The golden-cheeked warbler is among the species Hays County commissioners hope to protect with a regional habitat conservation plan.
By SEAN MARLIN
Members of the Hays County Commissioners court Congratulated themselves Tuesday for approving a conservation plan to moderate damage on local wildlife by urban expansion.
Pending a final public hearing in June, the court will soon submit its Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP) to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Approval could arrive before the end of the year.
“It gives us the ability to go out and build public infrastructure that is needed,” Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) said. “On the flip side, it provides a mechanism for a tremendous amount of conservation in Hays County. That is fundamental to our quality of life.”
The trigger for the RHCP came in 2005, when the building of Winter Mills Parkway near Wimberley sparked debate because it ran through the habitat of the golden-cheeked warbler, a local endangered bird species.
Commissioners acquired a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, making the application process possible. Loomis Partners, an Austin based consulting agency, was brought on to draft the application.
Tuesday’s approval marked the fourth draft of the application after revisions were made to meet public concerns.
The conservation plan’s purpose is to protect local wildlife and their habitats from unintentional harm due to urban development. If approved, the plan would allow for faster approval of infrastructure projects and greater county oversight to preclude possible environmental and wildlife damage.
“The project is to develop a habitat conservation plan,” said Amanda Aurora of Loomis Partners. “The plan supports an incidental take permit under the endangered species act that allows people who are doing activities that would harm endangered species to get a permit for that. To get a permit, you then have to provide a mitigation plan.”
The plan would allow the local issuance of federal permits to developers that accounts for incidental “take”that may occur during construction. “Take,” which is language specific to the conservation draft, is the destruction of endangered wildlife or their habitats.
Two specific endangered species targeted in the plan are the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. But the plan also allows for the benefit of other rare species in the area. The application provides the county to set a minimum condition of the habitat, as well as the ability to evaluate and address threats.
Hays County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. The RHCP conservation draft estimates a loss of 22,000 habitat acres during the next 30 years.
Permitting for developers from the federal government now takes up to two years, at exorbitant costs to tax payers. In an attempt to balance conservation efforts with growth, the RHCP opens state and federal funding, allowing the county conduct surveying and research that are needed to permit infrastructure and development projects.
A go-ahead from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service would allow Hays County to bring many of their current projects, public and private, into compliance with federal law. If approved, the RHCP application would allow for Hays County to oversee the process locally, allowing for a permit process measured in weeks rather than years.
During the next 30 years, the county will acquire an average of 400 acres per year under the plan, for a total of 12,000 acres. The county would sell that acreage at $11,500 per acre, plus $7,500 per “credit,” which is an additional fee the developer must pay to improve habitats for the warbler and vireo. The county would issue 9,000 credits for the warbler and 1,300 credits for the vireo.
In addition, the developers would be required to pay processing fees ranging from $500 to $5,000. A minimum of one credit must be purchased per acre, but the county has the ability to determine if more must be purchased in order to adequately address the needs of the species. The permits would last for 30 years.
“It gives us so many additional tools which we never had before, to accomplish our conservation goals in this county,” Conley said. ” And it is good long term comprehensive planning, which is always a benefit to the county.”
Loomis Partners will format the draft to application.Email | Print