The Bomers’ property (above center) is needed by TxDOT for Highway 71 improvements associated with the Oak Hill Parkway project, but residents say the other side of the street—commercial lots with few trees—would be more appropriate for right-of-way taking.
by Ann Fowler
OAK HILL – In 1792, James Madison wrote, “If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments.”
Long-time Oak Hill resident Crystal Bomer is not one willing to praise Texas as a just government, given that 8,000 square feet of her property may go to the proposed “Oak Hill Parkway” if Build Alternative “A” or “C” is chosen.
Governments are allowed to take private property through “eminent domain” if that property is needed for public use. Several Oak Hill properties—both residential and commercial—were taken when U.S. 290 West was originally widened decades ago.
Locals want TxDOT to fix the major rush-hour traffic headache faced by those using U.S. 290 West and Highway 71. But many say the six-lane “fix” proposed by transportation officials is overkill and would ruin the ambience of Oak Hill.
To that end, Bomer questions whether there is a real need for TxDOT to take her property. She said, “The frustrating thing is that the land on the opposite side of the highway has no trees and everything they want to do could be done over there (Valero/Sonic side) but it’s all on our side where we and our neighbors all have nice land and lots of trees.”
Kelli Reyna, public information officer with TxDOT’s Austin District, told the Gazette, “Minimizing right-of-way impacts to both residential and commercial properties, as well as the potential impacts to the natural environment including the area’s trees and Williamson Creek, has been a priority for the project team since the beginning of the study.”
Representatives of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) showed a proposed plan to the Bomers. “It would take out several huge oak trees we have in addition to ruining our property,” Bomer told the Gazette. “They will have to take our house, the plans have the road and sidewalks almost up to our front door.”
Save Oak Hill is a coalition of neighbors that want to preserve the rich community history as well as protect its unique natural features. Alan Watts of Save Oak Hill said, “TxDOT’s design philosophy—that bigger and faster is better—is an outdated concept and has resulted in an oversized proposal that consumes the entire right of way for most of the 4-1/2 mile project and requires even more width in places like Crystal Bomer’s house.”
One of the early alternatives, F, was similar to the roadway proposed by Fix290, a group that fought the large, tolled roadway proposed a decade ago. That group proposed a smaller, single-elevation roadway. But that idea seemed to be quickly dismissed by roadway officials. At an Oak Hill Parkway open house held a year ago at Covington Middle School, those interested in the alternative F display were told that it had been ruled out as a consideration.
Reyna said public input has been important to the process. She said, “We have been extremely active in engaging the community since the study was re-launched in October 2012. In fact, more than 650 people have signed in to participate in various public outreach efforts, including five open houses and virtual open houses, 10 issue-specific workshops and 28 stakeholder meetings.”
Watts believes the Fix290 proposed parkway never fit into the TxDOT plans. In reference to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization 2040 plan, he said, “The TxDOT directive is to ‘construct 6-lane tolled turnpike with frontage roads,’ so a true parkway never met their basic criteria and was essentially disqualified from the beginning.”
Tom Thayer said that transportation officials have long said that the popularity of the options will not come into play when making a decision. But he said officials also said cost would not be a factor. He said, “I think taxpayers do care about the cost of these roads being built with taxpayer money.”
But monetary costs are not the only concern of locals. Carol Cespedes, one of the leaders of Fix290, is unhappy with the high cost of trade-offs needed in the proposed transportation solutions. She said, “The farther we go with the ‘final design’ of the so-called Oak Hill Parkway project, the more we become aware of the high price our community will have to pay. We have heard TxDOT talk about ‘trade-offs’—loss of trees and landmarks in Oak Hill for the sake of providing a fast expressway out to Dripping Springs and Bee Caves. Now we are seeing that these trade-offs involve loss of homes as well. At the very least, we ask that when more land is needed, TxDOT consider purchasing commercial lots before taking the homestead of people who have lived their lives in Oak Hill.”
Cespedes believes Alternative F is a compromise that both the community and transportation officials should consider. She also sides with Bomer in that a paved hike and bike trail could easily be located on the northeast side of the road.
Added Thayer, “I am not sure why [the hike and bike trail] would not be on the north side of the highway that sees more foot/bike traffic right now, especially from people in the trailer parks and affordable housing going down to the businesses at the ‘Y.’”
Thayer said Fix290 has focused more on principle—about a grade-level highway that minimizes disturbance to the creek and historic trees—than about engineering design. He said, “I have been pleased by the lowering of the elevation of the highway west of the ‘Y’ in all of the options, but the other principles have not been incorporated as much—other than preserving two trees.”
Watts said his group, Save Oak Hill, is setting up a fund to hire a public-interest traffic engineer to ensure that all alternatives receive proper and thorough attention. “Oak Hill deserves a livable traffic design,” he said.
Bomer lamented that officials asked how much property that they were willing to give up. “None” was her response. “We love our land and our privacy. We have lived here for 20 years and it isn’t right that they can just take our land for what they consider fair market value. We have highway frontage, 1.31 acres of land with vacant land all around us and tons of privacy. There is no way we can find something equivalent with what they will want to offer us.”
Bomer can do nothing until the environmental study is completed and approved. “After that is done, they will begin making plans and offers to the people whose land they will be taking,” she said.
Reyna said they don’t anticipate an environmental finding until 2016. She said, “At this point in the environmental study, the ‘no build’ alternative, as well as two ‘build’ alternatives, A and C, are being studied and refined by the project team.”
See more about this project at http://www.oakhillparkway.com/.