City and neighbors make green zone compromise

Overgrown plants

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Chopping down 10-foot-tall ragweed behind the Battle Bend neighborhood is just the latest work Staryn Wagner has poured into the “grow zone” that was designated two years ago. That hard work has been both physical and logistical.

“This has been the most difficult one to work out with the neighborhood,” said Wagner, a scientist with Austin’s Watershed Protection Department.

Wagner spent one Saturday morning in July, along with dozens of Austin Parks Foundation volunteers, chopping down some of the ragweed which has caused headaches and tension among neighbors.

In July, a KXAN investigation revealed a conflict among neighbors and how the land along Williamson Creek was being used. The grow zone is one of 39 in the City of Austin which sit along greenbelts, parks, and creeks to prevent soil erosion with tall vegetation and a restriction on mowing. Some long time Battle Bend families felt the city violated the agreement and purpose of the land deeded to them in the 1970’s. The agreement said the land would be used for “parks and rec” purposes and the city of Austin said a “grow zone” falls within that category, much to the dismay of some neighbors. Gone is the neatly manicured creek side, now replaced with towering ragweed.

Since the July investigation, KXAN has obtained through open records requests all complaints pertaining to the grow zones across the city. Among the complaints are concerns about trash accumulation, rodents, and blind spots created by the vegetation. However, the complaints also revealed some neighbors may be taking things into their own hands.

Multiple complaints from the Battle Bend neighborhood last year said one neighbor illegally mowed a portion of the grow zone, eliminating new saplings which were planted by volunteers.

“(name redacted) mowed illegally (with his riding mower) 1/3 of the 700 saplings that 30 volunteers planted 2 years ago,” said one emailed complaint. The email goes on to say that case was referred to the Environmental Board to setup a 311 process for reporting such incidents. Watershed Protection said no action was immediately taken against the accused neighbor.

A “Grow Zone” is an effort to halt mowing along streams and allow the growth of more dense, diverse riparian vegetation. This improves water quality, lessens erosion, increases wildlife habitat, and provides other ecosystem services. It is our hope that Austinites will embrace these changes and appreciate the benefits of natural stream corridors. Source: City of Austin

Path to a compromise

Despite signs which clearly state no mowing or disturbance of vegetation is allowed at all grow zones, Wagner and the volunteers were hacking away at the ragweed one Saturday morning in July.

But there was a big difference.

“This has been organized through the Austin Parks Foundation and Keep Austin Beautiful,” said Wagner. “They know what rules are to be followed.”

Among the complaints from grow zone opponents was the loss of an open area many people used to walk their dog, do yoga, and other activities. So volunteers gathered to clear an 8 to 10 foot path through the tall ragweed making it more accessible to those walking through the grow zone.

“I live on the greenbelt and I hike it all the time,” said Richard Maness who helped organize the project through Austin Parks Foundation to clear a trail. He said the city did a walkthrough and agreed a walking path would be okay. Maness knows the path will have to be cleared periodically but supports the city’s effort to establish a grow zone.

“I have always understood a grow zone takes years and years before you get a good riparian forest,” said Maness.

On signs posted outside some grow zones, pictures of the expected progression are depicted. The grow zones are designed to eventually feature tall wooded vegetation that will choke out the ragweed while continuing to provide the benefits of erosion protection. As he helped clear the path, Wagner was able to point out small, sprouting live oaks as a sign the process is already starting to take shape.

The same type growth that may have been eliminated by illegal mowing.

No way out or in

Critics opposing the grow zone along Battle Bend said the city’s decision to designate the area a grow zone was made without their input. However, Wagner said it was a logical decision due to development in the neighborhood.

“The actual physical access to get the mowers down here no longer exists,” said Wagner.

In previous years, the city and neighborhood had what was described as a “handshake deal” for city mowers to occasionally maintain the area along the creek. However, a home was built on the lot where mowers were able to access the creek, essentially eliminating a way in.

“Parks and Rec said they could not get down there to mow anymore and we should think about the area as a grow zone.”

Wagner acknowledged not everyone was happy with the explanation.

“We are changing a maintenance regime that was in place for a long time and anytime you have change, people are always leery or unhappy to some degree,” said Wagner. But he hopes a walking path may be a step towards reaching middle ground for the neighborhood even if it undoes some of the grow zone purpose.

“We lose a little bit of grow zone, but it will be a benefit having people in here and witnessing what is going on.”

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