By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
On April 1, 2022, Leander ISD filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas as part of its ongoing pursuit to place a second access road to Vandegrift High School and Four Points Middle School – addressing a safety concern for more than 4,000 students, teachers and staff at the campuses in case of an emergency.
LISD is also ready and determined to use legal measures closer to home – against Travis County.
“At this time, Leander ISD understands Travis County remains opposed to the school safety project,” said Rachel Acosta, LISD spokesperson. “Should the County continue to oppose the project, Leander ISD could initiate legal action against Travis County in order to obtain a right to use the property… a costly and lengthy process…”
While the land surrounding the two schools is designated preserve, the district has sought permission to build the second road on an existing infrastructure corridor that contains several utility lines for the city of Austin and the Lower Colorado River Authority creating a necessary access point, particularly for emergency vehicles. Currently, the schools can only be accessed from RM 2222 off McNeil Drive.
Since 2016, LISD and its environmental attorneys have engaged with USFWS and the Department of the Interior. In 2019, USFWS informed LISD it was refusing to process the district’s application for an Endangered Species Act permit unless the district obtains ownership or control over the proposed right-of-way, a portion which is owned by Travis County, which opposed the project. Subsequently, LISD has utilized USFWS’s formal permit appeals process in an effort to move toward a resolution.
By requiring Leander ISD to first obtain ownership or control over the right-of-way, USFWS would force Leander ISD to make a costly and unlawful commitment of resources prior to the completion of the federal environmental review process.
Four Points News found out by the district that this refers to a prohibition under federal law that is aimed at ensuring actions already taken do not prejudice the environmental review process.
LISD shared more legal details: “Under most environmental laws, governmental entities (Leander ISD and USFWS) are prohibited from making significant commitments of public resources. This includes specifically purchasing property needed for a proposed project. The reason for this prohibition is to avoid giving a perfunctory environmental review, and to ensure that a reasonable range of alternatives for the project or approval is considered during the environmental review process. Without the prohibition, the environmental analysis would be prejudiced by significant actions already taken.”
LISD has previously agreed not to use the Endangered Species Act permit unless and until it subsequently obtains requisite ownership or control of the needed right-of-way.
“If Travis County continues to oppose this school safety project, Leander ISD could initiate legal action against Travis County in order to obtain a right to use the property,” Acosta said. “Such an action could be a lengthy and costly process. If the route were changed as a result of the environmental review process, Leander ISD would have to go through that costly and lengthy process a second time.”