By Travis Atkins
At the organization’s June monthly meeting, the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods welcomed Butch Smith of the Hill Country Conservancy to give an update presentation on the 30-mile Violet Crown Trail, parts of which will snake through the Oak Hill area, including Dick Nichols Park.
The proposed trail will stretch from the southern edge of Zilker Park, through Oak Hill and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, all the way past FM 976 into the rural lands of Hays County.
“The idea is very ambitious, I would say,” Smith said. “As a matter of fact, there is nothing like it in Central Texas.”
The construction plan for the trail is broken into three phases. Phase one, called “Urban Wildlands” runs from Zilker Park through the Barton Creek Greenbelt for five miles, then goes south along Gaines Creek and comes out on Highway 290, entering the city of Sunset Valley. Much of phase one is already completed as developers have used existing trails in the Barton Creek area to link up with newly constructed ones.
“The trail will be a multi-use trail, for bicyclist, hikers, runners and baby strollers,” Smith said. “It will be 10 feet wide with different surfaces depending on the nature of the area. For example, in the Barton Creek area, it’s going to be a very naturalistic trail. When we get back up into Sunset Valley, it’s probably going to be a combination of asphalt and granite. We think it’s going to go back to a natural trail when we get out into the Hill Country, but that is still up for discussion.”
Due to begin construction by the end of this year, phase two is where Oak Hill comes into play. It will start at 290 in Sunset Valley; go through the Williamson Creek Greenbelt along Loop 1 and all the way to Dick Nichols Park. Smith said they have encountered a bit of a trail block in Sunset Valley.
“Sunset Valley wouldn’t let us use any of their existing trails,” Smith said. “They don’t like Austinites coming in.”
Once it makes its way to Oak Hill, the Violet Crown Trail will link up with existing Oak Hill trails including the ones in Dick Nichols Park and trails that will be built in the future as offshoots of the Violet Crown.
“The Oak Hill Trail is the trail you guys are going to build,” Smith said, referring to Oak Hillians. “Our main contribution is going to be connecting to it. We look at the Violet Crown Trail as a spine trail.”
According to Rick Perkins of the Oak Hill Trails Association, Oak Hill currently has 20-32 miles of trails depending on what are considered the Oak Hill community boundaries.
Funding has been a challenge from the get-go for the Violet Crown Trail. Smith says the only way the trail will work is with a combination of public and private funding.
“Our funding is really in danger right now,” Smith said. “So that puts us back in the private sector. We are really doing the best we can to try and raise money. It’s quite a challenge.”
They did receive a $200,000 grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife for part of phase two, which includes Oak Hill.
“We were trying to figure out where was the best way to spend this money,” Smith said. “We felt in this area, we could connect two major parks together and a lot of neighborhoods.”
This area is going to be all about connectivity, Smith said. In addition to the grant, the City of Austin Parks Department put quite a bit of money into the “Phase 2” area which will result in a connection to the Will Hampton Library and Deer Creek neighborhood.
To build a Texas Department of Transportation approved trail, it costs 1.7 million dollars per mile, according to Smith. With so much money to be raised and so many jurisdictions that the trail will cover (City of Austin, Sunset Valley, Travis County, Hays County), Smith and his team are putting together a trail council.
“We are all about partners,” Smith said. “So we want to create something called the Trails Council which will be everybody who’s involved in the 30-mile trail including government agencies. We hope we can get neighborhoods along the way to adopt a section of the trail and be involved in the Trails Council.”
The council will meet quarterly to discuss improvements to the trail, according to Smith. Along with the main organizations backing the trail, the City of Austin and Hill Country Conservancy, there are over twenty additional partners.
Once Violet Crown gets past Oak Hill and then the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, there will be approximately 17 miles of open countryside leading all the way into Hays County, making up Phase Three.
“You better be prepared when you go out there because you’re going to be out there with nature,” Smith said. “I’m really looking forward to this part. This is going to be what most people think of when they think of the Violet Crown Trail.”
Being out in the open country does not exempt the trail from being subject to the specifications of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some regulations include the surface cannot exceed a ten percent grade, it has to be level and firm and if there is any sort of low-water crossing, there must be a bridge.
“I’ve been to several training sessions and they say it’s not just for people in wheelchairs,” Smith said. “Making trails accessible makes it easier for everyone, including children and the elderly.”
Much of the trail will be built by members of the organization American YouthWorks, which takes at-risk youth and seeks to improve their lives through education, service and green jobs training. The youths agree to two years worth of service.
“They have developed into some of the best trail builders you will find,” Smith said. “We want to use them to build our trails for a couple reasons: one, they’re good, and two, it’s a greater benefit to society because a lot of times, they’ll go on and find careers in the parks or some kind of landscaping.”
There are also two major volunteer days: National Public Lands Day on September 29th and National Trails Day on June 2nd. Smith said National Trails Day drew 200-300 people this year.
“We have gone through at least three years of planning to get to where we are now,” Smith said. “We had to go before all the boards and commissions of the City of Austin and the City of Sunset Valley. Hopefully by the end of this year, we will have a shovel-ready set of plans to go out there and build this.”
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