In June 2004 surveys were mailed to 3,000 property owners within the Blanco Independent School District. The Steering Committee for the comprehensive plan, made up of city residents, determined that the school district was an appropriate boundary to use for the survey because property owners in this area are connected to Blanco through the schools. In addition, surveys were made available at City Hall and other locations and events in the community to allow city residents a better opportunity to complete them. The complete results of the survey, including all written comments can be found in Appendix A.
The survey was the first step in developing public input as part of the comprehensive plan. It was designed to encourage residents to identify the critical issues facing Blanco, as well as to begin prioritizing those issues. The survey covered a wide range of topics from growth management, zoning, historic preservation, utilities, housing, and economic development. The survey allowed residents to identify whether they support various policies which should be a priority for city action. The results of this survey formed the framework for the public meeting where residents had an opportunity to further clarify the issues and priorities identified in the survey.
In August 2004, a Town Hall Meeting was held to further develop the issues and opportunities identified in the mail survey. Over 80 residents participated at the High School. The meeting began with an introduction to the planning process and an overview of the survey results. Attendees then divided into small groups to discuss six topics. These included: Housing, Downtown Revitalization, Economic Development, Growth Management, Community Development, and Wild Card, which allowed residents to discuss any issues not identified elsewhere.
Participants were given time to brainstorm ideas for each topic. All ideas and comments were captured by facilitators to ensure all voices were heard. After 15 minutes of discussion, the facilitators rotated to a new group so that every participant had the opportunity to offer feedback on each topic. They reviewed the ideas identified by prior groups and captured new ideas. Due to time limitations, the participants agreed that their opinions were well represented and decided to forego the final round. Once the discussion was complete, each participant was given one vote per topic to identify their most important issue. This allowed those issues most important to the residents to be identified. These priorities were further discussed at focus group meetings to begin identifying potential projects to address them.
Following the Town Hall Meeting a series of focus group meetings were held. These were an opportunity for participants to begin developing specific projects and activities to address the issues identified in the public meeting.
The survey identified some demographic information about the target audience. This is important because it helps determine if the survey results adequately match the community. The first question was to determine where people lived. The majority (58%) were outside the city limits, which was expected because the survey went to the school district rather than a more select audience. While there were some comments about those outside the city limits having input on what happens in Blanco, these residents are still connected to Blanco and should have some input on what happens in the city. Also, when the responses of only those residents within the city limits were analyzed, they tracked very closely with the overall results of the survey. This indicates that the results reflect the consensus of the community as a whole and are not unduly influenced by residents outside the city limits.
There was a wide diversity in how long residents had lived in Blanco.
This diversity is important because it shows that the survey captured the views of different types of residents, both newcomers and long-time residents. This is encouraging because their views are often conflicting, and capturing both is an important aspect of this survey.
The reasons for living in Blanco were similarly diverse, although the location seemed to be the most important reason. This captures both those who appreciate the convenient access to San Antonio and Austin (reflected in the high numbers of those who work in those two cities,) as well as those who appreciate its Hill Country atmosphere. Blanco also ranked high as a good place for families, with many written comments complimenting the schools.
The age of respondents was somewhat less diverse, with most responses coming from those 50 - 64 years (38%) and over 65 (34%). This is typical in these types of surveys. The 18 - 34 age group was not well-represented with only 5% of the responses. The 35 - 49 age group made up 20% of responses.
Summary of Findings
Based on the survey, residents in Blanco want limited growth, but they want it on their terms and to ensure it does not impact the quality of life and rural character of the community. New job creation is supported by a wide majority of residents (70%), while only a bare majority (51%) supports new housing development, with a focus on workforce housing and senior facilities (See Table 3-3.) 42% felt the city should have policies to limit growth in the city limits, while 29% disagreed. Based on comments in the surveys, residents understand that Blanco will grow, but want to ensure that any growth matches the character and enhances the community rather than turning Blanco into Anywhere, USA.
Growth outside the city limits is a serious concern for many residents. The survey seems to show that residents understand growth is coming, and currently there is little the city can do to manage it, particularly the large subdivisions being built in the county. They want to focus growth in the current city limits rather than have the city surrounded by unincorporated subdivisions. Also, if the city is asked to provide utilities to development outside the city limits, 66% felt the city should require annexation before providing it. This would give the city additional control on growth and allow it to ensure growth happens on local terms. Support for simply annexing land for development was low with 36% opposed, and 32% supporting. This shows that residents do not feel the city should actively pursue just any growth, but should target businesses and growth that meet the needs of current residents.
