The Windemere Ranch in San Marcos. Photos by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
A 235-acre area less than a mile upstream from Spring Lake on Edwards Aquifer recharge land has become the focal point in a brewing eminent domain dispute and an effort to secure county funds to prevent the land from being used as a site for future homes and businesses.
Most of the tract known as Windemere Ranch was used by the Storts family for horse boarding and riding in the 1980s and milk production in the 1950s. The property now is owned by Austin residents Rob Haug and Vince Wood.
Though the City of San Marcos recently annexed the final portion of their property, Haug and Wood face hurdles, such as opposition from some nearby residents — as evidenced at a city council meeting on June 2, 2009 — and the difficulty of obtaining adequate road access for their proposed development.
City officials are attempting to acquire land for a sewer line and roadway that would serve the Windemere Ranch development. The proposed street passes through property owned by Paul Geiger, who has so far refused to offer the land or an easement for sale. Geiger said he expects the city to use eminent domain to build the wastewater line and road without his consent. Asked what he would do in that event, said Geiger, “I’d fight it.”
City officials said construction of the wastewater line is part of the Sink Creek interceptor project planned since 1995 to service the expansion of Texas State University and accommodate future city growth. The wastewater line also is intended to alleviate existing sewage overflows on LBJ Drive that sometimes occur after heavy rains.
Sources said Haug and Wood gave the San Marcos River Foundation (SMRF) permission to pursue county funds for purchase of their land or of a conservation easement over the property. Haug said he and his partner have been approached by a group interested in preserving the land.
“We don’t plan on that being something that plays into our decision at this point,” Haug said. “We’re moving forward with our development.”
Haug said he is about to submit a planned development district application (PDD) with the city. PDDs are intended to allow the city and developers to collaborate more closely throughout the development process to insure a higher-quality product.
During a closed Hays County Commissioners Court executive session meeting on Feb. 16, the Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB) recommended six top candidates for bond money out of 15 proposals for habitat conservation land submitted near the end of 2009. The Windemere tract is among the six, though commissioners can ultimately fund whatever parks and open space projects they wish with the approximately $8.4 million remaining from bonds approved by voters in May 2007.
Should court members opt to purchase the Windemere tract from Haug and Wood, the land would be preserved as endangered bird habitat pursuant to the county’s Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP). Because the Windemere tract alone is 15 acres too small to qualify for the RHCP program, the county also is considering the acquisition of surrounding properties, or conservation easements thereon.
“It’s not just the Windemere tract as part of that proposal,” Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) said. “It’s considerably larger. It’s a number of parcels. Windemere might be one of those parcels. So, out of the 15 (RHCP proposals), we’ve narrowed it down to a handful that we have asked our biologist and the Nature Conservancy to pursue more vigorously. Everything still is on the table, everything is still being considered, but we have got a clear handful of front-runners that seem to make the most sense, and we are talking with those folks about potential price and trying to explore details about the habitat and the water and the recharge features that might be available on those places.”
Under the RHCP, the county would purchase land or conservation easements for between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo habitat during the next 30 years, with federal grants possibly paying some of the cost. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) approves the RHCP and one or more kickoff projects, 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. The public would probably be prohibited from entering RHCP land during the birds’ nesting seasons, which occur from early to mid-March to the end of July. At other times of the year, the county would probably allow passive recreational activities on RHCP land, such as hiking and bicycling.
Hays County commissioners recently opted to release the identities of the 15 applicants that submitted RHCP proposals, though they decided to keep additional information confidential. SMRF Executive Director Dianne Wassenich declined to offer specific details regarding her organization’s proposal.
“I can tell you in general that the River Foundation is extremely interested in protecting land that is immediately upstream of Spring Lake, because Sink Creek … pours straight into the lake,” Wassenich said. “So, anything that goes on up Lime Kiln Road, to the left — and actually to the right, too — but particularly the Hill Country that is to the left … Sink Creek also stretches all the way out and crosses Ranch Road 12. So, that is a very large watershed of steep hills that funnels into our Spring Lake. So, if we disturb the vegetation, bulldoze the land, put down a bunch of big roads or a lot of small roads and build a lot of houses and disturb the land, then all of that sediment and pollution is going to fill up Spring Lake, and we think that’s a bad idea.”
The Trust for Public Land (TPL) submitted an RHCP proposal entitled “San Marcos River Watershed.” As with the other proposals, no details regarding the project have been released, and Wassenich said she does not know where the property is.
Water from the Edwards Aquifer issues from approximately 200 springs at the bottom of the lake to feed the San Marcos River, which is a recreational hot-spot for out-of-towners and residents. The Edwards Aquifer provides water to about 1.7 million people in Texas.
“The high porosity and permeability of the Edwards Aquifer allow inflow of contaminants from the ground surface with little or no filtration,” states the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s (EAA’s) Hydrologic Data Report for 2008.
According to the EAA report, potential threats to aquifer water quality include the transport and use of hazardous substances and other chemicals in the recharge zone, abandoned or poorly-completed water wells, and urban non-point source pollution runoff.
Spring Lake and the San Marcos River sustain eight plant and animal species protected by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Texas Legislature created the EAA in 1993 in response to a federal court ruling issued the same year — the Sierra Club had sued the Secretary of the Interior and USFWS for injunctive relief, citing failure to enforce the ESA.
“Our preference is that the land does not go into high-density development, to preserve the pristine nature of the springs and the headwaters there,” Geiger said. “Because if the developers’ plans go through, they’ll have over 200 residential properties and commercial properties, with a lot of runoff that would go directly into the headwaters of the San Marcos River.”
