Grant Jackson of Naismith Engineering speaks to the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Residents concerned about dry wells and lower property values crowded the Hays County Commissioners Court Tuesday to discuss proposed changes to the county’s development regulations and critique the revision process.
Residents were especially concerned about a proposed minimum lot size of 6.5 acres for developments served by individual, private wells. The proposed lot size requirement would apply to wells located in the Priority Groundwater Management Area in the western part of the county and to wells created after the effective date of the new rules, which is likely to occur some time in the fall. The current regulations specify minimum lot sizes of two acres for advanced waste water systems and three acres for conventional systems.
“I bought a 136-acre piece 14 years ago, and it’s part of my retirement (and) death benefits for my wife, should anything happen to me, (so) that she would be able to subdivide that land,” said Jimmy Skipton of Henly, one of 16 people who testified during the public comment period. “I bought that land, and bought other land contiguous to it, (which) gave me road frontage on four sides, just for the reason we could divide it. At the six and a half, it would definitely take money from me and my family, there’s not doubt whatsoever.”
Skipton said the county failed to make information about the proposed lot size change available to the public.
Eleven people who spoke during the public comment period were opposed to the proposed development regulation changes. Two residents said their wells had dried up as a result of overproduction in western Hays County.
Commissioners took no action on the proposed changes to the development regulations. Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) said a public meeting in the western part of the county is likely in a month. Six to eight weeks later, the commissioners court may take action on the issue, Ford said.
Dripping Springs Area Chamber of Commerce (DSACC) Chairperson Charlene Farmer and DSACC Executive Director Kim Johnson urged commissioners to postpone their decision pending more public input and an economic impact assessment. Johnson said such an assessment would examine the proposed regulations’ affect on current and future businesses, the county’s property tax base and the Dripping Springs Independent School District (DSISD).
Johnson said DSISD is making plans based on growth projections that might become irrelevant under the proposed regulations. Farmer brought forth a petition she said had been signed by 80 people opposed to the new development regulations. Farmer and Johnson said their organization was not contacted by the court concerning the proposed changes to the minimum lot size requirement.
“I did speak to the chamber back in March-April, and I’m sure that I mentioned our new subdivision rules, and we didn’t have anybody knocking on our door about them after that,” Ford said. “So what kind of started the flurry of interest there was that (Hays County Subdivision Coordinator) Clint (Garza) and I made a presentation and spoke to the real estate community two weeks ago, (when) we spoke about our subdivision rules and the 6.5 acre minimum lot size on groundwater. And that caused some concern.”
Ford said the county would probably not conduct an economic impact assessment.
“I don’t think there’s a requirement for that,” Ford said. “It’s so based on your assumptions, and we could call up any different set of assumptions. It’s just not something that’s viable for us right now.”
Said Dripping Springs resident Melanie Cambron, “I think that … wanting to … stall for an economic impact study (is) like burying your head in the sand as more time passes, more people move here, more water is consumed, (and) the aquifer gets lower. And, if you’d like to bury your head in the sand, you’re welcome to come to our house and stick it down the well, because that’s all that’s down there.”
The county hired Naismith Engineering to help revise the development regulations in 2006. Since then, Naismith Engineering has received about 16 payments for the work totaling $173,416.54. The county since 2006 has sponsored about 23 public meetings at which county staff and a representative from Naismith were in attendance.
Naismith Engineering consultant Grant Jackson said his company has always listed documents pertaining to the county’s development regulations revisions process. Ford said the county would not have been “remiss” in making the latest proposals easily accessible if a communications plan had been in place earlier. The county hired a communications director, Laureen Chernow, in February.
There is now a link on the homepage of the Hays County website to the March 20 version of the proposed development regulations. Naismith Engineering’s website includes the April 1 version. Ford said a current version, including errors pointed out by Jackson at the Tuesday meeting, should be available online by the end of the week.
Jackson said residents discussed revising the development regulations at two county-sponsored public meetings in July 2008. The 6.5 acre minimum lot size was included in the March 20 version of the proposed revised regulations. Between July 2008 and May 2009, there was one public hearing on the matter, held during the March 24 commissioners court meeting, at which Skipton and Mark Key spoke. Key, an Austin resident, also aired his views at the Tuesday meeting.
“If people use all of the recharge on all of their property, nothing else is left in the groundwater budget, and the water levels will continue to decline,” said Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD) board member David Baker.
Baker, also Executive Director of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, said a Texas Water Development Board report published in 1992 indicates only ten percent of recharge water should be used for human consumption.
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) said he would probably not support anything higher than a 6.5 acre minimum lot size requirement.
“Whether (it will be) four or five or six (acres) is still fluid,” Barton said. “6.5, to me, is a cap to start at.”
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter said she would support setting the minimum lot size anywhere from 5.61 to 6.5 acres.
After more than an hour of discussion on the matter, Ford said the court had “put to bed” the idea that HTGCD had more than an advisory role in setting the proposed minimum lot size requirement. HTGCD recently pushed unsuccessfully for state legislation to increase its funding and regulatory authority over wells in its jurisdiction.
“My prediction is that the HTGCD is going to ask us for funding again this year,” Barton said towards the end of the discussion.
The commissioners court in each of its last two budget cycles allocated $75,000 to HTGCD. Barton said the HTGCD should have accepted legislation it refused on April 23 that would have supplied the district with over $100,000 a year for two years.
Baker responded that the method of funding proposed by the legislation was unfair because only half the people drawing water from the aquifer would have been charged the $2.00 per month fee. Baker said residents in HTGCD’s jurisdiction should have been given the authority to vote for an ad valorem tax to fund the district. Legislation drafted by HTGCD and turned down by State Senator Jeff Wentworth and State Representative Patrick Rose would have allowed such an election while providing the district with more regulatory authority.
“There is a price to pay for drawing lines in the sand sometimes,” Barton said.