Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley, left, and Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford, right, discuss business during a break at this week’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
A battle continues between two county citizens committees interested in how the Hays County Commissioners Court will spend the remaining $8.4 million in parks and open space bond funds approved by voters in May 2007.
The Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB) favors purchases of open space and habitat conservation land with the remaining money. The Hays County Shooting Sports Task Force’s (SSTF) argues that parks bond funds be used to purchase at least 350 acres for a shooting sports complex. A local non-profit group has proposed to build and operate the shooting complex on behalf of the county.
At this week’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court, SSTF members objected to being denied access to information regarding 15 land parcels and easements currently under consideration for purchase by the county as part of a Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RCHP).
“We’re still waiting to look at this land,” SSTF Vice Chair J.B. Kolodzey said at the meeting. “There’s already decisions being made, and you included us in the overall guidelines for the (call for) proposals that went out. We still have not even had any opportunity to look at this land. We have seen three pieces of it, by the way, prior to the (call for) proposals even going out. People contacted us wanting to do something with their land and to bring what we want to do to this community. We think you have put out more or less a memorandum for us to do this. We want the opportunity. When can we have it?”
After listening to Kolodzey’s concerns and a short presentation from staff, commissioners discussed the matter, but did not grant SSTF access to the information. The court’s agenda specified that only discussion of the issue would take place, and the court opted to possibly release the information to SSTF after receiving advice from the Nature Conservancy in executive session in the next two weeks.
Commissioners recently chose the Nature Conservancy to advise the county about how to proceed with selecting one of the bird habitat proposals and to aid in negotiations with the landowner. The court agreed to pay the Nature Conservancy $35,000 for the first property acquired, “either fee simple or a conservation easement,” said Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs). Ford said that if additional properties are closed, the county would pay the Nature Conservancy $15,000 for each.
“The shooting sports complex is a completely separate issue and should not be considered along with habitat conservation lands,” POSAB Chair Chris North said. “The parks board has made their position on that very clear, and so has U.S. Fish and Wildlife.”
The county needs for United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to approve an RHCP being developed for preservation of the Golden-Cheeked Warbler and the Black-Capped Vireo. Once USFWS approves the pan, the county needs the final habitat land proposal green lit by USFWS in order to receive mitigation credits for the land and grant money for such land/easement purchases in the future.
Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff said USFWS has given neither a “yes” nor a “no” to the idea of shooting range/bird habitat co-location. In December, USFWS Senior Conservation Planner Allison Arnold said her organization would not reject a co-location proposal if it could be shown to create no undue disturbance to the birds.
POSAB recently whittled the 15 original proposals to six, recommending that commissioners allow the public to access at least part of whichever property is chosen. The types of activity allowable on the land would likely be hiking and other low-impact, passive recreation.
A nonprofit conservation organization, Texas Shooting Sports Complex (TSSC), has offered to foot the bill for the cost of construction, operation, and maintenance of what its members say would be an attractive and environmentally-friendly complex of shooting ranges. TSSC proposes that it would then lease the complex from 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. TSSC’s proposed shooting sports complex includes ranges for archery, air rifle and pistol, bench rest, shotgun clay games, target shooting, silhouette shooting and muzzle-loaders (both antique and modern).
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.
North said all members of POSAB want a shooting sports complex in Hays County, but not co-located with habitat conservation land. POSAB member Todd Derkacz, who was at Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting, said his board did not use “suitability for a shooting range” in its criteria when selecting the six RHCP proposals. Derkacz said that given the need to obtain input from different entities and authorization from USFWS while resolving possible water quality problems associated with shooting, it would be “difficult” but “not impossible” to find land suitable for co-location.
“I’m right in there with lots of people who say that having a shooting sports complex or two in Hays County would be excellent — it would be great,” Derkacz said. “And in court this morning, one of the (SSTF) members hinted that there could actually be a return on the investment, and that there would actually be some money paid back to the county … So, all that portends that somehow, some way, we’ll figure out how to get a shooting complex into Hays County. But whether or not it can be piggy-backed onto this project is difficult to say.”
