Many rural communities are struggling to provide recreational opportunities for residents of all ages. Parents, city leaders, and others are concerned that young people have to leave the community (drive to San Antonio, etc.) to find entertainment. While providing appropriate attractions in the community will not keep all young people from wanting to go out of town for fun, it can provide options for them. Also, elderly residents are in need of activities that will provide social interaction, exercise, and fun. It is challenging for any community to meet these diverse needs, particularly a small one with limited resources. Blanco is fortunate in that citizens are active and taking a leadership role in providing needed recreational opportunities.
Blanco is fortunate to have several recreational amenities, including Blanco State Park, Yett Park, Bindseil Park, and Gem of the Hills. These facilities offer a variety of service and amenities to the community. These facilities should receive on-going support from the community and not be overshadowed by projects proposed in this plan. Yett Park in particular serves a critical need by providing sports fields in Blanco. Every effort should be made to continue improving and expanding existing facilities in Blanco.
The Community Development focus group is not intended to take over the efforts of other groups, rather it should serve to coordinate efforts and bring additional resources to these projects. This group should hold regular meetings with representatives from the existing groups to identify progress and opportunities for assistance.
The goal of this focus group is to Develop recreational facilities for residents of all ages It also supports the Downtown Revitalization efforts to enhance safety on Hwy 281. Three specific projects will address this goal and provide for the needs of all residents in Blanco. These projects are:
- Develop pedestrian and bicycle access throughout Blanco, starting with Safe Routes to School
- Develop a Community Center serving the needs of the entire community
- Support the requirement for developers to set aside land or fee in lieu for schools and parks to ensure adequate facilities as Blanco grows
- Develop "pocket parks", community gardens, etc. as part of the trail network
Develop safe pedestrian access throughout Blanco
Pedestrian safety and traffic together were the most important issue identified at the Town Hall meeting. A significant concern was pedestrian access to the schools, allowing children safe routes to ride or walk to school. Another was the barrier formed by Hwy 281 bisecting Blanco and the need for safe crossing points through town.
There has been significant work done to address these concerns. The Wheels and Feet program is an effort to develop a linked system of trails throughout Blanco County. They have developed a plan in coordination with the National Park Service that identifies routes for trails, as well as resources to make it happen. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the Community Development focus group will help the Wheels and Feet trail projects be implemented within the City of Blanco, beginning with the Safe Routes to School portion of their plan.
In order to address the need for pedestrian access, the following steps should be followed:
- Evaluate the trail routes identified in the Wheels and Feet plan
- Initiate a study to identify final "Safe Routes to School" based on safety and appropriateness
- Identify safety improvements on Hwy 281 to make an interconnected system
- Bring these to TxDoT as part of the overall plan
- Develop cost estimates to develop trails that are separated from the street
- Work with property owners to obtain easements for the trail
- Identify funding sources to develop the trails and maintain them
- Develop and maintain trails
- Review feasibility of additional trails to connect other parts of the city, including Yett Park, Super S shopping center, etc.
Another aspect of the plan is safety enhancements on Hwy 281. This is of critical importance to the entire community, and will also be addressed in the Downtown Revitalization section. The community development focus group identified several intersections that were most important for safety enhancements. These intersections are those used most by pedestrians or would link important features in Blanco.
- 7th Street
- 11th Street near the Public Library
- State Park intersection
Other options include increasing parking on Hwy 281, building curb extensions, improving the landscaping, and other projects that would make downtown an obvious location and slow traffic. An evaluation should be conducted to identify what improvements would be most appropriate and these should be taken to TxDoT for their participation. These improvements will also require the input and participation from property and business owners on the Square. Their input is critical for any project to be successful and minimize any potential negatives to existing businesses. If the improvements are made as part of an overall trail plan, especially Safe Routes to School, TxDoT may be willing to assist with funding the improvements.
An additional concern on Hwy 281 is the overall speed of traffic through town. There is a desire for traffic calming from Yett Park in the south to Gem of the Hills in the north. Slowing traffic in this area would be a huge benefit to Blanco and improve the safety of residents and visitors, especially in the downtown. Some options for this include the recommendations above for pedestrian signage and lights, additional traffic lights, etc. Increased traffic enforcement will also have benefits, and the police department has responded to concerns from citizens and Council. Other opportunities include creating "gateways" into Blanco that will serve as a visual reminder that drivers are entering a community. These can be well-placed and designed signs, landscaping, curb extensions, etc. All of these options will remind drivers that they are no longer on an open highway. There are two signs being installed at the edge of town that were designed and built by volunteers. They are very attractive and unique to Blanco and include a statement reminding drivers to slow down. Additional signage can also serve to entice drivers to stop and visit local businesses.
