- Elizabeth Findell American-Statesman Staff
A ban on rented boats using Walsh Boat Landing has led to a lawsuit against the city of Austin, as one operator argues the Parks and Recreation Department can’t keep his clients from using a public dock.
The department started requiring boat rental companies to apply for $500 permits to use the dock in 2016 and 2017, according to memos. Ten companies received permits.
Then, starting in late October, the city stopped allowing new permits to be issued and stopped allowing commercial and rental boats to use the dock.
That decision was made as the city tries to reduce use of the dock, amid structural concerns, while waiting on delayed plans for rebuilding it with the Lower Colorado River Authority.
The suit, filed Tuesday, comes from attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, who has challenged the city on various legal issues. On behalf of Austin Party Cruises, he argued that its large party boats are kept and rented elsewhere and stop at the dock only to pick up additional passengers.
“There’s nothing in city code that allows the parks department to charge (my client) a fee or get a permit to use the dock any more than anyone else,” Aleshire said. “He’s not conducting commercial activity in the park.”
Austin Party Cruises has been using the dock for 22 years to pick up and drop off guests of whoever rents its boats. Walsh is the only public boat dock on Lake Austin, said Cara Welch, a spokeswoman for the Parks and Recreation Department.
“We had gone through several years of community engagement, public meetings,” Welch said. “There were concerns by the neighborhood that there were overuse and capacity issues at the dock. It had deteriorated.”
Welch wouldn’t comment on what the city considers to be commercial activity, but said anyone piloting a boat could be stopped and asked if it’s a rental.
The city began charging for parking at the dock, in response to crowding complaints, in 2014.
The driver of one of the party cruisers received a citation in October for docking at Walsh with an expired permit. Aleshire sent the city a letter last month, saying he would sue if the department didn’t reverse its policy. The city responded only by returning a $500 check Austin Party Cruises had tried to leave for an updated permit.
The lawsuit specifically targets Kimberly McNeeley, acting director of the Parks and Recreation Department, claiming she decided to “unilaterally destroy small businesses.” McNeeley was not available for comment Wednesday.
Neither the City Council nor the Parks and Recreation Board formally voted on the rental boat ban, but McNeeley issued several memos updating them on its changes. The most recent one, in June, said the department “will consider future usage policies at an appropriate time following the completion of the dock restoration.”
It’s unclear when construction could occur. The lawsuit said that uncertainty creates too much of a burden on rental companies.
“The Director has not banned all use of what she claims is a ‘deteriorating dock,’” the lawsuit says. “Nor are there any actual present plans or schedule to conduct repair or replacement of the dock.”