County approves new Steiner Ranch evacuation route over neighborhood opposition

By JACK CRAVER, Austin Monitor

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday, July 9 to approve a new emergency route to help residents of Steiner Ranch escape the community in the event of wildfires.

The 900-foot road, known as Route B, will connect Flat Top Ranch Road to Montview Drive and will be a gated road that first responders can open in an emergency. County staff members plan for the road to be completed by summer 2021.

Unfortunately, the new decision upset another large group of residents in the nearby Montview and Hidden Valley neighborhoods. A dozen of them came to the Commissioners Court Tuesday to voice their opposition. They claimed to be blindsided by the new decision, argued that the new route would not be enough to evacuate all of the neighborhoods and pointed out that Route B will involve the county taking land from two property owners.

The approved plan was not the first choice of county transportation staff, who originally envisioned an everyday-use road, known as Route F, that would connect Flat Top Ranch to FM 620. But that proposal drew howls of protest from Steiner residents, who said a new road would disrupt the tranquility they seek in the Hill Country.

Route B was voted on by Travis County Commissioners on July 9, 2019.

While staff maintains that Route F is ultimately the best choice, the $7.2 million price tag prompted the county to recommend Route B, which will cost only an estimated $980,000.

One of the affected property owners, Ryan Haring, said he had purchased a lot with the intention of building a home and that the mother of his child had moved nearby so the child could live within walking distance of both parents. His conversations with county staff before buying the property led him to believe the county was unlikely to go forward with Route B, which runs through his property.

“I feel like most of this has been happening behind our backs,” he said.

The county will not have to acquire the entirety of both private lots, but will have to pay for whatever sections are necessary to build the road. If the property owners don’t want to sell, the county could acquire the land via eminent domain.

Jeff Witte, another resident, said he believed the county would be able to get the necessary funding from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization if it put enough pressure on the organization by mobilizing the support of residents.

Commissioner Brigid Shea, who represents the area, stressed that Route B would not become an everyday road and would only be used in emergencies. She asked staff whether it would be feasible to do Route F as a private, gated road but was informed that a private road would not be eligible for grant funding from CAMPO, which would require the county to foot the entire $7.2 million cost.

Shea acknowledged the “process wasn’t perfect,” but said that the county had to do something in anticipation of the types of wildfires that destroyed several homes in the community in 2011. Climate change is only making the area hotter, drier and more vulnerable to wildfire, she said.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt sympathized with the residents’ frustrations, but stressed that no solution will make everyone happy.

Steiner Ranch, a master-planned community that was largely built in the early 2000s, was not responsibly planned and has necessitated “tremendous infrastructure investment” from the federal government and local governments, said Eckhardt. Despite that investment, it remains a “dangerous area to live in,” she said.

Eckhardt also bemoaned the lack of power granted to county governments by the state to regulate land use. Travis County should have been able to demand better emergency access planning for Steiner Ranch, but even today, with heightened risk of flooding and wildfires, Eckhardt said there is little the court can do to prevent a similar subdivision from being approved.

Photo by Air National Guard 1st Lt. Alicia Lacy.

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