Wide open suburbia: The pros and cons of living in unincorporated communities in Western Travis County

Image description
Image description
LTW-11-2018-1-2
Image description
LTW-11-2018-1-3
Image description
LTW-11-2018-1-4
Image description
LTW-11-2018-1-5
Water is obtained at Mitch Roberts’ property in Hudson Bend via rain harvesting – an alternative to drilling wells for residents who are not serviced by a water utility district.

Roberts’ property is in the Cardinal Hills area, a neighborhood that was never fully developed. Lots were subdivided and platted, but some streets were not paved, and though the city of Austin provides electricity services, it does not provide water. Roberts' brother lives on the land and has a 10,000-gallon-capacity rain-harvesting system. His daughter recently purchased a portion of the property and installed a 12,000-gallon system.

“Would we prefer city water?” Roberts asked. “We do pay taxes to them, and it’d be a lot easier than messing with filters and valves, but to remotely run a water line half a mile here to get city water would cost about $100,000.”

Whether it’s Cuernavaca, Apache Shores, Hudson Bend or Spicewood, life in the unincorporated areas of Travis County abounds with differences, both subtle and obvious, from the incorporated city counterpart. Beyond water issues, the way people interact with and handle taxes, government, infrastructure, development and code restrictions can vary depending on the area. But most residents agree living in an unincorporated area often requires substantially different strategies.

In Hudson Bend, Roberts said he has seen numerous people take a 500-gallon water tank to a fire hydrant, fill it up and return it to their house on a weekly basis.

“The authorities must know this is happening,” he said. “It’s not fair to people like my brother that others go to the municipality district hydrant and take the water while we pay utility district taxes but don’t have water service.”

The county is the primary jurisdiction in unincorporated areas, and in west Travis County Precinct 2, Commissioner Brigid Shea oversees unincorporated communities that include Steiner Ranch, Comanche Trail and Glenlake. Their representative governments are often less formal than their incorporated counterparts.

“I’ll go to those neighborhood meetings,” Shea said. “We view them as our immediate constituents whenever there is a problem. They have no other government entity to get assistance from, so we are very responsive.”

As examples, Shea said she has worked with the Texas Department of Transportation and Steiner Ranch residents to install a stoplight at RM 620 and has helped find funds for flashing crossing lights at area schools.

For unincorporated communities, issues such as adding sidewalks, funding parks and providing sufficient emergency services, particularly for wildfire response, often end up on a list of county bond items for voter approval, Shea said.

One of the county’s bigger projects is a pilot program to help prepare neighborhoods for floods and fires. The first drill is planned for November.

“We’ve been working with the Comanche Trail community for over a year to create a neighborhood fire drill, since there is only one way in and one way out,” Shea said. “We weren’t able to find examples of what to do anywhere, so we are creating the plan. It could be valuable to communities all over.”

Blurry boundaries

How living in an unincorporated area is defined differs on a house-by-house basis, said Brian Talley, Regent Property Group founder and Austin Board of Realtors board member. A home could be in the extraterritorial jurisdiction of a city, or it may be part of a homeowners association within an unincorporated area. Talley said some homeowners want the rules and regulations that come with HOAs, but many who opt to live in an unincorporated area are seeking flexibility regarding what they can build on their lots. He added that eclectic neighborhoods with dirt roads are often around the corner from newer subdivisions.

“If you’re looking to build a workshop or detached garage, or you want to run a business out of the back of your house, that scenario is more likely in unincorporated areas,” he said. “Cities have a lot of rules, while the county doesn’t have that many regarding a variety of building options.”

Generally, Talley's clients wanting property outside city limits are seeking separation from traffic and a slower lifestyle. Like utility services and taxes, home prices vary in every neighborhood. While houses tend to be more affordable the farther they are from downtown Austin, some of the newer developments contain expensive homes, Talley said.

While unincorporated neighborhoods continue to be built out, Talley said in his experience, they are still not growing as fast as subdivisions within incorporated areas.

“I think people prefer to be in areas where there are consistent quality standards,” he said. “But, the ones who want to be in non-traditional neighborhoods really want to be there.”

Shea agreed that less noise and congestion, along with lower taxes, are strong selling points.

“The downside of not paying taxes to a city is that they have fewer services,” she said. “The county doesn’t have resources to provide what cities do.”

She said another trade-off is that there are limits on what the county can do if, for example, your neighbor decides to build something you don't like.

“Legally they could put a pigsty next to your home,” she said. “City zoning laws don’t allow that, but living out in the county means fewer restrictions.”

The Spicewood Community Alliance is educating communities throughout the Spicewood area about potential benefits of incorporation, such as combatting unwanted development like the proposed Spicewood Crushed Stone LLC quarry planned to go between two residential neighborhoods.

“We’re not recommending Spicewood become a big, incorporated city like Austin,” Alliance President Matthew McCabe said. “Rather, there could be a bunch of small communities, because each group has unique desires.”

For example, some neighborhoods already have self-supporting systems, and some prioritize preserving Krause Springs more than others, McCabe said.

“When we started the Save our Spicewood initiative we were trying to initiate incorporating all of it,” he said. “We got pushback because there are people who have been here for generations, new people from out of state, and everyone has a different idea of what a ‘city’ means.”

