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Sparks fly over proposed plans for Williamson Creek

Thursday, May 27, 2021 by Amy Smith

The Parks and Recreation Board had one of its most contentious – and longest – meetings in recent history Tuesday night with a heated debate about plans for a segment of Williamson Creek in South Austin.

The dispute centered on a proposed vision plan for what would be called the Central Williamson Creek Greenway between Menchaca Road and Congress Avenue. The 58-acre area encompasses City Council districts 2, 3, and 5, in addition to city-owned lots once occupied by flood-damaged homes and other potential buyout properties located in a floodplain.

Board Member Kate Mason-Murphy, who lives in the Southwood neighborhood of District 3, was an early leader in advocating for creek cleanups and connected nature trails. She championed the creation of the Emerald Wood Community Garden and nearby trail off of South First, named in honor of the late Tom Donovan, a former member of the parks board.

Mason-Murphy is now a lead critic of the direction the creek’s vision plan has taken. She and one set of residents had championed a clean creek and a natural trail environment with minimal buildout. Another set of residents worked primarily with consultants Asakura Robinson and a nonprofit group, Community Powered Workshop, to create a plan that covers an A-Z list of features, including mountain biking trails, a bring-your-own hammock grove, a labyrinth, food forests, wildflower meadows, a music grove, and more.

Several board members appeared sympathetic to Mason-Murphy’s stance that community outreach and engagement was selective and that homeowners targeted for potential buyouts were “actively silenced,” as Mason-Murphy put it.

The meeting began unraveling when Mason-Murphy launched an aggressive cross-examination of the consulting team. Her line of questioning took a conspiratorial tone suggesting Community Powered Workshop was part of a gentrification effort to eliminate 250 homes, aided by the Parks and Recreation Department, Watershed Protection, developers, and Mayor Steve Adler, an eminent domain attorney.

She called the vision plan “fundamentally, systematically flawed.” Since most of the process took place during the Covid pandemic, the city and the consultants should have tabled their efforts until the situation improved, she said. “What came out (of the process) was a virtual reality based in a virtual time, and it looks really good, but it is not at all what our community wanted.”

She made a motion to reject the plan, but the motion dangled awkwardly without a second.

Chair Dawn Lewis said she wanted to see stakeholders enter into mediation to try to settle their differences before the proposal returns to the parks board.

Meanwhile, Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley signaled her exasperation with the nearly two-hour debate, since the discussion had veered well out of range of what was posted on an already packed agenda.

“It’s a little disappointing to have some of this conversation feel like a huge attack,” McNeeley said. “I just want to let you know that my team, the Watershed Protection team, and the team that was part of this process does not deserve to be attacked in public. You’re allowed to have your opinion, you’re certainly allowed to express your concerns about this particular plan, but being attacked is not acceptable, and I just need you to know that.”

Katie Coyne of Asakura Robinson also voiced her irritation with the accusations. Her sense was that Mason-Murphy should have recused herself from the discussion because of her level of involvement in the creek matter. She further noted that Mason-Murphy and her husband, Larry Murphy, have had a long-running feud with Watershed Protection, which includes a violent threat made against Watershed staff members. “This has become very toxic,” she said, explaining why she’d canceled an outreach meeting in April.

With Mason-Murphy’s motion rendered moot for lack of a second, Board Member Laura Cottam Sajbel made a motion to table the item, which secured unanimous support. The Environmental Commission previously approved the plan unanimously, with Coyne, who serves on the commission, recusing herself from the discussion and vote. If and when the vision plan returns to the parks board, its members can either vote on it or take no action. Regardless, the plan does not require City Council approval.

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