associates to do the work for about $98,000.


County Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Manager Joe Gieselman told the court that growth is headed for the region. “We know there are … large developments that are on the cusp in this area,” he said. 


He pointed to FM 969 and state highway 71. “This whole corridor relies pretty much on two thoroughfares for all of its access and mobility. That’s FM 969 coming in from Bastrop and State Highway 71.”


Gieselman defined a stark situation: “Clearly we’ve got a problem … and that’s in the capacity of 71 and 969.”


According to documents provided to the court, the completed plan will address “six major issues.” These are: “compatible land uses” for the region, “transition of land use from sand and gravel mining to subsequent uses … water resource management and protection … economic development … transportation systems improvement and traffic safety, and … neighborhood protection.”


Gieselman also told the court that water infrastructure could be an issue. “You have at least five different providers of … potable water to this area,” he said. “They get their water supplies from various sources and … (their) financial ability to make capital improvements for waterline distribution varies significantly.”


He explained to In Fact Daily that, once the funds are available, water lines would be built. “Right now, anyone can provide it if someone else pays for it,” he said. “The city, typically, would look for the developer to finance the improvement. I know that they’re talking about the creation of Municipal Utility Districts — not just here but up and down the (SH) 130 corridor — as being financing mechanisms.


“I kind of describe it … like grabbing a box of ready mix off the shelf in the grocery store — it just says ‘add water’. That’s pretty much what you have here: You have a lot of potential in the corridor. Just add water and you’re going to have some things happen.” 


There were concerns about whether Bosse and Pharis might have a conflict of interest since the company also worked with Texas Industries on its redevelopment plans.


Richard McDonald, who lives in the area, said, “I’m sure that … (Texas Industries) is going to be wanting to advantage themselves as much as possible.”


The court gave Texas Industries a permit to begin operating a new mine in the area in January. During that process, they met with strong community opposition — including that of McDonald. Precinct 3 Commissioner Karen Huber and Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis both voted against the project, which ultimately passed with approval from the rest of the court.


Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt noted that Bosse’s experience would be key to the project. “The conundrum is that we don’t have the authority to enforce the plan that we’re contracting with Bosse to develop,” she said. “We have to entice the private land owners to go along with the plan, otherwise we have no chance. So, in many respects, we must find expertise that (Texas Industries) admires as well, or else we have no chance of making the plan stick.”


The court voted unanimously to initiate the public-input portion of the process. Davis abstained on the selection of the firm.


From the dais, Eckhardt told McDonald that his efforts were important. “I know that there’s frustration out there because of our lack of authority,” she said, “but your pressure and your good ideas and your input has moved the needle. It might not have resulted in what you wanted, but I’ve got to say, it’s because we didn’t have the power to give you what you wanted. But it is moving the needle in ways that are novel in the State of Texas.”


She later explained, “Neighborhood input provides us political leverage to do what we might not have the policy authority squarely in place to do. Having them here has been very, very helpful to us in moving forward with the corridor plan and getting buy-in from the private landowners.


Eckhardt then echoed her earlier comments. “We cannot make our plans stick without the cooperation of private landowners,” she said.

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