Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley, left, and Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford, right, during a discussion about a countywide shooting range. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Despite a cool reception from a federal agency and a local citizens parks advisory board, Hays County commissioners are considering using some or all of the remaining approximately $8.4 million in parks bond money to buy at least 250 acres of endangered bird habitat co-located with more than 300 acres of land suitable for shooting ranges.
The county needs to control at least 250 acres of Vireo or Warbler habitat to initiate a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). Tuesday, the Hays County Commissioners decided to allow the Hays County Shooting Sports Task Force (SSTF) to review all 15 applications for easement or land purchases for habitat conservation. The SSTF would determine which of applications are most suitable for shooting ranges.
“The shooting range people are applicants,” said Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB) President Chris North Tuesday evening. “And so (is the county) going to send a copy of all 15 applications to all 15 applicants? It’s bizarre.”
Though the court does not legally need the blessing of the residents it appointed to the POSAB, the court does need the approval of United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in order to initiate a Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP).
At the end of September, FWS all but told the county that it is not interested in placing a shooting range in land designated for habitat preservation.
“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 FWS’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 FWS 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 commitments (sic). The Service generally does not support this type of arrangement … ”
Under the HCP, the county would purchase or obtain conservation easements for between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of Golden-Cheeked Warbler or Black-Capped Vireo habitat during the next 30 years. Participation in the HCP would allow public and private entities in Hays County to more cheaply and quickly obtain “incidental take authorization.” Those whose otherwise lawful activities may cause significant harm to endangered species are required under federal law to first acquire incidental take authorization.
The commissioners court tasked POSAB months ago with developing scoring criteria to assess the suitability of HCP project proposals. POSAB has not yet begun scoring the HCP proposals, but it may complete its work for the commissioners court’s review by the end of January.
“The parks board is not supportive of putting a firing range on HCP land,” North said Tuesday. “I can say that will all certainty.”
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) demonstrated the strongest support for co-locating a shooting sports complex with endangered bird habitat. The commisioner who is least receptive is Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs), though she did not — and has never — indicated she would vote against purchasing a property planned for co-location.
At Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting, Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff informed court members of POSAB’s opposition to co-location.
“I’m really convinced that if every member of the parks and open space board had had the opportunity to sit through the many hours of discussion we’ve had in court, they’d have a pretty good understanding of where we’re trying to go, and would pretty comfortable with it, because it’s a pretty common-sense approach for looking for opportunities to share,” Barton said.
Conley said POSAB’s lack of support for co-location arises from “a tremendous amount of lack of understanding and education.” Conley shared Barton’s view that POSAB members might support the co-location concept if they knew more about the issue.
The approximately $8.4 million in parks bond money is left over from the $30 million approved by voters in May 2007. The commissioners court, shortly after the bond election, tasked POSAB’s earlier incarnation, the County Parks Advisory Team (CPAT), with recommending worthy projects for bond funding. CPAT threatened to disband itself in February due to what its members perceived was a lack of regard to their recommendations by the commissioners court.
Ever since the county began expending the bond funds, CPAT objected that too much bond money went to recreation projects, which the board claimed was a deviation from the bond language as it appeared on the May 2007 ballot. After CPAT threatened to disband, commissioners reorganized the advisory board and maintained a moratorium on allocating the remaining $8.5 million in bond funds. The moratorium was lifted on Oct. 2, when the county sent out the call for HCP projects.
FWS awarded the county a $753,750 grant to help develop the HCP and the county provided $251,250 in matching funds. The county has paid about $240,000 in consultant fees to develop the HCP.
SSTF Vice Chair J.B. Kolodzey urged commissioners to allow his group to carry out its assigned role and inspect the 15 sites proposed by respondents of the HCP call for projects.
Kolodzey said after Tuesday’s meeting that the shooting sports complex, which SSTF members have said should be at least 380 acres, would be an economic boon to the county. The proposed shooting sports facility would offer ranges for archery, air rifle and pistol, benchrest, shotgun clay games, target and silhouette and muzzle-loaders both antique and modern.
Kolodzey said the shooting sports complex would be able to host many state and national competitions that could attract thousands of non-resident visitors — including contestants, their families, and vendors — to Hays County every year. A nonprofit corporation, Texas Shooting Sports Complex (TSSC) has offered to foot the bill for the cost of construction, operation, and maintenance of the facility, which would remain under the ownership of the county. TSSC proposes to build and maintain the shooting sports complex through the acquisition of grants and through user fees, range and course fees and special events.
North said all members of POSAB want a shooting sports complex in Hays County, just not near habitat conservation land.
“We’re not going to put a shooting range in the middle of a habitat area,” Conley said Tuesday evening. “But many times properties that we’re looking at have some pieces of it that are really good and give us a lot of qualifications for habitat and pieces that don’t have any, that don’t have any recharge features on it. If you look at our habitat conservation plan, the ideal situation is to have 500 acres of prime habitat and then have several hundred acres of a zone around it. And, so, under the right conditions, with the right property, I think it can make sense.”
Conley said he would push strongly for maximum public access to land the county acquires under the HCP. The public would probably be prohibited from using the HCP land during the birds’ nesting seasons, which occur from early to mid-March to the end of July.
“As the county moves forward in this direction, it certainly means that the county is going to have to make sure that the property maintenance and supervision are provided to those properties,” Conley said. “That means that we cannot do that with current staff.”Email | Print