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Top Highland Lakes stories in 2022

Lake Buchanan in the summer of 2022

The water level for Lake Buchanan, one of two reservoirs in the six-lake Highland Lakes chain, dropped dramatically over the summer of 2022. According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, the level on Aug. 11 was 1,003.99 feet, or 63 percent full. When full, the lake level is about 1,020 feet. A year earlier, the lake was 99.6 percent full at 1,016.72 feet, according to waterdatafortexas.org. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Just as we collectively hoped, COVID-19 (mostly) took a back seat in 2022 as a top news story, making way for rapid growth, drought, public policy, and politics. Dominating DailyTrib.com headlines were water management and drought, growth, the Granite Shoals City Council, the Llano County Library System, and crime. 

The most-read online stories were about fatalities, crime, and growth, especially when it concerned new businesses or residential development.

The top five stories accessed by readers in 2022 were: 

1. Swim in Lake Buchanan turns fatal for mother and 4-year-old son

2. Gov. Abbott extends state COVID-19 disaster declaration

3. Illegal subdivision lot owners in limbo; county to meet with developer

4. Bertram man dies in Texas 29 collision

5. Two killed in Texas 29 collision near Bertram; 4-year-old injured

Our choices for the top stories of 2022 are as follows:

LLANO COUNTY LIBRARY LAWSUIT

Llano County Library in Llano, Texas
The Llano County Library, part of the three-library system in the county. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

This story actually began toward the end 2021 but escalated in 2022, ultimately resulting in a federal civil lawsuit now scheduled for trial in October 2023. The first story on the topic in 2022 was published on Jan. 7 about the county disbanding its library advisory board and forming a new one with a different makeup and more members. By March, the board decided to close its doors to the public. 

Not long after, targeted books were removed from library shelves, the Kingsland branch head librarian was fired, and the lawsuit was filed. Currently, only five of 12 positions are filled at the Llano County system’s three libraries, which are no longer open on weekends.

As the new year begins, plaintiffs and defendants in the Little Green et. al. v. Llano County et. al. lawsuit are filing dueling motions in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division. District Judge Robert Pitman is expected to rule on a preliminary injunction to return at least 12 books to library shelves and on a motion to compel discovery filed by the plaintiffs. 

The case has drawn national and statewide attention from The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, and Texas Monthly, among others.

GRANITE SHOALS CITY COUNCIL

Granite Shoals City Manager Jeff Looney fired
Granite Shoals City Manager Jeff Looney (left) prepares to leave Council Chambers after the City Council voted to terminate his contract at its regular meeting June 14, 2022. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

What unfolded over the last year in Granite Shoals could be described as a saga. The city started the year on positive notes, passing an ordinance to clean up properties, welcoming new businesses, and filing for multiple grant opportunities to improve parks. It also completed its new water tower and began to tackle quality-of-life issues, including reworking its mining ordinance, prohibiting the sale of any of its 19 parks, and decreasing speed limits on dirt roads and in parks.

In February, the wheels began to come off as disagreements between council members and then-City Manager Jeff Looney became public in a special meeting to evaluate the city manager’s conduct toward Councilor Samantha Ortis. 

Looney also drew disapproval from the council when he asked to hire an outside consultant to take some of the workload off of staff. Ortis and others noted that the city manager was given a $37,000-a-year raise when he told the council he could handle the workload and should be paid accordingly. At the next meeting, Looney told the council an anonymous donor was going to pay for the consultant, and the council voted to make the hire.

The battle over Looney’s treatment of Ortis was not over. After a series of contentious executive sessions, Looney was fired in June and Assistant City Manager Peggy Smith was appointed interim city manager. She soon reported that the city paid for the consultant after all. The anonymous donor was never made public. The payment of city funds was made by Looney without council approval, according to Smith. 

Then came the resignations. 

City Secretary Elaine Simpson resigned and was replaced with an interim. In October, the council hired Dawn Wright as the new city secretary

Police Chief Gary Boshears resigned to take over as Lago Vista chief. Capt. John Ortis, husband of Councilor Ortis, was promoted to replace Boshears

Changes in the City Council soon took the spotlight. May elections seated a new member, Aaron Garcia, who was voted mayor pro-tem after two longtime members were nominated and defeated. Within a few months, Garcia was sworn in as mayor after Mayor Will Skinner resigned to move to Kingsland. 

Councilor Phil Ort, who was just re-elected, resigned one day and took it back the next, saying supporters asked him not to leave the council. Ort spearheaded a recall election that scrambled the council makeup in 2020. The recall focused on getting rid of the city manager. 

The council appointed Kevin Flack in October to fill the seat that Garcia left vacant in his move to mayor. 

