Keeping It Real
The Houston area has never been renowned for its historic preservation. Land is cleared, buildings razed, historic populations are routinely re-sorted in aggressively profitable fashion. Moving to something newer has meant condos, concrete and mini-mansion houses with an edging of saint augustine.
So a two-county enterprise undertaken to set aside a ten-mile section of green space along Spring Creek that would bar any commercial or residential development is, well, pretty amazing. The trail system, stretching from U.S. 59 to Interstate 45, would tie into Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center and, to the northwest, the John Pundt Park, now in the planning stage.
Spring Creek is the liquid boundary between Montgomery and Harris counties. Thanks to the fact that it and the land around it are predominantly wetlands and prone to flooding, it never became a primo real estate site.
The result is an area that essentially looks the same way it did 200 years ago. Canoes and kayaks slip along the creek. Huge cypress trees stand in murky waters. The white sands along Spring Creek's banks are deposits of calciferous limestone that traveled there naturally from Central Texas years ago. This part of the "Little Thicket" is home to all manner of plants and wildlife.
Spearheading the effort to preserve these near-frontier-era conditions (the occasional Southwest Airlines plane overhead to the contrary) are Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, Montgomery County Commissioner Ed Chance and the Legacy Land Trust, a local nonprofit dedicated to conservation.
Together they're working to buy up land or at least easement rights a piece at a time on both sides of the waterway.
Who could be against this? Imagine walking in the woods along pathways taken by the original settlers. It's like a time machine on the ground, transporting hikers to the past with the first step on the trail.
Well, as veteran politician Eversole wryly notes, there is always opposition. Not to mention drama.
Some people who don't want the greenway project are descendants of the area's original settlers, Eversole says. "Sometimes it's NIMBY."
Then there are the people who do want it but are worried they won't be a part of it, like the horseback riders now able to access a wonderful view of the creek in sugar sand trails along its banks.
And then there are the people who don't want it at all, like Lonnie Riley, a delightfully candid outdoorsman who proclaims that "no tree-hugging bastards" are going to tell him he can't drive his ATV right through Spring Creek anytime he wants.
As its Web site says, the Spring Creek ATV Park located near Old Town Spring "offers access to miles of pristine wooded trails, sandy beaches and drenching creek crossings."
It's those drenching creek crossings that have Jennifer Lorenz of Legacy Land Trust upset. She believes they violate Senate Bill 155, which went into law last January to bar motorized vehicles from going across navigable rivers or creeks -- defined by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as being a body of water that retains an average width of 30 feet or more from mouth to confluence. And she says that Spring Creek, up to what they call Panther Branch, is navigable.
"This is tough on Bubbaland, Texas," Lorenz says. "The reason this is in place now is because of the severe trauma ecologically that is placed on these riverbeds by these vehicles. The ruts they're digging in take years to go away."
The sand and gravel operations in the area have to have permits to dig into the creekside sand, Lorenz says. But three-ton Hummers can axle out just as much soil and sand, and no one is monitoring them, she maintains.
Most wetland plants are especially fragile because of their short root systems, and when they go, the entire ecosystem is killed, Lorenz says. Take the all-terrain vehicles out of the water and you'll see a return to clear blue, instead of the murky brown that results from the bottom being constantly churned up, she also promises.
Lonnie Riley, who schedules ATV excursions for Spring Creek ATV Park, couldn't disagree more.
First of all, he says, Spring Creek is not navigable. And it's private property, so it's their own business what they do there. The property inherited and owned by Tom Peckinpaugh is 60 acres and runs to the centerline in the creek.
"We've been riding on the creek all our lives. Thirty, 40 years we've been riding up here," Riley says, explaining that the park itself only opened about two and a half years ago. Ten to 15 people a day come in to ride, he says. The Web site shows fun pictures of ATVers of all ages revving it up smack-dab in the middle of the creek.
"Everybody who has an ATV needs a place to ride. With all the increased places you can't ride ATVs and you're not supposed to ride ATVs, and everybody respects that, and they go to places where you are allowed to ride ATVs," Riley says. "We are an existing business that's been allowed to ride ATVs since we've started There's no reason that I can come up with why anybody could dictate what you can and can't do on private property."
When contacted, owner Peckinpaugh seemed disinclined to let loose of his property, or to remove the ATVs. "Not at the present time I might consider it, but that's a real pretty piece of property. I'm real attached to it I don't see myself selling it anytime soon."
