$29 million bond used for parks, trail system
An extensive park and trail system in the Willow Fork Drainage District is slowly taking shape as designers draw up plans for an interconnecting trail system, a vital piece of the puzzle in a $29 million green space package.
The improvements follow a 2011 bond election that voters narrowly passed in the 5,718-acre district, which is located largely within Fort Bend County.
The package includes 10 school parks—which were completed in the fall of 2012—along with several community parks and an interconnecting trail system that will be completed in phases.
Two propositions were approved by voters: One that enabled the district—which manages drainage channels in Cinco Ranch, Falcon Ranch, Kelliwood and Canyon Gate—to issue $29 million in bonds, and another that allows it to use tax revenue to maintain new facilities.
"Green space and trails are a big reason why people choose a neighborhood," said Bill Odle, a landscape architect in the Houston office of TBG Partners, who is working on the project.
He said Willow Fork's trail component is now in the design phase. The first segment of trails is scheduled to be completed by August.
The completion of the trail system is set to be the final phase of the bond projects. Much of the right of way for the trails has been acquired, Odle said, and design work is under way to complete the trail system that will total about 50 miles.
Projects listed on the district's master plan will consume all of the $29 million in bonds when they are completed, said April Renberg, a Willow Fork Drainage District board member. Though the bonds will not raise taxes, they will extend the district's debt into 2033.
The trails eventually will link to regional trails and provide a path to George Bush Park or Terry Hershey Park trails. The trail and park system is expected to be complete within eight years.
Odle said the whole project is about connectivity.
"Connectivity gives a sense of true community," he said. "That's a huge driver in new communities."
The presence of interconnecting trails is a positive influence on the homes near them, said Keith Mouton, founder of the Energy Corridor Management District's bike to work campaign.
Before the bond election, Mouton spoke to Cinco Ranch MUDs and homeowners associations in favor of the Willow Fork program.
"The passage of the bonds and extension of these multi-use trails falls right in line with the approach we incorporate and build upon to provide opportunities in this part of town," said Mouton, whose own neighborhood, Green Trails, has trails that were built not as part of the development but retrofitted through the efforts of various entities.
He said he hopes similar efforts will eventually create a regional network.
"It's a multi-jurisdictional, multi-party effort," he said. "There's not a better example of 'It takes a village,' in trying to connect these networks. You're crossing jurisdictional boundaries, master planned community boundaries and trying to knit all that together. It takes a real effort."
Throw in traffic congestion and gasoline prices, and trails are a hot commodity, according to Mouton. Today's master planned communities have interconnecting trails built in, Odle said, and that makes tough competition for buyers interested in green space who pass over older neighborhoods.
"People see that and think, 'Why don't we have that?'" Renberg said. "It wasn't just that our trails didn't connect and had dead ends and didn't have signage, but right out their back doors, people could see the possibilities."
What the Willow Fork district had going for it was opportunity, Ogle said.
"There was an opportunity to go back in and bring that connectivity in," he said. "It was a way to even the playing field with the new communities."
The majority of the trail system will happen in public right of way and on county land.
"Willow Fork Drainage District was created to maintain flood land—that's a great place to put in trails," Odle said.
Challenges and benefits
Although there were plenty of groups on board, the bonds were narrowly approved by voters.
The biggest challenge was money, and the second was selling the community, said Greg Nady, a Kelliwood resident who supported the bond project and often bikes from his home to his office in the Energy Corridor.
Push back from residents about safety concerns is nothing new for communities that have implemented—or tried to implement—trails, said Nady, recalling a $5 million grant that went by the wayside when one neighborhood declined to accommodate a trail.
Willow Fork residents, too, had concerns that the trail and park improvements would bring crime with them, he said.
"People make claims with no basis," Renberg said. "The more active a trail is, the less likely there is to be mischief."
Renberg said the most challenging part of the project in its entirety was correct communication with the public.
"So much in communities is spread by word-of-mouth," she said. "If misconceptions get out there, they are hard to correct."
The board held focus groups and gathered input from PTOs, Realtors, HOAs, retirement communities and other groups.
"You need broad-based community support," Renberg said. "You need to ask the question, 'What do people want? What do the young families want?'"
Linking schools via a trail system become even more important when Katy ISD cut school bus service for homes within certain distances of campuses, Renberg said. In August, the district had to eliminate 52 routes, affecting 21 percent of the district's bus riders, due to a lack of qualified drivers.
Kelliwood resident Alan Gunn and his wife, Lori, use their neighborhood's existing trails. They look forward to a connected network, envisioning trips to the grocery store or friends' houses—all without getting in the car.
"It's really nice to take your kids or simply get away and not worry about traffic," Alan Gunn said. "The people you meet on the trail are usually of the same mindset."
Also among trail supporters is a population of avid runners and bikers.
"You can't leave anyone out," Renberg said. "You have to keep asking questions about what they want, and we are continuing to do that."