BELTON, Texas (AP) — Nearly a decade ago, nature took back the Leon Valley Golf Course when it shuttered.
“The only thing it had done was just sit there, and wait to be developed by the owners at the time,” Belton Parks and Recreation Director Matt Bates said. “You can imagine in that time how much stuff had grown up.”
The Temple Daily Telegram reports brush hid maintenance trails used by course employees. Concrete golf cart trails were covered by dirt. Grass was tall and unkempt.
“There was an old fence line that grew up along here,” Bates said, sitting in a green John Deere utility vehicle at the northern edge of the existing Heritage Park. “It was nothing but scrub trees, chinaberry and hackberry.”
Now that brush is gone. The trails are being dusted off. And the grass has been cut.
This is no longer the Leon Valley Golf Course.
It is now Heritage Park.
The Belton City Council in May 2018 spent $2.1 million to buy an 84.25-tract of the former golf course. That purchase grew the park from 65 acres to 150 acres.
“It’s hard to find large tracts of acreage to turn into parkland in Belton,” Mayor Marion Grayson said last year. “For this opportunity to come forward when it did and the location that is, it’s just like our prayers answered.”
Although the park’s expansion is in its early stages of planning, it is open to the public.
On a recent moderate Wednesday around noon, a group of Austinites were playing disc golf on a temporary course that the Belton Disc Golfers group set up on the undeveloped portion of Heritage Park. Families and their dogs were walking around the park.
“We want this park to be used while we’re still trying to figure out what to do with it,” Bates said.
How will the expanded Heritage Park be developed? That is the question the city of Belton is attempting to answer.
The Belton Parks Board — comprised of five Council-appointed members — is leading the planning effort for how to develop the park.
Residents will also contribute to the planning efforts. Bates said his department plans to hold public meetings, conduct surveys and gather focus groups to determine the park’s future.
Bates does not want to see the 85 acres become commercialized, with turf and baseball parks. Instead, he said, this area’s natural beauty will be preserved.
“The community cares about how beautiful this place is. That’s definitely going to be factored in,” he said. “We fully intend to keep the beauty of it.”
Belton plans to capitalize on its riverfront property.
“The park really has a lot of accessible areas to the river from its banks. You often don’t get this because they’re very steep so you can actually get really up close to it. This is where we hope to promote kayaking, fishing,” Bates said. “This is something that is definitely an asset in the park that we intend to do something with.”
The Leon River — unlike Nolan Creek — is stable thanks to the water being controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Belton Dam. Nolan Creek frequently floods during heavy rainfall events.
Not only will the river serve as a way to market the park, its water will be used to irrigate the greens. Belton will be able to pump 167,000 gallons of water every day from the Leon River.
“Anything we can do to reduce our irrigation costs on the property is kind of what we’re looking at,” City Manager Sam Listi said.
While plans are still being developed, Bates said a permanent disc golf course will be considered.
“What we’re uncovering here are a lot of gems,” Bates said.
One of those gems was the former concrete golf cart trails. City workers have uncovered a few of the trails, but many are likely still buried.
“Part of the process we’ve been doing since December was to start uncovering where some of these trails were,” Bates said “They were sporadic throughout the property. We didn’t find any evidence that they all connected. It’s kind of here and there.”
The trails, Bates said, make for a great walking path.
There are several ponds located throughout the northern property. Near these ponds are windmills that once pumped water into the small pools.
One idea Bates is bandying around is deepening the ponds and stocking them with fish.
“There are so many things we can do,” he said.
Toward the center of the undeveloped land is a fenced-in area known as the llama pen. Prior owners, Bates said, once kept their llamas there.
Bates sees the llama pen as potentially becoming a dog park — a top priority for many residents, according to a Belton survey conducted in 2016. The city currently does not have a dog park.
Throughout the park, there are scenic views. Bates showed off a hill that has a view of Baylor Scott & White Medical Center-Temple, which is more than eight miles away.
“I would love to do some type of pavilions space or seating spaces or overlooks for the community,” the Parks and Recreation Director said.
Much of the land will remain untouched.
“A big need in our community is open space,” Bates said. “Open space is so valuable.”
One benefit of converting a former golf course into a park is that there is plenty of flat land from the former fairways.
“There are (sports) associations, there are youth sports that need space,” Bates said, passing by a flat field that could be used for soccer games. “They don’t need tons of it.”
The park will not be developed in a year — or even two, Bates said. But in the meantime, the Parks and Recreation Department is forming plans for events.
“Because we’re impatient and we love the park, we’re already thinking of ways to use it,” Bates said, explaining his department is considering holding camp out events and hay rides around Halloween time.
As park amenities and events are discussed, Belton is moving forward with plans to connect the two parts of Heritage Park.
City spokesman Paul Romer said the Public Works Department is planning to construct a temporary road connecting the old park to the extension. The timeline for the temporary road is unclear right now, Romer said.
“The priority is extending 24th into the park,” he said.
At the northern end of Heritage Park, the city plans to extend East 24th Avenue into the park. Romer said the design is nearly complete.
The new road will be 1,500 feet long, and form a T-intersection with River Oaks Drive. Public Works Director Angellia Points estimated that the new road — as well as installing a new water line for the park — will cost around $700,000.
After the road project earns the City Council’s approval, construction will last around eight months. Points is aiming for the project to begin sometime this summer.
“For a community the size of Belton, this will be, for us, a mega park,” Bates said. “We never thought we would have something like that.”
Information from: Temple (Texas) Daily Telegram, http://www.tdtnews.com