Once the final trail routes and pedestrian improvements are identified, it will be important to determine the costs associated with the plan. Funding for trail development can come from a variety of sources, but it will be important to have some local funding available as seed money. Some of this may come from property owners who donate easements for the trail, as well as in-kind donations from the city for labor and materials. There are a variety of state, federal, and private grants available for trail development; one option may be to hire a professional grant writer to pursue this funding.
Finally, the project will need to be built. One option may be to use on-street bike lanes on those low traffic side streets until separate trails can be built. This will reduce initial cost, create a safer pedestrian environment, and show progress until the final project is complete. If the Safe Route to School trails can be built on a reasonable time frame and cost, it will build support for additional trails throughout the community. A critical consideration will be maintenance of the trails once built. Because they are intended to be off-street trails, they will not be part of the regular street maintenance and will require additional resources to maintain. This should be a community effort, involving volunteer groups, Boy Scouts, and others to help with trail maintenance.
Once the Safe Routes to School trails are developed, the additional recommendations of the Wheels and Feet plan should be reviewed. One aspect of the plan that is already underway is the improvements to Bindseil Park connecting downtown to the State Park. LCRA is serving as the construction manager for this project, and work should be underway in 2005. This park creates a tremendous opportunity for Blanco because it connects downtown with the major attraction of the State Park. This connection should be a priority for marketing to park visitors. The Chamber of Commerce can create a walking map of Blanco that highlights the connection and amenities that would encourage park visitors to walk downtown for a meal or shopping. Because of the proximity of downtown and the State Park, it is relatively easy to loop from the State Park through downtown. Also, festivals and events downtown should be coordinated with the State Park so visitors are informed and can participate.
One feature not addressed in the current plan for Bindseil Park is installing electrical wiring to support a "Trail of Lights" holiday display. Many Hill Country communities are involved in this type of event and it serves to attract many visitors around the holidays. The city, Chamber of Commerce, and local businesses should coordinate their efforts and raise money to install the needed wiring to support a "Trail of Lights" in Bindseil Park and the Square. An important consideration in the "Trail of Lights" is the nature of the improvements being made to Bindseil Park. The improvements are intended to return the stream to a more natural state than it has been. A "Trail of Lights" would not be incompatible with the intent of the restoration; however, the most intense uses, such as gathering places, vendors, etc. should be focused on or near the Square and around the large oak tree rather than closer to the stream. The trail could be lighted and allow businesses to set up their own stations along the trail encouraging visitors to walk the length of it.
Developing an inter-connected trail system will make Blanco a much more attractive and safe community by providing access to community amenities for all residents. It will also make Blanco more attractive for retirees who may be looking for a community where they can be less auto dependent. Finally, businesses consider quality of life as a major factor in business relocations. A trail network, especially if connected county-wide will serve to make Blanco very attractive for new businesses and residents looking for a quality community.
A new non-profit is being created that will work to develop a recreation center in Blanco. This center will provide a range of recreational activities for residents. This may include a skate park, sports, pool tables, etc. This effort was identified as a major priority in the town hall meeting and should be supported.
The initial plan was to locate the facility in the Mohair Warehouse in downtown; however, that location will not work out as expected. This provides an opportunity to locate in an area that may provide additional benefits for the center. One option may be near the schools, where young people will have easy access to the facility after school. Also, the location should be along the proposed trail system to ensure adequate pedestrian access to the site. Locating near the school may provide an opportunity for a partnership to develop a swimming pool that could serve the ISD and the community at large. All options should be explored to ensure the facility meets the needs of Blanco residents. The school may also have property available for the facility that could be used as part of matching funds for grant applications, etc. In addition to location, starting with a new building offers greater flexibility in design, allowing for a variety of uses and future expansion.
