Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff (left) and Shooting Sports Task Force Vice Chair J.B. Kolodzey, right, at a recent Hays County Commissioners Court meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
About 1,400 acres of land adjacent to the San Marcos Baptist Academy is among the 15 parcels being assessed by Hays County for suitability as a publicly-owned endangered bird habitat and shooting range, according to three insiders.
The Hays County Commissioners Court decided last week to keep the identities of the 15 properties – and the entities offering them – secret.
The Shooting Sports Task Force (SSTF), a citizens committee tasked by commissioners to find land suitable for a shooting sports complex, recommended the 1,400 acres to the court in a closed executive session meeting months ago.
“The reason I can tell you this is because I’m getting letters from the neighborhood, so obviously it’s not privileged information,” said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) last week. “But what was proposed at one time from the shooting range group was a piece of property off of Ranch Road 12 behind the Baptist School Academy. They’re not very happy about having a shooting range so close to the neighborhoods.”
Sumter said she informed concerned residents who contacted her that the court would not give a green light to a shooting sports complex without holding public hearings. Sumter said had not looked at the 15 proposals, so she could not say whether the proposed 1,400 acre tract was among them.
“They need to get that piece of property for a shooting range out of their minds,” said San Marcos attorney Charles Soechting, ex-state trooper and former Texas Democratic Party chair, who lives in Fox Ridge neighborhood near the proposed 1,400 acres. “(They) would truly be out of their minds if they thought they could ever pull that off. It just won’t happen … There’s a bunch of neighborhoods that would be impacted, there are churches that would be impacted. There is a private school that would be impacted. It is irresponsible for any elected official who expects to be re-elected to support that proposition there.”
SSTF Vice Chair J.B. Kolodzey said resistance from the neighborhood near the 1,400 acres has resulted in that property being “pretty much off our list and off our radar now.”
County voters in May 2007 approved $30 million in bonds for parks and open space. The commissioners court has indicated a willingness use some or all of the $8.4 million in remaining bond money for the first parcel of land necessary to kickoff the Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP), which is currently under development.
The county needs a U.S Fish. and Wildlife Service (USFWS) approved the RHCP in order to receive an incidental take permit, which the federal government requires of those whose otherwise lawful activities may cause significant harm to endangered species. The county’s incidental take permit would cover two endangered bird species: the Golden-Cheeked Warbler and the Black-Capped Vireo.
Private or public entities could use the county’s incidental take permit by buying mitigation credits from the county, which would use the money to buy more land or easements. The county plans to purchase or obtain conservation easements for between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of Golden-Cheeked Warbler or Black-Capped Vireo habitat in the next 30 years. The county received a $753,750 grant from USFWS to develop the RHCP, though the county is required to provide $251,250 in in-kind services and matching funds.
Because the court has already expressed its intention to use some or all of the remaining parks and open space bond funds for RHCP land, some proponents of the shooting sports complex hope to piggy-back land for the facility on the RHCP kickoff parcel.
Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) has expressed the most resistance to using parks and open space bond money for shooting sports complex land, though she has not said she would vote against such a proposal.
“I personally feel that our current parks and open space money should not be used for it because that’s not what the bond language said,” Ford said at a commissioners court meeting on Jan. 20.
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) have demonstrated the strongest support for co-locating a shooting sports complex with endangered bird habitat. They were also the only members of the court last week who supported publicizing information regarding the 15 proposed RHCP kickoff parcels.
“I have read all the proposals, and I didn’t see anything in there that couldn’t be shared with the public,” said Conley during the Dec. 15 commissioners court meeting. “Once we do our process of getting advice from the parks committee and the range committee, and working through these projects on our own, when we get down to a few projects where we have to get into personal negotiations with these folks, well, that’s an executive session issue.”
