Tuesday, September 1, 2015

El Paso's Natural Open Space: Some Questions for Policymakers and Citizens

Just words on a sign. The picture was taken in 2010. What progress has been made on the Palisades open space since then? Ask the taggers not the City.
[The following was written by elpasonaturally reader, Marshall Carter-Tripp. Not only are her points and questions thought-provoking, they represent the frustratioon that many citizens have with the open space policies of the City of El Paso. elpasonaturally had always looked at the Boulder, Colorado ordinances as the best examples of controlling sprawl and preserving open space. Do not expect the any strides in a similar direction from the current reactionary El Paso City Council. To do the right thing will require a sea change in the next two City Council elections in which conservation-minded persons are elected and the sprawler puppets retired.

The Open Space Advisory Board meets tomorrow, September 2nd, at 3PM in City Building 3, 801 Texas Avenue, in the unmarked Thorman Conference Room in the basement. The meeting is open to the public and there is a public comment section at the beginning of the meeting for any item not on the agenda.]

Through the PSB stormwater set-aside and the City of El Paso’s Quality of Life funding for Open Space acquisition, El Paso can preserve hundreds of acres of undeveloped Open Space, for the benefit of those who live here – humans and wildlife.  This effort began with City Council approval in late February 2007 of a master plan entitled ”Towards a Bright Future: A Green Infrastructure Plan for El Paso, Texas” (the Open Space Master Plan). A few months later the Plan was awarded the Excellence in Planning Award from the National Association of Recreation Resource Planners (This plan, unfortunately, is no longer readily available on the internet.)   Implementation moved slowly; Council created an Open Space Advisory Board some two and a half years later, in June 2009.   This Board makes recommendations to Council about priorities under the master plan.  It has no authority to require that any action take place; even its ability to discuss various is limited. 

The, perhaps inevitable, result is that Natural Open Space is not a priority for city management and the goals laid out in the Master Plan do not appear to be incorporated into city staff activity.  For example, the Open Space Master Plan calls for expansion of Keystone Heritage Park (as does the City’s Parks Master Plan).  In July 2012 the Open Space Advisory Board progress report noted that the city had purchased 29 acres south of Keystone Dam, which could be used to buffer Keystone.  But in early February 2015, supporters of Keystone learned that the city’s Environmental Services was planning to build a large trash collection site on this land. The possibility that the land in question might contain unexplored cultural resources had not been investigated.   Leaving aside the considerable noise and debris inherent in a trash collection station, which could seriously affect the quality of a visit to Keystone, the decision to build it meant that the Keystone expansion goal could not be realized.  The city had already taken no action to buy land to the north of the park, land that was now under development.

Taking a second example, the Palisades Canyon land acquired by the PSB once it had the purchasing power (the Master Plan had considered it too expensive to list it as a key goal).  Hikers and bikers had visited these 202 acres for many years, despite the “no trespassing” signs.  Usage expanded once the parcel was purchased by the PSB in 2010 and a “welcome to the Palisades” sign was installed.  Nearby residents noted, however, that many of the users did not adhere to the announced rules, such as dogs on leashes, and no private motorized vehicles.  Graffiti appeared along the trail and was not removed, even after requests were made to the streets and maintenance graffiti unit. (The city’s website asserts that graffiti removal is done in public spaces, specifically citing parks.  Apparently because the Palisades is not a park, and the graffiti cannot be seen from the street, removing it is not important.)  Trucks and other vehicles go up the trail almost every day, now apparently to service the transmission tower at the end of Sierra Crest, built in mid-2015.  These are not PSB vehicles; who granted an easement for this traffic?  How much such traffic could be tolerated in Natural Open Space? No city agency takes responsibility for what happens in the Palisades – the “official owner,” the PSB, has no component to supervise Open Space, and the Parks and Recreation Department will only occupy itself with the trailhead, once constructed.  To date even a doggy bag dispenser is lacking.  (And as the Palisades is not a city park, the dog waste ordinance would not apply, so could fines be levied?) 

The city has not supplied staff for other components of the Open Space inventory.  Keystone land is owned by the city, but it has been entirely built and maintained by a private charity, and public outreach is through its Friends of Keystone group.  Similarly, the Rio Bosque wetlands, now owned by the PSB, are managed by UTEP, and a private non-profit Friends group manages public involvement.  Park Partnerships are available for designated city parks, for help with equipment, maintenance and cleanup, but these Natural Open Space areas are not city parks.

Let’s consider what has been done in some other southwestern/western cities.  Boulder is perhaps the poster child for Open Space protection.  Voters there approved a city charter amendment in 1959 that restricted the provision of city services to development below a certain altitude, protecting the mountain from development.   In 1967 the citizens of Boulder followed with a special sales tax to provide revenue for Open Space.  Boulder County then created a Parks and Open Space Department, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.  Key to its operation is a partnership arrangement in which businesses, civic groups, and individuals provide financial and volunteer support to monitor and care for the 100,000 acres plus of Open Space now preserved in Boulder County.

Nearer home, Albuquerque has nearly 30,000 acres of city-owned Open Space, based on the 1988 comprehensive city plan, complete with Visitor Center!  (And there are many more neighboring acres under state or federal control.) Volunteer programs allow for “adoption” of particular Open Space, and the Open Space Alliance serves as a “Friends of Open Space” group.  Albuquerque’s land is managed by a division within the Parks and Recreation Department.  The management principles are to: 

Conserve Natural and archaeological resources; 
Provide opportunities for outdoor education; 
Provide a place for low impact recreation (in some but not all of the Open Space land), and
Define the edges of the urban environment.

Looking at these success stories, we in El Paso might ask ourselves:

#1  Where does the acquisition of Open Space fit in Council’s Strategic Plan, if it does?  What concern, if any, is there for conservation of El Paso’s unique asset, the mountain range, excluding further development on it?

#2  Is there a schedule for acquisition of land, and what is the goal in terms of acres?  (El Paso is fortunate to have the Franklin Mountains State Park, nearly 25,000 acres, comprising the largest urban park in the country. But these acres are not enough!)  Should Council consider setting aside at least one meeting a year to review progress and remind staff of the Open Space and Parks Master Plans? 

#3  What might trigger creation of an Open Space division, with staff, in the Parks and Recreation Department?  And associated programs for partners for Open Space or Friends of particular Open Space areas?  (The Parks Department page on the city website shows Marci Tuck as the Open Space, Trails and Parks Coordinator.  Ms Tuck left the department in mid-May, 2015.  Apparently her role is not important enough to replace.   In any case she had no responsibility for open space per se, just connections through trailheads.)

#4  How are citizens to interact with the OSAB and the PSB regarding land acquisition or other Open Space concerns if they cannot attend the daytime meetings and speak during the Call to the Public?  Who determines how much of the PSB Open Space fund is used for Park Ponds rather than the purchase of Natural Open Space?  How can citizens affect these decisions?

- Marshall Carter-Tripp

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