Left to right, Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board President Chris North, Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, Texas Shooting Sports Complex President Stephen Marlow and Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford at a recent meeting to draft an application to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Those seeking to co-locate a 380-acre shooting range facility with endangered bird habitat in Hays County may have encountered a setback.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (Fish and Wildlife) recently signaled its reluctance to approve such a co-location for coverage under the county’s pending Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP). The plan is intended to protect endangered-species habitat while streamlining the development of land inhabited by endangered bird species.
“I keep hearing these rumors that Hays County is looking to purchase a parcel that would serve as both a habitat preserve pursuant to the RHCP and firing range,” wrote Allison Arnold of Fish and Wildlife’s Austin ecological services field office in a Sept. 30 email to two county commissioners, the county’s consultant Loomis Partners, Inc., Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) officials and other Fish and Wildlife officials. “If there is any truth to this, I think it would be wise to have a discussion about it before anyone makes any fiduciary committments (sic). The Service generally does not support this type of arrangement despite the arguements (sic) folks present about Fort Hood and Camp Bullis. Those are both very unique circumstances and the firing ranges were a pre-existing condition of the property i.e. were in use prior to listing the golden-cheeked warbler. I would greatly appreciate any clarification of this issue.”
Last week, county officials drafted a call for RHCP projects. The document’s cover letter explicitly lists a property’s suitability for the shooting facility among the county’s priorities. Other priorities specified in the cover letter include “habitat and endangered species preservation, water quality and aquifer protection, public access to water features and open space” and potential for hike and bike trails.
Members of the county’s Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB) and the San Marcos River Foundation also have expressed reservations about the idea of locating a shooting complex on habitat land.
Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff said last week that Fish and Wildlife has not officially signaled its intention to withhold approval of RHCP land acquisitions involving a shooting sports complex. Fish and Wildlife must approve every parcel of RHCP land proposed for acquisition by the county before the county can obtain mitigation credits for preserved habitat.
The RHCP calls for the county to eventually acquire or create conservation easements for between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of protected land for the Golden-Cheeked Warbler or Black-Capped Vireo. If Fish and Wildlife approves the RHCP, the federal government will issue an incidental take permit to the county. The incidental take permit would would enable the county to sell mitigation credits to private and public entities wishing to engage in activities that might cause harm, or “take,” to the Warbler or Vireo. The county would use the money gained from mitigation credit sales to buy more Warbler or Vireo habitat land and sell more credits.
Fish and Wildlife awarded the county a $753,750 grant to help develop the RHCP. The county provided $251,250 in matching funds. The county has paid $239,121.61 in consultant fees to develop the RHCP. Fish and Wildlife must approve the RHCP before the plan can be implemented.
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) had proposed locating the shooting facility at Dahlstrom Ranch, a 2,275-acre tract of aquifer recharge land over which the county is working with the City of Austin and the Hill Country Conservancy (HCC) to acquire a conservation easement with provisions for public access. But Austin and HCC have nixed the SCC from the plans for Dahlstrom Ranch, according to the nonprofit organization Texas Shooting Sports Complex (TXSSC), which is spearheading the effort to build shooting facility C in Hays County. Barton said recently that only hiking and biking will probably be allowed on the 350-acre portion of Dahlstrom Ranch intended for public access.
Commissioners have charged the POSAB with determining which projects or properties will be worthy of the remaining bond money. The county must buy or acquire conservation easements for at least 500 qualified habitat acres to kick off the RHCP. The county may acquire the 500 acres as one parcel of land or as multiple adjacent properties.
The county will pay for the land or easements, or fund proposed projects, using most of the remaining approximately $8.5 million in parks and open space bond money of the original $30 million that voters approved in 2007.
The commissioners court set aside $50,000 of the parks and open space bond money for development of the Parks and Open Space Master Plan, which may be completed within a year and a half. About $600,000 of the remaining bond funds may be used for recreation projects.
Ever since the county began expending parks and open space bond funds for projects, POSAB members have complained that too much bond money went to recreation projects, which, they claimed, was a deviation from the bond language as it appeared on the ballot. The argument grew so intense that POSAB’s earlier incarnation — the Citizens Parks Advisory Team (CPAT) — threatened in February to disband itself, after which commissioners reorganized the advisory board and maintained a moratorium on allocating remaining $8.5 million in bond funds. The moratorium was effectively lifted on Friday.
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) said last month that about $8 million in bond funds have been used so far for projects related to preserving water quality ($3 million for the Jacob’s Well project and $5.25 million for the Dahlstrom Ranch conservation easement).
Said POSAB member Todd Derkacz to commissioners last month, “The (POSAB) board members, within their own circles, were getting a lot of push-back for the way the spending had gone towards recreation so heavily up front, and many of their friends and contacts and people who called were wondering, ‘Hey, where’s the habitat, where’s the water quality – that’s what a lot of people were voting for.’”
Barton and Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) pushed the hardest last month for co-locating the SCC with the RHCP kickoff land.
