More than 3,000 residents sign petition advocating new access
Local parents, administrators and students packed Austin City Council chambers May 15 to support a Four Points Traffic Committee and Leander ISD staff proposal being presented to the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Coordinating Committee.
Led by Sedgwick Law Firm attorney Alan Glen, LISD speakers addressed the coordinating committee. The speakers requested the voting members of the committee, Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Dougherty and Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, convert the current electric corridor that runs over preserve land and behind Vandegrift High School and Four Points Middle School, into an access road. Proponents of the road, including Glen, said that only a single access point to the school campuses exists, making it difficult for ambulances and safety personnel to reach the schools in the case of an emergency.
More than 3,000 area residents signed a petition to allow the creation of the roadway, said Pam Waggoner, LISD board of trustees president.
"The road is not a convenience—it's an essential safety issue," said VHS Principal Charlie Little, who accompanied a group of students who spoke in favor of the roadway.
Dougherty and Leffingwell were joined by the coordinating committee's nonvoting members; Adam Zerrenner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Austin field office supervisor; and William Conrad, Conservation Lands division manager of Austin Water Utility.
Glen said that the solution lies in paving the dirt utility path used for power lines into a 30-foot-wide road. Access from the road would not be provided to any other properties, and Glen said he would work with the BCCP to prevent users from leaving the roadway and entering the adjoining preserve.
"It's designated as electrical transmission to describe what's in it, but nothing says a roadway is prohibited in the corridor," Glen said at the meeting.
Glen said that when the utility road was built, 5 acres had been donated elsewhere for preserve purposes for every individual acre consumed by the utility road.
Conrad said that the action requested by the school district is not provided for in the BCCP, and the habitat quality in the preserve would be affected if the corridor change was made.
Conrad said that a major permit amendment may be needed to alter the status of the corridor from electrical to roadway—which would require the committee to renegotiate its permit to manage the land with USFWS. Conrad said that the process could take a minimum of two years to complete and would be very costly. The BCCP committee will consult with USFWS to advise committee members on whether a major amendment would be required, Conrad said.
"Once you pave it over, it's lost," said Conrad, who estimated more than 6,000 vehicles would drive over the new roadway each day, even during the endangered golden-cheeked warbler's nesting season.
The 27-acre parcel at issue is part of a larger 91-acre habitat preserve, Conrad said. A bridge would be needed as part of the roadway construction, a build he said would be a major disturbance to the preserve population. Conrad said the existing electrical corridor has limited activity annually and minimal activity during nesting season.
"I don't believe the requested action is authorized by our permit and would result in exceeding our authorized take, Conrad said, referring to the permit granted by USFWS to the City of Austin to manage the preserve.
Conrad said the action would set a negative precedent for other communities wanting to convert an electrical corridor into a roadway corridor. Other alternatives for access may be available through the 3M Corp. property, Conrad said.
Glen said he thinks the district will file a formal application to the BCCP committee in June to allow the utility corridor to be used for a roadway.
The proposed road is estimated to cost between $11 million and $15 million. Connecting driveways from the road to the schools will be designed once the project is approved.