As for the destructive capabilities of an ATV, Peckinpaugh says: "I've lost a lot of bank out there from Mother Nature, not from anyone riding ATVs."
He also pooh-poohs the scenic picture of canoeists drifting down Spring Creek. "Most of the time, the creek's too low. You end up dragging the canoes and kayaks." This viewpoint was shared by Nathan Schuh, an employee of nearby Paddle Sports, who says most of the time negotiating Spring Creek involves more walking and carrying than riding and that they tend to use the San Jacinto River more.
The sand is too heavy for mountain bikers, Peckinpaugh says. So that pretty much leaves people who are already there, the folks riding ATVs, he says. In fact, he was thinking about approaching Eversole to point out that the taxpayers out there using ATVs far outnumber canoeists and kayakers, and that the park would be more suitable for his hobby-business "any day of the week."
He thinks people are opposed to ATVs because of younger riders with their really fast sport bikes, loudly zipping through a subdivision at 2 a.m. People his age, he says, drive the older, quieter models that don't bother anybody.
He denies accounts that he has offered to pay the tickets of any of his customers using ATVs. "You hear a lot of stuff on that chat line." (See "Can You Keep a Secret?") "We tell people to stay on our property. If they're off it, then shame on them."
Peckinpaugh, whose grandfather bought 1,200 acres back in the 1920s, says he doesn't know that Spring Creek has ever been navigable. "Maybe back in the times of the Indians."
(Ironically, Peckinpaugh's aunt is Patty Hubbard, who sold a huge amount of nearby land to Jimmy Pappas of Midway Development in 2000. Ironic because Hubbard is working with Legacy to get land by Riley Fuzzell Road in Montgomery County set aside as a conservation easement to be called Peckinpaugh Preserve. Her son, Ford Hubbard, owns property adjacent to his cousin, Tom. Also ironic because Tom Peckinpaugh is embroiled in a lawsuit with Midway that accuses him of violating the deed restrictions, saying that his customers also ride on Midway land.)
Besides the sheer fun of ATVing, there are other benefits to consider, Riley says. "There's a lot of old people, a lot of handicapped people that aren't allowed to get down on these beaches unless they were on a motorized ATV. Therefore you'd be discriminating against these people."
Although there have been some complaints that ATVers get in the way of canoeists and kayakers, according to Riley there's been nothing but happy coexistence.
"There never has been a problem. Anyone who's out there are good country people. Whether they're in a kayak or walking or standing on the banks fishing or on an ATV," Riley proclaims.
As for damage to the creek, well, you might as well ban about everything while you're on the subject, Riley says.
"You can hurt that sand just by walking out there. We refer to it as a big Etch A Sketch. Every time it rains two inches anywhere from here to Tomball that creek rises eight to ten feet and falls within a couple of days, and it's like taking an Etch A Sketch everything is erased and changed."
Foot traffic, deer and hogs all routinely tear into the sand, Riley says. "The pigs go down there and dig holes on the beaches that are so big you couldn't ride an ATV through them. That's why I say it's totally unfair to point a finger at an ATV."
Adamant about the destructive properties of ATVs, Jennifer Lorenz says she is fine about horseback rides along Spring Creek -- the other major point of contention as plans are being formulated for the future green space.
"Horses don't do a ton of damage; they don't do near the damage these ATVs do," says Lorenz, adding that she is not a big rider. "There are probably a few sensitive areas these horses shouldn't be in, but in my opinion that's a very low ecological disturbance.
"I've been on some [horses] down there. It's a wonderful way to view that area. Unless there's just thousands of horses, which there's not, I can't see the major damage," Lorenz says.
Mark Dial and his wife, Darolyn Butler Dial, operate Cypresswood Stables for trail and endurance rides in the area. Part of their route is along Spring Creek; they also use nearby Cypress Creek.
Dial says Commissioner Eversole, himself a rider, started out fully supportive of retaining horse trails along the creek. But now some staff members, primarily Eversole chief of staff Joanye Younts, have convinced him otherwise, pushing him into a cautious public posture, Dial and others say.
Dial says Younts told him flat out that horses would not be allowed. Younts denies this, saying, as Eversole contends, that their presence is up for consideration. Eversole goes a bit further, saying they will probably be there. Dial and his wife don't want to make the situation worse, don't want to get crosswise with the commissioner's office, but they are clearly flummoxed by the latest turn of events, especially since Eversole and his wife have ridden at Cypresswood Stables and the commissioner has had political parties there.
