Conservationists envision plan for Emerald Crown Trail

The Emerald Crown Trail Master Plan includes 75 miles of trail stretching through the eastern Hays County.
The Emerald Crown Trail Master Plan includes 75 miles of trail stretching through the eastern Hays County.

The Emerald Crown Trail Master Plan includes 75 miles of trail stretching through the eastern Hays County.

Members of local organizations, nonprofits and other advocates have a vision of a network of more than 75 miles of trail that would stretch through eastern Hays County.

The project is called the Emerald Crown Trail and, if developed, it would connect Austin and San Marcos via Buda and Kyle. Though work is not starting any time soon, a master plan was released in May, and the people behind the project are in the process of gathering support from local governmental bodies.

According to the project’s advocates, the Emerald Crown was inspired in part by Austin’s Violet Crown Trail, a path that, when complete, could run for 30 miles between downtown Austin and the Onion Creek Management Area in Hays County. If the Emerald Crown were constructed, it would provide a path between the end of the Violet Crown and Purgatory Creek in San Marcos.

“Everyone talked about how nice it would be to have a trail from San Marcos going up to connect to the Violet Crown Trail,” said Mark Taylor, a former board president of the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance and co-chair of the Regional Trail Work Group, which was formed in early 2017 to direct planning for the Emerald Crown. “[The] problem was: No one wanted to take that idea by the horns and wrestle with it, so I did.”

Taylor started the process by pitching the idea to the Greenbelt Alliance. He earned the board’s support, and the Regional Trail Work Group was created with representatives from Hays County; Buda; Kyle; San Marcos; and other local nonprofit groups and institutions, such the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance, Guadalupe-Blanco River Trust, the San Marcos River Foundation, Take-a-Hike San Marcos, the Hill Country Conservancy, The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, and the Texas State University Department of Geography.



Envisioning the trail


To begin the planning of the vision, the work group applied for a grant from the National Park Service. Though the project did not receive funding, the Emerald Crown was granted project assistance in September 2017, according to Taylor, by the NPS’ Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistant Program. Through the program, the project received NPS staff help with resource identification and analysis.

With the assistance from the NPS in 2018, Taylor said, the work group began to take further steps into the planning process for the Emerald Crown, some of which included conducting presentations for city boards and commissions in Buda, Kyle and San Marcos to introduce the possibility of having a trail connecting the three cities.

Once the idea was introduced to the community, the work group began collecting public input by holding public workshops in March 2018 for residents of all three cities to engage in. The first workshop took place in San Marcos and had 75 attendees, according to the master plan; the second was in Buda with 48 attending; and the third was held in Kyle and saw 40 attendees.

During these workshops, the participating residents of each community were asked to give input on six topics regarding the Emerald Crown. These included general comments about the trail, potential trail activities, trail design, trailhead design, amenities, issues, challenges, solutions, destinations and opportunities.

Based on the information gathered from the public workshops and cited in the master plan, participants wanted recreational activities to engage in hiking, biking and walking. Some were more interested in nature-centered activities, such as camping and birdwatching, while others viewed the trail as a valuable commuting option.

The two most popular trail designs out of the five presented were a wide, stable-surfaced trail and a narrow nature trail. Some of the most important amenities identified by the participants were trail information stations, restrooms, drinking fountains, parking and bike racks. Participants were least interested in seating and children’s play areas, based on the master plan.

Participants were also asked about any potential concerns about the trail. Some of the most frequently raised were safety of hikers and cyclists, littering, waste and trespassing.

Private landowners also expressed concern about the potential use of eminent domain, or the taking of private land regardless of whether the owner wants to sell. Cities and counties can use eminent domain for some public projects as long as the landowner is fairly compensated.

Taylor said that, early on, the group adopted guidelines that said no eminent domain would be employed to build the trail.

“That’s what we hope is [in] the end a benefit,” Taylor said. “But it’s also a challenge.”



Green space for a growing county


In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Hays County as among the fastest-growing counties in the country, showing that it added over 57,000 residents in the seven-year period from 2010-17.

With that growth has come the desire for more outdoor amenities, such as the Emerald Crown, according to Justin Bates, former community planner at the NPS Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, who helped develop the Emerald Crown master plan.

“Each of the communities along the I-35 corridor has done their own surveys for planning in their parks system, and each of them has seen gradually strong demand for additional trails and expanded trail systems,” Bates said.

Bates also said the Emerald Crown will benefit the community by providing alternative transportation and recreation opportunities for the three cities and the county. It would also connect existing trails and parks in the community as well as other transportation master plans these cities already have in place, making it possible to commute through different parts of town and to different cities while enjoying nature.



Practical matters


Despite a developed master plan and much support from the community, the Emerald Crown still finds itself at a conceptual stage of development, according to Taylor.

“It’s decisions by each of the three cities to move forward in their own way, and now they have a guiding document we hope they’ll keep it in mind,” Taylor said.

The master plan for the trail has been adopted as a resolution by Buda, Kyle and San Marcos, and the Regional Trail Work Group is working on getting it on the Hays County Commissioners Court agenda. Once the work group gets all four support resolutions, it will have another meeting and decide what the next steps will be, Taylor said.

“I’ve come to realize that any trail that you end up on takes a process to put in place,” Taylor said.

There is still no funding for the Emerald Crown, or cost estimates, as both Taylor and Bates say the project is a long-term vision, and the master plan is meant to be an idea of what the trail could offer and where the routes could be located.

“I think the funding for the trail will require anything from grant funding, city development, city and county tapping into other funding,” Bates said.

But although the Emerald Crown is in the earliest stages of planning, Taylor said the master plan presents a clear vision.

“Getting to here from there, but instead of fighting traffic, sitting through traffic signals and interacting with people who are in a hurry ... taking things in by hiking or biking as you can’t when you’re in a motor vehicle,” Taylor said. “[That] is my vision for this entire region of eastern Hays County.”
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