Developing the community center will entail the following steps:
- Identify successful projects (ie Burnet Community Center) and determine if their programs can serve as a model for Blanco
- Develop partnerships with Blanco ISD, Gem of the Hills, and city, if feasible, to provide maximum benefit to all parties
- Identify what amenities and activities should be developed and appropriate staffing needs
- Identify funding sources for building the facility
- Identify funding sources for maintenance, supervision and management, and expansion as needed
- Build and maintain the property
Next, outreach is needed to identify other partners for the effort. Gem of the Hills may be able to use the facility for new or expanded programs. Senior activities can be held during the day, while students are at school, thereby maximizing use of the facility. Also, local sports organizations should be contacted to determine what their needs are and if the center can address them, such as providing a batting cage. Blanco ISD may provide a long term opportunity for partnership. Blanco ISD may be able to provide land or funding for amenities such as a swimming pool that would benefit the school as well. These organizations already have their contacts and support in the community which can be brought to enhance the community center effort. While these partnerships would be beneficial, the need for the center should be addressed even if partnerships are not available.
Once partnerships are explored, a process to determine what amenities will be included should begin. If the center is intended to serve youth in the community, its amenities will likely be much different than if it is intended to serve the community as a whole. The Burnet center offers a state-of-the-art weight room, basketball courts, indoor track, and other fitness oriented amenities. Blanco may decide to go with a different model, including pool tables, reading area, a skate park, etc. to provide for the youth. To be successful, the center should provide facilites attractive to the community as a whole. The center can be used by elderly residents and adults in the morning, then provide for the youth after school. Determining what will be offered is critical before any design because it will directly impact the needs of the center. In addition, the amenities and activities will be directly impacted by available funding. Identifying what the needs in the community are, and how they will be met by the center will enhance fundraising efforts because specific grants, etc. can be targeted based on the needs of the center.
An important consideration is staffing of the facility. In order to provide a safe, well maintained environment, staff will have to be available whenever the facility is open. Also, by having staff organize and implement activities, there will be better options for the users. This may include regular workouts (yoga, spin classes, etc.), arts and crafts for younger children, organized sporting leagues, and fitness training. Most communities utilize the city for personnel management, providing the necessary insurance and other needs. This would be a major expense for the city, so on-going funding would be needed to ensure adequate staff.
Funding is the biggest hurdle with any community project. City government, the ISD, local organizations all have limited funding, and often are competing for the same grants and other funds. A well-developed plan with broad community support will ensure that the community center is more competitive for grant funding, and is not competing with other entities within the City of Blanco. Most grants require local matching funds, which can come from a number of sources. This includes donated land for the facility, in-kind donations of labor or materials from the city, as well as local donations. It will be important to pursue this initial funding at the local level. Some successful programs include "Buy-a-Brick", in which businesses or individuals buy a decorative brick. Also, businesses may sponsor an amenity, such as the local bank providing the pool tables. Other options may include festivals or other events, such as "Night in Old Blanco" similar to the "Night on Old San Antonio", to bring in visitors to the area and raise money for the community center.
Any fundraising should provide recognition for the sponsors such as signage, facility naming, etc. The resource guide contains a list of funding opportunities for this project. These should be contacted to determine application cycles and dates as well as requirements. One important option may be to hire a professional grant writer. An excellent resource for Blanco is Pedernales Electric Co-op which provides grant writing assistance to its members. The non-profit should use this assistance as a starting point for identifying and applying for grants to support their efforts. Private grant writers are another option if necessary. Most grant writers do not charge up front, rather they take an administration fee from the grant, which can be helpful because it minimizes upfront costs.
On-going funding is even more important than finding money to build the facility. There are many grants and programs available for building new facilities, but it is challenging to find funding for on-going costs. In order to fund the maintenance and activities, the non-profit should work with the city, ISD, and others to identify support they can provide. Also, most community centers charge fees for usage. This could take the form of a monthly membership fee, much like a private gym, or simply usage fees. Most likely, a combination will offer the best results. Residents of Blanco and the area can get discounted long term memberships, while occasional users can pay a flat fee. There may also be an additional fee for classes, etc. Generally, these fees do not cover the actual costs of the facility; however, they can offset some of the expenses. If the school is a partner, particularly with a swimming pool, they may provide money for maintaining that. Also, partnering with the city may allow city staff to provide basic maintenance, as well as reduce personnel costs by managing the human resources through the city. Again, long-term funding will be an on-going challenge for the community center. This should be considered early in the process to ensure that once built, the center has the support to be successful and a true asset to Blanco.
