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PARD Board postpones decision on banning tubes on Colorado River

Thursday, August 29, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Bucking the Parks and Recreation Department’s recommendation to regulate tubes on the eastern leg of the Colorado River, the Parks and Recreation Board voted Tuesday to give the outright banning of inner tubes on the eastern Colorado River more thought.


The board will take another look at the issue next month, when they hope to have more data on the safety and wildlife of the area, which has fallen under scrutiny since the opening of East Side Tubes over Memorial Day weekend.


A push to shut down the business resulted in a proposed ordinance from staff which would explicitly ban inner tubes on the section of the Colorado that is between the Longhorn Dam and the Montopolis Bridge. Though East Side Tubes has been shut down recently over code compliance issues, a code amendment would address the controversy in a more permanent way.


The amendments proved fairly unpopular with the board.


“I have big problem with banning inner tubes on the Colorado at this point. It’s part of Texas law that the public has access to our waterways,” said Board Member Jeff Francell.


Though board members did not endorse most of staff’s proposal, they did recommend that the director of Parks and Recreation study the feasibility and appropriateness of a tubing concession at that location. The motion passed 4-2, with Board Member Susana Almanza and Chair Jane Rivera voting in opposition. Board Member Dale Glover was absent.


(It might be worth noting that, if approved, a concession requirement could put an end to tubing on the river as well. Concessions are not guaranteed and businesses must be determined appropriate by the city in ordered to be granted a concession license.)


As proposed, the ordinance would add a definition for “floatation devices” to the code, a prohibition of their use along the Colorado River, from the Longhorn Dam to the Montopolis Bridge. It would also create an offense for the use of floatation devices in the regulated area.


The proposed penalty would be up to $2,000 for each day of the violation. The ordinance would also require people to obtain concessions to rent “appropriate boats.”


Almanza indicated support for the entire ordinance as proposed by staff, calling that section of the river sacred. She said she was voicing a concern for nature as well as the neighborhood.


Osgood agreed, saying it was a beautiful stretch of river that the community had worked to preserve. That said, she advocated a process more appropriate than a staff-initiated code amendment that did seem to target a specific business. Osgood said that if there were safety concerns, they should be addressed in a larger public planning process.


Though staff maintained their primary concern was public safety, and not the targeting of a single business, at times the meeting grew heated.


Board Member Hill Abel questioned why, if the primary driver was safety concerns, swimming along that section wasn’t being addressed. He called the safety concern “unfounded.”


“What we’re really trying to do is address the social impact of a situation with a blunt instrument,” said Abel. “I think it’s the wrong way to go.”


“To your concerns about swimming, that is something we could add to the code, because ultimately, our main concern is public safety,” said Cora Wright, who noted there had been safety incidents in the past, with fishermen being swept from the banks.


“Will we also be banning people from standing on the banks of the Colorado?” asked Abel.


Wright said she believed there were safety incidents concerning floats in the area, though she also said she wasn’t aware of any of those incidents in the area. She explained that the department wasn’t willing to stand by while the public’s safety was at stake.


Public safety concerns are mostly centered on the Longhorn Dam, which can subject the river to unpredictable water levels. Staff notes that though the river is currently low because of a drought, this may not always be the case.


“Is this really just a way to shut down a business?” asked Abel.


Wright said that the amendment shouldn’t have “that impact,” noting a longer tubing route past the Montopolis Bridge wouldn’t be affected. Later, a supporter of the business pointed out that longer route was only open to kayakers.


Dan Walker, who owns East Side Tubes, told the board that his business had an excellent track record and no safety incidents. Though the business only started renting tubes this past Memorial Day, they have offered kayak rentals for about eight years.


He pointed out that the city had sanctioned swimming on its own land for years, and questioned why having a floatation device in the water would be less safe than swimming.


“This is a political agenda that I am having a problem with,” said Walker. “I don’t see facts.”


Assistant PARD Director Jesse Vargas pointed out that the city does not “formally condone swimming in the area,” despite the fact that there are a number of people who swim from the beach at the park.


Chris Brown, who lives on Red Bluff Road, told the board that some regulation of the river was reasonable. He pointed to the efforts by the community to restore the area to a natural wildlife habitat and questioned the role of tubing in the overall vision of the city and neighborhood.


“I think there’s another issue here. There’s people who live there, that are part of the community that have voiced their concern about what’s happening there and have worked hard to preserve that area. And there are people that just wanted to come into that area and party and then leave,” said Almanza, who said that neighborhood concerns are not as respected when they occur in East Austin.

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