By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
It is no secret, landscaping throughout the Steiner Ranch community needs improvement. A seven-member Landscape Committee was tasked with ways to improve the plantings and help beautify the community. But the entire committee resigned on Oct. 30 after what committee members say were multiple attempts to work with the shifting ideas of the Steiner Ranch Master Association board of directors.
“After many emails with the board I resigned on Oct. 30th because the committee has no real voice,” said Jannine Farnum, former chair of the Landscape Committee. “Later that day, the rest of the seven-member committee resigned also.”
The SRMA board hired a consultant in July who came up with the idea to change signage throughout the community as well as plantings at a projected cost of some $500,000.
Farnum spoke at the homeowner forum portion of the Nov. 17 monthly SRMA board meeting via Zoom. After talking with several board members and homeowners, she said the real concern is the actual plantings.
“The new sign ideas are fantastic looking but Steiner‘s budget isn’t that deep,” Farnum said. “The thing we need to get done out here is the plantings.”
She spoke on behalf of the former Landscape Committee members and urged the board to keep the current signage.
“I’m all for redoing the front entrances but we have unique signage… like no other community,” Farnum said.
She added that all of the new neighborhoods and communities have similar rectangle signs that are rust color with accents of silver.
“I don’t know why we’d go with that example when we don’t have the funds,” said Farnum during the forum. “We just spent $20,000 on lettering at the front entrance (monument). That would be down the drain. It doesn’t seem like a good use of the little funds we have.”
Mary Ann Hill, another former Landscape Committee member, also spoke before the board during the homeowner forum on Tuesday.
“We do need to make some changes to protect and enhance our values but I am greatly concerned we’re going in the wrong step order,” Hill said.
“It’s not sitting well to have Steiner look that way,” Hill said. “I don’t think signage will impact values, I do think landscaping will.”
The SRMA board’s Landscaping 2.0 plans call for removing one and likely two trees at Steiner’s Quinlan Park Road/RM 620 entrance according to the consultant the board hired.
“Removing trees to put up a sign… There would be such an uproar in our community if trees were to come out,” Hill said. “And I’d be one of them (in an uproar).”
Farnum agrees that cutting down oak trees to put up signs is “crazy to do.”
Last year and well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Landscape Committee presented a plan to the SRMA Board to redo plants along Quinlan Park Road.
“The SRMA Board decided they wanted to hire an expert before they spent that much money,” Farnum said in an interview. She helped build the committee which included Hill, Ingrid Ableidinger, Felicia Hoang, Jackie Acevedo, Karen Hamm and Kim Hendricks.
The committee thought that was a good idea and was eager to work with the consultant. They asked if they could be involved in hiring, they submitted a list of potential local firms to work with, and tried to be part of the process but were “shut out,” Farnum said.
Then spring of 2020, the committee was told at a board meeting that the board was hiring someone for the landscaping.
“We asked again if we could meet with them. We were told they wanted an unbiased opinion from them first,” Farnum stated. “This summer we found out that a consultant was working on plans without meeting with the committee.”
After many requests, the committee got a Zoom meeting on Oct. 13 with the consultant and the board when they presented the landscaping plan. The plans had no input from the Landscape Committee, Farnum said.
Plans by the consultant involved all new signage throughout Steiner.
“Many of the committee members questioned the design because it was less about plants and more of a rebranding of Steiner,” Farnum said.
“Over the last several years, as homeowners have complained, it has been about our lack of plants not the need for new signage,” she added.
At that meeting, the committee was told by Naren Chilukuri, SRMA president, that the budget for this work was $500,000.
“Which is nowhere enough money to do the landscaping that Steiner needs let alone rebranding the entire neighborhood,” Farnum said.
The committee had asked repeatedly to have designs drawn up that uses the current monuments and just replaces the plantings. That scenario saves hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the committee, but that request was not fulfilled.
SRMA’s Landscape 2.0
The SRMA Board of Directors retained a landscape consultant and architect in July. The architect’s objectives were to evaluate the current state of affairs with the Steiner landscape, review homeowners’ feedback, conduct competitive analysis of other larger communities in the Austin area, and provide executable landscape enhancement recommendations for the community, according to an email sent to residents by SRMA on Sept. 4.
According to the email, some of the board’s justifications to take these steps were that the “30+ years’ old community… is showing signs of aging.” Steiner was incorporated in 1987 and has been built out in phases since then.
In 2018-2019, inhouse staff made recommendations for landscape enhancements including the two main entrances off of RM 620. Those recommendations included structural, lights, irrigation and landscaping. This also was to go to all subsections throughout Steiner as well as other common areas.
“This project was managed and reviewed and executed in conjunction by the new Landscape Committee run by homeowners, staff and vendors. Approximately $300,000 was approved by the board of directors per above recommendations and was spent last year towards these front entrances and landscape enhancements. Unfortunately, we did not realize value for the amount that was invested in the enhancement project,” the email from the SRMA board stated.
Then about a year ago in December 2019, the board of directors began revisiting the idea of retaining services of an outside landscape architect and consultant. It was approved after thoroughly vetting various consultants in July 2020 and an architect was hired, the SRMA board email stated.
SRMA sent out another email on Oct.30, the same day the Landscape Committee members resigned. It stated that the SRMA board has allocated between $400,000 to $500,000 towards the Landscape 2.0 project.
It was revealed that Coleman & Associates, an Austin based consulting firm was retained by the SRMA Board in August. Their quest was to make comparisons of large, master planned communities to Steiner Ranch and they recommend signage and landscape upgrades.
The overall phased implementation is to start with front entrances, key monuments, intersections along Quinlan Park Road, mail kiosks and common areas, according to the October email.
The consulting firm has completed design documents and has put out for bids. The SRMA Board expectation is that the project will be executed in phases beginning January 2021 with an estimated completion by late 2021 or early 2022.
The board email stated that “once this comprehensive project is completed, our broader community will have a newer, cohesive premium, clean look and feel with appealing contemporary aesthetics. We will remain competitive in large scale master planned communities in Central Texas.”
At Tuesday’s SRMA November board meeting, it was mentioned briefly that there is no more Landscape Committee. Later in the meeting, Landscape 2.0 was briefly discussed during agenda item 10, “Investments in Community & Amenities”.
The board approved the motion to spend $18,000 with Coleman & Associates to get three prototypes of monument areas, “to come up with monument designs for Steiner Ranch.”
Farnum said she hopes the SRMA board will be more responsible with homeowner funds.
“What I want the neighborhood to know is although these designs look nice, Steiner simply doesn’t have the money currently to do all of this,” Farnum said. “And because our signage is in good shape, we should be focusing on the actual plantings all through Steiner.”