Residents want the city to take a more active role in managing growth: 70% support the development of a zoning ordinance, and 21% identified this as the most important issue facing Blanco. This is the highest percentage that any of the issues received as most important. Also, as mentioned, 42% felt the city should limit growth in the city limits. Zoning and subdivision ordinances would allow the city to control what happens in the city limits, and to a lesser degree in the city's extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ). These standards would be defined by the community and would ensure that development happens on Blanco's terms and matches the character of the community.
When asked if the city should encourage new job creation, 70% of respondents said "Yes" (See Table 3-3.) Other questions asked if the city should focus its resources on attracting new businesses through the use of incentives, and 65% either agreed or agreed strongly. There was also significant agreement that the city should support existing businesses. While the numbers show strong support, it is clear from written comments that citizens are concerned that economic growth may harm the rural atmosphere and small town quality of life they cherish. Residents want job creation, but they want jobs that "fit" in Blanco, such as clean industry (high tech, light manufacturing,) additional retail and tourism jobs, and professional jobs.
Nearly 37% of respondents work outside of Blanco, with the majority of these working in Austin or San Antonio. 27% work in Blanco, and the rest either did not answer or are retired. Many of the commuters have chosen to live in Blanco because of its quality of life and good schools. They represent a potential market of skilled employees that would be willing to take jobs locally if they were available. This is supported by the fact that only 10% identified job opportunities as a reason to live in Blanco with 29% disagreeing and 46% not answering. This and the large number of respondents who work outside of Blanco show that there is a need for additional quality local jobs.
Infrastructure improvements were also identified as a high priority for city action (see below.) Improvements to the roads, water, and sewer systems will make Blanco more attractive to prospective businesses considering utilities when identifying potential business locations.
Housing was a more divisive issue than economic development. There were three questions covering housing development. The first was a Agree, Disagree, Neutral question. The other two allowed variations of support. Only 51% of respondents to the first housing question agreed the city should encourage new housing development. 14% were neutral, and 33% disagreed (See Table 3-3). Many of those who agreed added the caveat that any new housing should be senior living facilities or "workforce" housing meaning that it should be affordable for school teachers, police officers, etc. When asked if the city should focus its resources on expanding housing options, 43% of respondents either agreed or agreed strongly. 18% either disagreed or disagreed strongly and 27% were neutral. Additionally, 48% support the city promoting new housing development with 23% opposed, and 20% neutral.
Again, there were comments indicating those housing options should be focused towards senior citizens or working class families. The concern is that most of the homes being built are too expensive for families currently living in Blanco.
The responses and comments show that residential growth should be focused inside current city limits and meet the needs of existing residents; however, there is widespread concern with the large subdivisions being built or proposed outside city limits. This concern is based on water availability, impact on the rural character of Blanco, traffic, future public service constraints, and other issues.
The Courthouse Square is historically the heart of a community. It forms the common ground where residents can shop, eat, and congregate as a community. Blanco's Square serves this role with a regular Farmer's Market, City Hall, and various shops and restaurants that bring residents to the area. However, the survey shows that residents are concerned with the condition and viability of downtown. Many respondents commented that the buildings on the west side of the courthouse have been vacant for too long. There is widespread concern that these are creating a negative image of Blanco to passersby because they are the most visible buildings from Hwy 281. These buildings are currently under renovation and, when complete, will be an asset to Blanco.
Question 12 of the survey focused on what would help downtown businesses. The most support was for making improvements to the area, such as sidewalks, lighting, landscaping, etc. There were many comments about the appearance of the area around the historic courthouse, and the need to improve the sidewalks in that area. Residents also showed support for encouraging new retail businesses downtown, especially restaurants and tourist type businesses. Another opportunity residents saw was for better signage on Hwy 281 highlighting attractions in the downtown. This does not mean a billboard, but possibly smaller information signs that identify businesses, etc. Finally, residents saw a need for marketing to attract visitors. Because Blanco has historic assets, notably the courthouse, and a mix of businesses, downtown can serve as a focus for tourism in the area.
