AUSTIN (KXAN) – Not too long ago, Buster Cadin remembered seeing people walk their dogs, do yoga, and other activities just beyond the rear of his Battle Bend home which backs up to the Williamson Creek Greenbelt.
“This used to be a park for the neighborhood,” Cadin said. “Kids could come down here and play.”
But now, others are enjoying the area. And they are not human.
“Rats, snakes, coyotes,” said Cadin. “Mosquitos just lynch on you.”
Anyone traversing the creekside now will have to sift through 10-foot high ragweed in many parts because two years ago, the area was designated a “grow zone” by Austin’s Watershed Protection Department. There are close to 35 grow zones across the city (PDF) and the purpose is to protect natural areas.
“A couple of years ago, we changed it to help with the health of the stream,” Staryn Wagner explained as he discussed the grow zone near Battle Bend. He says the ragweed is to help water quality and prevent erosion. When a flood event occurs, the 10-foot stalks lie down and prevent organic matter and soil from washing away.
But while it may help the creek, homeowners believe the tall ragweed will have a damaging effect on their homes and they think the city twisted the rules to make it happen.
Park or Grow Zone?
“The city promised to maintain the park for recreational purposes,” said William Van Horn, another nearby homeowner.
A 1976 land deed shows the city obtained the ownership of the land now currently a grow zone under the promise they would designate it for “parks and recreational purposes for the public.”
Parks and Rec division manager Charles Vaclavic told KXAN that “parks and rec purposes” does not make it a city park. Vaclavic says a city park has a master plan, citizen input, and a maintenance budget. And although Greenbelt areas fall under “parks and rec purposes,” they do not have the same treatment.
“We do not get any funding for greenbelts and that is why they have very little maintenance,” Vaclavic said about the nearly 3000 acres of greenbelt in Austin.
Van Horn thinks the city is just trying to weasel out of the cost of maintaining the area.
“By changing the definition of the land deeded to them, they think they are out from underneath their maintenance contract,” he said.
Vaclavic says the city did take part in maintenance for the area, but say it never was a defined park.
“I believe there was some handshake agreement with the homeowner’s association,” said Vaclavic.
Still even though the city says the area is not and has never been a park, there are potentially misleading signals. At the bottom of one concrete stairway entrance point, there is a sign with “park rules” and a “park curfew” that sits right next to a dog waste cleanup bag dispenser.
Once again, though, the city said those things do not change the designation of the land.
“That does not make it a park,” said Vaclavic. “It just means we are doing due diligence. We see people going in there with dogs and we make sure they are picking up after themselves.”
Helpful or Harmful
Van Horn and Cadin see the 10-foot tall ragweed and worry about what comes along with it.
“We have already seen more rodents around the house,” said Van Horn. “It is a fire hazard.”
Watershed Protection admits wildlife will be found in the grow zones, but believe the benefits outweigh the inconveniences which they only expect to be temporary. Watershed Protection anticipates the wooded vegetation, trees and bushes, will rise above and eventually choke out the ragweed in coming years.
“The beginning is an infant and juvenile stage. Like with a person, it can be a little riley and unkempt,” said Wagner about the Battle Bend grow zone.
Of the nearly 35 grow zones across the city, each has its own unique makeup based on what kind of vegetation would be most beneficial. Wagner said they always consult with neighborhoods and reactions can be varied as they were when they met with Battle Bend’s neighborhood association.
“There was a mix. Some people are fixed on what they want a park or streamside to look like.”
Wagner said the grow zones are considered a “legacy project,” and will reap long term benefits for the health of the creeks, water, and soil along Austin’s greenbelts.