Left to right: Texas Shooting Sports Complex Vice Chair J.B Kolodzey, Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe, and Texas Shooting Sports Complex Chair Stephen Marlow at Tuesday’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County residents could have a new 20-acre park along the San Marcos River next to more than 350 acres of shooting ranges next year — if the money can be found.
A citizens group appointed by the Hays County Commissioners Court recommended using $5.5 million of the remaining $8.5 million in parks and open space bonds to purchase land for the project at Tuesday’s meeting. The project would involve a park/shooting complex on a 563-acre parcel in eastern San Marcos, between Staples Road and the San Marcos River. But the Hays County Shooting Sports Task Force (SSTF) recommendation contrasts starkly with the wishes of another county-appointed committee, the Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB).
“What the parks board has said over and over is, we’re not against a shooting range in Hays County,” said POSAB Chair Chris North. “We actually think it’s a good idea. But this bond money is not for that.”
At least three county commissioners disagree. Tuesday, they supported approaching the City of San Marcos to discuss a possible partnership to acquire the 563 acres, known as the “Hillert Tract,” owned by Rick Anderson and Robert Mayo of Austin-based Anderson Group.
San Marcos Mayor Susan Narvaiz said Tuesday that she had not yet spoken with county officials about the proposed park/shooting sports complex.
“We always try to partner and leverage taxpayer dollars, so if there’s an opportunity to do that, we would definitely want to look at it,” Narvaiz said.
On Feb. 17, 2009, the commissioners court voted, 4-1, to allocate $600,000 of the remaining parks and open space bond funds to “recreation” projects, and to use $50,000 for the development of a new Parks and Open Space Master Plan. In the same motion, the court voted to allocate “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,” in the language of the motion.
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) said the remaining bond funds are probably not enough to both kick-off the Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP) and purchase land for the park/shooting sports complex. Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley), who cast the dissenting vote on Feb. 17, 2009, disagrees.
“The priority of the court has been to meet the requirements of the RHCP, and that remains the priority,” Conley said. “But I believe that we can still accomplish both.”
Conley has unequivocally supported the use of bond funds for a shooting sports complex ever since the commissioners court created SSTF to find land for the project. On Jan. 20, 2009 — the day commissioners created SSTF — Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) opposed using the parks and open space bonds for the shooting sports complex.
“I really appreciate your tenacity and the work y’all continue to do, and I’m very impressed with what you brought back to us today,” said Ford to SSTF members on Tuesday. “I think the court still has some decisions to make about our priority of spending, and to look at partnerships for this. I think this is right for a partnership with the city.”
Among the other members of the court who reacted favorably to SSTF’s proposal are Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), who represents the area of the proposed park/shooting ranges, and Hays County Precinct 2 Jeff Barton (D-Kyle).
The parks and open space bond Proposition 2, which voters approved by a two-to-one margin in May 2007, 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.
Differences of opinion over the use of bond funds was at the root of a conflict that gave birth to POSAB last year. Commissioners formed POSAB a month after SSTF out of the ruins of the Citizens Parks Advisory Team (CPAT), whose members had threatened to disband the group in protest over what they said was an over-use of bond funds on recreation projects.
Regarding the proposed park/shooting sports complex on the Hillert Tract, said SSTF Land Search Committee Chairman Mark Bennett: “It obviously meets the Proposition 2 bond on several check marks here. Space for parks, has open spaces, has natural areas, and allows opportunities for preservation of water quality and wildlife habitat.”
Mayo and Anderson submitted the Hillert Tract to the county as an RHCP project, though the land does not have the required endangered bird habitat.
“We had some (proposals) come in where they didn’t have good habitat,” said Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff. “They submitted anyway. They just took a chance.”
Commissioners tasked POSAB with recommending parcels for purchase or lease as bird habitat land pursuant to the county’s RHCP. The RHCP is currently under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). POSAB recommended five properties and commissioners are in closed negotiations with landowners. Months ago, SSTF members proposed co-locating RHCP land with a shooting sports complex, though the effort has been largely abandoned after a lukewarm response from USFWS.
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 USFWS approves the RHCP and the first property, the county will be able to obtain an incidental take permit and sell mitigation credits to private and public entities wishing to engage in activities that might cause harm to the birds. The county would use the money gained from mitigation credit sales to buy more habitat land and sell more credits.
A nonprofit conservation organization,Texas Shooting Sports Complex (TxSSC), proposes to pay for construction, operation, and maintenance of the shooting sports complex with grants and donations.
Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPW) Education Director Steve Hall told Hays County commissioners Tuesday that his agency may be able to channel $1.5 million in federal grant money to help build the shooting sports complex on the Hillert Tract. Hall said the money could be used for roads, ranges, parking lots, and buildings (such as classrooms, storage areas and restrooms). The funds could not be used for the land purchase or for items such as administrative offices or concessions. Hall said a shooting sports complex on the Hillert Tract could be more splendid than any other in Texas and be a “marquee range” such as exist in Utah, Arizona and Illinois. Hall said staff from his agency would likely want to operate out of the shooting sports complex.
“The need for more shooting ranges, especially close to urban areas, is one of those tricky needs,” Hall said. “It’s one that’s of high need, but on the other hand, to find suitable facilities to build a range — especially to have neighbors that want a range in their backyard — have always been things that we’ve wrestled with. This proposal is of high interest to the department. It not only represents something that our headquarters in law enforcement, game wardens — those kinds of capacities — can take advantage of, but, certainly, it would become kind of like the statewide hunter education training center for our department, as well. And we would try to entertain any partnership aspects for this range, to make it kind of the high-visibility, statewide shooting sports complex. And that’s our interest in this.”
Hall suggested that county commissioners secure needed partnerships for purchase of the land so he can better champion the county’s proposal before his commission in August. Hall said his commission would probably support the project, though the current economic climate may result in less funding than in better times.
Bennett said the more than 100-foot elevation changes between the proposed shooting ranges and the park would help serve as a natural sound and safety barrier.
“It’s perfect from many standpoints,” Bennett said. “It’s two miles long and half a mile wide. One end of that tract is the San Marcos River. That’s 2,000 feet of San Marcos River frontage.”
(Editor’s note: The above has been clarified to say the shooting range proposal calls for Hays County to spend $5.5 million to purchase land for the complex, rather than to build it.)Email | Print