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Residents seek alternatives to planned Lake-to-Lake Road

BELTON — A greenbelt full of trees, grasses and other wild plants winds its way behind resident John Manuel’s home in the Dawson Ranch neighborhood.

This belt runs behind many homes to the north, extending to the intersection of Lake Road and FM 2271. To the south, this space passes by fewer homes and cuts through unincorporated Bell County until it reaches meets FM 1670 and Interstate 14.

The green space stretches for more than 3 miles, and can be seen driving through this North Belton neighborhood.

Manuel, who moved to Belton for a job on Fort Hood, bought his home from Carothers Executive Homes in May. At that time, Manuel was told the green space that abuts his fence would have a trail.

As a precaution, the father of four decided to call City Hall to double check that plan.

“I was asking some questions to the city about the land behind our house after we closed on it. I was just curious about it,” Manuel said.

That’s when he found out that a trail was in the works. But there would be something else accompanying it: A four-lane street with medians called Lake-to-Lake Road.

The road has been in the works for nearly 20 years. It is planned to run from FM 2271 to FM 1670, and would connect several roads — FM 439, Sparta Road, FM 93, Interstate 14 and Three Creeks Boulevard.

Manuel opposes Lake-to-Lake Road. He describes it as a “highway” that will back up directly to his backyard. As a way to show residents’ disapproval of the road, Manuel formed a group called Homeowners Opposed to Lake-to-Lake Road. He says the group has attracted more than 150 members.

“It was under the radar, and now it’s out,” Manuel said.

Lake-to-Lake Road explained

City Manager Sam Listi explained that Lake-to-Lake Road’s objective is simple.

“It’s connectivity in that western portion of Belton and kind of central Bell County,” he said. We were looking out west beyond that (Loop 121) to try to find that connectivity.”

Belton’s current north-to-south routes aren’t cutting it, Listi said.

Main Street south of 13th Avenue reportedly is as wide as it will ever be because of the historic homes that line the street.

There’s Loop 121, which will be widened to four lanes beginning in 2021. “But even the loop is limited in connectivity across the region, north to south. It just goes from (FM) 439 basically to the interstate. That doesn’t quite do it,” Listi said.

Lake-to-Lake Road would give Belton a much needed north-south road.

“There are so many opportunities to connect east and west routes makes it really appealing,” city spokesman Paul Romer said.

The road was added to Belton’s thoroughfare plan in 2001. In the 17 years since, Belton has acquired all of the right of way needed inside city limits. It did that as subdivision plats came through City Hall.

“The developers worked with us to try to accommodate it in their plan so it’s at the edge of their development, not going right through,” Listi said. “It’s not going through the middle of a neighborhood, basically. It is at the edge.”

One piece of right of way is still needed. It is located at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-maintained Belton Lakeview Park.

Lake-to-Lake Road is estimated to cost $49.7 million. Belton does not consider the project high priority for funding from the Killeen-Temple Metropolitan Planning Organization. The widening of Loop 121 has that honor for the city.

Funding for Lake-to-Lake Road will likely be an amalgamation of local, regional and federal dollars.

Listi stressed that Lake-to-Lake Road is a “long, long-term project.” That point was included in the unanimously approved strategic plan for the next five years. Residents wanted to see the entire plan killed because of the continued planning for the long-gestating project.

The plan puts more community focus on Lake-to-Lake Road’s planning while also stressing that construction would be at least seven to 10 years away — depending on funding availability.

Is a different route possible?

Manuel does not buy into that timeframe.

“It’s almost like a Jedi mind trick where they’re saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s five, 10 years in the future.’ That seems like a moot point,” Manuel said. “The fact is whenever it happens — 10 years or 20 years — it doesn’t seem to be a good plan for homeowners. We’re trying to get away from the conversation about the distance in time.”

That isn’t enough for homeowners who live along the three-mile stretch where Lake-to-Lake Road is planned to be built.

“It’s been a plan for 20 years. It’s much closer to arriving than ever has been. This is the time to act on it for homeowners,” Manuel said. “If we had waited another three years and it was funded, there’s no turning around at that point. This is the time for homeowners, for the decision makers … to change the plan. If they don’t do it now, it will be too late.”

Cindy Black lives in the Dawson Ranch subdivision in North Belton. Black moved to Belton from Austin in 2017 to be closer to her family.

“We’ve asked them to move it somewhere else. You have options. You know you do. You’ve noted them. Move it somewhere else,” Black said, referring to the city government.

Manuel agrees. He wants Belton to find another route.

George Wilson Road was identified as a potential north-south route in Belton. However, the city manager said it does not quite meet the city’s needs.

“It connects right now between I-14 and FM 93. It conceivably could go to Lake Road, but then the lake is in the way in the south. There are some limitations there,” Listi said.

There’s even Dunn’s Canyon Road. But like George Wilson Road, it has limited connectivity, connecting only Sparta Road to FM 439. Additionally, Listi pointed out in a presentation that houses front Dunn’s Canyon Road.

“It’s quite obvious that they’ve had opportunity to realize — especially in the last five years — this neighborhood is growing, and maybe this isn’t a good idea,” Black said.

Neighborhood growth

It was quiet in Dawson Ranch as the sun set in the neighborhood recently. Only the sounds of cars passing by could be heard.

