By LESLEE BASSMAN, Four Points News
River Place residents Chuck Reynolds and Kate Holloway moved to their home in the Cortana Ridge neighborhood a couple of years ago. Reynolds said he uses the local, renowned trail at 8820 Big View Dr. about three times a week, a practice he may need to end early next month when the River Place Limited District begins charging nonmembers $10 per person and $10 per pet daily on weekends to use the trails.
Cortana Ridge, as well as other neighborhoods within the northern section of River Place — mostly north of Merrywing Circle — are not part of the Limited District that was created in May, after the city of Austin fully annexed the subdivision Dec. 15, 2017. Aside from providing solid waste services to its members, the Limited District owns and maintains the subdivisions parks and nature trail, the result of a negotiation and agreement with city officials.
Holloway and Reynolds, members of the River Place Homeowners Association, take issue that their neighborhood was not included in the May election which decided River Place would maintain a Limited District. When the couple went to vote for the Limited District, Reynolds said they were told they were not located in its boundaries.
“We had no voice in this,” he said of the vote to create a Limited District. “We lost access to our amenities. We lost access to the trails. We lost access to the tennis courts. We lost all of that without having any say in it whatsoever.”
Holloway said she wonders why, when the Limited District was established, its creators didn’t include the entire subdivision into the district. The area of River Place that lies outside of the boundaries of its Limited District had also not been included in the boundaries of the River Place Municipal Utility District that governed the subdivision prior to Austin’s annexation.
Limited District President Scott Crosby.said Cortana Ridge residents, and other citizens of River Place who live outside of the Limited District boundaries, “certainly have a right to join the Limited District.” He said there is a process to do this but it requires 50 percent of the land value to vote in favor of the Limited District to be annexed into the Limited District, a vote that essentially gives more power to larger landholders.
“Let’s say Cortana Ridge wanted to join the Limited District,” Crosby said. “There would have to be an election held and 50 percent of the home value of those Cortana Ridge properties would have to vote in favor of being part of the Limited District.”
He said he wanted the Limited District to include all of River Place when the vote came up in May. However, after reviewing the area in the subdivision’s northern section that is not within the Limited District, Crosby said these residents would not likely vote to be part of the Limited District because the Limited District tax implications for the larger properties would not make the venture economically feasible.
Currently the Limited District charges $0.075 per $100 valuation to fund its budget for the parks, trails and solid waste disposal.
“If you look at those houses to the north, if you look at the value and what they would have to pay in terms of property tax (to the Limited District), they probably wouldn’t vote to be part of the Limited District,” Crosby said, noting their taxes would be too high.
According to the 2018 Travis County Appraisal District records, home values on Merrywing Circle ranged from the mid-$400s to more than $2.1 million.
At the time of the election of the Limited District, Crosby said he did not bring up the idea of including all of River Place in the Limited District to the rest of the board. He said an election that included the approval of the Limited District itself as well as the approval of adding a new geographical section to the Limited District would have complicated the election and affected the approval of the Limited District as a whole.
Crosby said he would “welcome” Cortana Ridge residents to vote to join the Limited District.
Why charge a trail use fee?
In its Feb. 10 issue, the Four Points News reported the trail charge was initiated to manage the overcrowding on the trail, provide a safer environment on the streets surrounding the trailheads, and help fund the trail’s maintenance costs, Crosby said.
“It is only the Limited District residents who are currently paying 100 percent of the cost of the parks and trails,” he said. “We get zero dollars, zero support from the city of Austin for those parks and trails…We think it’s just fair to have those individuals who are using the trail share in the cost of that trail.”
Crosby said trail costs vary, similar to a new road that doesn’t need a lot of maintenance in its initial years of operation but will someday need to be repaved.
“That’s what we’re really focused on is the future as opposed to the past,” he said, adding the MUD spent $50,000 in one year on trail maintenance several years ago.
Holloway and Reynolds disagree.
“Their motivations have nothing to do with maintaining the trail,” Reynolds said of the Limited District board. “Their motivations are that they don’t want people coming into the neighborhood. They don’t want the traffic. They don’t want the people. And that’s why they are charging (to use the trails).”
