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Plans for Decker golf course divide Parks board

Thursday, February 26, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

A proposed golf course split Austin’s Parks and Recreation board down the middle Wednesday night when members landed undecided on whether to recommend to City Council a 50-year license with Decker Golf LLC to build a high-end golf complex in East Austin.

“It goes forward split to the City Council, and they will be making a decision,” board Chair Jane Rivera announced near the close of the meeting.

The details of a private company’s plan to build a PGA-style golf course in Walter E. Long Park have undergone an almost yearlong examination by Austin boards and committees. After recent concerns about how the course would be watered, for example, the developer drew up another plan. In the latest version, the developer would drill 60 feet below ground to access slightly brackish water from the Trinity Aquifer. In the latest version, they would drill 3,000 feet below ground, forcing slightly brackish water from the Trinity Aquifer to within 60 feet of the surface.

But attendees at Wednesday’s meeting left irrigation alone. Instead, they discussed the socioeconomic effects of building a public yet upscale golf course — fees to play would range from $150 to $200 —  in one of the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

Colony Park Neighborhood Association President Barbara Scott said this golf course would ignite economic development in the part of town she’s called home for more than four decades.

“This will bring opportunity, so that our young men that I see standing on street corners every day selling drugs and committing crimes in that area will have somewhere to go to work,” Scott said. Her comments were followed by several others from neighbors of Walter E. Long Park who supported the plan.

The developer has said it will focus on hiring 50 percent of the course staff from the pool of local residents.

Scott said she’s brushed off comments about the nature of the project and the fact that this development would bring a golf course to a community that needs necessities such as a hospital or grocery store.

“I’m not a golfer, and I don’t think I’m going to take it up at this stage in my life,” Scott said. “But this is the only thing I know that has been offered to us since I’ve lived out there for 43 years. The only positive thing that has come this far. There have been several others, but they’re always voted down.”

Opponents of the course did heed those wondering why a golf course belonged in East Austin. Some quoted national numbers showing that golf is a declining sport and said the park should be made into something else.

“We absolutely support the neighbors and their desire to have all the amenities they want,” said Roy Waley, vice chair of the Sierra Club’s Austin chapter. “But we should not tie the future of our parks service to a dying sport.”

Board members split along two lines — some saying they would support the wishes of park neighbors, others wary of how a golf course might serve such an underdeveloped part of Austin.

“If I’d known that PGA golf courses was panacea for all our urban ills, we could be parking these things anywhere in the city and solve all our problems,” said board member Michael Casias. “These are the same arguments they make for stadiums in the middle of the urban, blighted areas.”

Board member Susan Roth shot back and drew applause when she said she was only interested in acting on residents’ wishes.

“We need to listen to the people that live in that area. If [the golf course] does fail, at least that area has been developed. The fences have come down,” Roth said, referring to the decades-old fences the city erected in 1968, when the first plan to develop the park was proposed.

“It’s not like anyone is beating down the city’s door with alternative options,” Roth continued. “Why do we not just take advantage of this opportunity?”

Rivera had the last word. She said she would abstain from voting on the course out of concern that if the city builds it, what will come?

She told the neighbors of Walter E. Long Park who support the course that she believed it would bring more than economic development.

“I am not going to stand in your way and vote against this project that you want,” Rivera said. “But I want you to know I am abstaining from voting because I just can’t support what I believe to be the beginning of gentrification in your neighborhood.”

The board closed with a vote of 3-3-1. The proposal moves to Council, which will delay its discussion at this week’s meeting so members can hear additional feedback from committees and boards. They will likely take up the item at their March 5 meeting.

This story has been updated to more accurately convey the mechanics of the proposed irrigation.

Photo byKen123 at nl.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons

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