Part of downtown revitalization includes preserving the historic assets in the area. Question 13 focused on this issue to gauge support for protecting the heritage of Blanco. Overwhelmingly, citizens saw the need to develop policies that would promote historic preservation in Blanco, both in the downtown, and throughout the community. 65% of respondents felt the city should plan new development with an emphasis on historic assets. Design guidelines were supported by 64%, showing that residents want new development to fit the existing character of Blanco. 64% also wanted an ordinance to protect historic assets. Historic preservation truly starts at the local level. As the state and federal programs have very little real enforcement tools, it is up to local ordinances to ensure that historic structures are protected.
Historic Preservation will be addressed through a process coordinated by the Texas Historical Commission. There were focus group meetings to identify critical issues and develop a prioritized action plan to address the needs of the community.
Another major concern for residents is the overall appearance of Blanco. This ranges from the vacant buildings on the west side of the Square, to individual properties throughout the city. Many comments identified this as an issue, and 85% of respondents said appearance improvement should be a focus for the city. This includes reviewing, updating, and enforcing current ordinances to require property owners to maintain their property. Many residents included comments about the negative impact the town's appearance has, both on property values and on encouraging people to pass Blanco by rather than visiting.
A companion issue that was identified by many respondents was the need for increased animal control. Many residents added written comments about the need for enforcement of leash laws (if they exist) and the need for removal of stray animals from the streets. This is not just an appearance issue, but is also a health and safety issue for residents.
Implementing a zoning ordinance is another opportunity that residents support that can help with the appearance issue. By limiting where things can be built, and what can be built, the city can control what new development will look like. Design guidelines can also be used to maintain and enhance appearance by regulating the look of new buildings.
Many survey responses mentioned water availability as an important issue, particularly in relation to growth in the region. Improving water and wastewater infrastructure was strongly supported in the survey, with 67% and 64% support respectively. Providing utilities is the most basic function of any city, and should be a priority for Blanco. The city can use its infrastructure to help manage growth by encouraging development in areas already served by utilities.
Another infrastructure concern was the condition of roads and sidewalks throughout Blanco. An overwhelming majority (77%) agreed or agreed strongly that the city should focus its resources on improving roads and sidewalks. Many comments also addressed the condition of local roads. A related concern is traffic, particularly the speed of traffic on Hwy 281. Because this road serves as "Main Street" for Blanco, it will be important to address this concern. Also, pedestrian access was identified as important, particularly in the downtown area. Providing safe access throughout the community should be a priority. These issues were not listed as survey questions, but many respondents identified them as important in their written comments.
There were many written comments regarding the purchase of the historic courthouse for use as City Hall, most of them in opposition, or at least desiring a public vote on the project. There was no specific question about this on the survey, but it did get enough mentions to be included in this discussion.
Also, there were quite a few comments about the need for additional parks with 65% supporting the need for expanded recreational facilities. Additional comments identified the need for clean up and improvements to Yett Park, the main community park. Also, recreational facilities were identified as an attraction for people to come downtown. The improvements to the downtown park and the connection with the State Park will definitely increase the attraction to the area and bring visitors from the State Park to downtown that might not otherwise visit.
Schools were not a topic of this survey because they are not directly addressed in the comprehensive plan. However, there were comments made about the schools, and questions as to why they were not addressed in the survey. Because this plan is geared towards city government and civic organizations, the school district will be involved, but actual planning for the schools will not be a part of this plan.
The findings of the survey support the conclusion that residents of Blanco understand that change is coming to their community and they want to be involved in determining how that change affects them. The vast majority of comments in the "Best thing about Blanco" identified its small town character, rural charm, and friendly atmosphere. These are critical to preserve as growth happens in and around Blanco. The findings from this survey prove that residents are realistic in their expectations about the future.
A common concern was the need for the city to be more active in using its authority to improve the appearance of Blanco as well as manage growth in the city. Residents understand the need for new businesses and housing, but they want to ensure that this new development happens on locally defined terms, not be dictated by outsiders. This comprehensive plan is the avenue for the city to prepare for the future and maintain Blanco's unique heritage in the midst of change.