Homes here are new. A few for sale signs are staked into lawns.

Many houses have similar designs, with varying colors of brick and rock making their façades.

Entering from Mystic Mountain Road, drivers pass by larger homes that are designed to look similar to Italian villas.

The land on which Lake-to-Lake Road may be built is obvious driving through the area. It is, after all, nearly 200 feet wide of empty space.

Homes here aren’t cheap. Houses currently on the market start around $240,000 and go up to $389,000. Home values in the nearby subdivisions of Red Rock Hills and Regatta Oaks are similar, with some homes exceeding $500,000.

No infrastructure was here prior to this neighborhood and surrounding subdivisions were built. In fact, Belton spent more than $1.4 million so these homes can tap into the city’s wastewater and water lines.

Planning to continue

Belton is unlikely to scrap its plans for Lake-to-Lake Road.

“Why would the city scrap the plan right now?” Romer, Belton’s spokesman, said. “It’s 20 years of planning. It’s really preliminary. There have been concerns from that neighborhood, but I don’t think that rises to the level of pulling it from the strategic plan.”

Other than the amount of time devoted to planning the road, the city has spent $309,122 in right-of-way acquisition. No compensation is required for the city to acquire 60 feet of right of way. Wider amounts of right of right may require compensation in the form of cash or even extensions of utilities to spur residential development, Listi said.

Homeowners opposed to the road have claimed that it will be a 150- to 200-foot wide highway. That, however, is one piece of misinformation spreading among residents, Councilman Guy O’Banion said.

“That’s never been part of the plan. As far as I’m concerned, it will never be part of the plan,” the three-term councilman said. “I don’t think anyone up here would vote to have a highway. It’s not an Adams. It’s not a Rancier. There’s no business. There’s no commercial. There’s no retail. It’s a street — a neighborhood street.”

The right of way for the road varies from 200 feet in the north to 150 in the south. That, Listi said, gives leeway for how the project will be designed.

“It’s 150- to 200-foot right of way that we can put a 20-foot street if we wanted to — I mean that’s not code, I think it’s 37 feet. A 37-foot street or even a 40-foot street in a 200-foot right of way is not anywhere close to a highway,” O’Banion said.

Though homeowners, like Black and Manuel, believe the road has been hidden in the dark shadows of City Hall, O’Banion said it’s been anything but.

“There’s no secret about this right of way and about the potential for a Lake-to-Lake Road. It’s well publicized,” O’Banion said. “There’s no reason to hide it. It’s a big green space going through a development.”

For the greater good

Poor planning can hurt Belton in the future, Councilman David K. Leigh said.

For example, Councilman Dan Kirkley said the City Council in the 1950s had an opportunity to plan for Main Street to be 

widened. But they did not take it, and the city still feels the ramifications from that untimely decision, he said.

“Our job and our plan is we need to look at this thing in 50 to 60 years and acquire the right of way at the lowest cost to the citizens and the lowest impact to the community to help protect children and to help protect Belton homes,” Leigh said. “That’s why we’re doing it. It’s to protect those, and not just to protect those today, but those in 50, 60 years and in 100 years to protect all of that. That’s why we’re here.”

Leigh acknowledged infrastructure projects can negatively impact residents. He said he knows people who have had their home condemned for road projects. That, Leigh said, is wrong. But the overall situation must be weighed by decision makers.

“I live on Loop 121. I’m going to have part of my property is going to be taken for the greater good of the community,” Leigh said, referring the TxDOT’s plan to widen the loop.

Leigh laid the city’s reality simply: Belton is growing. He explained that the seven Council members are elected to guide the direction of Belton, and that means looking at issues or projects from a bigger perspective.

Final decision someone else’s

When Lake-to-Lake Road comes before the City Council for funding or design decisions, Leigh said, the city manager, staff and most of the Council will not be there for it.

“It will be somebody else’s future decision,” the councilman said. “If they decide to build a road, they can because they have the freedom and they can do it. If they choose not to build the road, they can choose that, too. That’s OK. We will provide that path for them.”

The City Council emphasized that plans can change. Leigh compared the city’s plans to the number zero.

“It’s an imaginary thing. It’s not really an observed thing. A plan is something that we think might happen in the future, but nine times out of 10 we think wrong,” he said. “We’re here talking about an imaginary thing that will hopefully benefit the future and not hurt the present.”

O’Banion stressed that the City Council has been involved during the entire planning process for Lake-to-Lake Road. But there are still many unknowns as this project becomes a reality. O’Banion pointed to funding, timing and other unforeseen factors that will influence the road.

“There is so much unknown,” he said. “But at the very least I think it’s conceivable that there is going to be some sort of street thought there. Not a highway, but a street that’s going to alleviate a lot of pressure.”

O’Banion continued, saying, “Whatever is in there, whether it’s four lanes with a divided median with landscaping, hike-and-bike trails. Whatever it is, it’s going to be nice and it’s going to be complementary to that neighborhood.”

For Black and the home owners opposed to Lake-to-Lake Road, this project has far-reaching consequences. The proposed road impacts the entire city, Black said.

“There’s got to be more to this to really justify plowing through this neighborhood,” Black said. “This doesn’t make any sense to us.”