The concept plan that appeared before city council in June 2009 specifies a greater density for the area than currently allowed by the city’s future land use map. At the city council meeting on Dec. 16, Capital Improvements Department Senior Engineer Jennifer Shell told councilmembers that the proposed wastewater line can only handle as much city growth as specified in the future land use map.
“So, if a developer wanted an increase in density in the area around Sink Creek that’s not already approved, it would have to be approved by Planning and Zoning Commission, and then the line would have to be re-evaluated to determine if it could handle the new flow,” Shell said.
The size of the Windemere Ranch development, as of the last proposal, requires at least two access points or one 108-foot divided boulevard. The city is seeking 60 feet of right-of-way for the road and wastewater line. The city’s land development code requires that any development of 75 or more lots must have two access points, so the developers will have to consider options such as crafting their new concept plan to specify fewer structures, attempting to acquire more land for a wider road, or waiting until Craddock Street is extended to the area in the distant future.
Biologist and Science Director for the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance Tom Hayes said at the June 2, 2009, city council meeting that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) rules “are not adequate to protect the second-largest fresh water spring in the State of Texas.”
TCEQ geologist Heather Beatty said the aquifer and surface water features are sufficiently protected when her agency’s rules are followed.
TCEQ requires any developer in the aquifer recharge zone to submit a satisfactory geological assessment report and a water pollution abatement plan (WPAP). The water pollution abatement plan is designed to allow owners to mitigate non-point source pollution and protect sensitive aquifer-related geologic features.
“But it’s up to the owner to implement the plan,” Beatty said. “Now, our agency will evaluate compliance with the plan, but the owner has to implement the plan. So, just getting our approval here at the state agency is not going to protect the aquifer. The owner has to implement the plan. That’s important … just having some papers filed at the state office is not going to do it. We will be there to evaluate compliance with the plan during construction and after construction … we do inspections for years. The (WPAP) is good forever. Once they build the place, it’s good forever, so we’ll be there for years doing inspections, not just once.”
Haug and Wood submitted a geological assessment in 2008, but will not submit a WPAP until the development’s construction plans are complete. TCEQ rules — in addition to city ordinance — require that no more than 20 percent of a development can be “impervious cover” in order to protect water quality in the Edwards Aquifer. The Windemere Ranch concept plan that appeared before city council as late as June 2009 specifies 20 percent impervious cover and 79.24 acres of water quality detention ponds and open space.
Beatty said TCEQ conducts “periodic compliance investigations” of facilities covered by WPAPs, though she did not say precisely how often TCEQ conducts inspections.
“It just depends,” Beatty said. “There are a lot of factors that go into our investigation targeting.”
Beatty said her agency gives facility owners a week’s notice of the inspections, though complaints filed with TCEQ can result in surprise inspections.
According to a previous concept design of the development, 12.3 acres of Windemere Ranch would be used for four commercial/mixed use lots, 100.04 acres for 210 single family residential lots (SF-11), 4.97 acres for 42 patio home residential lots and 6.73 acres for townhouse residential units. Haug said he and Wood are putting together the final concept plan. Haug said Windemere Ranch will mostly consist of a residential subdivision with some mixed uses near Lime Kiln Road.
“It’s a really unique piece of property and has a lot of potential, and we hope to get it developed to something San Marcos can be proud of,” Haug said.
Weeks ago, the commissioners court declined — over the objections of Barton and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) — to release specific details about the 15 RHCP proposals, even in the face of an open records request submitted by Texas Shooting Sports Complex (TSSC) member J.B. Kolodzey, whose organization wants to find out if any of the 15 properties would be suitable for both habitat land and a 350-acre shooting sports complex.
Kolodzey also is vice chair of a citizen task force appointed by the commissioners court to find land for a shooting sports complex. TSSC, a nonprofit conservation organization, offered to build and maintain the shooting ranges, and to deposit all profits from range fees into the county’s coffers. Hays County would maintain ownership of the land and all the buildings and equipment necessary to operate the shooting ranges.
The county released the following information concerning the 15 RHCP proposals (project names precede the applicants, who are placed in parentheses):
Barton Creek Watershed (Trust for Public Land), Craddock Park (Friends of Craddock Park), Devil’s Backbone Habitat Preserve (Sam Houston Area Council – BSA), Headwaters at Barton Creek (Land Advisors Organization), Hillert Tract (Rick Anderson/Bob Mayo), Jacob’s Well Natural Area Expansion (Wimberley Valley Watershed Association), Lazy Oaks (Lazy Oaks Ranch, LP), Millican Ranch (Joe Bob Millican), Nance Pasture (Mary Lee Nance), Nicholson Ranch Partners, Ltd. (Adkins and Associates, Inc.), Purgatory Creek (Trust for Public Land), Rodgers Ranch (Land Advisors Organization), San Marcos River Watershed (Trust for Public Land), Shannon/Hudson/Roberson (Bob Shannon), Sink Creek Habitat & Water Protection Zone For San Marcos Springs (San Marcos River Foundation).
County officials said the 15 properties “range up to nearly 3,300 acres.”
Barton and Conley objected to keeping the information secret, though the two commissioners did not advocate publicizing the actual price negotiation phase, which has yet to occur.
Porous rock unearthed at the entrance to Windemere Ranch is typical of aquifer recharge zone geology.Email | Print