A year ago, the Dials were even talking to Eversole about operating a concession in the park for horseback rides. The dream was to allow people to trailer in their horses and ride, Dial says. Now it's as if those talks never happened.
"We've been using it for 20 years," Dial says. His wife adds: "If I got closed off to the west, it would basically shut us down." That's because they own only ten acres themselves, on which stands their barn with its 46 horses, house and arena. Clientele from around the globe come in for the chance to ride with them. Darolyn is a four-time national champion in endurance and needs her practice space -- something that's not going to be achieved by going around and around an arena.
Development is already creeping up on them. A massive subdivision is being put in across the street. They've made an agreement with the developer to be able to use what greenway is left.
Eversole, who roped for more than five years and took up cowboy-mounted shooting about four years ago (contestants shoot at balloons while riding horses; he goes to New Mexico to do this), says he wants to find a place for horses along the creek project, but isn't at all sure horses and pedestrians on trails is a good mix.
According to Younts, "that issue is under review to determine what area will work well for horses." Whatever she was or wasn't saying before, as of mid-August she was stating that "We are working in the direction to accommodate equestrian trails."
For four years in the 1980s, Dennis Johnston and his wife lived on the grounds of Jones Park & Nature Center. Initially a volunteer when it opened in 1982, Johnston was hired on within months and worked his way up through the ranks.
He's explored the grounds for years, on foot and by ATV; he knows the unmarked lanes left behind by long-departed logging trucks as well as if they had signs and streetlights on them.
Just named the Precinct 4 Parks administrator, he has put a lot of effort into making the green-space project happen. He credits Eversole with urging his staff to think larger, to work toward a much grander green space than they first proposed.
Keeping Spring Creek as intact as possible isn't just for good looks. The watershed's sand filtration serves as a kidney, Eversole says. Upland is nothing but commercial development; runoff from nearby stores and businesses is cleansed when it goes through the sand.
According to Lorenz, setting aside larger amounts of land for mitigation does far more to protect the wetlands than the usual practice of building a detention pond. "What most developers do is they'll go in and they dig a hole. They call it a wetland. They'll plant a cypress tree or two. That's how they mitigate," Lorenz says.
"Thing is, wetland soils take millions of years to form," she says. "You are not going to make a wetland by digging a hole and putting a few plants in."
Instead, she and Johnston point to what Target has done as an example of mitigation that really works. Near its new store at 59 and Townsend Road, Target bought 44 acres of mitigation land and, in another project, bought 75 acres in Montgomery County by Curry Lake.
In other cases, she says, the counties pay for conservation easement rights, which at 75 percent of the worth of the land, are still far less expensive than condemnation proceedings, which cost about twice as much. Harris County has had to do that once in this project. With a conservation easement, the owners still own the land, but agree that it will never be developed, an agreement that transfers to any subsequent ownership.
Along Spring Creek, Lorenz says, "our goal is not to do little mini-green islands. The goal is to put the habitat together." They've been working with developers from Spring Trails, a master-planned community off the Hardy Toll Road that instead of building "mini-ranchettes" is putting in more densely packed homes with immediate access to the trails and wetlands, she says.
"When it's all finished, these people can walk over to this monstrous green that's been set aside rather than have them all saint-augustine a large lot," Lorenz says, adding that saint augustine takes out the natural habitat.
The Spring Creek project has a historic cousin in the Clear Creek Project started in 1982 by state Senator Jon Lindsay when he was county judge of Harris County. Several tracts of land were purchased, Mercer Arboretum & Botanic Gardens and Jones Park were developed, but things stalled after that as federal funding dried up, until Eversole got involved, Johnston says.
Montgomery County Commissioner Chance got in touch with Eversole when he heard what Harris County was doing. "It just seemed like a natural fit," he says. It was a rather giant step; in his 18 years as a commissioner, Chance says, he's never heard of anything of this magnitude. In mid-August, Chance hired staff attorney Robert Collins for the new position of Spring Creek project coordinator for Montgomery County.
Chance sees the land acquisition taking at least another five years. Eversole hopes it can be completed in one. Harris County has been working at it longer, but Montgomery County is looking at an area less developed on its side of the creek, which may make land acquisition easier.
In any event, Chance says things are moving right along. His county has acquired 100 acres for parkland right next to his offices along Spring Creek on the west side of Interstate 45, thanks in part to some land swapping with The Woodlands, Lorenz says.
"This is the first county-owned property in the country that's got an easement on it," Lorenz says. "And the reason that's so important: Just because you have a conservation-minded official in office doesn't mean he or she is always going to be in office. The benefit is that no matter who's in office, that property is never going to be developed. It will always be taken care of."