Also, as demand grows, there will be a need for expansion. This can be addressed by creating an endowment fund that will grow over time to support expansion. There can also be additional fundraising to support new facilities as required. Also, by "over-building" the facility to some degree, future expansion can be put off because extra capacity will already have been built into the project. It is cheaper and more efficient to design with growth in mind rather than attempt to retrofit an expansion soon after completion. A long term goal may be for the city to take over ownership and management of the recreation center. This would be beneficial because it would ensure a consistent source of financial support, staffing, etc. It would benefit the city as an improvement to the quality of life, increasing the attractiveness of Blanco to prospective businesses and residents.
Finally, the community center needs to be built. This should be a big event, involving the entire community so they feel a part of the project. The facility should be designed and built to meet current needs but allow for expansion. The design should also be flexible to allow for a variety of uses and activities to occur. This may include allowing areas to be used as conference space, arts and crafts, homework and reading, as well as food service. If the facility is well-designed and maintained it will serve as a tremendous asset to Blanco for years to come.
Developer Set Asides for Parks and Schools
Development leads to increased demand on parks and schools. To provide these services, government has to compete with developers to find property for needed new facilities, leading to higher costs. Many communities have begun requiring developers to provide land for parks and schools as they build projects. There are also provisions for fee in lieu of land in cases where providing property may not be suitable. One of the benefits of this type of program is that it is regulated by the city's subdivision ordinance, which makes it applicable within the extra-territorial jurisdiction. In Blanco, most of the large development will likely occur outside the city limits, making this a good tool for the community to provide for the future. Blanco currently has a provision in its subdivision ordinance encouraging developers to dedicate 8% of the total acreage to be used as public parks. This voluntary program is an excellent starting point, and can be updated to a requirement if there is public and Council support. To implement this change, the following steps should be followed:
- Begin educating the public about the current voluntary standards
- Research similar programs to identify what is most appropriate for Blanco
- Begin dialogue with citizens and builders to gauge support and determine set aside ratios
- Update Subdivision Ordinance to require set asides or fee in lieu
Identifying communities that have similar programs is recommended to ensure that Blanco develops standards that are in-line with other communities. The City of Bertram has a program in place that requires developers to provide land or fees for parkland as development occurs. Bertram requires one acre of parkland for each 100 homes developed, or 5% of land area, whichever is greater. The city also allows a fee of $250 per dwelling unit if the providing land is not feasible due to the size or layout of the property. This fee is collected before approval of the final plat to ensure the requirement is met. The ordinance also sets minimum standards for the size, location, and other aspects of the parkland to ensure that it meets the needs of the community. One option included is that the park can be dedicated for the private use of the subdivision residents if it meets minimum standards for public parks. This allows a developer to offer the park as an amenity to residents and still fulfill the requirements of the ordinance. The justification for this, is that those residents would require a public park near their neighborhood if one was not available in the subdivision. Also, if the facility is a neighborhood type park, it would likely only meet the needs of property in proximity of the park.
There are fewer examples of communities in Texas that require set asides for public schools. The City of Flower Mound requires developers to get approval from the school district if their development results in schools being 110% over-capacity. Given this requirement, developers have to work with the school district to ensure adequate capacity to handle the increased number of students. This requirement is only applicable for residential development. Dripping Springs utilizes development agreements to ensure there is land set aside for parks and schools. They allow developers to build with higher densities if they agree to set aside land for new schools to serve their subdivisions. The City of Montrose, Colorado has a policy requiring developers to set aside 1.37 acres per student based on an assumption of .294 new students per lot. The following table shows the calculations used in Montrose for school dedications.
Table 6-1: Montrose, CO School Land Dedication Requirements
|School||Student per Lot||Acres per Student||Dollars per Acre||In-Lieu Fees|
Any program should be based on the needs and desires of the citizens, following the process from this plan will ensure there is public support for the measure. As with any major policy change, there should be an opportunity for residents to learn about and discuss the options. Education will be an important aspect of this outreach to ensure that citizens understand the costs and benefits of the program. Obviously, adding requirements to developers will result in higher home costs; however, the benefits will likely outweigh the costs by providing needed services based on growth, rather than having to retrofit services into a built out area. Also, rather than requiring all residents to pay the costs associated with expansion, it will be borne by the development that spurs the need. Builders will need to be educated on the benefits for them to minimize their resistance.
