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Neighbors want to let the air out of tubing business below Longhorn Dam

Thursday, July 25, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Tubing has come to the east side of Austin, and it’s making waves at City Hall.


Since Memorial Day, East Side Tubes has been offering tube rentals and shuttles for a float from just below the Longhorn Dam to the Montopolis Bridge. Up until recently, the business, which is located at 4701 Red Bluff Road, rented kayaks and canoes without running afoul of the city or neighbors.


East Side Tube Owner Dan Walker told In Fact Daily that his business didn’t seem to present a problem for anyone until the business started facilitating tubing. He explained that he did not need to apply as a concession because his business operates from private land – not dedicated park land.


“I’ve been here two years, and they have obviously not really cared about it. So now we do tubing, and they think they can dictate what goes on and what doesn’t by what craft you are in. It’s kind of an elitist-style mentality to be able to go, ‘We want this, but not this’,” said Walker. “But everyone in the state owns this water, and it’s not illegal.”


During Tuesday night’s Parks and Recreation Board’s citizens communications,  Daniel Llanes spoke against the operation. Llanes is the chair of the River Bluff Neighborhood Association, which is located on the north side of the river.


“We’ve been having tremendous problems with a business that started out a year-and-a-half ago, renting kayaks and canoes. It was very low impact on the river and the park. But on Memorial Day, they started a tubing business similar to that which we see on the Guadalupe and in San Marcos and New Braunfels,” said Llanes.


Llanes said he had been working with neighbors in Montopolis, Govalle-Johnson Terrace, and Holly neighborhoods through the Parks Department and Code Enforcement to remedy the situation, and fight against the commercialization of that section of the river.


Currently, the city’s options are limited.


Parks Director Sara Hensley told the Parks and Recreation Board that they had “jumped right on” the issue, visiting the site and talking to Park Police and the city Law Department about the situation.


Hensley explained that the city can regulate the water as an “exercise of their police powers.” However, as Hensley pointed out, the city code is “silent on inner tubes.” Without case law or prior city legal opinions interpreting the code, city legal has advised staff to go through the process of asking City Council for a code amendment to specifically address the issue.


In the meantime, said Hensley, Code Compliance has acted on a Certificate of Occupancy issue, and is continuing to investigate the business. Additionally, the Parks and Recreation Department will continue to work with the Law Department and the Planning and Development Review Department in search of a solution.


“We’ll have to be very careful in how we word this, since we don’t want to actually say we’re not interested in inner tubing at all. It just may be that this is not the place to have inner tubing, because of the safety issues related to the Longhorn Dam, and the fact that we did find out that when the water is released there is no set schedule, and no warning,” said Hensley. “We are concerned about the safety of those who are out there tubing, and drinking and other things and not having control over that.”


Walker said that concern about the dam was a ploy and pointed out that swimming east of the dam was not illegal.


“Whenever Mansfield (Dam) lets out, I know what’s coming down here,” said Walker. “I can pretty much tell you what’s going to happen from Lake Travis up. And I have roughly 24-plus hours to take care of things at that time.”


Because of the drought, Walker said the water flow has been constant for the past three years,  rising about a foot each evening after his business has stopped operations for the day. He pointed out that a beach on park land that is submerged every night hasn’t been regulated.


“The fact that I have people down here on floating devices is probably a good thing,” said Walker.


Walker said that they aren’t making the river worse. His business spends time cleaning up trash from a section of the Colorado that has been neglected for a long time. He points to the economic benefits of the business, which has already attracted customers from Dallas and Houston. Walker estimated that he serves as many as 800 people a weekend – visitors that are contributing to Austin’s economy.


But others maintain that tubing goes against the established vision for the corridor.


“The neighborhoods, the Parks Department and LCRA have worked for many, many years to create a sanctuary and wildlife corridor there,” said Llanes. “We don’t think commercialization, or certainly a drunken frat party, is the way to go.”


Llanes asked the board for help in designating the area non-commercial. Walker seemed to find that idea somewhat absurd, given the fact that the area is zoned commercial and currently home to industrial activity during the day.


Hensley told the board that whatever the solution, it won’t be a quick fix.


“It takes a public process, it takes review, it takes public comment,” said Hensley. “In the meantime, I have contacted our friends in Park Police, who are out there on a daily basis and are looking for any misuse of public park property or public property. They are looking for any kind of issues related to the law, which are alcohol or drug abuse on city property. And they have agreed that they will be out there and have patrols and also deal with the parking if there are parking issues.”

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