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Leander ISD faces uphill battle for road through Balcones Preserve

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Leander Independent School District wants to build a road through the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, but it will have to pass through the preserve’s Coordinating Committee Wednesday morning to get anywhere at all.

 

The BCCP Citizens Advisory Committee has already rejected the project, voting resoundingly against its recommendation. In fact, only one member of the committee, Ken Beck, voted in the school district’s favor.

 

The project now moves on to the BCP Coordinating Committee, where Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty are the only two voting members.

 

Leander ISD constructed two schools – Vandergrift High School and Four Points Middle School – on land which is surrounded by preserve land. Currently there is only a single access point to FM 2222. Not surprisingly, this has not proved sufficient for the schools. At the meeting of the advisory committee, the room was filled with several dozen parents who were supporting the push for a new road.

 

Parents say the current design of the road is unsafe. They express fear over what could happen if an emergency required a swift exit from the schools.

 

To alleviate the congestion, the school district is asking to build a road on a portion of the preserve that serves as an “infrastructure corridor.” Though the land remains a habitat for endangered bird species, it is this portion of the preserve that holds utility lines and pipes underground.

                                                                            

Committee Member Mary Ann Neely opposes the plan, and told In Fact Daily that she didn’t think the school had exhausted its options. She pointed to the possibility of building a road on land owned by nearby 3M Corporation. That land is not in the preserve.

 

Valarie Bristol, who is also on the committee, notes that the current proposal “isn’t exactly a dream alternate route” anyway. She says that the route through the preserve, which crosses a deep canyon, would be expensive to build. She also worries that approval of the road could set a bad precedent.

 

“It would allow other people to think they could invade the preserve system,” said Bristol, a former Travis County Commissioner. “The preserve system is very small compared to the actual habitat of the birds in the county. We had to settle. The preserve only saves one-fourth of their habitat. So if you lose even an acre or two acres of this habitat… you are pushing it to its edge.”

 

“You just can’t keep taking away pieces of it,” said Bristol. “That was the deal the whole community made when we voted and chose to have the Balcones Canyonlands in place. If we start allowing exemptions to it, slowly but surely it would be nibbled away and it would no longer be effective.”

 

The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve was created in 1992 to protect caves and two endangered songbirds – the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo.

 

Bristol says the infrastructure corridors were never intended to have heavy use roads, only small dirt roads to allow maintenance.

 

The request to build the road was administratively denied. In a letter, BCCP Coordinating Committee Secretary William Conrad explained that while he didn’t doubt the road was needed, he felt construction of a roadway would require an amendment to the preserve’s federal permit.

 

If that amendment is recommended by the Coordinating Committee, both Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court must vote in favor of seeking the amendment before the process for that amendment begins.

 

In his letter, Conrad also notes that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated the Jollyville Plateau salamander as an endangered species, and the proposed project is within its critical habitat, as well.

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