San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

October 1st, 2008
County to kick in $5 million for Dahlstrom conservation easement

By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large

The Hays County Commissioners Court reached one of its more satisfying moments Tuesday, agreeing unanimously to complete negotiations with the Dahlstrom family west of Buda for a conservation easement, which, commissioners believe, will stand as the center piece of a successful 2007 parks bond.

The court agreed, in principal, to pay the Dahlstroms $4.9 million to conserve 2,200 acres of Dahlstrom Ranch property near the intersection of FM 1626 and RM 967. The county will spend another $350,000 to fund trails and enhancements to the property’s natural features.

The broad majority of the property is being conserved to protect and restore numerous recharge features over the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer. Another 370 acres of open space will be preserved for public access as a park for passive activities and education about nature.

Hays County’s investment stands to be its largest from a $30 million parks bond approved by voters in May 2007.

“This has the potential to be a landmark project for Hays County that we could hold up as a banner to show how we have upheld the bond project,” said Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), who has pushed the project since the bond’s passage.

Said Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs), “This will be Hays County’s central park.”

The Hill Country Conservancy (HSS) is paying $4 million towards the easement, with the City of Austin adding another $1 million. In total, the Dahlstrom family will receive its asking price of $9.9 million for surrendering the development rights to that portion of its property. Officials estimate that the easement could fetch up to $25 million from developers on the open market.

The parties expect to close the deal at the end of this year. The county can either pay its $4.9 million on closing, or pay $2.45 million on closing and the remaining $2.45 million one year later. Barton said the option to defer half of the payment would give the county time to find other partners or funding sources that would defray the county’s cost.

Officials with the county and the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (SB/EACD) said the acquisition’s main purpose is to preserve water availability and water quality for 56,000 Hays County residents who use the aquifer as their only source of water.

“The alternative (to making the deal),” Barton said, “is to see this land develop in a way that would effect water quality and create more traffic headaches.”

Not so long ago an unlit crossing of two mostly barren country highways, the intersection of FM 1626 and RM 967 has developed steadily in the last four years with the additions of residential subdivisions, several offices, stores, a fire station, the Buda Sportsplex and a YMCA, along with a traffic signal. As the Buda area grows, the intersection figures as a major confluence of traffic. The easement and intersection also are less than ten miles from the eastern edge of Dripping Springs’ bulging extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ)

Julie Jenkins of the BS/EACD said the restoration of one cave on the property increased the property’s water production by 30,000 cubic feet per year, adding that the property includes numerous such features that will enhance water production as they are restored.

“We have identified this as absolutely the most important tract that either the city of Austin or the aquifer district has ever seen,” Jenkins said.

Said Barton, unashamed of his pun as he motioned to complete the negotiations, “It’s probably appropriate to call this a watershed moment.”

The land is part of an expansive ranch acquired through the 20th century by the Ruby family. In 1993, the ranch was split within the family. The late James Ruby used part of his share for the development of the high-end Ruby Ranch housing development on RM 967, then enraged Ruby Ranch residents with his agreement to allow for the KBDJ rock rushing plant right next to the development in 2003.

Ruby’s sister, Gay Dahlstrom, has gone in a different direction, making much of her land available to government stakeholders as a conservation easement.

Under the proposal to be finalized, the long-term, renewable lease would include a trigger in five years so the parties can make adjustments as they deem necessary. Following that, the lease would be re-visited every ten years. The deal also would include a right of first refusal for the stakeholders if the family should someday decide on an outright sale of the property, though negotiations haven’t established which party would be first in that pecking order.

Another provision calls for the possibility of a countywide shooting range on the public access portion of the park. The details remain to be worked out. Jenkins said it’s practically unheard of for a conservation easement to include a public access component.

The cities of Buda and Dripping Springs, as well as the BS/EACD, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and the National Parks Service (NPS), are among the entities that have signed on as supporters of the project, which means they won’t make a financial contributions, but they will contribute staff time and other resources.

George Cofer, executive director of the HCC, said he’s “expecting to hear good news” next week from the NPS concerning additional support for mapping and planning the easement.

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