The years-long debate over the future of Lions Municipal Golf Course in West Austin took an unexpected turn Friday with the filing of state legislation that would transfer ownership from the University of Texas System to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The purpose is to preserve a course that is “a true civic asset” for its “gorgeous setting” and its place in civil rights history, said the measure’s author, state Sen. Craig Estes, a Republican from Wichita Falls. Democratic Sens. Royce West of Dallas and Borris Miles of Houston are co-authors.
The proposal, Senate Bill 822, comes a little less than a month after UT, in an abrupt policy reversal, offered to extend its lease of the course, known as Muny, to the city of Austin beyond 2019 — provided the city is willing to pony up lease payments that are closer to the land’s market value, estimated at $5.5 million a year in 2011.
Mayor Steve Adler said last month that he would “love” to work with UT to preserve Muny. “I would like to thank Senator Estes for trying to save this iconic part of Austin,” Adler said Friday.
A UT-Austin spokesman said the university would have no comment because the matter involves pending legislation. Officials at the UT System didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The UT System Board of Regents has long contemplated leasing the 141-acre course and other portions of the university-owned Brackenridge Tract along Lake Austin Boulevard for a major commercial and residential development, with lease payments benefiting the Austin campus.
The bill makes no mention of any compensation to the UT System for losing the land.
Muny is considered one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated, if not the first. The National Park Service added it to the National Register of Historic Places last year for that reason. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private group, placed the course on its list of America’s most endangered historic places.
The national recognition apparently prompted UT to revise its once-firm position that Muny would cease to be operated as a golf course after the city’s lease expires in 2019.
Muny sits in the “charming, old-Austin neighborhood” of Tarrytown, a place that conveys “a powerful sense of nostalgia,” Estes said. “To have a beautiful, affordable public space in this gorgeous setting is a true civic asset,” he said.
Col. George Washington Brackenridge, who donated the Brackenridge Tract to the university, was “a pioneering figure with his early support for women’s and civil rights” and would have been proud to see it become a desegregated golf course, Estes said.
“I am truly bewildered that the University of Texas, a public institution with resources most could only dream of, would cast away this history,” he said.
The proposed legislation would order the UT board to transfer the property, along with the city’s lease, to the Parks and Wildlife Department. Ownership of the property would automatically revert to the UT System if the parks department no longer uses it for a public golf course.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he has asked legislative staffers to look into whether the proposed transfer would be legal, noting that Brackenridge bequeathed the land to UT.
“We are reviewing the bill, and we look forward to working with Sen. Estes, who is a strong supporter of the department and the Texas state park system, as the Legislature contemplates this piece of legislation,” said Josh Havens, a Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman.
Ken Tiemann with Save Muny, a group whose name sums up its mission, said, “We are very appreciative of the interest Senators Estes, West and Miles have taken in the preservation of Lions Municipal.”
Save Muny leaders and Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion and Lions sympathizer, plan Wednesday to unveil Crenshaw’s proposal to restore Muny’s layout to that of its golden years, as well as to expand the practice facilities and add a new clubhouse. Crenshaw and others say the cost, estimated at $10 million to $12 million, can be raised privately.