Travis County officials weigh in,
Land swap suggested
By CALEB PRITCHARD
The Leander Independent School District has taken its quest to build a road across environmentally protected land all the way to the feds.
It’s the latest development in the district’s long-running effort to build a second roadway other than McNeil Drive for its joint Vandegrift High School and Four Points Middle School campus.
The schools are partially surrounded by the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve and the district is proposing that the road run across that land through an existing utility corridor. The road would provide a secondary access route to the campus from Four Points Drive, which ultimately connects to RM 620.
In late May, the district held a community meeting encouraging parents and other supporters to take part in a social media campaign to raise awareness for LISD’s application for a permit from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We see this as our big push to put pressure on lawmakers to talk to the service so we can all just sit down and hopefully come up with a solution that serves everybody,” district spokesperson Jennifer Bailey told the Austin Monitor.
Part of that push includes asking supporters to create Twitter accounts and tweet about the project using the hashtags #BuildTheRoad, #StudentSafety, and #myLISD. Attendees were also given a form letter to send to members of Congress, along with contact information for seven local Republican representatives and senators. Also included was the contact information for East Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, a firebrand conservative.
“My understanding is that we’re reaching out to the folks who would understand our cause and issue and help us get it done,” Bailey explained.
LISD decided to seek the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s help in building the road in late 2013 after an attempt to secure a permit through the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Planning Organization Coordinating Committee failed.
LISD spent the following years preparing a draft Habitat Conservation Plan detailing how the road project would not impinge on the various endangered and threatened species the Balcones Canyon Conservation Plan is designed to protect, including the golden-cheeked warbler, the black-capped vireo and the Jollyville Plateau salamander.
In 2015, USFWS field supervisor Adam Zerrenner responded to the district’s draft plan with a letter that indicated four obstacles. Zerrenner said the plan would not meet the service’s requirements unless it had the support of Travis County, which owns the land on which the road would be built. Furthermore, the district would have to demonstrate how it would mitigate for water pollution at the headwaters of Brushy Creek and minimize disturbance of underground karst invertebrates beneath an 800-foot bridge, as well as how the project complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.
After heading back to the drawing board, district officials submitted the revised draft along with the formal application in June 2016. In February, the service sent back its preliminary review of the application. Bailey was unable to provide a copy of that document to the Monitor before this story was filed.
During the June 2 meeting of the BCCP coordinating committee, Jon White of Travis County’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department confirmed that the district would have to provide a land swap if it hopes to secure the utility corridor for a roadway.
The proposal from the school district calls for simply making payments to the BCP. “We don’t think that’s appropriate,” White said. “That will all shake out in the legal haggling over this. But we would certainly need to have mitigation not only for the corridor but also for the lands isolated by the corridor which will no longer be useful parts of the preserve.”
Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who is one of the four-member committee’s two voting members (along with Council Member Leslie Pool) said he supported the district’s effort as a sensible traffic safety solution.
“I think that human beings and their lives are more important than having an absolute inability to look at creatively coming up with plans for something like a road,” said Daugherty, though he also conceded that the proposal, which could ultimately require support from not only the Commissioners Court but also City Council, is a long shot.
“Working around it so much, I would suspect some pretty strong upstream swimming to do,” he said.
Pool echoed Daugherty’s sentiment but left the door open that an alternative route could be found.
“I’m looking for solutions,” she said. “There’s a possibility that one exists but I’m not optimistic that LISD, despite their best efforts, will succeed in getting access to this easement.”
This article is by the Austin Monitor, an online, nonpartisan, 501(c)3 nonprofit publication that covers local government and politics in and around Austin. Read more at AustinMonitor.com.