Once the public has been involved, the city should set up a steering committee of community members, ISD representatives, and developers to create the standards for the set aside program. They should discuss appropriate amounts of land required to be set aside, and an appropriate fee in lieu for those occasions when setting land aside is not a good option. These options can be based on other communities, but should be tailored to the local needs. Because the city already has a policy of an 8% dedication, one possibility may be to keep this percentage and split it between schools and parks. Or allow developers to set aside enough land for a neighborhood park and money for schools. Again, the requirements must be worked out with the steering committee to ensure adequate support from the community for the changes.
Develop "pocket" parks throughout Blanco
Blanco has a significant amount of vacant land throughout the city limits. Much of this vacant land is small lots, suitable for use as a neighborhood park, community garden, or similar feature. The city should identify those properties most suitable for these uses, particularly those along the proposed pedestrian trails, and on lots that may be unsuitable for more intense development. In order to facilitate this effort, Blanco should:
- Identify appropriate property for "pocket" parks
- Prioritize property to acquire that provides maximum benefit
- Develop amenities at acquired parks
- Provide on-going maintenance and upkeep
The second step is to prioritize properties to acquire. One opportunity may be for owners to donate land that may be unsuitable for development. This may include small lots, areas with drainage issues, etc. that may allow for a park to be built, but not more intense uses. Secondly, those properties that can connect different trail segments, or provide an asset to the neighborhood should be targeted. The goal is to create an inter-connected system of parks rather than isolated properties scattered across Blanco. Those properties that can provide the most benefit to the overall system should be priorities. Funding will be the driving issue for acquiring property. Because the lots are relatively small, an individual purchase should not be overly expensive. However, any acquisition should be made only when funds are budgeted, or other arrangements are made, for development and on-going maintenance. The properties do not all have to be acquired at once, rather it can be an incremental effort, slowly developing the parks as funding allows. The main drawback would be the potential for prospective park properties to be developed or sold before they can be acquired. However, due to funding limitations, it will be necessary to prioritize and have secondary properties in the event a first choice becomes unavailable. Implementing the recommendation to require park dedications with development will not only provide land within areas being developed, it may provide funding to acquire those high priority properties.
Once suitable properties are identified, planning should be undertaken to identify appropriate amenities. These should include picnic benches, swing sets and other play equipment, open play areas, basketball courts, and potentially community gardens. Each site can provide different amenities based on surrounding neighborhood interests and needs. Because many of the parks would be accessible via pedestrian trails, it would allow users to walk to different parks offering different activities. Community gardens are becoming more and more popular, and would provide a low-maintenance opportunity for the city. Because each garden plot is maintained by the user, the city would only have to provide access to water faucets and basic upkeep on the non-garden area. This also would provide an opportunity for community interaction and cooperation as individuals and families developed their gardens. It could also spur tourism, as the gardens produced goods that could be sold at the Farmers' Market.
As mentioned, no parks should be developed unless there is a plan to provide maintenance and upkeep. Because these would be small parks with minimal amenities it may be possible to have a volunteer park maintenance program. The neighborhoods could provide needed mowing, etc. to keep the parks in order, while the city provides any significant work. The community development focus group can take the lead in developing a volunteer database that can be used for this purpose. Again, it must be stressed that these parks should only be developed as funding and / or volunteers are available to maintain them. If the parks are not maintained, they will be a detriment to the park system and the community as a whole.
The four projects identified in this plan will create tremendous benefits for the City of Blanco. Providing safe routes to school is a basic function of city government and should be a priority. A thriving community center will benefit residents of all ages, and attract visitors from the region to use the facility. Requiring builders to provide for schools and parks as they build new subdivisions will benefit the entire community and help to minimize tax increases to pay for needed facilities. Developing interconnected parks throughout Blanco will enhance property values and community appearance.
Quality of life is one of the key features of Blanco. Residents feel comfortable and safe in the community. There are already excellent facilities in town, including Yett Park, Gem of the Hills, and Blanco State Park. By implementing this plan, these facilities will be enhanced with additional recreational opportunities. This will increase quality of life for current residents and make Blanco more attractive to prospective businesses which are looking for a quality community to locate.