In November, Councilor Eddie McCoy resigned, and the city had to find another new member, the last it could legally appoint. State law limits the number of appointed members to two in one year. 

In mid-December, Councilor Ron Munos was named mayor pro-tem, and things seemed to settle except that trouble was brewing once again around Councilor Ort. 

In October, the council filed a complaint against Ort with the Burnet County attorney, accusing him of violating the Public Information Act. In December, Ort was arrested on a felony criminal mischief charge stemming from a vandalism incident in the Marble Falls H-E-B parking lot. At the same time, the Granite Shoals Ethics Review Commission sanctioned him for what it determined were violations of several city ethics ordinances and Texas government codes connected to the Public Information Act violation. 

As for overall quality-of-life issues, at the end of 2022, the Dollar General store was shut down for a few days for fire code violations, sewage spilled at a private wastewater plant, and a subdivision was rezoned to cut out commercial development. On positive notes, a new restaurant opened in the final days of the year, and when the council meets again in January, it will be with all seats filled and a hunt for a new city manager underway

May 2023 could bring a slate of changes. Five of the seven council positions will be on the ballot: Place 1, Place 2, Place 3, Place 5, and mayor.  

TROUBLED WATER AND WEATHER

Lake Buchanan drought
LEFT: Jay Henderson of Tow took this photo of a favorite fishing spot on Lake Buchanan on Aug. 17, 2021. RIGHT: He returned to the same spot on Aug. 19, 2022, to find nothing but a dry lakebed. Photos by Jay Henderson

Weather and water go hand-in-hand in the Highland Lakes, where five thirsty lakes have been hit hard by drought, especially Buchanan and Travis, the two reservoirs on the Lower Colorado River chain. 

The Picayune Magazine and DailyTrib.com published a series on the drought and its effects on the lakes in the late summer. 

The Central Texas Water Coalition asked the Lower Colorado River Authority to reopen its water management plan before 2025, when it is next due an update, to take in new drought-driven data. The LCRA refused and launched a campaign of letters to local officials, ads in local media, a State of the LCRA meeting for officials, and a public water management plan update meeting to show it believes the current plan is working.

The coalition continued with an information campaign of its own, holding town halls. Its next meeting is a Business Water Roundtable on Thursday, Jan. 19, at the Lakeway Activity Center. 

GROWTH

The Ophelia Hotel Marble Falls
An architect’s rendering of The Ophelia Hotel Marble Falls, the name of the hotel-conference center to be built on the corner of Yett and Main streets in downtown. The name is in honor of the city’s first woman mayor, Ophelia ‘Birdie’ Harwood, who was elected three years before women were granted the right to vote. Courtesy image

Plans for and construction of new housing developments shared headline space with other top stories in the Highland Lakes. 

Horseshoe Bay is seeing its first new development in years. Monarch Ridge will have single-family housing, townhomes, walking trails, a six-hole golf course, parks, and commercial space just outside of the city limits on Texas 71 West. Two other developments were approved by the City Council despite opposition from neighbors. Thundercloud and Azurite will have 48 single-family homes in west Horseshoe Bay. 

In Marble Falls, new development includes: 

Another sign of growth is the need for a new wastewater treatment, which is currently in the design phase. Robert Adams of Plummer Associates called it the city’s biggest-ever infrastructure project. Final cost is estimated at $60 million. 

City Hall needs a new home, and the council is on the hunt for a place to build it. While land acquisition talks are carried on in executive sessions, councilors have hired Randall Scott Architects to come up with designs. 

Shifts and increases in population caused the Marble Falls Independent School District to move its elementary school boundaries, especially in anticipation of increased growth at the U.S. 281 and Texas 71 intersection. Students in that area are now drawn into the Spicewood Elementary School boundaries, taking pressure off of Colt Elementary, which was at 92 percent capacity. 

Big businesses are also opening, including Petco just north of Walmart on U.S. 281. Pizza Hut, at the corner of U.S. 281 and RR 1431, is being rebuilt and expected to open in the new year, possibly with an adjacent business built on. Smaller businesses opening in 2022 were Ayoba Village, Makers Market, TX Tee Box, James Avery jewelry, Downtown Beer Hall, True Texas BBQ, Waggers and Swaggers Pet Boutique, Bright Fire Cigars, and Back and Body Works Massage Therapy. 

Burnet County commissioners have been feeling growing pains in unincorporated areas, especially around Bertram, where some developers have not been 100 percent above board in following county rules and regulations. The county told one developer in Florence to stop selling lots that lacked legal plats. The developer kept selling, which brought angry landowners unable to obtain building permits to the Commissioners Court to complain. Developers told commissioners in September they would meet county requirements so construction can get underway.

