Commentary: Your new home in the country comes with new billboards

When their workdays end in Austin, Lawrence and Monica Willis make the 20-mile trip home to near Driftwood. They drive South MoPac Boulevard, cross Texas 45 and begin the final lap along FM 1826.

“All of a sudden you’re in the country,” says Lawrence, 48. “We live in a corridor to the Hill Country.”

Right now, Lawrence and Monica, 45, have unobstructed views of the Hill Country’s starlit skies, distant shadowy ridges and a dark valley below from the patio of their home in Rim Rock, which is a neighborhood of $400,000 to $700,000 homes on 1- and 2-acre lots. Rim Rock is home to many who commute into Austin.

They are willing to take on the challenge of a longer commute for the privilege of a little more elbowroom than they would have in the city. But that privilege can come with surprise.

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Not so fortunate are nearby neighbors Mark and Priscilla Wood. Two billboards were erected in late November on FM 1826, just behind and below their home. The tops of the 42.5-foot boards are at their eye level.

“We have views of the billboards from every room on the back of our house. Two bedrooms, including master, the living room and the back porch,” said Mark Wood, 50.

On Nov. 26, old-growth live oaks were cut down along a strip of several hundred yards off the FM 1826 right of way. On Nov. 28, loads of steel were dropped off before two billboard frames quickly rose above cedars. Each of the two-sided billboards will be very well-lit.

The owner of the billboards is Media Choice, an outdoor advertising agency in West Lake Hills. The billboards are fully within the law and have permits from the Texas Department of Transportation.

The billboards are not the only rude awakening for Rim Rock residents. Word just spread that local businessman Dennis Wagner had sold his 15.8 acres in that dark valley to the Jenkins Organization of Houston, a firm with vast holdings in self-storage facilities.

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Katheryn Huynh of Media Choice said the billboards were installed under strict guidelines. An executive with Jenkins who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue said the storage facility will use motion detector-controlled, shielded lights — and Jenkins will voluntarily abide by nearby Dripping Springs’ dark skies ordinance.

Maybe we have good actors, but we have bad law – or no law at all. Billboards should not be allowed to loom over neighborhoods, and intensely commercial businesses like self-storage should not be allowed to mix in with residential communities.

Before you move to an unincorporated area of the Hill Country, know you will not have the zoning and regulatory protections you have in a city.

This reality rests with the Texas Legislature, long under the heel of the so-called “property rights” movement, which is mostly driven by wealthy, big-scale rural landowners who want to do whatever they want with their land.

If you are Suburban Joe, it’s no contest. Conservative legislators usually yield to the property-rights movement when there’s a suburban-rural conflict that requires resolution. Ask them to intervene and they become silent as lambs.

Take for example state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, who represents heavily suburban Hays County, with a population of more than 200,000, and rural Blanco County, with 11,000 residents.

Over several days, I made repeated efforts by email and phone to reach Isaac to ask his comment on the billboards and storage facility.

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Isaac did not return my calls by deadline. But we know this from the GOP lawmaker’s state website: Isaac believes in “protecting property rights” and in “limited government.” His office is taking names and numbers when Rim Rock residents call.

Denied authority by the state, the Hays County Commissioners Court has no jurisdiction over the billboards — and Dripping Springs has little authority in its extraterritorial jurisdiction, where The Jenkins Organization will build. City Administrator Michelle Fischer told me that with respect to the storage facility’s lighting of its grounds, “We’ve asked that the applicant (Jenkins) please comply and we hope they agree to do so voluntarily.”

“I didn’t see Texas as being so Wild West,” says Lawrence Willis, the Rim Rock homeowner. Take a ride on FM 1826 before it’s too late.

Oppel is a retired editor of the American-Statesman.

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