Carrie Guipe has spent a total of 13 years in Cardinal Hills and Apache Shores. She said fireworks being set off all year and related fire-safety issues are a problem, along with loose dogs and people shooting firearms on small property lots.

“There is a home that has been under construction for over a decade that includes framework with junk and trailers on the small lot,” she said. “No one can do a thing about it legally.”

Guipe described Apache Shores as a camp-like community that once had horse stalls and places for vacation trailers.

“We maintain much of that, and so much volunteer effort goes into trying to preserve our community and make it better,” she said. “The county and state are not always supportive. We have paved our own roads. The county maintains some roads, but people have had to fight hard for road signs and repairs.”

But there are positives, too. Guipe said she obtained a Lakeway library card despite not living in city limits, and its bookmobile services Apache Shores.

“We also benefit from an amazing school system [in Lake Travis ISD],” she said, adding that Lakeway and many new neighborhoods tend to have overwhelmingly strict deed restrictions and rules. “So we benefit from not being forced to keep our lawns green or have a special place for trash cans. We can park on our streets, and Travis County sheriffs have been good to us.”

Roberts, who also lived in the Cuernavaca area for seven years, agreed that law enforcement has been good.

He said he believes the trend of more marinas, restaurants and hotels coming farther west will continue with area growth.

“What it feels like it’s coming down to now is a sort of conflict between the ‘old timers’ and their wild west attitudes and the newcomers who have lived with regulation, benefitted from it, and never imagined a residential area could be like this,” Guipe said.

She said it is also confusing to move to ‘Austin’ and then be told she is not part of the city and cannot access certain aspects, but then hear the same thing from the city of Lakeway.

“This area has grown so rapidly – it’s straight-up suburbia now, but the rules for living here haven’t changed,” Guipe said. “We are neither here nor there.”
By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.


MOST RECENT

Local health leaders are urging caution ahead of Thanksgiving. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Ahead of Thanksgiving, Travis County health officials urge caution

Austin Public Health leaders say gatherings with people outside one's household held indoors and without masks pose the greatest risk.

Harini Logan, 10, won the 66th annual Express-News Spelling Bee at the University of Texas at San Antonio downtown campus on March 17, 2019. For 2021, the event is slated to be held in March at the Brauntex Performing Arts Theatre in New Braunfels. (Photo by Jerry Lara, courtesy the San Antonio Express News)
New Braunfels to host regional spelling bee and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from Central Texas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan for the state Nov. 23 for a vaccine he said could be available as soon as December. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan

The vaccine could start being distributed "as early as next month," according to a Nov. 23 news release.

P. Terry’s Burger Stand is expected to open its long-awaited Pflugerville location this January. (Courtesy P. Terry's Burger Stand)
P. Terry's to open in Pflugerville in January and more Central Texas news

Read the latest Central Texas business and community news.

Austin voters approved a $7.1 billion public transit expansion Nov. 3 that will add bus and rail in Austin. (Design by Miranda Baker/Community Impact Newspaper)
After historic public transportation vote, here is what's next for Project Connect in Austin

Shovels won't be hitting the ground on the light rail and downtown tunnel for years, but work is getting started now after Austinites approved the $7.1 billion plan Nov. 3.

Laura Colangelo
Q&A: Laura Colangelo discusses challenges facing private schools during pandemic

Colangelo said private schools have adapted to remote learning and other obstacles in 2020 despite less revenue and a 9% decline in enrollment statewide.

Hamilton Pool Road residents protest outside of Bee Cave City Council on Nov. 10. (Courtesy Nancy Hernandez)
West Travis County Public Utility Agency delays settlement decision on development off Hamilton Pool Road

A lawsuit between the West Travis County Public Utility Agency and the developers of a Provence, a subdivision off Hamilton Pool Road, will remain unresolved following a decision made during a Nov. 19 board meeting.

Festival attendees will have access to augmented reality artworks throughout the galleria. (Courtesy Bee Cave Arts Foundation)
Inaugural interactive light festival coming soon to Bee Cave and more Central Texas updates

Read the latest business and community news from the Austin area.

Schools now have the power to temporarily suspend on-campus instruction if “a significant number of the instructional staff at the campus is impacted due to a confirmed COVID-19 outbreak." (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Texas Education Agency authorizes schools to close doors for 14 days due to coronavirus-related staffing concerns

Campuses can now instate a hybrid or fully remote instruction model for up to 14 days if adequate instructional staffing is not possible due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases among employees.

Fluff Meringues & More will be featured at The Wayback Cafe & Cottages. (Courtesy Fluff Meringues & More)
Fluff Meringues & More opens pop-up at The Wayback and more Lake Travis-Westlake-area business news

Here is the most recent business news from the Lake Travis-Westlake area.

Kalahari Resorts & Conventions ended its grand opening event with a fireworks display Nov. 14. (Ali Linan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Kalahari Resorts & Conventions celebrates grand opening in Round Rock and more top Central Texas news

Read the most popular stories from the past week from the Austin area.

Festival attendees will have access to augmented reality artworks throughout the galleria. (Courtesy Bee Cave Arts Foundation)
New interactive light festival generates buzz in Bee Cave

Nonprofit arts organization, the Bee Cave Arts Foundation is gearing up for its first annual light festival, Buzzfest, which will take place at the Hill Country Galleria.