By Jerald Pinson firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted Aug 20, 2019
STAGECOACH RANCH — Just outside of Austin, where the Pedernales River winds lazily through the Hill Country before pouring into the Colorado, a series of parks and preserves showcase and protect large swaths of rugged Texas wilderness. The Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center harbors a 40-foot waterfall with a lush grotto ensconced below, hung with mosses and ferns. And less than a mile away, water races over another cliff to create Hamilton Pool, fed by springs from farther uphill where the Edwards Aquifer spills out onto land. Just upstream, along Hamilton Creek, Milton Reimers Ranch offers over 18 miles of trails for visitors to hike and limestone bluffs for rock climbers.
Situated between these preserves is Stagecoach Ranch, a large tract of land with 85 homes, each on 10-acre plots, all of which are accessible only by one single-lane, dead-end road. And it’s there that Kristy Petree and Sandra Bennett, co-owners of a development company called BenTree builders, hope to develop an RV park. “It’s beautiful,” Petree said. “I’ve been in this area since college. It’s just fantastic.” RELATED: ‘Save Hamilton Pool’ petition calls for end to RV park proposal.
But neighbors aren’t convinced that an RV park would be the best use of the land and worry about the effect it might have on the environment. One of the concerns most commonly raised is the possibility of sewage leaking into Hamilton Creek. The proposed site for development sits on a steep slope about 1,000 feet from the creek. The developers have proposed an onsite septic system with a design flow of up to 4,836 gallons a day that would reuse the treated wastewater on green space at the site, as opposed to discharging into the creek. RV park planned near Hamilton Pool worries some Austin-area neighbors.
While that falls under the maximum limit of 5,000 gallons per day for a single property, it’s unclear whether the system as sized is appropriate for the intended usage. That’s according to Susan Parten, a civil engineer who specializes in decentralized wastewater systems and is owner of the Community Environmental Services company. “Based on wastewater flows alone, I’m of the opinion that this system is more appropriately permitted through TCEQ’s municipal permitting section under Chapter 217 rules, rather than through Travis County rules for onsite wastewater systems,” said Parten, referring to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Parten also said the chemicals commonly flushed down blackwater systems in RV parks could negatively impact the performance of the aerated tank-type treatment system. Tom Hegemier, who’s lived in Stagecoach ranch for 23 years, is especially concerned about leaks. “They’re going to build a system that will meet county code,” Hegemier said, “but we’ve seen systems around here that fail.” He points out several recent sewage spills in the Austin area as examples, such as the spill this summer when 100,000 gallons of sewage entered Brushy Creek in Round Rock after a power outage.
Petree, however, is adamant that the septic system for the RV park won’t leak into the surrounding environment. She said the park will require RVs to dump their waste in a separate septic holding tank at the entrance before allowing hookups into the park’s main septic system. “Our septic system will be maintained with a contract where it’s inspected four times a year,” she said. “We will never have a discharge from our system. We will never pollute Hamilton pool.” Also, because the RV park’s septic system is not municipal, agricultural or industrial, Petree’s septic designer said Travis County, which issues permits for onsite wastewater systems and which is still evaluating BenTree’s design plans, is the appropriate permitting agency. Fire safety questions Evacuation routes for wildfires, such as the one that swept through the area in September 2011, also concern neighbors of the proposed RV park. For four grueling days around Labor Day, firefighters worked to contain the conflagration that engulfed 34 homes and 6,500 acres of land before they were able to put it out. Stagecoach Ranch residents were startled to see firefighters at their front doors one night during the fire, telling them they had to evacuate in less than an hour. While no one was hurt, the memory of having to evacuate their homes under a preternaturally orange sky in the dead of night is still fresh in everyone’s minds. “We had one way in and one way out,” Hegemier said. “So we had to drive toward the fire to leave. And it’s pretty scary when fire trucks show up in your driveway and say you have an hour to go.”
