Trails top list in Williamson County parks talk

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

As the county and consultants begin the process of updating the Williamson County Parks Master Plan, one fact is evident – regional trails are at the top of the list for residents.

“The trails are huge here in the county,” said Williamson County Parks Senior Director Randy Bell. “In both the 2008 and the most recent survey, trails were number one in what people want to see.”

Among 526 respondents to the recent county parks survey, 71 percent said the county should expand the trail system to link more existing trails, cities and neighborhoods.

This has been a focus for the county for some time, and as the master plan update is conducted, the message is being reinforced. Adding to the current 258 miles of trails in the county is a primary goal. Currently, the plan calls for an additional 700 miles of trails over time.

In 2012, the county conducted a gap analysis that showed all of the trails in the county at the time, as well as future planned trails by various cities.

“At that point we were looking at where we could fill gaps, even in the unincorporated areas, that would help in the connection in those existing systems,” Bell said. “You’ll see this in our master plan, how we make those larger connections and how we make those north and south and east and west.”

One potential corridor is the San Gabriel River in the west end of the county, to eventually be tied into the trails at River Ranch Park, which is soon to begin construction between Leander and Liberty Hill off Bagdad Road.

Different types of trails will fit different needs, but the county is learning that demand is a challenge to keep pace with.

“Some people want nature trails, which to me is more of a single-track type trail through a wooded area, which is what you will see at River Ranch,” Bell said. “There are more regional-type trails like Brushy Creek trail, which is 10-feet wide, and is already too small because it is so crowded and congested with different users.”

In addition to the surveys, public input has been gathered at four open houses – one in each precinct – as the county and consultants from Halff Associates work to zero in on a long-term plan.

“We got some great input on our 22-question survey,” said Jordan Maddox with Halff Associates. “We have just kind of started to draft the document, waiting to get the input from these events, then the writing of it will occur over the next month or two.”

The master plan, first adopted in 2008, must be updated every 10 years to remain eligible for Texas Parks and Wildlife grants.

“Whatever feedback we get will help us finalize some of these actions and flesh out some of the details,” Maddox said. “The plan is to have a public hearing and a draft and then look at final adoption in July.”

With park development accelerating over the past decade throughout the county, Maddox added that it is important in this update for the county to find its niche.

“Most counties and cities have a different role in providing parks,” he said. “We’ve talked about the several different lanes. The federal government has their lane, Texas Parks and Wildlife has their lane, then counties and then the cities. Cities are focused on local parks, ballfields, lots of very intense recreation in close proximity to people’s houses. There is a step above that for the county, with much more passive recreation, with a focus on open space, a focus on trails and the natural environment.”

Southwest Regional Park, according to Maddox is a “kitchen sink park” because it has some of everything.

“It has preserved areas, ball fields, the train, splash pad, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “That type of park is not going to be built again by the county.”

In addition to the call for more trails, 60 percent of survey respondents said the county should focus on passive outdoor recreation opportunities, which include activities like picnicking, hiking and fishing. They also asked for restrooms on trails, and more natural and wildlife areas.

The county currently has four open parks, including Berry Springs Park and Preserve in Georgetown, Champions Park in Cedar Park, Southwest Williamson County Regional Park in Leander and Twin Lakes Park, even though it is leased to the YMCA for maintenance and operations, in Cedar Park.

River Ranch County Park, is slated to go out for bids for phase one soon, potentially being open to the public by next Spring.

The county will be taking comments, suggestions and input for the master plan revision through the end of April. Bell said thinking of the purpose of the parks and other needs, perhaps not yet met, will help formulate the future plan for the county.

“What do (the parks) do, how do they complement what’s out there? What is it we can do differently or better to more define our lane, which is larger, more passive type parks, which you might see in a state park type set up,” Bell said, emphasizing that he hopes residents will also be thinking well into the future a decade or two. “Be thinking, do we have enough park land? If you ask me, I’m going to say as fast as this county is developing and growing, right now we do not. People 50 years from now will certainly appreciate if we thought ahead today.”

Mike@LHIndependent.com

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