Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford, left, and Shooting Sports Task Force Chair J.B. Kolodzey, right, as last week’s commissioners court meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Citing obstructions to the fulfillment of its mandate, a shooting range task force appointed by the Hays County Commissioners Court threw down the gauntlet at last week’s commissioners court meeting.
Shooting Sports Task Force (SSTF) Vice Chair J.B Kolodzey handed Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) an open records request for specific information pertaining to properties the county is considering as endangered bird habitat. SSTF wishes to ascertain whether any of the 15 properties may be suitable for both habitat and shooting ranges.
“We were hoping it would never get to this,” Kolodzey told commissioners. “But it seems like there are secret meetings going on, handshakes, pats on the back — I’m not sure just what…”
Unless the commissioners court alters course by the 10-day response deadline for open records requests, District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy said he will submit the request directly to the Texas Attorney General for an opinion.
Last week, the court opted to make general information regarding the 15 properties public. It has not yet released the information, which will not be specific not enough for SSTF’s purposes, anyway, because the court instructed public information officer Laureen Chernow to not publicize the number of acres associated with each property, among other details.
The court has thus far attempted to restrict knowledge of the 15 properties — or proposals — to key county staff and another body of citizens appointed by the court, the Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB). Most POSAB members, including Chair Chris North, appear to oppose establishing endangered bird habitat near shooting ranges. However, POSAB member and Todd Derkacz recently said it would be “difficult” but “not impossible” to find land suitable for both uses. Derkacz is also president of the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance.
The county received the 15 proposals after publicizing a call for projects for land or conservation easements of 250 acres for endangered species habitat pursuant to the goals of the Hays County Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP). Under the RHCP, the county would purchase land or conservation easements for between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of Golden-Cheeked Warbler and the Black-Capped Vireo habitat in the next 30 years, with federal grants possibly paying some of the cost.
If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) approves the plan and one of the 15 properties, 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 sales of the mitigation credits, along with federal grants, to buy more habitat land, and sell more credits.
After Kolodzey submitted the open records request and made additional remarks before the court, POSAB members presented to the court — in closed executive session — six proposals, out of the 15, that rose to the top as potential RHCP land. The court voted to send letters to all 15 of the applicants to thank them and inform them of the current process being used to choose a final property or properties. The county also formalized an agreement with the Nature Conservancy to help select one or more of the proposals and to aid in negotiations with landowners. The court agreed to pay the Nature Conservancy $35,000 for the first property or easement acquired and $15,000 for each additional property or easement.
Commissioners created SSTF in January 2009 to find land suitable for a 350-acre shooting sports complex. The county would buy the land, and a nonprofit conservation organization, Texas Shooting Sports Complex (TSSC), would pay for construction, operation, and maintenance of the ranges.
TSSC’s proposal includes the county receiving all profits generated from the facility. Kolodzey said the only money available for the land is the approximately $8.4 million left over from parks and open space bond funds approved by voters in May 2007. On Feb. 17, 2009, the court voted, 4-1, to allocate, in the language of the motion, most of “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.”
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) said recently that he is in favor of using bond money left over from the habitat land/conservation easement purchases to buy land for a shooting sports complex.
No one who has appeared before the court and argued against co-locating shooting ranges with bird habitat has opposed the building of such a facility in Hays County. Opponents of co-location have said the facility would harm the birds, and said the county would lose credibility with USFWS, which must sign off on all RHCP proposals in order to benefit from the program.
Proponents of the shooting sports complex say it would bring in significant amounts of money from outside the county and provide residents with a much-need safe place to shoot, and would not harm the birds.
Conley wondered aloud why some of his constituents who submitted applications were told their proposals had not made the cut, when the commissioners court has the ultimate say on the matter and POSAB is only an advisory body.
In mid-December, after the county received the 15 proposals and closed the call for projects, Conley and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) were the only commissioners in favor of making all proposals public.
“I don’t have any issue with what the parks committee (POSAB) is doing,” Conley said. “I just believe it should be an open process. I don’t know how to respond when I have constituents, people who have called me and said, “Thanks — well, sorry it didn’t make it,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, the process has just started, what are you talking about?’ This is why this thing, if it was just open — completely open — everybody would understand, everybody would know, and we can move forward … I take (POSAB’s) advice very seriously, just as I’m going to take others’ advice seriously, and collect that all together, see what type of partnerships we can build, and then move forward from there. But the people who submitted projects need to know that the process is really just beginning … I’m very pleased and happy with the work that the parks board has done up to this point in time, and appreciate their service and time that they’ve spent.”
Barton said that because POSAB’s meetings are not public, the board forgoes the privilege of being more than an advisory body. Barton warned that it is illegal for appointed or elected bodies to make key fiscal and policy decisions without being subject to open meetings laws.
USFWS has not indicated it would reject a habitat land proposal that includes a shooting range, though USFWS’ Austin office has expressed skepticism about the idea. Derkacz recently said POSAB did not use “suitability for a shooting range” in its criteria when culling the 15 proposals.
“I thought that the court instructed (POSAB) to use the suitability for a shooting range as part of their criteria when they re-did the (call for projects) cover letter,” Kolodzey told the court. “Am I mistaken on this, or did I miss something? Did we have a (cover letter) committee formed for nothing?”
Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) told her colleagues that she thought shooting range compatibility was mentioned in the cover letter as a consideration, though not in the scoring criteria. Barton said shooting range compatibility is covered in the scoring criteria section under a heading entitled “Other Considerations.” Under Section V, Other Considerations, no scoring points can be allotted, though the heading also reads that “the Board will consider” four additional questions, one of which is, “Are other compatible uses possible on the property?”
Barton and Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) said they thought the court had agreed to share information with SSTF regarding the 15 proposals. Ingalsbe and Barton said the court should have made its intent clearer.
Some information regarding two of the 15 proposals has been made public. 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.
Since the disclosure, a TPL representative attended at least one court meeting to observe the process, and engaged Kolodzey in lively discussion afterwards. Ford made the disclosure to prevent a conflict of interest from occurring — before Nature Conservancy’s services were engaged, a colleague on the court wondered if TPL could be hired to help in land or easement negotiations, and Ford responded that TPL is one of the 15 applicants.
In December, Sumter disclosed that one of the 15 proposals involves about 1,400 acres of land adjacent to the San Marcos Baptist Academy. Sumter said she felt comfortable disclosing that information because people living near the land, who were somehow already in the know, had placed phone calls to her to lobby against the building of a shooting range there.Email | Print