Travis County plans for new growth

Project focuses on land use for county's unincorporated areas

According to proponents of Travis County's Land, Water and Transportation Plan, or LWTP, the county is projected to grow to roughly 1.5 million people in the next 20 years, with many of them residing in unincorporated areas. As the area's population increases, so will the demand for county services. Travis County staffers said they are hoping their plan will provide the blueprint needed to put the region's governmental resources and infrastructure ahead of the game.

The Plan's purpose

The LWTP focuses exclusively on the future of the unincorporated areas of Travis County.

Nearly two-thirds of Travis County land and 20 percent of its population is located in unincorporated areas outside city limits, falling under the jurisdiction of the Travis County Commissioners Court, said Wendy Scaperotta, the county's Transportation and Natural Resources Department project manager. She spoke to residents during a Sept. 15 presentation to Lakeway City Council.

Compared with the jurisdiction that municipalities have over land located within their borders, Travis County is more limited when governing its unincorporated property.

A city in Travis County can enact ordinances that do not conflict with state law—such as preventing a developer from building a quarry next to a school, said Steven Manilla, county executive for the Travis County TNR. However, the unincorporated areas of the county must work within the boundaries set by the state, he said.

That is where the proposed plan comes in, Manilla said.

"We'll have something in place to guide [Travis County's] budget decisions, bond referendums and [prioritize] which projects are on the list that go before voters," he said.

The LWTP will also provide a framework for the county's policies and legislative agenda, Manilla said.

The Commissioners Court is set to vote on the plan in early December, he said.

Incorporating activity centers

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization created the idea of local activity centers—mixed-use developments in which residents can work, live and play in the same area, Manilla said. Activity centers are connected through transportation corridors—arterial roads accessed by cars, mass transit, bikes or pedestrians, he said.

The LWTP focuses on developing communities in the county's unincorporated area using these activity centers and transportation corridors. The plan predicts this model will improve traffic congestion, benefit the environment, lessen government spending on infrastructure, reduce commuter costs and improve the quality of life for residents.

"There's been an elementary shift in our community's needs," Manilla said. "Up to the time CAMPO created its 2035 plan, [Travis County] development occurred through sprawl, and vehicles were encouraged as the type of transportation. Previous plans did not give weight to walking or biking, which are better for the environment."

He said older subdivisions were planned with less mobility, making it more tedious and expensive for residents to get around.

"We wanted more connectivity within subdivisions and from one subdivision to another," Manilla said.

Moving forward in Travis County

If the LWTP passes, Travis County commissioners will consider transportation corridors and activity centers to be a priority in developing its unincorporated areas.

"Three issues are driving the need for the LWTP—people, cars and development," Travis County TNR Planner Charlie Watts said at the Sept. 15 meeting. Watts is responsible for the development and transportation components of the LWTP.

The plan emphasizes two corridors in particular—SH 130 and RR 620. Lakeway City Council members pointed out the plan's focus is largely on SH 130, with very few proposals geared to address transportation issues facing the western portions of the county.

Most new development in Travis County's unincorporated area is occurring along the SH 130 corridor in the east, Watts said. Some of the development is traditional single-family homes with low density, he said.

"However, there are pockets of developments coming on that are an alternative type of development—more dense—and known as activity centers," Watts said.

Some of the developments in the SH 130 corridor—including Whisper Valley, Wild Horse, Eastwood and Indian Hills—are new residential subdivisions with large mixed-use centers, Manilla said. These communities have development agreements, and many have roadway partnerships that provide connectivity to an activity center, he said.

A comprehensive bike and pedestrian trail system—connecting transportation and conservation corridors—can be developed along the SH 130 corridor, he said.

"It is expected that the choice of low-density, single-family housing will continue to be available but so will the mixed-use, compact, walkable developments that are being planned and built by developers in the SH 130 growth corridor," the plan says.

Travis County has tools to persuade developers to design their communities along preferred corridors, Watts said.

"We can leverage infrastructure and investments with developers either through possible public/private partnerships, developer agreements and such," Watts said. "And we can incentivize with employers locating in these areas and also possibly provide tax abatements if that's determined necessary."

Western Travis County limited

The RR 620 corridor specified in the LWTP includes the areas surrounding RR 2222, RR 620, Hwy. 71 and Bee Caves Road.

Endangered species habitats and topography limit new transportation corridor development in the western part of the county, Watts said.

Therefore, the LWTP will focus on the area's current roadway network, or corridors, to connect with activity centers, he said.

"In western Travis County we're having to use the existing transportation system—RR 620, RR 2222, Hwy. 71, Bee Caves Road—to make those connections," he said. "There's not a lot of ability to make new connections."

According to the LWTP, about 25 percent of all unincorporated land in western Travis County is designated as conservation land as opposed to only 2 percent in eastern Travis County. The plan states the main force behind the conservation has been to protect endangered species habitats, all of which are in western Travis County.

Since improvements to the western road corridors are limited, the quality of life for residents living in the area has been impacted, the plan states.

"Our plan will not resolve the issue of crossing the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve with roadways," said Manilla, who is also a Lakeway resident. "What it will do is help to avoid that from happening in the future."

The LWTP says western activity centers need improvements to all modes of transportation—car, bike, transit and pedestrian—along RR 620 and its connector roadways.

Watts said the plan for RR 620 is to add capacity with an additional lane in

each direction.

However, not everyone agrees increasing lanes on RR 620 is the answer to the corridor's congestion.

"RR 620 is not a viable solution as far as I'm concerned, but that's all we're talking about," said Lakeway Councilman Joe Bain, who is also a member of CAMPO's Transportation Policy board. "It's 2014, and we already have a significant issue. [By] 2035, it's going to be gridlock here.

"The east side's got [SH] 130. The west side needs to come up with a better solution than just adding a lane to [RR] 620."

Conservation areas

"The purpose of the conservation portion of the LWTP is to provide a framework for balancing conservation and development," Scaperotta said. "Our intent is to conserve resources as large contiguous tracts of land or as corridors along waterways."

She said the plan's priorities include the Pedernales River in southwest Travis County, the Colorado River section in eastern Travis County that runs to the Bastrop County line and three tributary creeks.