City’s future topic of all-day plan session

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Engineering consultant Pix Howell (standing left) demonstrates software to city officials that can generate graphs, charts and maps to show the relationship between different ongoing capital improvement projects. It is one of many ways the City is preparing itself for the massive planning work ahead. (Waylon Cunningham Photo)


By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

Call it the Coachella of municipal planning. An eight-hour joint planning session last week brought together city staff, elected officials and their appointees to city boards to discuss a common vision for the City of Liberty Hill over the next five and 10 years.

The meeting, which took place in a conference room at the Liberty Hill ISD Administration Building, was attended by city directors, all Council members (except Ron Rhea), representatives from the Liberty Hill Economic Development Corp., the Parks & Recreation Board, and the Planning & Zoning Commission. Police Chief Maverick Campbell and Planning & Zoning Chairman Clyde Davis attended for parts.

Rapid but controlled growth was a constant refrain through the discussions of wastewater expansion, tax reforms, and municipal planning software. No actions were taken, but the presentations from various city officials and consultants gave a comprehensive overview of the city’s ongoing projects and potential plans for future moves.

City Administrator Greg Boatright said Liberty Hill could soon become a regional partner. The city limits currently include 2,241 lots planned for development, but officials have their eyes on many more beyond the present footprint.

Managing the growth will become more difficult as the city’s planning binders stack higher, attendees agreed. Engineering Consultant Pix Howell, in presenting municipal planning software, said, “This is a growth so intense, it’s been hard for staff to keep up.”

The meeting also provided an opportunity for feedback from Council members, who must ultimately approve the majority of discussed measures. Their response to the updates and proposals was almost unilaterally positive, although Council Member Wendell McLeod shot down two of the three preliminary designs for a proposed traffic circle at Loop 332 and Bagdad Road.

Public utilities to add thousands in connections, hundreds of thousands in capacity

An update given by Boatright on talks between Liberty Hill and Georgetown loomed over the first half of the meeting, which addressed expansion of the city’s utility infrastructure. Though the discussion is in a preliminary stage, Georgetown has expressed interest in transferring the rights for water services to a massive area to Liberty Hill’s east.

The transfer would deposit an existing 2,850 connections into the system, though as the subdivisions there, such as Stonewall and Rancho Sienna bloom, it is expected to yield an additional 13,000 connections.

The shift would signal a change in the “complexion of the city,” Boatright said. “In 10 years, you’ll look back at this as one of the most significant moments in the city.”

The transfer—which gives what is called a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity, or CCN— would complement many agreements the city is already pursuing with the subdivisions and landowners in the area, such as the Butler estate.

The details of the transfer, however, could change dramatically in the upcoming weeks, Boatright said.

For now, however, the response to the proposal was overwhelmingly positive from those in attendance last week.

“All I can say is ‘wow,’” said Mayor Connie Fuller. “This is incredible.”

Adopting responsibility for an area’s utilities is often a precursor for annexation, and Boatright has previously emphasized enlarging the city’s footprint as a priority.

Assistant City Administrator Amber Lewis confirmed that, if the city achieved home rule, properties unaffiliated with a MUD in the area could potentially be unilaterally annexed.

The discussion followed after an overview of upcoming utility lines, presented by the engineering firm Steger & Bizzell. These improvements and additions will significantly expand the wastewater system’s capacity to keep ahead of additions, which will add hundreds of connections.

A new municipal utility district, MUD 19, would add almost 2,000 new connections. A bypass at Seward Junction, paid for by Williamson County, will add hundreds more, and put many estates, such as the Hogan and Abbott, into play. And already, future lines running up Jonathan Drive and Holmes Road have already spurned new economic development.

All are due to be complete by the end of 2017.

These, and recently completed lines, such as a 12-inch main the city shares with Leander, are crucial for “opening up areas into play,” Boatright said.

Beyond adding connections in the immediate term, the city also discussed ongoing projects and strategies that would allow it to stay ahead of future wastewater system growth.

The upcoming completion of the expansion to the wastewater treatment plant, set for September 2017, will triple the capacity of the existing plant to an 800,000 gallons per day. The new system, which relies on a biomembrane reactor, is “state of the art,” said engineering consultant Perry Steger, the president of Steger & Bizzell.

Steger and Boatright agreed that any new wastewater additions should be based on a gravity system, as the existing grinder pump-based infrastructure would prove a “logistical nightmare’ as the city expands.

