Hays County commissioners spoke last week with western Hays County residents about development regulations in Wimberley. Left to right are; Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos). Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) is out of the frame. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
About 200 people crowded Wimberley City Hall last Tuesday evening to witness impassioned public comment and Hays County Commissioners Court deliberation on proposed development regulations.
After more than five hours of discussion and debate among commissioners, residents and consultants, the court adjourned just before midnight without taking any action on the rules, which have been three years in the making. The court may engage in further discussion on Aug. 4 and vote on the final draft of the rules on Aug. 11.
Detractors and opponents of the proposed regulations agree that new development rules would greatly affect quality of life for all county residents for years to come. The central issue revolves around water.
The proposed regulations include a larger minimum lot sizes than currently required in the state-designated Priority Groundwater Management Area (PGMA). Supporters of a larger lot size in western Hays County, where the PGMA is located, say fewer wells will slow the depletion of the Trinity and Edwards Aquifers.
San Marcos River Foundation Executive Director Dianne said during the citizen comment period that too many wells pumping water from the Trinity Aquifer may further imperil the San Marcos Springs, which, as of late in the week, flowed 101 cubic feet per second slower than the historical monthly average.
“It’s not just people with their wells that we have to think about,” Wassenich said. “It’s every stream, every waterway, that all the wildlife in this county depend on at times like this, that often are no longer flowing because we have so many wells. It’s also all of those streams flowing into the Blanco and then falling into the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and recharging the San Marcos Springs. The San Marcos Springs is critically low right now. They are transplanting endangered species because they’re sitting high and dry in the river. We are very afraid that if we lose the river one time, and all the endangered species are killed … There won’t be any regulations, there won’t be an Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA), and we will lose that river forever. The San Marcos River will become a dry ditch that only runs during flood periods if San Antonio (without an EAA) is allowed to pump as much as it wants.”
The current regulations specify minimum lot sizes of two acres for well owners with advanced waste water systems and three acres for owners with conventional systems in the PGMA. The proposed development regulations would require minimum lot sizes of 6.5 acres, which some at the Wimberley meeting said would entail lower property values and economic decline for the county.
“I have 137 acres in Henly,” said western county resident Jimmy Skipton. “I bought it … to basically insulate myself from my neighbors … I also bought it knowing one day I could develop it. Don’t really want to develop it in acre and a half lots, which, right now, I can in Henly. That’s not my intention. My intention would be to keep it forever. But forever is a long time. And one day my children may want to sell a piece. I may be broke and need to sell a piece. Which could be quick … but right now, if I wanted to split it off into a four piece on a corner, I could do that. If you change this, it’s going to have to be six and a half acres. There’s no reason for it.”
Dripping Springs Area Chamber of Commerce (DSACC) Executive Director Kim Johnson and DSACC Chairperson Charlene Farmer spoke against the proposed development regulations.
“We do believe the lot size change is too significant,” said Johnson. “Due to slow economy, we request any lot size change be minimal. A geological and an economic impact study must be done to support such a huge change. This change would cause severe decline in usable land and land value. Plus, it can cause a decline in revenues … It will require a tax base, so it will increase your taxes.”
Northern Hays County resident and real estate broker Alston Boyd said present economic costs must be weighed against long-term sustainability.
“I see the Wimberley seal up here over your head, with a spring flowing,” Boyd said. “And we’d all like to keep it that way all around the county. But as we’ve heard tonight from many knowledgeable people, we are pulling more water out of the ground than is being replaced. What that leads to over time … is that there are going to be a lot of homes with wells that are dry. And let’s talk about value — what are those homes going to be worth down the line with dry wells? Think about the effect on individuals who have those homes with no water. Think about the effects on the tax base. That’s tomorrow, and we need to be thinking about tomorrow.”
Farmer and Johnson, among others at the meeting, said some provisions of the proposed regulations conflict with state and federal law.
“It’s my understanding also, after talking to some attorneys, that…the legislature currently has not given (the county) the power to authorize the regulation of the lot size in relation to density and such as that,” Farmer said. “We know, as in the past when we’ve passed things that are are ill — not lawful, we’ll put it like that — we’ve been sued, and we’ve lost. When you get sued, it’s our tax money — it doesn’t come out of our salary, it comes out of our tax money. And, more than likely, there will be some lawsuits.”
