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Parks to consider Decker Golf; Council may punt

Tuesday, February 24, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Although consideration of an agreement with Decker Golf LLC is on this week’s City Council agenda, Mayor Steve Adler said Monday that staff would be requesting postponement of an item allowing a 50-year license agreement for construction of new PGA-style golf courses at Walter E. Long Park.

And Council Member Greg Casar said he would not be ready to consider the item this week. “I’m in support of this Council getting fully briefed on it. We were all campaigning when it was being debated the last time around, and so I think that it’s worth Council hashing it out, and I imagine many of us will not be ready to vote on Thursday,” he said. “There’s a new proposal for where the water is going to come from, so I think all that needs to be hashed out.”

Casar was referring to last week’s proposal from the developer to irrigate the golf course with brackish water from the Trinity Aquifer. That idea emerged at a Water and Wastewater Commission meeting. The commission did not make a recommendation on whether the city should move forward with the concession agreement.

Golf course backers will go before the city’s Parks and Recreation Board tonight hoping to get a positive recommendation on allowing construction of the course. Although the city’s parks staff is in support, one group of parks advocates has recommended that the city reject the proposal and begin the process of developing “a public-oriented, open access metropolitan park” at the site. The group plans to put that option on the next bond ballot.

The Friends of the Parks of Austin, a nonprofit organization working to improve local parks since 1986, is opposing Decker Golf LLC’s proposal.

According to the resolution approved by the group, “A high-end resort course does not meet the needs of the municipal golf community, which relies on the low-priced green fees offered at the legacy courses of Kizer, Clay, Lions, Morris Williams, and Hancock.”

The parks group says Austin already has plenty of high-end golf courses and that building another one on city parkland “does not suit the mission” of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department or its golf program.

In addition, the group says that calling the proposal a “concession” rather than a lease “is a transparent attempt to sidestep state law and thwart the public interest.” It contends that state law clearly requires a vote of the public before parkland can be turned over to private interests, even if it is called a concession.

The group also argues that using Walter E. Long Park “as an exclusive, destination resort does not suit the recreational needs of the Northeast Austin community.” It added that parks director Sara Hensley is one of a long line of directors who have been frustrated in their attempts to develop the park for community-wide purposes.

However, the group says the area has grown, and its “recreational needs justify the development of a major metropolitan recreational park, and Walter E. Long is a unique, best, and only feasible place to do that.”

One parks board member, Hill Abell, said he is suspicious of the way the matter is being handled. “I basically feel like using the lease as a vehicle for avoiding a Chapter 26 hearing is an out and out taking of public parkland, and I think it’s the wrong way to go about putting a facility at Decker Lake.”

Abell was referring to Chapter 26 of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code, which requires a specific public hearing before public parkland can be taken for another purpose.

Abell did also cite legal precedents for lease of parkland, but added that “the fact that the Parks Department has made a decision based on a supposed master plan made in the 1960s” does not strengthen its case.

“The community’s needs have changed dramatically in the last 50 years, and I think there needs to be a citywide conversation about what is the best use of this land,” Abell said.

The Parks and Recreation Board meets at 6 p.m. in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall.


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