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City buying Circle C area golf course, preventing development

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Congratulations, Austinites, you are the new owners of the Grey Rock Golf Course and Tennis Facility.


In a vote of 6-1, the City Council voted Thursday to purchase the Southwest Austin course, for $9.6 million dollars. For that price, the city will own 292 acres, which is about 180 acres of golf course, and about 10 acres of tennis courts. Council Member Laura Morrison was the only opponent of the purchase.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell was excited about the purchase. Noting that the entire parcel was located in the Drinking Water Protection Zone, Leffingwell called the purchase “The Trifecta. It’s open space, preservation, and developing a park amenity at the same time. That makes it a little bit different from acquisition of park land in other parts of the city.”


But Morrison was not swayed. “I’m wondering how this sits, as a priority, for spending $9 million in relation to other areas where we have had a lot of conversations lately about needs – like Crestview and St. John’s. We have told them, ‘I’m sorry, there is just no money there’,” said Morrison. “I’m just at a loss to understand why we can say to one area that appears to be a very high priority that there’s no money and, on the other hand, we’re saying there’s money here.”


“The bottom line is we’re willing to spend taxpayer dollars in a tax increase – or not do a decrease, which is equivalent – for this golf course. I don’t know why we aren’t willing to do that for other areas that are in dire need,” said Morrison.


The cost of the purchase will be partially covered by revenue from the golf course. No money will come out of existing Parks and Recreation Department bond funds, but Budget Officer Greg Canally estimated that it would cost “less than a tenth of a penny in terms of the scheme of our overall bond indebtedness.”


“General fund, tax rate increase, whatever, it’s all money out of the pockets of taxpayers,” said Morrison.


Junie Plummer, who handles most high level purchases for the city’s Real Estate Services Office, estimated that it would cost $15- 18 million dollars to build the course from scratch. Additionally, Plummer explained that the site was under development pressure, and the owner intended to develop the land if the city didn’t purchase it. The land, she explained, could be developed with 12 acres of impervious cover – or 522,000 square feet – if it were developed as residential.


Plummer said that, from her standpoint, she would be interested in the property even if there were no golf course.


“I did ask the Watershed team… would it be better to have a golf course that we are managing correctly, or have development. They said, by far, the golf course,” said Plummer.


For their part, the Golf Club at Circle C released a statement cheering the purchase.


“We are excited for the employees, the club members and the general public that Grey Rock will be preserved and protected as a community asset for generations to come,” wrote the Golf Club at Circle C. “We expect the conditions and playability to be as good in the future as it has been during our stewardship.”


Representatives from the Parks and Recreation Department said that, for now, the rates will remain the same, but that they will be working towards aligning those rates with existing public golf course rates.


The purchase brought up bigger questions about the Parks Department’s priorities. Parks Director Sara Hensley said that she was “absolutely” working towards the city goal of solving the deficit  of parks within the city by working with school districts, businesses, and taking advantage of good opportunities to build more parks.


Both Morrison and Riley were skeptical of a map Hensley showed. On the map was an estimate that it would cost $30 million dollars to acquire enough parkland to meet the city’s goal of having all urban residents within one-quarter mile of a park, and suburban Austinites within one-half mile of a park. Pointing out that the golf course alone cost almost $10 million dollars did nothing to sway Hensley’s conviction that this number was accurate, and she maintained that they were well on their way towards meeting that goal.


“Gosh. Honestly… Our goal would be to solve the problem within the year, but that’s not going to happen,” said Hensley.

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