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GROWING PAINS: Highland Lakes residents reflect on effects of growth

Traffic at US 281 and RR 1431 in Marble Falls

Traffic at the intersection of U.S. 281 and RR 1431 in Marble Falls just before lunch on Thursday, June 24. The increase in traffic, especially on 281 through Marble Falls and Burnet, is the top indicator for locals that the area is growing. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Former Burnet County Judge Martin McLean remembers when Marble Falls had one red light and U.S. 281 was the only paved road in town. Retired pharmacist B.J. Henry used to know everyone she saw in Blue Bonnet Cafe. Former Marble Falls Mayor Griff Morris recalled traffic only ever being a problem on Fridays when trucks pulling boats created traffic jams from the 281 bridge through town to the RR 1431 intersection. 

Traffic was the first thing that came to mind for these and other locals recently interviewed about how they can tell the Highland Lakes area is experiencing unprecedented growth. 

“What used to be a five-minute drive across town could be 15 or 20 minutes these days,” said Rose Metzler, a lifelong Marble Falls resident who has served on the City Council and “just about every board in town.”  

Another indicator can be seen in the increased number of applications for building permits.

“Last year, we had a total of 40 applications; we’re already at 80 (this year),” said Granite Shoals City Manager Jeff Looney in June. “We’ve tripled our permits.” 

Burnet County Commissioner Jim Luther told a similar story based on the number of building permit applications in unincorporated areas and people calling asking about property. 

“Just take a dart and throw it at a Burnet County map,” he said. “(Growth) is everywhere.”

Oatmeal native Polly Krenek sees it happening even from her vantage point 6 miles southwest of Bertram, where she lives on a ranch. 

“Just over the hill from us, about 15 to 20 new houses have been built within the last five years — five of them last year,” she said. “I am seeing more and more new houses going up all over the county.” 

Of course, 20 new houses in five years is nothing compared to what’s happening in the southern part of the county, where two developers plan to build a total of about 3,000 new homes at the intersection of U.S. 281 and Texas 71. Sales are underway at Gregg Ranch (700 single-family homes/250 multi-family rentals), where model homes have been constructed and infrastructure is in place. Thunder Rock (2,958 homes and a sports complex) is still in the early stages with infrastructure.

Which leads to the next problem mentioned by most of the interviewees: utility infrastructure, in particular, the need for bigger, better, and more water and waste-water treatment plants. 

“A former city manager used to warn us (on the council) that if we didn’t keep up with the old infrastructure, that it would come back to haunt us,” said Morris, who served three terms as Marble Falls mayor and one term as a councilor. He is currently in his 10th year on the Texas Housing Foundation board of directors. 

A new Marble Falls wastewater treatment plant is in the works

“Steps are being taken, and they are long overdue,” Morris said. “I like the direction we are going.” 

In other areas, not so close to the lakes, water supply is the problem.

“Water, in certain areas of the county, is very hard to come by,” said Krenek of Oatmeal. “In our area, if you get 3 gallons a minute, you are doing good.” 

The influx of people looking for places to live has created yet another problem: a lack of affordable housing.

“People are getting priced out,” said Alex Payson, a member of the Marble Falls school board and owner of Numinous Coffee Roasters. “There’s a group of people about 20 to 25 (years old) just out of college or in that traditional stage, and they can’t afford to live here.” 

Growth puts strain on the environment as well. 

“My main concern is with the damage to our environment,” said Henry, the retired pharmacist. “We need to protect our most valuable resource: water.” 

They all agreed that controlled growth can be — and has been — good for the area in many respects. 

“The good news is our sales tax is through the roof,” Morris said. “The businesspeople are doing great. Downtown Main Street is booming, and that’s something we’ve always wanted.”

Henry put a more philosophical spin on the current situation. 

“The only constant in life is change, so I welcome the change but long for the simple way things used to be as well,” she said. “I think we live in a wonderful community in such a picturesque part of Texas that it wasn’t going to be kept secret forever.”

This story is part of a series on post-pandemic growth in the Highland Lakes. “Growing Pains” stories will be posted throughout June on The series kicked off in the June edition of The Picayune Magazine. Stories include the increased cost of lumber, effect on schools, filling the affordable housing gap, and lack of available rentals