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Leander ISD continues push to build road through Balcones Preserve

Thursday, September 19, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Leander Independent School District continued its quest to build a road through the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve on Wednesday morning, but those plans remain on hold. In the meantime, the preserve’s Coordinating Committee is taking time to consider the potentially serious consequences that construction might have.


Proponents of the road argue that the single road from Vandergrift High School and Four Points Middle School to FM 2222 is insufficient and poses a safety concern. They are asking permission to build a second road through the preserve that surrounds the campuses.


The BCP Coordinating Committee, whose voting members are Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, considered the project at their Wednesday meeting, which drew a significant crowd. The third member of the committee is BCCP Coordinating Committee Secretary William Conrad, who serves as manager of the city’s Wildlands Division.


“This decision would have been over and done with a long time ago if it were not for the fact that this is a school. We have to be sensitive to that, and we have to be sensitive to safety problems,” said Leffingwell. “I want to provide a solution that does not harm the BCP and meets the needs of the Leander Independent School District.”


Leffingwell moved to postpone the item until the committee’s November meeting, saying he needed much more information, including an exploration of any viable alternatives to the plan, before he would be ready to vote on the road.


In addition to the direct environmental impact, a move to build a road through the preserve could also put the preserve’s permit in jeopardy. The original corridor already had infrastructure in place when the preserve was established, and was not considered a “taking.”


But the construction of a road could be considered a taking, and spark a review of the entire federal permit. That review has the potential to endanger the terms of the current agreement that allows for some development without a lengthy federal process.


“That is a big deal,” said Leffingwell. “The preserve itself is a compromise. It was a compromise in that it set aside a certain number of acres in Western Travis County – as opposed to the entirety of Western Travis County. If we lost the permit, and we lost the preserve system, then this process would apply to roughly everything to the west of MoPac in Travis County.”


“The preserve itself set aside a certain amount of land that wouldn’t have to go through this entire process just to build a house or whatever you wanted to build. To me, that’s a pretty serious thing, if we were to lose the preserve and place the entire western part of Travis County under the purview of U.S. Fish and Wildlife,” said Leffingwell.


“I think that something has to be done to address this problem. I agree the school shouldn’t have been put there in the first place,” said Leffingwell. “But the fact is that it is there now. And we simply can’t ignore the safety questions.”


Daugherty, who is the only other voting member of the committee, agreed to the postponement, but said he already had enough information.


“I will be making a motion to have this road built, if that’s what it takes,” said Daugherty. “If the only way to do this for y’all is to build it through the habitat, I am going to be there with this community because I think it is the thing we’ve got to do.”


“I’m on y’all’s side with this deal…It is the right thing to do. We have got to find a way to do it so the service understands that we will take every measure possible to make sure that this thing is done right,” said Daugherty.


Jean Wong, who is a member of the Four Points Traffic Committee which is spearheading the proposal, spoke in favor of the road and against the process they had been through so far.


“There is no endangered students act… We need to remember that our kids are species too. They are human species, endangered and worth protecting,” said Wong. “Will you stand for the safety and protection of our children, or will you stand against our children and in favor of the species that already have plenty of advocates, laws and governing bodies protecting them?”


Save Our Springs Executive Director Bill Bunch showed up to speak against the project and support Conrad’s interpretation of the plan. He explained that, as a representative from the environmental community, he had been involved with the BCCP since the very beginning.


“The (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service never would have approved that permit with a road through the Bull Creek Preserve. It was always really clearly understood that that was a corridor for power lines and, possibly, an underground water line,” said Bunch, who explained that those things would have “absolutely minimal” impacts when compared to a road.


Representatives from the school district, on the other hand, claim that the road would not impact the threatened and endangered wildlife in the preserve.


Attorney Alan Glen of Sedgwick Law LLP argued that the BCCP includes allowances for a road in the infrastructure corridor. He said that the mile-long road was “not a massive project” and estimated that it would only impact about eight acres of the preserve.


“This ask is a win-win,” said Glen. “It allows you to vote for school safety without harming the integrity of the Balcones Plan. If the service believes that somehow that’s not permissible, we have a bright, shiny new federal courthouse we can go meet in.”


The city’s Conrad said that he simply disagreed with lawyer about the flexibility to build a roadway in the corridor.


“Talking with my partners, the county, and the (Fish and Wildlife) service, I’ve come away with the same belief. We do not have the ability to authorize this,” said Conrad.


Construction would require approval by City Council, the Travis County Commissioners Court and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it is this process which might court further scrutiny of the federal permit in general.


Daugherty said he would be willing to look at plans for an alternative solution if they were brought forward, though he understood that the two sides were firmly entrenched in their positions.


“Heaven help us all if this is a major amendment,” said Daugherty.

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