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Castletop land was slated for nearly 900 homes. It's becoming a Travis Co. park instead.

Bridget Grumet
Austin American-Statesman

Construction wasn鈥檛 imminent. But the Topfer brothers, Alan and Richard, weren鈥檛 looking to sell the land, either.

In fact, they had all of the entitlements in place to build 895 homes on the 475-acre Castletop tract abutting Milton Reimers Ranch Park in southwestern Travis County, whenever they wanted to start turning dirt.

Then, more than a year ago, they got a call from Jeff Francell with The Nature Conservancy, asking if they would consider selling the site if Travis County voters approved a large parks bond that provided money for land acquisition.

鈥淛eff was persistent,鈥 Alan Topfer told me this week.

Francell emphasized the benefits of adding onto Reimers Ranch 鈥 a popular destination for rock climbers, mountain bikers and anglers enjoying the Pedernales River 鈥 as Travis County tries to preserve some of the large natural spaces that are becoming increasingly scarce.

The brothers agreed to sell. The $40 million deal with Travis County Parks closed last month.

April Rose, Travis County Parks land stewardship manager, and Craig Bowen, senior land stewardship specialist, on Tuesday visit the newly acquired Castletop property. Travis County recently purchased the 475-acre tract property for $40 million with money from the parks bond approved by voters last year.

鈥淲e made a decision to support the community and leave some sites undeveloped, as consideration for all of the benefits that we've realized through the development activity that we've done in Austin over the last 20 years,鈥 said Topfer, whose Castletop Capital provides the backing for MileStone Community Builders.

鈥淲e gave up quite a bit of upside profits鈥 by selling the site, Topfer added. 鈥淏ut my family is very active, philanthropically, in town, and so this was another way that we felt we could support the community.鈥

The quest to preserve land for generations to come is often a race against time.

鈥淲e鈥檙e always competing with what else a landowner could do,鈥 said Francell, the associate director of land protection for the Nature Conservancy in Texas, which helps Travis County acquire open spaces.

So he uses the tools he has: a persuasive environmental case for preserving the land. And the county's ability to offer cash now to property owners who might otherwise wait years to see the profits from development.

RGK_ranch_map

By the time voters approved the $276 million Travis County parks bond last November, Francell was helping negotiate two marquee purchases: the Castletop tract and the nearby 1,506-acre RGK Ranch, which the county is buying this month.

In southwestern Travis County, Francell told me, 鈥淭hese were the two significant properties that we could protect.鈥

Piecing together the parkland

Castletop offers a natural continuation of what you find in Reimers Ranch: wooded areas, hilltop vistas, a burbling creek. Importantly, Francell said, the tract is at the top of the watersheds for Hamilton Pool, Bee Creek and another sensitive area that runs into the neighboring park.

Not building nearly 900 homes at Castletop 鈥渕eans the water quality going into those water resources is going to remain pristine,鈥 he said.

It also means nearly 900 fewer homes drawing drinking water from that area.

Lick Creek flows in the Castletop property. The tract in southwestern Travis County is at the top of the watershed for Hamilton Pool.

Most noticeably to the public, though, the Castletop acquisition will bring a sizable expansion of the 2,427-acre Reimers Ranch Park. Charles Bergh, the longtime director of Travis County Parks, expects to add trails into the 475-acre Castletop tract in the near future.

He said the county will also craft a master plan to eventually make another area accessible to Reimers Ranch visitors: a roughly 760-acre area sandwiched between the south end of the park and the 232-acre Hamilton Pool Preserve. The county acquired that tract in 2011 from Eugene Reimer (cousin of the park鈥檚 namesake), with the understanding that he and his wife (now widow) could live there as long as they like.

In time, all those pieces will make for a nearly 3,900-acre stretch of contiguous parkland, a crown jewel for Travis County Parks.

A place to rejuvenate

Pulling these pieces together is also a culminating achievement for Bergh, who retires next month after three decades as county parks director.

Bergh and Francell have spent years developing relationships with key landowners, hoping that someday those talks could become negotiations. It was around the maps in Bergh鈥檚 office that they showed Travis County Commissioner Ann Howard and others the tracts they hoped to acquire, if voters last year agreed to provide the money.

鈥淭he timing was right,鈥 said Howard, who became one of the champions of last year鈥檚 bond package. 鈥淭he stars aligned for these projects.鈥

April Rose of Travis County Parks walks in the Castletop property. The land had been slated for 895 homes, but it will instead become part of Milton Reimers Ranch Park.

Between Castletop and RGK Ranch, Travis County has spent all the bond money allocated for the western half of the county. Officials are still scoping out potential acquisitions with the $100 million earmarked for eastern Travis County. Nothing is finalized yet, but there are a few serious contenders.

鈥淭here's one property in particular that鈥檚 absolutely amazing, if we can get it,鈥 County Judge Andy Brown told me.

Perhaps it鈥檚 no surprise that voters approved the 2023 parks bond with the highest level of support the county had ever seen (77%). We just came out of a pandemic in which stressed-out, cooped-up residents turned to parks in droves, fueling renewed appreciation for natural spaces.

Being outdoors 鈥渞ejuvenates people,鈥 said Bergh, who enjoys hiking and letting his golden retrievers splash around in the Pedernales. 鈥淧eople get rebooted, so to speak, and see what鈥檚 valuable in their lives.鈥

And thanks to the vision of a few and the votes of many, Travis County residents will get more of these places to enjoy.

Grumet is the Statesman鈥檚 Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at bgrumet@statesman.com or on X at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at statesman.com/opinion/columns.