The couple questioned how much of the Limited District budget is spent on the trails and parks, saying that not much has been done to the trails as far as maintenance is concerned, with much of the work performed by volunteers including himself and Holloway. Reynolds noted a trail volunteer workday is scheduled for the first day the Limited District is set to begin charging nonresidents for trail use, March 2.
Crosby said some projects, such as replacing trail steps and carrying large logs down the trail, are a task that is too difficult to ask a volunteer to do.
“If you’re trying to defray the costs of the trail (maintenance), maybe (charge) $2,” Reynolds said. “The ($10) cost is completely unreasonable.”
Crosby said the fee amount was derived out of a discussion during recent Limited District board meetings as to what members thought could accomplish its goals of reducing the overcrowding of the trail, improving safety in its vicinity, and establishing reserve funds to maintain and improve the trail. He said the cost to place custodians at the trail heads to take fees is about $20 – $25 an hour per individual.
Although Reynolds said the Limited District could have left the trail in the hands of the city of Austin when the municipality annexed the subdivision, Limited District staffers say the city would have shut down the trail system due to the cost of its upkeep. Reynolds said he and other similarly situated River Place neighbors are slated to meet with District 6 Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan Feb. 15, after this edition of Four Points News goes to press.
According to Shelley Parks, public information officer for the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, the city’s Parks Department doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the River Place Limited District trail because it is located on private property,
As far as fees go, Crosby said he doesn’t think the Limited District can discriminate by charging different fees for district nonresidents who live in River Place and nonresidents who live outside of River Place.
Both Anderson Mill and Lost Creek limited districts do not exact fees for their trails, with Lost Creek’s General Manager Jim Emmons saying his community’s trails are more similar to pathways than River Place’s hike.
Tennis courts see fee increase for Limited District nonresidents
The Limited District owns and operates two tennis courts located at the Woodlands Park.
The charge for these courts increased from $50 annually for all River Place residents to $300 annually for Limited District nonresidents, with Limited District residents still charged only $50. Prior to annexation, the courts were maintained by the Municipal Utility District.
Rekha Nath said she has used the courts for two out of the three years she has been living in Cortana Ridge. With the new charges, the non-Limited District River Place resident said she is doubtful she will continue to play locally.
“It’s ridiculous that we are excluded (from River Place parks),” Nath said. “Otherwise, for all practical purposes, we are River Place residents.”
River Place trail users weigh in
Trail race competitor Robyn Sullivan is a resident of River Place but not of its Limited District. She said she moved from Steiner Ranch in October, mainly to be closer to the River Place trails she uses for training before events.
“I used to drive from Steiner Ranch to River Place just to go to that trail three or four times a week,” Sullivan said. “That trail is very unique. It’s more difficult terrain so it is a great training ground for trail-type running.”
In a 2017 hike meetup invitation, an Austin Sierra Club representative regarded the 5.6-mile round trip trail as “one of the best hiking trails in Austin” and “also one of the hardest, due to some of its steepest trail segments.” Texashiking.com rates the trail as “fantastic,” with steep elevation gains and descents mitigated by steps and stairs.
At first, Sullivan thought she would not be charged for using the trails because she is part of the River Place community and already paying River Place HOA fees, she said. Upon discovering she would be charged, Sullivan said “it doesn’t make any sense.”
“So, that’s what I have an issue with,” she said. “I don’t understand why this trail is in my neighborhood, that I should be forced to pay.”
Sullivan said she has volunteered to clean up the trail twice already and wouldn’t mind donating money to keep up the trail. But, the fact that she is considered a nonresident and would need to pay $40 weekly to maintain her trail regimen, has forced her to seek the advice of an attorney, she said.
Like Sullivan, Jimmy Peace — who said he maintains a Facebook page geared to update his 900 followers on the best Central Texas hikes — considers the River Place trail to be one of Travis County’s “best,” “hardest” and “prettiest” trails.
Peace, who said he met the trail creator a year ago, recommends the Limited District charge for parking but not for hikes since the area is always overcrowded with vehicles.
A resident of Central Austin, Peace said he isn’t aware of any other trails in Travis County that post fees for hikers, let alone pets, and a donation box may help defray some of the trail’s maintenance costs instead of a $10 fee.
“(The fee) will deter it,” Peace said of the hiking community’s River Place trail usage. “They won’t go.”