The Dahlstrom Ranch. Braun and Associates photo.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County’s joint acquisition of a $9.9 million conservation easement for 2,275 acres of aquifer recharge land near Buda has been stalled until at least Tuesday.
The Hays County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Dec. 21 to close on the deal by Dec. 31. However, Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), the latter of whom is one of the principle architects of the easement deal, said last week that the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), a federal agency, indicated it was not ready to give assent to the arrangement.
“The federal agency didn’t get the paperwork done over the holidays,” Barton said Tuesday. “They had non-substantive changes they wanted to make to the contract. I don’t believe that that’s going to materially affect the work at all. We’ll be back Jan. 12 just to ratify what’s been done and move forward.”
The county is working with other local entities to purchase a conservation easement on 2,275 acres of Dahlstrom Ranch property, located on FM 967 west of FM 1626 outside of Buda. About 350 acres of the land would be accessible for public uses.
The Hill County Conservancy (HCC), which will hold the easement jointly with Hays County and the City of Austin, is to receive a $4 million grant from NRCS for help in purchasing the easement from the Dahlstrom Family. Hays County has committed $5.35 million in parks and open space bond funds for the easement and related transactional costs, and the City of Austin has offered $1 million.
Barton said last month that if the Dahlstrom Family had not agreed to preserve their ranch in perpetuity via the conservation easement process, developers might have paid the family “$40-50 million or more” to build 8,000 to 9,000 homes there. About 6,000 people live in nearby Buda, a city just south of Austin on the I-35 corridor, though the Capital Area Council of Governments expects the county’s population to more than double by 2030.
The Dahlstrom Family has agreed to reserve about 350 acres of their property, the Howe Pasture, for public use via a lease. The precise nature of the public access and other terms of the lease have not yet been decided, though a provision of the Memorandum of Understanding between the county and the family stipulates the creation of a lease if an agreement on public access is not reached by January 2011.
Hays County District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy, who is representing the county in negotiations with the Dahlstroms, said the Howe Pasture public access steering committee may have recommendations ready by February or March 2010. Kennedy said a lease agreement for the Howe Pasture may be finalized by April.
Kennedy said the terms of the lease can be renegotiated each year, adding that future negotiations may result in more land being available to the public, depending upon how matters progress during the early years of the arrangement.
The first iteration of the Howe Pasture lease agreement will probably permit hiking and picnicking, though probably not camping. Kennedy said there may be some limited spelunking tours allowed on Dahlstrom Ranch. The locations of caves on the property have not yet been released, and Kennedy said the more easily accessible caves will be gated for public safety purposes.
The future lease agreement for the Howe Pasture may allow the county to solicit donations from the park’s users. Kennedy said 40 percent of the donations may go to the Dahlstroms to pay for expenses they incur from management of the property, or the family may give the donations to HCC for its use as the managing grantee of the conservation easement. Kennedy said the remaining portion of the donations would go to the county, which Kennedy said would use the funds to pay operations costs for the public access features.