With an RV park at the entrance to their single-lane road, residents worry that RVs trying to exit the area would jam traffic, blocking the only evacuation route. “It’s a really scary concept of having a bottleneck,” Hegemier said. The community is currently designed to accommodate about 80 RVs.
RELATED: More improvements urged for Hamilton Pool Road Chris Stewart, another longtime Stagecoach Ranch resident, says that’s a real concern. “Assuming that everybody could get out orderly in the event of a wildfire or evacuation order, only half the RVs in the park would be able to get out onto Stagecoach Ranch Road,” he said. “The other half would be waiting on that traffic to clear to get out.” Evacuating is further complicated because nearby roads are unsuitable for large vehicles. When exiting Stagecoach Ranch, drivers can either head east or west on Hamilton Road. A left turn (west) will take you to a switchback that has stymied drivers in the past. “I was going to work one morning and I couldn’t get to work because a horse trailer had jackknifed down there,” area resident Tina Adkins said. “And they were totally off the road; it’s very narrow. She blocked the road for everybody, so no one could go either way for hours. That would be intensified if you have all these trailers turning left; someone’s going to jackknife.”
“Pulling a trailer, you can’t flee west on Hamilton Pool Road because of the switchbacks at the Pedernales,” Stewart said. “You have to get out quickly east, without a trailer — no time to wait behind 84 RVs log-jamming the road.” But last year’s devastating Camp Fire in California appears to be a turning point in the way officials think about fire safety. At least 10 people died in their cars while trying to escape. Some fire experts are now putting an emphasis on preparing one’s property, so that it can act as a shelter and eliminate the need to evacuate. Capt. Glen Trubee, a Lake Travis Fire Rescue fire inspector, said evacuation is never ideal: “Evacuation is one piece of the pie. It’s a last-ditch effort. The first thing you can do is make sure your home is protected, making sure you have the vegetation cut back.” Trubee cautions that no two fires are alike, and evacuations might be mandatory regardless of how wellmaintained a property is. Regardless of evacuation procedures, there remains an open question of whether the introduction of 80 RVs, each potentially housing multiple people, might increase the risk of wildfires in the first place. “The peak periods for RV use just happen to coincide with the driest times of our year,” Stewart said. “We are introducing, in a concentrated area, potential ignition sources — drag chains, cigarette butts, you name it. We’re also introducing a concentration of chemical fuel sources — propane, diesel, gasoline, etc. ... That’s a concern.” As with the adequacy of the septic tank, the question of fire safety ultimately will be decided by Travis County.
BenTree Builders is currently in the permitting process with Travis Emergency Services District 6, which will determine whether the development plans merit additional fire safety measures. Burden or business boon? Opening an RV park would bring in a lot more people to the quiet hillside neighborhoods along the Pedernales River. More people means more money for local businesses, including the various nature preserves, and demand for more services in the area certainly seems to be increasing. It’s a popular area for weddings, and Hamilton Pool has become such a popular tourist destination that visitors must now book their reservations with Travis County in advance. But whether the proposed RV park will enhance or diminish the area’s amenities is hotly debated. “They keep saying this is going to enhance the neighborhood and be harmonious with the area,” said Robin Hegemier, who’s married to Tom. “What part of 84 trailers on a 10-acre lot is harmonious with the area?” Resident Bob Adkins echoed this sentiment: “We just don’t think (it’s) commensurate with the surrounding area of farms, ranches, residential and parks.” Petree said her development would open access to Hill Country life. “People want to be in the Hill Country, but most people can’t afford it. I think the RV park will be a major benefit, not just to the wider Travis County but for visitors to Travis County to see everything that Austin has to offer.”
It seems unlikely that the two sides will soon see eye to eye on the issue. BenTree Builders continues to revise permit applications as recommendations are made by various county agencies. Stagecoach Ranch resident started a petition in May to raise support for denying the building permit and to bring awareness to the potential environmental risks to Hamilton Pool. As of this month, it has received more than 20,500 signatures.