The board of directors for the River Place Limited District in Northwest Austin has decided it will no longer charge $10 for pets that accompany humans using its nature trail, but humans will still have to pay the fee during designated hours.
The ruling came during the Oct. 22 board meeting and was accompanied by a decision to reduce its yearly charge for nonresidents of the limited district to use its tennis facilities from $300 to $100.
"We had a conversation with Texas Parks & Wildlife, and they brought up their concerns about the pet fee," said Scott Crosby, River Place Limited District board president.
The decision is the latest in an ongoing situation between the limited district and TPWD. The state agency began investigating the River Place trail fee earlier this year.
Since March, the River Place Limited District has been charging nonresidents $10 per person and per pet to use its nature trail. At issue has been whether trail access can be limited because the walkway was constructed partially via the use of state grant money, $500,000 of which was awarded in 2002.
A copy of a 2002 state project agreement shows that the state agency approved a state-funded grant of $500,000 to go toward completion of River Place MUD Woodlands Park and Nature Preserve, with a portion of that money to go toward the creation of the trail system.
Guidelines from the Texas Recreation & Parks Account Program in the same document stipulate the project sponsor “… will permanently dedicate for public park and recreation use all project area(s) which receive TRPA assistance, as required by Chapter 640.1.2 of TRPA Grants Manual Guidelines.”
Following the initial investigation, TPWD sent a letter to the limited district July 23 stating the fee must be "terminated immediately." The River Place board responded with a letter dated Aug. 6 from its legal team stating the trail fee was valid and comparing its fee to nearby Emma Long Metropolitan Park, which also charges admission.
The Oct. 22 decision to get rid of the pet portion of the fee also follows an Aug. 30 letter sent to the limited district from TPWD. That letter, obtained by Community Impact Newspaper and verified as having been seen by Crosby, stated the Aug. 6 letter from the limited district did not provide a valid defense of its trail fee.
The Aug. 30 rebuttal letter from TPWD states a comparison to Emma Long Metropolitan Park is not valid for several reasons. Among those: Emma Long charges the same fees for residents and nonresidents; the fee is assessed per vehicle, not per person; the fee is substantially lower than River Place's trail fee; and Emma Long offers far more amenities, activities and acreage.
"Due to major differences in fee structure and recreational diversity offered by the two parks, TPWD does not view Emma Long as a comparable facility to the River Place Nature Trail," the letter states. "The Turkey Creek Trail, located adjacent to Emma Long Park, is a comparable facility to the nature trail and is free to the public. There are also no user fees imposed on the adjacent motorcycle trail system."
Crosby said the decision to scrap the pet portion of River Place's trail fee was in no way influenced by the Aug. 30 letter from TPWD, but the board did discuss the letter with representatives from the state agency.
"In our initial phone conversations, we kind of went over that," he said. "We kind of presented our side and they presented their side and nothing really occurred."
On Oct. 30, members of TPWD will conduct a “walk through” of the nature trail, but earlier in the month, a TPWD representative said they would not comment further on proceedings at this time.
From the beginning of the implemention of the trail fee up through the end of August, the continuing costs for the fee program totaled $53,938.12, and the revenue was $55,360, resulting in a net gain of $1,421.88, Crosby said Oct. 4, adding the removal of the pet portion of the fee should not heavily impact revenue, which has mainly been channeled back into costs associated with charging the fee.
"There haven't been all that many dogs," he said. "We don't keep track of how many dogs versus people there are."