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Council weighs in on Parkland Events Task Force

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Some City Council members say the naming of a public parks task force will finally bring action on discussions the city has been having for years about the strain special events place on the city’s parkland.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said the creation of a Parkland Events Task Force, passed unanimously at Council’s March 5 meeting, has been a long time coming.

In 2013, Tovo, along with then-Council Members Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman, sponsored a resolution asking the city manager to write a finance report on special events hosted in city parks. The final report showed that the city spent nearly $24 million on special events between 2009 and 2013, while collecting only $13 million in fees from those events.

Tovo said this new task force would be concerned with more than finances, though. Members will also consider local access to these parks, which are closed a significant number of days out of the year. Those issues were not part of the city manager’s report last year.

“The larger question about events and their impacts good and bad on our parks wasn’t quite addressed as fully as I’d like to see,” Tovo said.

The Council members who sponsored the task force’s creation cited the fallout from the Cyclocross event at Zilker Park earlier this year as a reminder to take action. The Parks and Recreation Department postponed the final day of the event after concerns that muddy conditions might injure tree roots along the cycling course. The department later reported that the event damaged 57 trees.

Tovo acknowledged that this new task force, which will convene sometime in April, will have to measure conflicting needs: the potential revenue brought in by park events, and the rights of residents to access these parks. The scope of the task force will be limited to Austin’s biggest parks: Zilker, Auditorium Shores and Festival Beach.

“We want to understand from the public and the different stakeholders what they think that balance should be, as well as specific ideas for the structure of that balance,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen, who co-sponsored the item.

Kitchen said the task force would come up with concrete recommendations, including how many days, or even hours, of the year the city should permit the use of its parks for special events.

Kitchen said the task force would also take advantage of the new relationship between committees and Council. In the past, task forces reported to Council, but this new group will report to two committees — the Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee and the Mobility Committee — streamlining the way public input reaches committees whose purviews include parkland.

Kitchen, whose district borders Zilker Park, said the passage of concerns about city parks from Council to Council over the years amounted to a “relay race” that was fueled by outcry from Austin residents, but never resulted in much action.

“It’s been a concern for a while with the public,” she said. “It was something a lot of us talking with people in our districts during our campaigns heard was a top priority.”

Seventeen members will make up the task force. Council’s Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee will appoint three members; each Council member will bring one addition to the table; and there will be one representative each from the Parks and Recreation Department, the Environmental Board and the Music Commission.

Town lake hike bike” by Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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