Trees at root of FM 967 fight

By Moses Leos III

The shifting of a controversial sidewalk proposed for FM 967 has bridged a rift between Buda and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). 

TxDOT’s possible sidewalk relocation, part of their FM 967 widening effort, could decrease the proposed 106 trees scheduled for removal.   

“It looks like cooler heads have prevailed. It’s a win for the city,” Mayor Todd Ruge said. “All parties have come to a conclusion suitable for all.” 

On Tuesday, Buda City Manager Kenneth Williams presented a plan that would adjust the sidewalk. 

The move will split the sidewalk in two sections. One will run the east and north side of FM 967 from Cole Springs Road to Remuda Trail. The second would run the south side of FM 967 from Remuda to FM 1626, placing it in front of the Cullen Country and Garlic Creek subdivisions. 

According to a handout given to city council, TxDOT will review the relocation of the sidewalk. No timetable has been given for it’s approval. 

The agreement cools off a feud between the two entities over the project. 

Issues began when TxDOT unveiled the final design for FM 967 in June. Ruge said the plans, which were marked December 2013, were never presented to the city prior to that date.

TxDOT plans to widen a 2.6 mile stretch of FM 967, extending from Cole Springs Road to FM 1626. The widening is a $4.4 million joint venture between TxDOT and Hays County. It will include a center turn lane, paved shoulders and a sidewalk. 

Buda city leaders believe they were excluded in TxDOTs design process. This despite submitting plans that limited the amount of trees to be removed.

“There is no doubt this is a TxDOT project,” Ruge said. “However, I think we should have had more input.” 

TxDOT currently holds ownership of FM 967. However, both TxDOT and city agreed in principal that ownership of the road will switch to Buda. However, no timeline has been designated for the switch. 

In an emailed response, TxDOT spokesperson Kelli Reyna said the city was involved through emails and meetings in the planning and design process for the roadway. 

But the tree removal was a cause for alarm among city staff, who said only 18 percent of protected and heritage trees will be preserved during the project. 

While the city has language in it’s Unified Development Code regarding tree preservation, it doesn’t extend to FM 967. 

“We were not expecting a design that resulted in such a significant amount of tree removal,” Chance Sparks, director of planning in Buda, said. “We were very surprised that they were marked for possible removal, and very concerned.” 

TxDOT said the road needed a “clear zone” for the protection of motorists. However, the number of trees to be removed wasn’t available until June, Reyna said. 

That ambiguity didn’t sit well with Buda Planning and Zoning chairman Colin Strother.  

With Buda set to attain ownership of FM 967, he said the city should have a say in the project’s approach. 

“We should have some say in the design,” Strother said. “TxDOT has had this approach that ‘we’re going to moonscape this area and you’re going to like it.’” 

To combat TxDOT’s plan, city staff designed a resolution on the concept of context sensitivity toward transportation projects. Sparks said the goal was to be proactive in showing the entity the city’s ideas.  Buda City Council unanimously adopted the resolution at it’s July 15 meeting.  

Prior to the vote, council had a tense discussion with South Travis and Hays County TxDOT engineer Ben Englehardt. 

Council members George Haehn and Angela Kennedy believed moving it to the opposite side could save several key heritage trees. 

According to Eric Beckers, Texas A&M Forest Service Project Forester of Hays County, several affected live oak trees are approximately 300 years old. 

Kennedy claimed safety was a primary issue, saying residents of the Garlic Creek and Cullen Country subdivisions would have to cross FM 967 to access the sidewalk. 

With construction slated for late summer 2014, city officials hoped the resolution changed minds at TxDOT. 

Discussions to change the sidewalk’s placement ensued. City staff and TxDOT agreed to move the sidewalk to the south side at the Remuda intersection. 

According to Williams, a crosswalk would be placed at that intersection, as TxDOT believes a traffic signal could be warranted in the future. 

While some trees will need to be removed, Ruge and council celebrated their victory Tuesday.  

“The trees we were able to keep are wins in my book,” Ruge said on the dais. “I’m excited for this project.” 

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