Proponents of an emergency access road behind Leander ISD's Vandegrift High and Four Points Middle schools—at 9500–9700 McNeil Drive—will begin the formal process in mid-September to obtain a federal permit for the project, school district attorney Alan Glen said.
Approval from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is needed for the project since the proposed road sits on the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, property that houses endangered species' habitats, he said. The filed documents will include a plan to build the road in a way that will not harm endangered species, he said.
The filing will include a survey of the endangered wildlife habitat that may be on the tract, Glen said.
"We are at the beginning of a very long process," he said.
The project is complicated, said Wendy Connally, Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources program manager. LISD would need to add a bridge over a salamander habitat on the property and find comparable land to replace the habitat impacted by the road, she said.
The schools lack a second access other than from RR 2222, LISD school board President Pamela Waggoner said. The district is requesting to use a portion of a designated corridor along the BCP boundary to create a road for safety personnel to reach the students, she said.
"A second entrance allows emergency vehicles into the property quicker while allowing exiting traffic out," Waggoner said.
Road proposed in a designated corridor
In 1996 the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan gave Travis County the power to oversee development of property affecting the BCP, Connally said.
LISD is seeking to put a road in a corridor defined as an electrical transmission corridor, which can only be developed by utility agencies, she said.
"The big issue is that the corridor was not designed as a roadway corridor [when the BCCP was created], has not been mitigated for the impact it may have on endangered species and LISD is not a utility service provider," Connally said. "People management issues—trespassing, vandalism and greater risk of wildfire—will be created if the utility corridor at issue is converted into a roadway."
However, LISD maintains the corridor covering the proposed roadway is defined as a primary corridor—not an electrical or utility corridor—by the BCCP, Waggoner said. As a primary corridor, the tract should receive the major share of future development, she said.
Waggoner said that the BCCP specifically refers to the needs of the area's expanding population and was intended to remain flexible to allow for expected growth.
"This property already has two large transmission lines, water and wastewater lines, and an extensive dirt road, along with other disturbed areas," she said. "It is unlikely this area of the corridor has not already received some mitigation."
Mitigation land is property set aside by BCCP partners—Travis County and Austin—as preserve to offset development occurring elsewhere in Travis County that impacts endangered species habitats, Connally said.
Waggoner said the proposed road had not been mitigated for two species of salamanders which were added to the USFWS list of threatened or endangered species in 2013.
"[LISD] is aware more mitigation would likely take place to include the salamanders, but there is nothing in the BCCP which stops the development of this road," she said. "In fact, the corridors were developed to steer traffic and growth to these areas so traffic would not go through the heart of the preserve."
Until LISD files a Habitat Conservation Plan for the corridor, the USFWS cannot comment on a proposal it has not reviewed, USFWS Field Supervisor Adam Zerrener said.
Although an adjoining tract is under development as a single-family neighborhood—Preserve at Four Points—Connally said the property is outside of the BCP and not part of the preserve tracts that would encompass the proposed road. She said these tracts have already been designated as preserve to allow for development elsewhere in the area.
The Texas Department of Transportation's proposed bypass roads would help traffic congestion at the Four Points schools, said Jon White, director of the Natural Resources and Environmental Quality Division at Travis County TNR.
In May, TxDOT proposed a road from RR 620 to RR 2222 to bypass the intersection's corner, as well as dual left turn lanes from eastbound RR 2222 onto McNeil Drive.
"[In a wildfire], this is going to be a shelter in place situation [for students and staff]," he said. "[Vandegrift High School] is a hardened structure with minimal landscaping.
"So the alternative is to take students out through a road through the woods and dump them out onto [RR] 620? [RR] 620, if anything, is worse than [RR] 2222."
White said his department has been working with government and neighborhood groups for the past year to develop an emergency alternate route for the schools.
BCCP or BCP—What's the difference?
Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP)
The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan is a regional plan that provides a streamlined approach for development within an environmentally sensitive area.
Before 1996, developers who wanted to build in environmentally sensitive areas of Central Texas had to individually negotiate a permit with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said Wendy Connally, Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources program manager. This process took between two to five years to complete and required the developer to create his or her own habitat plan, she said.
When it was created in 1996, the BCCP allowed developers to pay a fee to mitigate for endangered species habitat loss, a process now reduced to 30 days, she said.
Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP)
In exchange for an expedited process to develop in environmentally sensitive areas, Travis County, Austin and other BCCP partners agreed with USFWS to amass over 30,000 acres to be set aside and maintained for habitat preserve. That land is called the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, or BCP—land set aside to allow development to occur elsewhere in Travis County.
The BCCP splits the responsibility to maintain the BCP—with the city of Austin managing infrastructure such as transmission corridors and Travis County overseeing land and development.
In September 2013 the two voting members of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Planning Coordinating Committee—Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell—indicated they may not vote the same way on the road proposal. Their agreement to endorse the road would be needed to fast-track the project. Without their consent, Leander ISD will need to take the longer route—about two to five years—to file a plan with USFWS to build the road and preserve the endangered species habitat.