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Neighborhoods unhappy over plans for West Austin sports complex

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though it’s not up for consideration yet, neighborhood discontent about plans for a West Austin sports complex has already found its way to the Environmental Board.


The board heard a briefing and public comment on the River Hills Sports Complex at its Wednesday night meeting. The complex, which will be located above Lake Austin off of Bee Caves Road, has already attracted negative attention from Austinites, though planning remains in the very early stages.


River Hills Resident Susan Silverman presented the board with a long list of opponents. She said that, in the past two months the Hill County Alliance, Save Our Springs Alliance, the Austin Chapter of the International Association of Dark Skies, Austin Astronomical Society, Bike Austin, Please be Kind to Cyclists, and neighbors along FM 2222 and FM 2244 have all signed on to oppose the development.


The property is owned by Eanes Independent School District, but is being used by a local little league under a long term lease. Austin Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak explained that because the facility will be operated privately, it will not be covered by an interlocal agreement between the district and the city that could exempt the plan from some land development code requirements.


Currently, a site plan that was submitted in February of this year is under review. The site plan includes plans for football, soccer and baseball fields, but neighbors fear that the plans are even bigger than that.


“We’re deeply concerned,” said Westlake Neighborhood Alliance President Bill Moriarty. “The project is not well-suited for the neighborhood we are in. The parking lot will be nearly 500 cars – the size of a Walmart – in a residential area, down a logging road.”


He said that the project had evolved from a “philanthropic effort” to something where venture capitalists now planning a 60,000-square-foot gymnasium.


A traffic study independently commissioned by the Westlake neighborhood estimated a mile-long back up or more to exit the fields.


2222 CONA’s Carol Torgrimson also spoke against the project, saying that the neighborhoods that would be affected were not just those in the immediate vicinity, but those across Lake Austin as well.


Lesniak told the board that there are critical environmental features on the site, and it is partially located in the water quality transition zone. He said that if the project moves forward, the board would almost certainly be asked to consider variances.


“Because it is a very steep site in a number of areas, with their current proposal there would be a number of variances for cut and fill,” said Lesniak. “Where most of the cut and fill will occur is where the baseball fields are… There will be an extensive amount of cut there.”


Lesniak estimated that the project was currently looking at 15 to 20 feet of cut to accommodate the fields.


“This is a challenging site. Obviously ball fields have to be flat and this is a very hilly site,” said Lesniak.


He showed a preliminary layout for the project, though he cautioned that they were not final.


“I want to emphasize that this is a preliminary layout. There’s nothing written in stone… This layout may or may not be the one,” said Lesniak. “It could change dramatically. I don’t want anyone to think that this is the final word on this project.”


Moriarty also expressed concern that the facility plans to operate 365 days a year, from 6 am to 10:30 pm, and employ amplified sound and lighting. He, and others, raised concerns about pollution from light, noise, and fertilizer runoff from field irrigation.


He said that the neighborhood had offered up plans for a scaled-down version that had not been embraced.


Following the presentation, the board asked staff to explore potential noise and light pollution, traffic studies, planned water supply, and alternative plans proposed by the neighborhood for the site. They also requested that the impact of the project on the habitat of the Golden-cheeked Warbler be addressed when the board formally looks at the project, which isn’t expected to be for several months.


Board Member Mary Ann Neely expressed dismay at the fact the wooded site will “almost have to be clear cut” to make way for the facility. The project is in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction, which means that the city’s tree protection ordinances do not apply to the land.

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