By LIBBY CLUETT
STRAWN – Nearly 65 Strawn residents and individuals from around the region gathered Thursday evening in Strawn's Opal Guest Chapel to hear from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department staff working on developing the Palo Pinto Mountains State Park.
The main topic of the forum was to gather Strawn citizens' feedback on possibly deeding Tucker Lake – the city's water source – to the Palo Pinto Mountains State Park. This didn't keep several equestrians, including members of the Texas Equestrian Trail Riders Association, from attending, seemingly chomping at the bit for a chance to ride in the state's newly minted park.
While the park is years from being officially opened to the public, TPWD officials said there would likely be chances for individuals and volunteer organizations to access the land on a limited basis, once they have fully assessed the property and know what activities it will support.
Strawn Mayor Carl Frazier opened the meeting by explaining that the idea proposed is for the city to hand over roughly 110 acres of land immediately surrounding the city's 90-acre Tucker Lake to the new park. TPWD would become stewards of the land, along with the nearly 4,000 acres the state agency purchased for the park, and could then build cabins around the lake and develop the area for recreational use, which would draw revenue to Strawn.
There would be a written agreement between TPWD and the city, and Frazier said they are just in the beginning stages of deciding what the agreement would look like. He noted that compensation would come from the increase in future sales-tax revenue and related increased economic development within the city.
The proposed agreement would likely not include the dam and spillway area, according to Frazier and speakers at Thursday's meeting.
“I'd like to know how you feel about this,” the mayor told the crowd. “I'd be reluctant to sign away anything that belongs to the city without your blessing.”
Frazier informed citizens that during February he will have an opinion poll in the city office, where they pay their water bill. He said, “Anytime you go in there, please sign under 'For,' 'Against' or 'Undecided.' I want you to take plenty of time and think it over and sign that opinion poll.”
TPWD Regional Director Rodney Franklin said whoever owns the land up to Tucker Lake “affects what we can and cannot do around the lake.”
He added that plans will likely include building trails, cabins and shelters and having lake recreation, like fishing, non-motorized boating and possibly swimming, in which case they would need to build a beach area.
“We are in the business of natural resources protection and the protection of water resources,” Franklin added regarding the management of land around Tucker. “We have experts in water quality at our fingertips.
“Protection of the water resources is something we take seriously,” he added.
Franklin said he hopes the discussion on land around Tucker Lake is a “back-and-forth communication between us and the [Strawn city] council. As we talk these things through, we want to make sure your interests are protected.
“There is definitely an economic impact to having a state park in your community,” Franklin added.
Also representing TPWD at the meeting were Palo Pinto Mountains State Park Superintendent John Ferguson, Park Planner Chris Beckcom and Special Assistant to the Director Kevin Good.
Collectively, these men informed Thursday's crowd that the next steps for the park will focus on planning. Once they have figures based on the plan and related costs, they will seek funding in the 84th Legislature, in 2015.
“Funding dollars are at a premium,” said Franklin, adding that the park project “will be that much stronger if we can put facilities around the lake area. If we have no worries building around the lake, people are more apt to give money.”
Although there are no figures at this point, prior to planning, TPWD officials said that $20 million to $30 million for a built-out destination park isn't out of the question.
Good clarified that funds allotted for park development are separate from funds approved for operating Texas parks. To develop a park, he said it takes a large chunk of dollars, branded by the Legislature.
“We're not making a pitch for developing dollars in this [TPWD] legislative package,” he said.
In the meantime, Good noted they will take the next two years to plan the park site.
During the question period, several equestrians asked about riding and volunteering. One man asked, “When will it be feasible to ride our horses there? Are we talking next week or so?” to which the crowd laughed.
Franklin reiterated that there may be some opportunities in the next few years for some type of use.
After someone asked what other parks surround a water supply lake, Good cited Lake Ray Roberts, which serves Dallas, but TPWD controls the shoreline.
“We work closely with the city,” he said of Dallas.
He added Cooper Lake State Park, near Sulphur Springs in Northeast Texas, and Lake Casa Blanca International State Park, which surrounds the water supply for Laredo, Texas. A participant added Tyler State Park, which he said is a great example of water stewardship.
“Our water quality will be better off?” one Strawn citizen seemed to ask more than state.
“Absolutely,” Franklin replied, adding that the water will be tested repeatedly, especially since the lake will be managed as a fishery habitat.
Another Strawn native said TPWD would “be a better steward of this lake than it's ever seen before.”
Currently the land around Tucker Lake is open for Strawn residents to use for recreation. While Mayor Frazier said there are trash cans, he said it is not consistently maintained, except for a city park area near the spillway.
City of Strawn engineer Derek Turner, of Jacob and Martin Engineering, shared the current condition of Tucker Lake, which contains 413 acre feet of water. He said the city is permitted to use up to 168 acre feet per year.
Strawn uses about 50 million gallons annually, he noted, estimating the park would use close to 10 percent of the water the city uses yearly, which would remain under the permitted amount.
According to Strawn City Secretary Danny Miller, a few residents recall the drought of the 1980s, when the lake dropped significantly. He said there is concern that could happen again.
Turner said the lake loses about 117 acre feet per year. If there was no rain, he estimated Strawn would have about three years worth of water.
If Strawn opted to raise the spillway by 2 feet, Turner said this would increase Tucker Lake by 47 million gallons of water.
Largely Thursday's crowd, at least many who spoke up, seemed supportive of plans to deed Tucker Lake to TPWD, but Frazier informed them that Strawn City Council will convene next on Feb. 11, at 7 p.m., at Strawn City Hall.
“I'd like to see many of you there and share your concerns, whether its support for it or you're dead set against it,” he said. “But I need to hear from you folks. And your city council members do as well, because that's how they make their decisions … so let them know.”
“They have to feel good about it,” he told the Index on Friday.