Public Meeting Findings
Growth management was an important issue identified in the survey. It is a challenging issue because most of the growth is happening outside the city limits of Blanco. Residents are concerned that gated communities and increased traffic will ruin the rural character of the community.
Some of the issues identified in this section include maintaining the rural character of Blanco, updating and enforcing ordinances, and controlling traffic, especially on Hwy 281. While the city can develop ordinances to manage growth in the city limits, particularly zoning, building codes, and updated subdivision ordinances, there is little that can be done outside the city limits. Only the subdivision ordinance provides any regulation outside the city, within the _ mile extra-territorial jurisdiction of Blanco.
The top issues voted on by participants were the following (bullets are the quotes from the public meeting, not the facilitators interpretation:)
- Keep farm / ranch "feel"
- Enforcement of ordinances and updating
These two issues really go hand in hand because development ordinances can be updated to ensure that growth is compatible with the rural character of Blanco. Also, the survey results support the need for updated ordinances, which indicates that this should be a priority for civic action.
Economic development is a challenge for communities of all sizes and especially in rural communities. Blanco is fortunate in that it is located in proximity to San Antonio and Austin, which provide a large potential market. Also, many Blanco residents commute to these cities and may provide a skilled workforce for prospective businesses.
The issues listed here ranged from increasing tourism, developing a stronger Chamber of Commerce, promoting recreational opportunities, and attracting a retirement village. The highest vote getters were:
- Develop a stronger Chamber of Commerce
- Promote tourism through existing historical / agricultural assets
- Wool Mart, museum on local heritage, fossils / dinosaur tracks, lavender farms
This topic shows how the comprehensive plan is intended to be a community plan, not just a blueprint for city government. Growing the Chamber will allow it to take a leadership role in promoting Blanco as a tourist destination, as well as take a lead in supporting existing businesses and working to attract new ones. Because city staff is limited, having an active Chamber will benefit the community in ways the city does not have the resources to do.
This topic was somewhat broader than the others, in that it covered everything from developing recreational facilities, to libraries, to community appearance. Because the issue was so broad, it generated the most responses from participants. These responses included the need for a City Manager, disagreement with that, a desire to build on existing community strengths, to the need for healthy family activities. If the city wanted an actual City Manager, an election would have to be held to change the local government to a City Manager form of government. Otherwise, Blanco could hire a City Administrator without an election. The biggest difference would be in who is responsible for hiring and / or firing city employees. If the position is City Manager, he or she would have authority in this area, while a City Administrator would leave it in the hands of City Council.
Participants seemed to agree that Blanco would benefit from having someone to manage day to day operations and prepare for the future. Hiring a City Administrator received the most votes in this topic, and hiring a City Planner tied with the desire to build on what's already in Blanco (historic assets, rural character, etc.). Hiring a City Planner was also included on the Downtown Revitalization topic where it received additional votes. A City Administrator would reduce the workload of the Mayor who has taken much of the responsibility for day-to-day management and code enforcement. It would also reduce the political liability for elected officials by placing these activities in the hands of a professional rather than elected officials. The City Administrator could also be responsible for planning activities in coordination with a Planning Commission that could be elected or appointed by the City Council.
Community development overall seems to be a priority for residents. It also would benefit the economic development activities by making Blanco more attractive to visitors and prospective businesses. Blanco currently has an excellent school system that attracts residents who work elsewhere; by developing additional community amenities, Blanco can build on this strength and become a true destination.
As mentioned, Blanco's downtown is truly the heart of the community. Its businesses serve local residents and visitors alike. Residents are concerned with the continued viability of downtown and desire to see it given adequate support to flourish. This support can take many avenues, ranging from public support to private investment.
Participants felt that parking and pedestrian safety were the two biggest obstacles to increased downtown activity. Parking is especially problematic on the west side of the Square on Hwy 281, where most of the buildings are currently vacant. Also, traffic on Hwy 281 is a serious concern, limiting pedestrian access around the Square. The vacant buildings on Hwy 281 received quite a bit of attention as well, with the concern being the negative image they project to passersby on the highway and a perceived illogical and extreme increase in property taxes in the downtown area. Many residents called for a re-assessment of this area.
Part of downtown revitalization will be preserving and enhancing the historic characteristics of the area. The Texas Historical Commission will be involved in helping the citizens of Blanco identify and prioritize projects to protect the heritage of the community.