Last week, Conley called his colleagues’ calls for secrecy “silly,” and bristled at the idea that he should remain silent about the 15 proposals when his constituents might be able to provide valuable information regarding them, and when sharing information with potential partners – such as the City of San Marcos – might enable the county to acquire financial support to pay for the RHCP kickoff land. The Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB) is scoring the 15 proposals based on criteria it developed months ago. POSAB is the only entity other than the commissioners court and select county staff in the know about the 15 proposals.
At the Nov. 24 commissioners court meeting, Ford disclosed that Trust for Public Land (TPL) is one of the 15 entities that responded to the county’s call for RHCP proposals, though she did not say whether TPL is proposing a conservation easement or land for sale.
“I would probably release the prices, as well, but make it clear from the beginning that we consider all those beginning prices and then we’re going to enter into negotiations from that point forward,” Barton said last week. “When we get to land negotiations, it would be foolhardy to make that public, I agree wholeheartedly.”
Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff told court members last week that the county may wind up at a disadvantage if all 15 proposals are made public.
“I do feel that confidentiality is respectful to folks that have submitted the time and submitted proposals to the county, but it also preserves potential beneficial negotiating position for the county,” said Ford last week.
A nonprofit conservation organization, Texas Shooting Sports Complex (TSSC), has offered to foot the bill for the cost of construction, operation, and maintenance of a shooting sports complex, which the organization would lease from Hays 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.
TSSC’s proposed shooting sports complex includes ranges for archery, air rifle and pistol, bench rest, shotgun clay games, target and silhouette and muzzle-loaders both antique and modern. Kolodzey, who sits on TSSC’s board, said Monday that the shooting sports complex would require less than 10 acres for buildings and at least 350 acres for downrange safety purposes. Supporters of the facility say it would be an economic boon to the county, as some competitions can attract up to 1,000 out-of-county visitors in a three-day period.
According to the business plan TSSC presented to the commissioners court on June 23, total revenue generated by the facility could total $413,975 per year, and incur operating expenses amounting to $392,656. TSSC’s plans include an educational building for activities like hunters’ safety courses. The educational building must be at least 2,000 square feet in order for TSSC to qualify for a Pittman-Robertson Wildlife grant offered through the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife (TPW).
The county needs the green light from USFWS to receive grant money and mitigation credits for each parcel of land proposed for purchase or conservation easement coverage.
“Whether or not we support the proposal remains to be seen until we see the details of the proposal,” said USFWS Senior Conservation Planner Allison Arnold about co-locating habitat conservation land with a shooting range. “But it’s generally something we’re not going to support if it’s going to cause a lot of disturbance to the birds.”
Arnold said that noise primarily affects the Golden Cheeked Warbler.
“Gunshots and gunfire in general may affect the warbler depending on (the county’s) proposal,” Arnold said. “Noise in general – they are very sensitive to noise and human disturbance within a certain range, so until we see the details, we can’t determine that, but that is a big factor, because when you have nesting birds, you certainly don’t want to have a disturbance, and if there is a disturbance that causes take, there’s always mitigation requirements associated with that.”
The word “take” is broadly defined as harm to endangered species.
Kolodzey said TSSC intends to hire an acoustics specialist to determine how much noise the facility would generate before undertaking appropriate mitigation measures.
“We want to look at all 15 pieces of land that’s been turned in,” Kolodzey said last week. “We are not settled on any particular piece, period. We are totally open to anything we might fit on that’s going to be the most beneficial to the Hays County community. We are not locked into anything … We are totally open-minded to anything that is going to benefit this community, including not having a shooting sports complex. We’d hate to see the economic development disappear, because Hays County parks only cost money, they do not generate money. This is an opportunity to have a county park that is going to generate money back to the county and to the community.”
The court has not yet allowed SSTF to see the 15 proposals. It was thought that Barton would sponsor an item on Tuesday’s agenda outlining the legal parameters under which the groups could gain access to the information, but he did not. Barton was not immediately available for comment. Kolodzey said Monday that his queries to Barton and Conley have gone unanswered, and he does not know why no such item appeared on the agenda.Email | Print