“For every person who tells me that they voted for the bonds because they wanted open space, I have at least one person tell me they voted for the bonds because they wanted soccer fields,” Barton said. “I think it was a broad-based coalition. That’s why we got 70 percent, is because they were people who thought we would address multiple needs.”
Hays County Commissioner Precinct 4 Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) and Barton sat on the subcommittee that drafted the cover letter to Fish and Wildlife. Court members appointed Derkacz to the committee, though he did not attend its only meeting, which occurred on Sept. 22 after the regularly-scheduled commissioners court meeting that day. POSAB President Chris North of San Marcos attended the cover letter committee meeting, the existence of which she was unaware until after it had started. The meeting was not publicized.
Sumter said the court should focus on the county’s stated goal of prioritizing water quality, habitat conservation and water access for the remaining bond funds, though she supported co-location if the other priorities could be met first. Conley responded that no one had proposed using a property’s fitness for shooting ranges as a primary consideration, but that shooting range compatibility ought to be inserted into the scoring criteria for use in judging potential land and projects for bond funding. At the cover letter committee meeting later that day, Barton and Marlow attempted unsuccessfully to alter the scoring criteria to more easily accommodate the proposed shooting facility.
Before the commissioners court signed off on POSAB’s scoring criteria, they discussed co-locating the proposed shooting facility with the RHCP kick-off land. POSAB responses to the court’s interest in co-locating the facility with bird habitat ranged from “I’m just aghast” (North on Sept. 22), and “There is a bit of a blindside to that” (Derkacz on Sept. 15).
“It’s not to say that we’d be necessarily opposed to co-location, it’s just that it seemed like a rather late entry to suddenly give weight to,” Derkacz said. “I think it’s something that (POSAB members) would not feel confident about, let me just put it that way. But I don’t speak for them.”
After hearing court members discuss the possibility of co-locating aquifer recharge land and bird habitat with 380 acres of shooting ranges, San Marcos River Foundation President Diane Wassenich told commissioners, “I’m just in shock.”
Conley responded that some residents might be shocked to learn that the county might be spending taxpayer dollars to buy habitat land, some of which may end up being off-limits to the public. Pursuant to the RHCP, Fish and Wildlife will prohibit “active uses” such as bicycling, dog walking, horseback riding, swimming, boating, tubing, rafting, fishing, picnicking, camping, and rock-climbing, among other uses in areas of potential Warbler and Vireo habitat.
“I have to tell you, I do not feel comfortable with the bond money — in the way we presented the parks and open space bond — of having that money go for a shooting sports complex,” said Ford. “I worry about the public perception of that and the fact that if that happens, that the people who are out there waiting for us to have natural areas and open spaces to enjoy, and for birds and for water quality (protection), and we end up with three or four hundred acres of a shooting sports complex — that they are going to feel duped.”
Conley said the bond language does not rule out shooting ranges. Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) echoed Ford’s concerns, but did not oppose using parks and open space bond money for the shooting facility.
“If we can’t find that co-location, that means we need to find monies,” Conley said. “Our shooting range committee has gone out and found partners to develop and to design and to operate the facility. What they need from us is land … and this is a way in which we can provide it … without putting an additional burden on the taxpayers of Hays county … And to be quite frank with you, I believe that if (funding for the shooting facility) doesn’t come out of these dollars, (then the shooting facility is) just a lot of talk. And until somebody wants to identify some money, then I believe that’s all that it is.”
The Shooting Sports Task Force, whose members were appointed by the commissioners court in January, presented a business plan to the court on June 23 that called for the costs of the construction, operation and maintenance of a multi-disciplinary, educational, safety training, shooting facility to be borne by TXSSC and related clubs through user fees, range and course fees, special events and grants. In January, commissioners discussed the possibility of using parks and open space bond money for the shooting facility, though they made no commitments.
“I’m expecting to tread very lightly on the land, which is not typical of most ranges,” said TXSSC President Stephen Marlow at the cover letter committee meeting. “Most ranges start out wanting to clear everything. I would like to see everything left as natural as possible simply because it’s nicer to look at that way, and it costs a whole lot to do it another way … We’re concerned about lead containment. Actually, part of (the shooting facility’s) income will be picking up the (lead) shot. So we’ll have a central shot field, and that will be picked up and recycled every few years.”
Barton said “other social considerations outside the realm of parks” that are “equally important” make it reasonable to consider using bond funds for the shooting facility.
“We had a seven-year-old child shot off his trampoline and killed in his backyard,” Barton said, referring to an incident in April 2007 involving a boy shot by a man alleged to have been target shooting in his backyard. “I don’t apologize to anybody for taking that into consideration … when we have repeated reports of unsafe shooting across the county.”
The POSAB will hold an open meeting Wednesday at the San Marcos Activity Center (7 p.m.).
“I think (co-location of shooting facility and RHCP land is) a great opportunity for a win-win and for different factions in our community to come together under a common cause,” Conley said.Email | Print