As discussed in the "Survey Results" section of this report, new housing development did not receive widespread support. However, housing is an issue facing Blanco, particularly workforce housing. Also, senior housing was identified as a concern and a potential opportunity for economic development in Blanco.
Some of the housing issues include expanding the city limits to annex additional housing, not expanding city limits, and regulating housing to ensure it fits the character of the community. The highest vote getters were:
- Create / develop a "retirement village" (condo, zero lotline, low maintenance)
- Do not expand city limits to maintain "small town"
- Use zoning to create percentage of low income housing in new developments
Blanco is logistically ideal for retirees as well as workers in Austin and San Antonio. Blanco sees almost a "reverse" migration as people who live there drive to Austin or San Antonio for work, while many people who work in Blanco drive in from outside the community. Increasing the housing options will make Blanco more attractive for residents and prospective businesses. Also, the growing market will lead to new businesses locating there to serve that need.
The wild card lived up to its title, with issues ranging from recycling plastics to support of the police chief. Support for the chief received the highest number of votes; however, the comprehensive plan is not an appropriate venue to deal with political issues of this type. The next highest issue was to review, update, and enforce all city ordinances, which supports the priorities from the other topics. This was also a major concern identified in the survey.
It seems almost counter-intuitive to say that protecting the rural characteristics of Blanco requires more regulation. However, without a framework for decision-making, development decisions, including appearance, will be made by outside investors rather than by the citizens of Blanco.
Public Meeting Summary
To obtain the overall priorities from the meeting, similar ideas across all six topics were combined to get the total votes for each issue. For example, retirement facilities were mentioned in several of the topics. This resulted in none of the individual issues being ranked very high. However, once they were combined, the total votes for this was significant. The following list are the priorities from the public meeting ranked by total number of votes.
Highest Vote Getters -- with similar ideas combined for the total
- Traffic / Pedestrian safety (esp 281) (49 votes)
- Enforcement and updating of ordinances (32 votes)
- Retirement village / senior living facilities (25 votes)
- Promote tourism through existing historical / agricultural assets (18 votes)
- Grocery Store (17 votes)
- Vote of confidence for Blanco Police Chief (17 votes) This issue will not be addressed in the Comprehensive Plan as this is not the appropriate forum for this debate
- Need City Planner (16 votes)
- City Manager is needed (16 votes) (Blanco's population would require this position to be City Administrator)
- Recreational Opportunities (Youth Activities) (15 votes)
- Stronger Chamber of Commerce (14 votes)
- Parking downtown (esp on 281) (13 votes)
- Keep farm / ranch feel (12 votes)
These issues will form the basis for the goals and recommendations of the plan. Because this is a 10-year plan, even issues that may not have ranked very high in the public meeting may be addressed in the future, as the higher priorities issues are dealt with.
The final step in the public input process was the focus group meetings. These allowed residents to begin developing action steps to address the critical issues. Also, they had an opportunity to identify appropriate parties to undertake some projects and timelines for them.
The focus groups are intended to build on the big issues identified in the town hall meeting. It is also an effort to bring people together to assist with implementing the comprehensive plan. Because this is a community plan, not just a plan for city government, it is important to utilize resources of the entire community. The focus groups are not intended to replace existing programs and efforts, rather this is an attempt to coordinate the existing efforts and help move them forward. There were four focus groups, Community Development, Economic Development, Growth Management, and Downtown Revitalization / Historic Preservation.
Community development addresses the parks and recreation needs as well as pedestrian safety issues in Blanco. This group identified three major goals that would increase recreational opportunities, enhance pedestrian safety, and make Blanco more attractive for residents and visitors alike.
The three projects identified for this focus group are:
- Implement the Wheels and Feet trails program, starting with the "Safe Routes to School" section
- Develop a Community Center serving the needs of the entire community
- Support the requirement for developers to set aside land or fee in lieu for schools and parks to ensure adequate facilities as Blanco grows
The Community Development focus group should serve as an umbrella organization to support the Wheels and Feet and the Community Center non-profit in their efforts. This group agreed to help start a dialogue with the city, county, School District, and other entities to move these projects forward. Also, this group will work to identify funding sources to support the projects. This group has also identified the need for improvements to Hwy 281 to make Blanco more attractive and safe. This group will coordinate with the Downtown Revitalization effort to promote pedestrian safety on Hwy 281.