Johnson said a one proposed provision is even unconstitutional. That provision would require some PGMA subdivisions served by individual wells to dedicate a public easement of at least 50 feet by 50 feet for groundwater monitoring wells.
Naismith Engineering consultant Grant Jackson assured commissioners court members that legal experts had examined every draft of the proposed development regulations to insure consilience with state and federal law, though some commissioners expressed unease over the public easement requirement.
“I don’t have an issue with it, to be honest, if we’re paying for (the easement),” said Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos). “I do think some people may feel uncomfortable 1) by not having proper compensation (paid to the owner), and, 2) by having public access. If it is a public easement, not only could (Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District officials) go down there and monitor, which is the intent, but I could walk down there any time I care to. And so could anybody else in the county, in somebody else’s neighborhood, right in their backyard.”
Jackson told commissioners court members the rules could be revised to restrict public access to the monitoring well.
“Certainly, we could revise that to include it as part of the parkland requirements, to make it a separate dedicated easement that did not convey public title and public access to the property,” Jackson said. “There’s a wide variety of different approaches.”
The proposed regulations include the requirement, to which DSACC also objected, that subdivisions establish parkland or open space, pay a fee to the county in lieu of establishing parkland/open space, or undertake some combination of both, at the rate of one acre per 50 acres.
Naismith Engineering had formulated the 6.5-acre minimum lot size requirement against the recommendations of Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD), which recommended nine acres. HTGCD Board Member Andrew Backus (District 3) said Wednesday that the calculation yielding the 6.5 acre figure allocates 75 percent of recharge for human production, in contrast with a Texas Water Development Board report by Robert Bluntzer recommending that 10 percent be reserved for pumping. At the commissioners court meeting on Jan. 27, Backus told the court that Bluntzer recommended a minimum lot size of 25 acres for the Hill Country.
Of the 27 people who spoke during the citizen comment period, which lasted at least two hours, 19 supported the proposed development regulations. Among the regulations’ supporters, some of whom carried signs reading, “6.5 keeps our springs alive,” were Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD) board members, Wimberley Valley Watershed Association members and western Hays County residents who lamented their dry or sedimented wells.
The eight people who spoke against the proposed rules during the citizen comment period included hydrologist and Take Back Texas co-founder Phil Savoy, who said there might be enough water in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to supply all of Hays County.
Speakers on both sides of the issue drew applause from the audience after concluding their remarks. Most speakers had strong opinions about the proposed minimum lot size requirement, though, by the time commissioners court members began discussing that issue, it was after 11 p.m. and the audience had dwindled from about 200 to twenty people.
At around 11:30 p.m., Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) asked her colleagues whether they would support a six-acre minimum lot size.
“I’ll just throw that gauntlet down on the table,” Ford said. “Can we make some agreement?”
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-WImberley) said she wanted the nine-acre figure but knew it wasn’t realistic. Sumter said she was “comfortable” with 6.5 acres, which she said was an “excellent compromise.” After Ford’s challenge, Sumter turned to Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) and praised him for his past efforts to protect the Edwards Aquifer before she challenged him, in turn, by accepting Ford’s offer of six acres.
Before answering, Barton asked the other commissioners to “jump in.” Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) said she would find it hard to support a figure much higher than five acres.
“For me, affordability was a very big issue and still is hard to overcome, because I know that a very large majority of our population falls into a category that cannot afford these large tracts,” Ingalsbe said. “So I’m still having to overcome that issue in my mind. I feel comfortable with five … It’s just where I can inch up to. I think we just need a little more discussion. But that’s where I’m at. Affordability is a very big issue for me, but I really believe that the decisions we make will eventually affect the rest of the county, and that is a bigger concern to me, and I want to do what’s right.”
Conley said he is comfortable with five acres.
Barton said he might support a minimum lot size of between 5.5 and six acres, but would have to consider the matter further.
“When my family came to this county, there was no county — it was Mexico,” said Barton. “Somebody said if you build it, they will come; if you drain it, they will leave. It’s kind of an appealing thought … I’m not really willing to destroy the village in order to save it.”Email | Print