Software showcased to help City keep on top of growth

Beyond wastewater, the city heard from consulting firms on strategies that, on a scale broader than any specific domain, help the city coordinate its various projects.

Municipal planning consultant Pix Howell demonstrated a software program that could generate timelines, charts and interactive maps to help city managers coordinate between a number of projects. Howell said that its projection of budget uses over time can provide insight as to when projects need to be accelerated or decelerated.

Howell said, “Liberty Hill is on the cusp of being a grown up city,” with a regional and perhaps even statewide profile. The software would allow them to “take a step back and look at the whole picture.”

Howell said that the program would also allow for the inclusion of even minor projects, such as the planting of crepe myrtle bushes at the Loop 332 and Highway 29 intersection, which Council Member Elizabeth Branigan said should not be forgotten.

Planning the soul of Liberty Hill

Pumping up the numbers associated with infrastructure and the economy was far from the only priority at the all-day meeting. Officials also expressed the need to preserve and spotlight Liberty Hill’s identity as a community.

EDC Executive Director Lance Dean, who began his position in March, said that Liberty Hill needs a brand that could instantly identify the city. He pointed to Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird,” campaign as a successful instance of this, but jokingly noted that he would like to “Keep Liberty Hill Normal.”

Downtown, the city hopes to implement a revitalization plan to emphasize Liberty Hill’s history, create a cohesive and vintage appearance, and cultivate a brand as a tourism destination.

Goals planned over the next five years include the opening of an events venue, which the owners of Parker’s Corner Market are currently pursuing in a refurbished building downtown. City officials hope to make a regular occurrence of cultural events, such as this summer’s downtown art exhibit and Independence Day celebrations. New sidewalks, trees, and information plaques would continue to beautify downtown, along with the EDC’s facade grants.

The need for architectural guidelines was emphasized by Branigan, who said that the city needs to come up with rules on manufactured homes that are fair to everyone, while preserving the appearance of downtown.

The intersection of Loop 332 and Highway 29 — where road improvements and planted crepe myrtles are planned— would join the corner of Ranch Road 1869 and Highway 29 in becoming a “gateway to the Old Town” of Liberty Hill.

Vintage benches and lighting would feature in a downtown pocket park, crowning a network of small outdoor spaces the city hopes to make a defining element of Liberty Hill.

“People come here for the outdoors lifestyle. I can’t understate how important these pocket parks are,” said Branigan.

Grant consultant Judy Langford, from LCMS, Inc., gave a short presentation on possible grant strategies the city could pursue for recreational improvements, and on the city’s grant application to Texas Parks & Wildlife. If the city’s application is accepted, the grant would provide $250,000 for the expansion of trails along Main Street, from Liberty Hill Elementary School to City Park on CR 200.

Those trails would play into a broader program to eventually join all the pocket parks, and the Williamson County Park, into an interconnected trail network. This, officials agreed, would help make traveling by foot and bicycle more feasible in the city.

Langford applauded the city’s effort toward the pocket parks and trails.

“You don’t see smaller communities doing these kind of things, and I work with over 80 towns,” she said.

New demographic information from the Retail Coach spotlights community needs

Dean presented new demographic information compiled by the Retail Coach LLC., a consulting firm hired by the city to help market itself to potential employers.

According to the statistics, Liberty Hill’s retail area—which extends from Florence and Leander to the east, and just past Bertram to the west—had an estimated population of 34,070 in 2017. Projections put that count at 38,143 by 2022.

Traffic counts showed a daily count of 17,000 vehicles passing over Highway 29 and 5,000 through the downtown, though EDC President Bill Chapman said that the numbers seemed too low to him. A separate study conducted recently in front of the Stonewall Ranch subdivision, he said, had shown much more.

Dean noted that the age distribution of the population showed a dip in the 18-24 and 25-34 demographic. This, he said, was because of young people leaving for school and their first career job. He said that the city needs a trade school or other form of higher education.

Dean also said that the city needs a grocery store, such as HEB.

“That’s $1 million leaving the city every week,” he said.

Dean was not the only one to identify a gap in the city’s current composition.

Later in the meeting, Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Clyde Davis said, “we need more affordable housing for our worker bees.”

The Schlotzsky’s, he said, is expected to employ 40-60 workers. “We just don’t have that,” he said.

Waylon@LHIndependent.com

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