The Ranches at Blackbuck Ridge also came under scrutiny when homeowners brought road quality concerns to commissioners. The county eventually released an almost $400,000 road bond to Lone Star Land Partners after taking a look at and approving the roadwork.

CRIME

Cattle seized in Burnet County
Pictured are some of the cattle owned by Burnet County Precinct 3 Commissioner Billy Wall that were seized by the Sheriff’s Office on Sept. 8, 2022. This photo was taken on Sept. 16 after a week of the animals being fed and cared for at the Burnet County fairgrounds in Burnet. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Several elected officials found themselves on the other side of the law during a year that also saw a spate of murders, police chases, and sexual assaults.

Burnet County Precinct 3 Commissioner Billy Wall was charged with animal cruelty and turned himself in to law enforcement in November. He had already settled a civil suit after the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office seized a herd of 79 cattle. An investigation revealed the cattle were malnourished. They were taken to the Burnet County Fairgrounds, where they were cared for until well enough to sell. Due to the settlement, the auction money went to the county to pay for expenses in moving and caring for the animals. 

Cottonwood Shores Mayor Donald Orr was arrested in the final days of the year on deadly conduct charges. Orr faces two Class A misdemeanor charges for endangering the lives of two first responders while following an ambulance to a hospital on Oct. 4. Orr’s wife, Susan, was in the ambulance, which was allowed through a roadblock set up at an accident scene. Officers tried to stop Orr, who just kept going, striking one of the officers, according to an affidavit.

Granite Shoals City Councilor Phil Ort (see Granite Shoals section above) was sanctioned by the City Council and later a Granite Shoals Ethics Review Commission for refusing to release public documents as part of a Public Information Act request. He was also arrested on a felony criminal mischief charge after being accused of keying a car in the Marble Falls H-E-B parking lot.   

Several killings were committed in the Highland Lakes in 2022, the most high-profile being a double homicide in Marble Falls in September — the city’s first homicide since 2017. William Allen Rutland was arrested in the Sept. 13 killing of siblings Teresa Gail McDowell, 52, and John Arnold McDowell, 49, in Marble Falls. 

In October, Dennis Wayne Price II of Kingsland was charged with killing his wife, Carrie Ann Price, who died from injuries in a domestic violence incident, according to law enforcement. 

Other cases received justice or got a little closer to resolution. 

Other major crimes include: 

Game rooms have been popping up in Marble Falls, Burnet, Buchanan Dam, Kingsland, and Llano. Game rooms fall in a gray area of the law, with game room operators claiming they are legal and many law enforcement officials saying they are not. 

Llano County commissioners passed an ordinance regulating the hours, locations, and physical setup of game rooms, even hiring a game room administrator. Game room operators must pay $1,000 a year for a permit. Despite urgings by District Attorney Sonny McAfee and the proliferation of game rooms in Burnet County, commissioners have yet to take up the issue. Officials have said, however, they are interested in discussing whether or not to join Blanco and Llano counties in regulating game rooms in the 33rd and 424th judicial districts, which include San Saba, Blanco, Llano, and Burnet counties.

County regulations would not affect game rooms operating in municipalities. So far in Burnet County, only Granite Shoals has a game room ordinance.  

PANDEMIC

Marble Falls closes city offices due to COVID
A sign outside of the Marble Falls Development Services Department building, 801 Fourth St., informed visitors of temporary lobby closures due to COVID-19-related staffing shortages in January 2022. Staff photo by Brigid Cooley

January 2022 began with COVID-19 closures, renewed restrictions in the schools because of staffing shortages, and the opening in Burnet of a free monoclonal antibody treatment center

As the year progressed, masks finally came off and COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed across the Highland Lakes, the state, and the nation as the pandemic eased. Vaccinations and boosters helped keep the number of cases and hospitalizations down. New strains of the virus were not as strong and illnesses were less severe. 

The pandemic affected hiring, especially in schools and law enforcement as people retired, changed jobs, or just stayed home. Local governments also felt the strains of losing employees to higher wages in surrounding counties. Commissioners in Burnet and Llano counties, local school boards, and city councils approved raises in their 2022-23 budgets in an attempt to retain employees and draw new hires. 

Although COVID numbers were dropping through the summer and early fall, the winter season brought a new onslaught of flu, RSV, and COVID in what experts called a “tripledemic.” The uptick in the three respiratory diseases is attributed to the past few years of COVID precautions. Without exposure to viruses, people didn’t build up their usual antibodies to common illnesses. Precautions include hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and vaccinations.

editor@thepicayune.com