Economic Development and Growth Management
These two meetings were held the same night, and due to low turnout for the growth management group, they were combined into one meeting. This allowed for a greater diversity of views and comments from the group. Growth management will also be addressed in the future land use workshop, when participants will have the opportunity to identify preferred development zones, and determine how Blanco should grow in the future.
The goals identified for Growth Management reflect the concerns from the survey and town hall meeting. They are:
- Update and enforce ordinances to maintain the appearance and rural character of Blanco
- Protect the small town, rural character of Blanco as growth occurs
Specifically, the goal is to ensure that city ordinances addressing such concerns as animal control, property appearance, junk cars, etc. are up to date and enforceable. Also, the public needs to be educated on the importance of maintaining community appearance and its impact on property values, quality of life, and even economic development in Blanco. The city has adopted a new enforcement policy, which should address widespread concerns about a lack of consistent enforcement. The city should pursue an active education policy with articles in the paper to inform residents about the policy change and its implications.
Economic development focused on the need to support existing businesses and attract new businesses that were appropriate for Blanco. This includes new retail businesses to serve local needs, such as a grocery store, building the Chamber of Commerce to support business, creating new recreational opportunities for residents, and increasing tourism in Blanco. These projects will serve to increase the quality of life for existing residents, expand the tax base, and make Blanco more attractive to prospective primary employers looking to relocate. There is also a strong component of entrepreneurial development in the plan, which will build on local ingenuity and creativity rather than relying on external business recruitment. This is critical because most new jobs will be created locally rather than through new companies relocating in Blanco.
In order to ensure adequate support for any recommendations for downtown revitalization, two meetings were held. Both were open to all residents; however, a targeted effort was made to enlist business and property owners for the second meeting. The goal was to identify priorities for action to address the concerns with downtown. In the past, decisions have been made and projects undertaken that did not have the full understanding and support of downtown owners. This has led to a level of concern and distrust among them that can limit their support for future work. It will be important to rebuild the trust and coordination of all those with a stake in the downtown.
There was one goal identified for Blanco's downtown; however, there are a variety of projects that are necessary to address the goal to:
- Create a thriving downtown that attracts residents and visitors with a variety of activities
To help guide the process and ensure communication and coordination among various groups, there should be a Downtown Committee on the Chamber of Commerce. Business owners, Keep Blanco Beautiful, and other groups should be represented on this committee to maintain open lines of discussion. Other projects include improving the sidewalks and parking, improving downtown appearance, and holding regular events. The purpose of any downtown effort should be to help existing businesses be more successful. This means downtown needs to serve both the local market and visitors alike. The existing businesses will benefit from downtown improvements, and the area will be made more attractive to new businesses opening.
Blanco is fortunate to have a collection of historic structures and areas, centered on the courthouse, that can form the basis for a heritage tourism program. This tourism will benefit existing businesses and generate new business for the community. It will be important to develop a program to protect and preserve these historic assets as Blanco grows. In order to build consensus for preservation, two focus group meetings were held in conjunction with staff from the Texas Historical Commission. The first meeting focused on educating participants on the importance of historic preservation and the benefits it provides to a community. The second allowed participants to develop projects and priorities for action. The goals for historic preservation are:
- Protect the heritage of Blanco through preservation of historic buildings and sites throughout the community
- Utilize Blanco's heritage to develop tourism and related businesses in the community
To be successful, a plan has to reflect the concerns and priorities of the community; it cannot be created in a vacuum. The public input process for the Blanco Comprehensive Plan has resulted in a series of objectives that will create a community that citizens can be proud to live in. Broad participation is crucial to implementation in several ways. The first is that city leadership will have support when making difficult decisions relating to how limited resources should be used. Referencing the plan will allow them to know how residents want their tax dollars used. Also, this plan identifies how citizens can be involved in implementing projects. This plan is not solely intended for government action, rather it is a call to all the residents of Blanco to get involved in shaping their community. Blanco residents cannot sit back and wait for things to happen, they have to actively pursue their goals and dreams. This plan lays out a process for this effort, based on what the citizens have said they want.