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Environmental Commission gives Walter E. Long Park plan the green light, with conditions

Friday, July 19, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Following the lead of the Parks and Recreation Board, the Environmental Commission unanimously approved the new master plan for East Austin’s Walter E. Long Park. The vote, however, came with a host of conditions.

The commissioners expressed concern that the Parks and Recreation Department had not yet performed an environmental assessment of the land nor considered specific environmental aspects when programming the five different development areas.

With anxiety for the parkland’s future health, the commission tacked on a multitude of environmental considerations to their recommendation, including a reference to the memo sent out by Environmental Officer Chris Herrington on June 20. The memo enumerates the environmental regulations that the Watershed Protection Department determined should be considered in the Walter E. Long Park master plan.

Tim Bargainer, of Halff Associates of Dallas, stressed that although there are plans to conduct an environmental assessment, the plan is still at a very preliminary level, and the specific environmental considerations regarding development will be addressed when each phase has its own master plan completed.

“It may be 30 years before you get to another (phase) and those strategies will change,” he explained.

The development of this 3,700-acre park is set to span decades, so today’s master plan is a conceptual one that simply divides the park into five areas that are further categorized into four recreational use categories: active, passive, cultural and environmental. If this plan meets Council’s approval, Bargainer explained that a sub-master plan will then be pursued for the first phase of development.

Although not yet confirmed, the portion of the park most likely to be improved first is along Decker Lake Road, and already has some amenities and gathering spaces.

“This park is going to be a really hot item and I hope we’re going to be really cautious,” said Chair Linda Guerrero.

She explained that it’s the responsibility of the parks department to engage with all the stakeholders, including fishermen, disc golfers, the Special Events Task Force, Austin police lake patrol, and the future owner of the private property that abuts the parkland.

Parks department representative Greg Montes acknowledged that he was unaware APD was patrolling Decker Lake, but as for involving them, he said, “I think that’s something that could actually be added to the plan.”

Montes also confirmed that the acreage next to the park is for sale, but there have been no offers on it yet. Nor does the city have plans to purchase it, despite commissioners asking if that was in the cards.

Decker Lake, a 1,100-acre lake originally created to aid energy production at a nearby Austin Energy facility, is now a recreational body of water and a main attraction in the park. With a large portion of the master plan dedicated to making this amenity a key focal point, Commissioner Katie Coyne noted that environmentally sensitive development in the area is even more crucial. She suggested designing standards for an overall shoreline stabilization instead of doing so piecemeal as portions of the park are developed.

Leslie Myers, a member of Save Decker Lake, came to speak to the commission about the master plan, saying that although the group is appreciative of the care that the city put into planning, any development to the area would be “massively detrimental” to the ecosystem. She called the scale of the development “bloated” and the costs “staggering.” The park master plan has an $800 million price tag.

Myers said that the park in its undeveloped state provides a sanctuary from the inevitable development that is pushing to the fringes of Austin and that retaining this peaceful space is invaluable. “Will we be more at peace with a planetarium and a Ferris wheel?” she asked.

While the Environmental Commission supported the intention to create a space with recreational facilities that can accommodate crowds from an ever-growing city, they repeatedly stressed the necessity of looking at the development of this project through an environmental lens.

“The environmental assessment needs to be done before anything else probably is agreed to,” said Commissioner Pam Thompson.

Commissioners Andrew Creel, Mary Ann Neely, Brian Smith and Kevin Ramberg were absent.

Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin.

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