As for figuring out what's going to be in the greenway once it's set aside, Chance says they haven't gotten that far. "We know it'll be restricted from motor vehicle traffic altogether. There will be hiking and bike trails and probably some horseback trails, I would think. All those things are waiting on when can you financially put them in place."
Chance says it's probably going to be a good thing that some of the present activities along Spring Creek disappear.
"There's a lot of four-wheeling that goes on in that tract that actually destroys it, and that's illegal under the last legislative session. Some of those activities do need to be curtailed, in my opinion."
Realizing that the conservationists and the Bubbas were never going to agree on the question of whether Spring Creek is a navigable river, it seemed reasonable to turn to the ultimate authority: the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Only to find out they didn't know either, even though the law supposedly has been in effect for more than eight months.
William Skeen, a lieutenant game warden with the agency's north Houston office, says he just started receiving complaints about ATVs in Spring Creek in early August. So he and his major went down to the creek to check it out, took photos and sent their information on to Austin headquarters for a ruling.
As Skeen explains it, even that ruling might not be clear-cut. Besides the fact that no creek is a highway, with uniform width, to start with, creeks tend to fluctuate in width depending on rainfall or runoff.
It could be that some parts of Spring Creek meet the navigable criterion (30 feet wide) and others don't. It could be some parts meet that standard on a flood day in June, but not in August's hotter and drier season.
"At some point that creek will stop being considered navigable when it drops below that 30-foot average width. Then at that point this ban on operating vehicles, ATVs, would not apply. But the further south you go, the closer you get to the San Jacinto River, it's obviously a navigable creek and it would be illegal to cross or run down below the gradient boundary of that area," Skeen says.
A week later, the local and state offices had decided, in fact, that Spring Creek is not only navigable but public as well, according to Skeen. "It is public almost all the way up to I-45, so the prohibition against motorized vehicles will be enforced. We will begin writing tickets."
Violations would be a class C misdemeanor on the first offense, punishable by a fine of $25 to $500, Skeen says. Following two previous convictions, this could be enhanced to a class B misdemeanor.
Asked about private property owners who say their rights extend to the center line of the creek, Skeen says: "Their deed may claim they own to the middle of the creek, but the area on top [the water] is public." So according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, private property owners have the right to ride along the creek, but not in it.
"It takes millions to open a park," Johnston says. Especially, says Lorenz, in a state like Texas where "95 percent of land is privately owned." Precinct 4 has to compete for parks funds not only with other counties but with the other three precincts within Harris County, he says, which makes finding other funding sources even more important.
They've just received a $100,000 grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to develop a new trailhead at Jones Park, a loop that will bring a new subdivision into easy access to the trail system, he says.
At one point, it was estimated the cost of the land for the Spring Park Greenway would be $4.5 million, but it is unclear whether that included the Montgomery County side as well. Some of the Harris County side was acquired by the county many years ago as undeveloped tracts for future use, Joanye Younts says.
Groups such as the Harris County Flood Control District, the Bayou Preservation Association, the Park People and Legacy Land Trust have worked to secure grant funds, Younts says. So, Harris County itself has spent approximately $400,000 over the last 16 to 18 months on the Spring Creek project, Younts says.
There is also discussion about eventually linking the system to nearby Cypress Creek, where it all started so many years ago.
Everyone talked to agrees that ATVs will be restricted in some ways. Devout ATVers aside, the consensus from everyone else is that they just do too much damage and need to at least be limited to the certain areas they can play in.
Horses remain more of a question. Commissioner Chance and Lorenz see no problem with them; ironically enough, cowboy Eversole, who has all the bona fides any rider would ever need, is hesitating. Horse travel is allowed in two other Harris County parks: Bear Creek and George Bush. The horse community has already been put on full alert; in the July issue of Texas Horse Talk, editor Steven Long urges readers to contact the commissioner's office and protest any effort to do away with equine trails.
"Spring Creek and Cypress Creek have been major thoroughfares coming and going from Houston since Houston has been a town," says Dial. "There have been horse trails on both these creeks since Texas was settled."
He can't envision a future without them.
Dennis Johnston feels he is standing on the brink of a history-making effort. If intervention had been done earlier, he says, downtown Houston wouldn't have had to rebuild its bayou system that went from a natural bayou to a flood-control system.
"We have the opportunity to do this before it gets destroyed," he says.