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

February 19th, 2009
Commissioners accept CPAT plan

CPAT member Todd Derkacz discusses concerns with the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Faced with the possible disbanding of their Citizens Parks Advisory Committee (CPAT), which has bristled at the county’s disbursements from a $30 million parks and open space bond during the last two years, Hays County commissioners accepted most of CPAT’s recommendations for moving forward this week.

Commissioners agreed to expend $50,000 of the $8.5 million remaining in the bond on a new parks and open space master plan while establishing a standing parks advisory board to include active CPAT members. Furthermore, the court not only agreed to cap total funding for future recreational projects at $600,000, but went so far as to earmark all of the remaining balance, about $7.85 million, specifically on 644 acres needed to initiate a regional habitat conservation plan.

Only Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) voted against the program in a 4-1 call, arguing that the habitat plan called for only $5.5 million when he initiated it in 2006.

CPAT members said after the meeting that they were satisfied with the court’s performance, meaning they will now go forward with formulating new scoring criteria for parks projects submitted to the county for funding.

While CPAT has based its recommendations for project funding on the county’s 2002 parks and open space master plan that emphasized open space and conservation, commissioners have allocated about $10 million of the $21.8 million spent so far to parks based on recreational uses. However, the court and CPAT also initially saw differently on the single largest open space initiative funded by the bond, a $5.25 million outlay for 2,400 acres of conservation easement at Dahlstrom Ranch west of Buda.

The 2002 parks and open space master plan is based on surveys taken by the county in 2000. The surveys found that citizens heavily favored open space acquisition, conservation and water access or water quality over recreational uses. Going on ten years later, though, as the county is increasingly populated with young families, the court found itself inundated with requests for recreational projects from municipalities and youth athletic organizations.

Commissioners first asked CPAT to revise its scoring criteria for parks projects about a year ago. Commissioners renewed the call last month. This time, CPAT has maintained that fixing criteria became a puzzle in view of funding decisions coming from the commissioners court. As CPAT member Chris North has often said, “It’s hard to hit a moving target.”

The target slowed down a bit when commissioners set aside $7.85 million to purchase the initial land contribution necessary to initiate the regional habitat conservation plan, the land for which is expected to cost $130.7 million for more than 11,000 acres in the next 30 years. The county would attempt to pay for most of the land through federal grants.

In order to receive those grant funds, the county is required to submit an environmental impact statement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Regional Habitat Conservation Plan, the final draft of which has yet to be approved by the commissioners’ court.

Conley objected to setting aside all of the parks bond balance for the project, bringing debate on the court back to the question on which it started: funding for recreation vs. funding for conservation and open space. Conley would have preferred that the court set allocate only $5.5 million for the habitat plan.

“Why don’t we just set that aside and keep the (remaining) $3 million dollars liquid and see how things go, bring up different ideas?” Conley said. “I just thought we should have gone in that direction instead of the direction we went. I wish there was more money available for recreational projects.”

Conley said the county’s land conservation projects are such that it can afford to do more in the way of recreation, such as building swimming pools, athletic fields, soccer fields, baseball fields and basketball courts.

“The $5.5 million is not set in stone,” said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) in response. “What is set in stone is the number of acres it would take for this county to kick off the (Regional Habitat Conservation) program, and that’s 644 acres. We don’t know what the cost of that acreage will be. It could be that we have to buy 1,000 acres to get 644 qualifying (as) habitat. The number of $5.5 million was what they thought for budgeting purposes it might take … We don’t have a land deal, we haven’t closed a deal on anything, so we really don’t know what the cost of that land might be. It could be less. It could be more.”

Conley said some of the $3 million could have been used to complete recreation projects in Wimberley – especially a swimming pool.

“We’ve done some of that work here in San Marcos, but we haven’t done any of that work in Wimberley Valley,” Conley said. ” … Kids don’t have a whole lot to do out there. What we’re trying to do … is just spread the pie out a bit and make sure that everybody has a chance and all interests are accommodated by the $30 million bond.”

Wimberley ISD Trustee Jennifer Anderson said the Wimberley High School swim team, which she said is competing at a high level, must train at 5 a.m. several days a week at the San Marcos Baptist Academy’s swimming pool.

“It’s particularly important to the people in Wimberley to be able to have the flexibility there (so) that they can meet the needs of those students,” Anderson said.

North, who is running for the San Marcos CISD board, she has no problem with the county using seed money to help municipalities. However, she said, the county has allocated too much money for projects that don’t benefit the entire county.

“If you want a swimming pool so bad, pass a bond and build one,” North said. “Nobody helped us. The City of San Marcos built our own activities center and our own library through bonds passed by taxpaying citizens. You get what you pay for.”

Sumter said Conley should have proposed more active recreation projects early, rather than support using more of the remaining bond money for such projects later in the process.

“The first that came forward out of Precinct 3, I think, were all very worthy projects, but Jacob’s Well in (Conley’s) mind was number one, and the Blue Hole project, which does have recreation on it…was number two,” Sumter said. “So I guess if he thought that way, he should have had a recreational project come before the other two or somewhere in between the other two.”

Jacob’s Well, sponsored by the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, is receiving $3 million in county funds, while Blue Hole Regional Park, sponsored by the Village of Wimberley, is receiving $2 million.

CPAT Chairman Jorge Anchondo told the court this week that the team would probably disband if the court did not accept the its recommendations, which included a cap of $600,000 for future recreational projects from the bond. The court agreed to establish standing advisory board called “Hays County Parks and Open Space Board,” to include active CPAT members. The court accepted CPAT’s recommendation to use the new Hays County Parks and Open Space Board “to advise the Commissioners’ Court on any future bond projects or initiatives.”

The court did not promise, however, that previous members of the habitat conservation plan advisory committee would be seated on the board.

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