Brazos River recreational developments take shape

Stretching more than 800 miles through the center of Texas, the Brazos River is one of the longest rivers in the U.S. and played a major role in the early settlement of Fort Bend County. Today it offers several miles of undeveloped land in Sugar Land and Missouri City—prime real estate for parkland, green space and recreational opportunities.



In an effort to preserve the natural habitat along the Brazos River corridor while bringing new outdoor amenities to the community, local nonprofit Fort Bend Green—in conjunction with a handful of community partners—has spent the past three years creating a recreation plan for the Brazos River corridor. Drafting the master plan started with a grant from the National Parks Service. After several years of community engagement, Fort Bend Green presented its master plan in May.



"This plan is a living document," said Kim Icenhower, community relations specialist with Fort Bend Green. "Fort Bend Green will continue to seek ideas and feedback and revise ongoing work as needs and desires of the community change."



Overall, the plan outlines 17 projects for the Brazos River corridor—including six major projects in Sugar Land and three near Sienna Plantation in Missouri City—that will be completed in the next two to five years. These projects are expected to help develop the corridor as a destination outdoor attraction, said Lisa Cox, recreation director with Sienna Plantation.



"You can start in the Richmond and Rosenberg area and float through Sugar Land, Missouri City, a small segment of Arcola and into Brazos Bend State Park," she said. "Depending on the flow, it can take up to two days. One of our goals is to identify day trips and half-day trips."



Sugar Land projects



Of the more than 3,600 acres of floodway property in Sugar Land's city limits, the city has acquired about 1,000 acres for development. The city purchased 15 of these acres, while the rest was donated—including a 420-acre donation of former prison property along Hwy. 59—from the state of Texas.



Sugar Land's transformation of the Brazos River corridor began in late 2007 with the development of Sugar Land Memorial Park along University Boulevard. The first phase of development included a pond, a pavilion and plaza, playground equipment and two miles of hike and bike trails. The park now features a veterans memorial, a dog park and an off-road bicycle trail.



Other projects in Sugar Land outlined by Fort Bend Green's master plan include canoe and kayak launch points where the river intersects the Grand Parkway and Hwy. 59 with a third launch point slated for Memorial Park. In addition, the plans call for park space near the master-planned community of Riverstone and new trail systems. New trails include the Brazos River Park Trail parallel to the river along with three proposed habitat education trails throughout the area. Depending on funding sources and potential partnerships, projects are expected to be implemented in the next two to five years.



Sugar Land resident Terri Gill, who works part time at Missouri City bike shop Sugar Cycles, has offered weekly bike tours of the community since the 1980s.



"I love seeing what's happening," Gill said. "[New trails] are very much needed because we don't have much compared to the rest of the United States. It's nice to finally see Sugar Land take a step forward."



Bond projects



Last November, Sugar Land residents voted on three propositions as part of the city's $50 million parks bond package. Voters approved propositions 2 and 3, which include the development of a 33-acre festival site along the river, the further development of the Brazos River corridor and about 10 miles of hike and bike trails throughout the city.



"The [propositions] that did pass I believe were seen as having a communitywide impact," said Allen Bogard, city manager of Sugar Land. "We have agreed upon a conceptual plan that will be presented to City Council in their five-year capital improvement plan."



City Council will review and approve the Capital Improvement Plan in late August or early September, and all of the projects outlined in the bond package are expected to begin construction in the next five years and will be completed within seven years, Bogard said.



Proposition 2 outlines Phase 2 of the Brazos River Park project, which includes more than 85 acres of additional green space. Proposed amenities include multi-use trails, a boat house, picnic areas and athletic facilities. The proposition also includes the construction of a 33-acre permanent festival site and more than 85 acres of new park space. The $21.3 million project will feature multiple access points, a plaza overlooking the river and about 700 parking spaces.



Missouri City projects



Projects in Missouri City associated with the Brazos River are expected to build on existing and incoming developments.



Camp Sienna is a 160-acre outdoor sports complex and nature park in southeastern Fort Bend County that features nearly two miles of trails and athletic fields. The local park improvement district—which has worked to build the park—has plans to improve the park's existing canoe and kayak launch point.



"The Brazos River is interesting because every launch is going to be different based on the access to it," Cox said. "Camp Sienna is a floodplain. Because of the constant rise and fall, it is difficult to build suitable launch points. We are looking to create safe access while not spending money on something that could be washed away."



A few miles north of Camp Sienna, an undeveloped piece of property owned by a private developer is used for sand production. The Brazos River Park master plan outlines a project that would turn the site into a public park called Missouri City Woods. A timeline for the project has not been set, but it is expected that a plan will be drafted over the next 10 years.



"It is a great location between Sienna Plantation and Riverstone," Cox said. "With the size of it, it would be a great regional park."



As Sienna South begins to develop, plans to create park space along the Brazos River are beginning to take shape as well. Since there is no infrastructure in the area, a plan for implementation is expected to take two to five years, according to the master plan.



"I would anticipate as soon as infrastructure is there, the levee district will want to start moving on this project," Cox said. "As soon as it is accessible, they will jump on that development."



Corridor concerns



The Brazos River Park master plan has taken into account several concerns associated with developing the floodway corridor, Icenhower said. When drafting the plan, Fort Bend Green implemented a steering committee to gather feedback from community stakeholders from October 2012–January 2013.



"We want to evaluate to see if we want to designate this as a national paddle trail," Cox said. "We want this to be a communitywide project."



The committee's feedback included recommendations to use the corridor as a paddling river and not a swimming or tubing destination. In addition, stakeholders discussed potential traffic congestion, river safety and negative effects on wildlife and plant habitats. More than 750 residents responded to a citizen survey that asked what the priorities should be for developing the Brazos River corridor. Of the total respondents, the projects that moved to the top of the list included trails along the river, canoe and kayak launch points and additional restrooms. Leisure activities that received the most support included hiking and biking, wildlife education, and paddling the river. Respondents ranked cleanup of the river and riverbanks as the most important action for the corridor.



Development timeline



The proposed projects outlined by Fort Bend Green's master plan are intended to be the first steps toward the development of the Brazos River corridor, Icenhower said.



"Fort Bend Green will use all of this information in the months and years to come to work with all of our partners in government and the community to further our collective vision to protect and enhance the natural heritage of the Brazos River," she said.