Ford asked the SSTF members present at Tuesday’s meeting if they were looking at land other than those parcels included in the RHCP proposals.
“You’ve got 15 pieces — why would we want to look anywhere else?” Kolodzey said. “These are pieces that have been submitted to the court in a public call. We think we should at least be able to look at these 15. All we want to do is see if we might possibly fit. If we don’t fit, we understand that, but the direction from the court was for us to find land to fit on. The only funding available is this parks bond money.”
Derkacz said the possibility of using any leftover parks bond money for shooting sports complex land is “remote,” while North and Ford said they would not support the idea. Ford said she would support putting the shooting sports complex on a bond election ballot sometime in the next two or three years, provided the economy is sound. Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) said Tuesday that she would “strongly consider appropriating or designating some funds” from a future park bond sale.
On Feb. 17, 2009, the court voted, 4-1, to allocate $600,000 of the remaining park bond funds to recreation projects, with a $200,000 cap on individual awards. In the same vote, the court allocated $50,000 of the remaining park bond funds to develop a new Parks and Open Space Master Plan, and earmarked, in the language of the motion, “the remainder of the bond funds to habitat, open space, and water quality/quantity/access projects, including that amount necessary to initiate the recommendations of the Regional Habitat Conservation Plan.”
Before casting the lone dissenting vote, Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) argued against setting more than $5.5 million aside for the RHCP. Conley argued for keeping $3 million dollars free for recreational projects like swimming pools, athletic fields, soccer fields, baseball fields and basketball courts.
“As a voting (POSAB) member, a shooting sports range or a go-cart facility, I don’t care — we spent enough money on ball fields and recreation projects, including the Kyle activity center — things that did not preserve open space, and the language of the bond led people to believe that they were voting to preserve open space in Hays County,” North said. “I know that people disagree with me on that, and you can spin it anyway you want, but that’s what I voted for, and it’s been disproportionately allocated (to active recreation projects). And I’m not talking about geographics at all. I don’t care where the money in the county is spent if it’s spent on open space preservation and recharge zone preservation and habitat conservation.”
Conley (R-San Marcos) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) recently argued that their constituents expected at least as much funding for active recreation projects as for passive recreation and open space preservation land.
The parks and open space bond proposition, which voters approved by a two-to-one margin, was for “the issuance of $30,000,000 of Hays County tax bonds for parks, natural areas, open space, and related projects, and the preservation of water quality, aquifer recharge areas, and wildlife habitat, and the levying of a tax in payment thereof,” in the language on the ballot.
Most commissioners indicated they may be willing to publicize all fifteen original RHCP proposals in the next few weeks, depending on further deliberations and input from the Nature Conservancy, staff and POSAB. Barton and Conley argued that making all six RHCP proposals public would put the county in a better bargaining position, while Ford argued the reverse.
If USFWS approves the plan and first parcel, the county will be able to obtain an incidental take permit and sell mitigation credits to private and public entities that wish to engage in activities that might cause significant harm to the birds. The county would use the money gained from sale of the mitigation credits, along with federal grants, to buy more habitat land.
Hauff said the RHCP will be complete by the end of this month or early March. The county must control at least 250 acres of the aforementioned bird habitat land in order to receive an incidental take permit. In November, Hauff said the ideal RHCP proposal would offer “500 acres of prime habitat and then … several hundred acres of a zone around it.” The county plans to purchase land or obtain conservation easements for between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of Warbler or Vireo habitat in the next 30 years.
Hauff said the county would probably not be able to obtain enough grant money to entirely cover the cost of acquiring the land or easements. The county obtained a 75/25 grant from USFWS to develop the RHCP, which amounts to $753,750 provided by the agency and $251,250 covered by the county (including in-kind services).Email | Print