Courthouse Connections: A column
By LIZ SUMTER
Hays County Judge
Our mothers told us that nothing worth having comes easy, and boy was she right.
For decades, counties have struggled with growth, economic development, natural resource and property value issues with limited success. County officials have come under fire from their constituents for not protecting their property values, letting their wells run dry or allowing a not so desirable neighbor move in next door. Rightfully so for heaven’s sakes, after all we are the closest elected official, reachable at all hours of the day and the one you see at church, the post office, grocery store and yes, every so often the local eating and drinking establishment – we are your neighbor and we are supposed to fix it.
We share your frustration and we intend to fix it. Eighteen months ago more than 40 Texas Hill Country elected officials came together to discuss our common challenges and despite our differences – yes, there are differences from county to county – chose to work together to fix it.
Our biggest common challenge – being located in a fragile region experiencing a tremendous rate of growth. Ninety percent of the Texas Hill Country lies in unincorporated areas governed solely by county government. A government that has little to say about how and where development occurs. Scary? You betcha – Worth fixing? Without a doubt – Easy to fix? Well, that depends on the state legislature and the county elected officials.
We don’t have to tell you that our water resources are becoming scarce and are at serious risk; that our ranches and farms are being sold and fragmented into subdivisions; our roads are becoming overcrowded; and the locals increasing frustration with that god awful neighbor. It is the topic of discussion that permeates throughout the counties local watering holes.
Every legislative session in Texas, bills are filed to grant our counties some very basic planning tools common in just about every other state. So far, we haven’t succeeded. This year is different, the Hill Country region built consensus around very modest, necessary legislation that will allow us to be better neighbors with each other. We believe, now more than ever, counties need authority to chart a new course for responsible growth in the Hill Country.
We are asking for three ways to better manage growth:
First, we want to be better neighbors to each other. We recognize that development is a good thing, vital to our existence, and should be encouraged. We also recognize that sometimes being good neighbors means being a little further apart. We need the authority to establish minimum setback requirements between incompatible land uses. Today, new industrial or commercial developments can be located right on the lot line of an existing neighborhood, school, home or family ranch. This can make for bad neighbors, whether it negatively impacts on public health and safety, agricultural activities or property values, really doesn’t matter – the result is the same – bad neighbors, just because they are too close to each other.
Second, infrastructure cost recovery fees. That’s just a fancy way to say new developments get to share the financial load with the rest of your neighbors. It is no secret that the monies for building roads are getting fewer and the burden of upgrading county as well as state roads are up to the folks in the county. With the rapid growth we are experiencing, many county roads are too narrow and are designed for limited traffic volumes. Increases in traffic, brought on by new development, often cause the county and/or state road that accesses the development to become overcrowded and unsafe. A dedicated fee from developers is necessary to make the roadway safe and provide for proper drainage to share the financial load.
Third, we don’t want our wells to go dry if we can avoid it. The ability to set density rules in areas that are particularly vulnerable to water depletion and water quality degradation would help us manage growth and plan for future development. The Texas Hill Country region’s topography, flooding issues, fragile aquifers and limited water supply warrant special legislative consideration.
Remember how Mom said that nothing worth having comes easy? Well, the county elected officials are doing their part, now we need you to do yours. Contact your state legislators and tell them you support HB3265 – you want to be better neighbors – you just need your county elected officials to have three things – setback, infrastructure cost recovery fees and density authority. Then the next time we see each other in church, we can talk about healthcare.Email | Print