Volunteers search for karst features on Onion Creek, which runs through the Dahlstrom Ranch.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County Commissioners unanimously agreed last week to approve an agreement relating to the planned conservation easement on ranchland owned by the Dahlstrom family outside of Buda. The Dahlstroms have agreed to open more 350 acres of their 2,275 ranch to the public while prohibiting development on the rest.
Terms of the conservation easement may be finalized in August, though the public might not have access until next year. Public access will probably be limited in order to preserve the sensitive nature of Dahlstrom Ranch, which is located in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) has spear-headed the effort for well more than a year, arguing that the the preclusion of development on the Dahlstrom Ranch would preserve water quality, improve the county’s open space offerings and reduce future traffic at RM 967 and FM 1626, which figures to become a heavy intersection in the area’s development.
The Edwards Aquifer supplies water to about 1.7 million people and sustains habitats occupied by several endangered species. Water — and any other liquid — draining into the highly porous ground on Dahlstrom Ranch also ends up in Barton Springs, recreational hot spot and home of the federally-listed Barton Springs Salamander, which exists nowhere else on Earth. The county may attempt to control the number of people present at any given time in the public access area of the ranch.
“The exciting thing about this is that, to our knowledge, there’s never been a public-private partnership of this sort,” said Cassie Gresham, an attorney representing the Dahlstroms. “You never see a landowner who’s willing to open up property that they own…the fact that (the Dahlstroms) are willing to partner with a public entity…and open up a portion of their property for the public, is unheard of (and) very generous.”
According to terms of the recent agreement, Hays County, the Hill County Conservancy and the City of Austin will pay $9.9 million for the Dahlstrom Ranch conservation easement. Of that $9.9 million, Hays County will pay $4.9 million. Austin and the Hill County Conservancy will pay $1 million and $4 million, respectively. Gresham said multiple developers have approached the Dahlstroms with offers to buy the ranch, which the family might have sold for more than $40 million. Gresham said 1,600 homes might have been built on the land.
“They’re putting a conservation easement on their property because they love their ranch and want to see it protected forever,” Gresham said. “The only way to insure that is to put a conservation easement on it in perpetuity.”
Hydrogeologist Nico Hauwert, who has conducted surveys of Dahlstrom Ranch on behalf of the City of Austin, said there are about four known caves on the property.
“It’s kind of amazing that so many of them are in pretty good condition for a ranch tract,” Hauwert said. “They aren’t as filled-in as most of the tracts. So we’re readily able to access some of the caves on the tract there. But there’s no doubt (there are) many more (caves) than what we have uncovered so far.”
It was common practice on most old ranch tracts for property owners to fill-in caves in order to protect livestock. Hauwert said a 50-foot wide cave chamber in South Austin’s Slaughter Creek Metro Park contained a trash heap 20-feet thick. Hauwert said debris in trash-filled caves often predate current landowners.
“Some of these caves are filled with lots of old junk — bottles of pesticides, cans of acetone,” Hauwert said. “Just about anything you can imagine has been dumped into some of the caves in the area.”
Hauwert said it would be ideal for scientists to locate every cave on Dahlstrom Ranch and clean up those filled with old trash in the interest of preserving the area as a healthy recharge zone. Hauwert said ensuring caves are fit also encourages stable bat populations, which keep mosquito swarms in check.
The National Park Service is facilitating a stakeholder committee tasked with formulating recommendations for the public access component of the easement. One issue yet to be resolved is whether to leave caves on the property open to the public or install impassable gates. It is not unknown for people to get lost or injured while exploring Central Texas caves.
“That’s certainly a problem,” Hauwert said. “On the other hand, the other side of the coin is, when people don’t have access to cave areas, then they don’t understand that they live in a karst area where there are caves all over, and and they don’t know about water quality caves and how sensitive the aquifer is. So what we’ve done in the past is, we’ve made cave preserves available where the public can come see the caves, and we protect those caves so people don’t get injured, and the caves don’t get (negatively) impacted also … In an area like Dahlstrom (Ranch), it’s a great opportunity for the public to see what the natural environment is like and see caves and sinkholes, and see what that’s like … There’s amazing sights in caves … There’s canyons, there’s huge pits and all kinds of incredible scenery.”
Centex Materials leases more than two hundred acres on Dahlstrom Ranch from which the company extracts minerals. Controlled explosions from the Centex quarry occasionally shake the ground and are audible for some distance, according to one member of the stakeholder committee. Gresham said traffic noise is absent on the ranch. Centex’s lease expires in August 2060, though it could end sooner.
“It really depends on how quickly they mine, and that is dependent upon the economy,” Gresham said. “And they can cancel the lease at any time and walk away — not the Dahlstroms, but Centex.”
Gresham said the Dahlstroms own all the mineral rights on the property.
After the county and the Dahlstroms establish the general legal parameters of public access features at Dahlstrom Ranch, there will be open meetings where residents can express their preferences regarding the specifics of public access. For example, if camping is approved by the county and the Dahlstroms, public input may result in overnight stays on the property being limited to weekends only.
The Dahlstrom family began acquiring its Buda ranchland in the 1930s.
“(Gay Dahlstrom) believes that the property should be used for educational opportunities and passive recreation, (and she believes) that there’s not enough places, in this day and age, where people can just go and walk around, be in nature, get away from it all,” Gresham said. “She would like to provide that opportunity on their ranch.”
A conservation easement does not always guarantee that land will remain protected. Sometimes conservation easements can be terminated in court proceedings. In at least one case, county government officials in the United States have voted to terminate a conservation easement.
Ongoing litigation began when the Wyoming Attorney General in 2008 sued the Board of County Commissioners of Johnson County after the county terminated a conservation easement intended to protect about 1,000 acres of a private ranch owned by the Dowd family. The Dowds, who were trying to sell the land, requested that the easement be terminated. The Dowds had purchased the land from the Lowhams, who had created the easement and later donated it to Johnson County. The intention of the Lowhams, expressed in the language of the easement, was to preserve and protect “in perpetuity the natural, agricultural, ecological, wildlife habitat, open space, scenic and aesthetic features and values of the Ranch.” The Wyoming Attorney General’s formal complaint does not affirm the absolute inviolability of the conservation easement, but states that judicial authorization was required before the easement could be terminated.
Governmental entities have the power to seize any private property, even that protected by a conservation easement. Gresham said the power of eminent domain cannot be voluntarily relinquished by Hays County, even under the terms of a conservation easement.
“I always thought that once a conservation easement is on, even a government couldn’t change that,” said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter. “One would think that even a government would have to abide by those same rules.”
Sumter said she “absolutely,” supports, in principle, a governmental body formally relinquishing its eminent domain power over land protected by a conservation easement.
Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) said the county should never give up its eminent domain power over conservation easement land.
“When (eminent domain) is in the greater public good, it’s certainly an option,” Ford said.
Ford said the county needs to acquire two pieces of a different conservation easement to build a bridge over Barton Creek in Dripping Springs. Ford said eminent domain should be used if the private landowners refuse to sell, though that will probably not be necessary.
“They both seem to be willing participants in the transaction, but then again, we haven’t consummated any negotiation or deal,” Ford said.
The two pieces of land the county wants for the bridge are on McGregor Lane and total less than a quarter of an acre. The conservation easement, held by the Hill County Conservancy, is about 1,300 acres.Email | Print