Dahlstrom Ranch is situated west of Buda. Braun and Associates graphic.
By SEAN BATURA
The Hays County Commissioners Court voted unanimously last week to execute a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Dahlstrom family as a precursor agreement to a 22-year lease for 360 acres of the family’s 2,253-acre ranch near Buda.
County officials say the conservation easement will probably be finalized Feb. 4 or 5. The Dahlstrom family and Hays County are expected to execute the lease agreement in March or April. The MOU includes a clause stipulating that if lease-related negotiations continue into January 2011, the most recent agreed-upon provisions for public access will be rolled into a lease.
The county intends to commit approximately $5.4 million of the $30 million in parks and open space bond funds approved by voters in May 2007 to the Dahlstrom Ranch project, which includes the county’s acquisition of a conservation easement over the whole ranch and related capital improvements. The ranch consists of mostly-pristine aquifer recharge land.
“The reason I asked for 22 years is because the payback on the bond is 20 years,” said Hays County District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy, who represents the county in the Dahlstrom Ranch easement negotiations. “I think that as long as the county is spending money to pay back the bond that citizens of Hays County voted for, we should have the full package in play.”
Among the public access features currently being negotiated for the 360 acres — known as the Howe Pasture — are 2.5 miles-worth of proposed hiking trails with educational kiosks. No bicycling, motor vehicle use, or camping is likely to be allowed in the Howe Pasture. The MOU allows public access in the Howe Pasture at least during daylight hours on weekdays between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28 each year. The MOU calls for weekend public access to be specified in a yearly schedule, which the family and county may change at any time by written mutual agreement.
The MOU allows the family to run cattle in the Howe Pasture. Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), who has played a leading role in planning the easement, said the family’s agricultural activity in the Howe Pasture would be of a nature not likely to cause damage to trails and other public infrastructure.
According to the MOU, the county would be in charge of enforcing the hours of operation and of locking all access points to the Howe Pasture during the times the property is closed. The Dahlstroms have indicated they might be willing to extend the duration of the lease and increase the acreage of publicly-accessible land should the initial years of the agreement proceed satisfactorily.
Centex Materials leases more than 200 acres on Dahlstrom Ranch. Controlled explosions from the Centex quarry occasionally shake the ground and are audible for some distance, according to one member of the public access stakeholder committee. Centex’s lease expires in August 2060, though it could end sooner.
Some members of the Dahlstrom family will continue to reside on the property and engage in limited agriculture, offer eco-tourism services and pursue other activities allowable under the terms of the conservation easement.
Cassie Gresham of law firm Braun and Associates, which represents the Dahlstroms, said the family’s matriarch, Gay Dahlstrom, hopes the ranch will afford visitors an opportunity to become educated and ecology and water quality protection, and to enjoy nature. Gresham said developers have offered to buy the ranch from the Dahlstroms, who may have opted to sell the land for more than $40 million. As many as 1,600 homes could have been built there.
“I think Gay Dahlstrom has been a driving force behind this,” Barton said. “Jack Dahlstrom’s a wonderful person. That family has been involved in civic endeavors for a long time out there. There’s been a school named after the family. Gay’s parents, the Rubys, were very well-known out there. It’s really Ruby Ranch land — the land came down through Gay’s side of the family. Next door is Ruby Ranch Subdivision. Gay’s brother chose a different path … The ranch was divided at her parents’ death. Her brother chose to develop his side of the ranch, and turned part of it into a subdivision and part of it into a quarry.
“Gay is seeking a different path,” Barton continued. “I wouldn’t say that one is right or wrong, but I will say I’m really happy that there are people like Gay Dahlstrom and her heirs, who recognize the value of money and who also recognize that there are other things in life that it’s hard to put a price tag on, and who have really put their money where their philosophy is in a way that few of us really step up to do, when it comes right down to it. I think it is going to be a deep and lasting legacy that they can be proud of.”
The parties buying the conservation easement from the Dahlstrom Family include the Hill County Conservancy (HCC), Hays County and the City of Austin. HCC, via a grant from National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), provided $4 million — the largest grant ever awarded by that agency for such a project. Austin provided $1 million. Hays County commissioners agreed to contribute $4.9 million for the easements and about $400,000 in capital improvements for the Howe Pasture such as trails, kiosks, a pavilion, restrooms, parking, and a visitor’s center.
More recently, commissioners agreed to pay $100,000 to help HCC with survey work and site cleanup, among other transactional costs. HCC will be the managing grantee for the easements.
Approximately $8.4 million of the county’s parks bond funds remain uncommitted to particular projects, though they will probably be used to acquire endangered species habitat pursuant to the county’s Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP), which is currently in development.
Barton said purchase of the easement would be worth spending millions of taxpayer dollars, even if no public access of Dahlstrom Ranch were secured for residents. Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos), the only Republican on the court, has also made the same statement. Conley said on Jan. 12 that before the county’s acquisition of the Dahlstrom Ranch easement, he used to represent the precinct with the most conservation land, and said he would work on securing more.
Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) Environmental Educator Julie Jenkins was on hand at the Jan. 12 commissioners court meeting to speak in favor of finalizing the Dahlstrom conservation easement contract. The BSEACD was created by the state legislature to manage groundwater production, including the Dahlstrom Ranch area.
The Edwards Aquifer supplies water to about 1.7 million people and sustains habitats occupied by several endangered species. Any substances draining into the highly porous ground at Dahlstrom Ranch may end up in people’s drinking and bathing water, and in pools at Barton Springs, a recreational hot spot and home to a species of salamander unique to the area.
“Dahlstrom Ranch represents the only project in the state that has this kind of public-private partnership,” Barton said. “There have been conservation easements before, and the public has bought land, but a city or county coming together with private landowners to do this, it really is a model. I hope it’s the sort of the thing we can do more of in Hays County. I think there will be other open space projects we will look at, but this one sets the bar, to some degree, and I think this one primes the pump, to use a different metaphor. It is historic. We use that loosely sometimes, but this is one that will be remembered for a long time as something that laid a great foundation for preserving something of what makes Hays County special, what makes Hays County a place we all love, and for preserving our water supply.”Email | Print