Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley, left, speaks at this week’s commissioners court meeting. Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford is on the right. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife (TPW) is surveying a 563-acre parcel in eastern San Marcos Thursday to determine whether the property may be suitable for 350 acres of firearm shooting ranges and a large public park along the San Marcos River.
TPW’s assessment, which consists of a survey of the land’s flora, fauna, and cultural/historical features, may be complete within a month. The assessment is required before the agency would agree to fund construction of the shooting ranges with available federal funds.
After TPW’s assessment, the Hays County Commissioners Court may vote on whether to buy the property with some of the remaining $8.5 million from a $30 million parks/open space bond approved by voters in May 2007. Rick Anderson and Robert Mayo of Austin-based Anderson Group are asking for $5.5 million in exchange for the property.
At their May 18 meeting, commissioners discussed the idea of asking the City of San Marcos for help with the project.
“At this time we weren’t asking for any financial assistance from the city,” said Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos). “We were just hoping that they would support the project, and I think that they are willing to do that. I would imagine later on — if this even happens — we would look to them with some kind of partnership for the maintenance of the 200 acre park, which would contain 2,000 feet of river frontage.”
San Marcos Assistant City Manager Laurie Moyer said the city may be willing to partner with the county on the park project. San Marcos city councilmembers have not discussed the matter in open session.
“(The county has not) really laid out any kind of proposal yet to the city,” Moyer said. “They’ve just identified that it’s attractive land that’s inside the city limits, and they were wondering about whether their activities would be permitted.”
Texas Shooting Sports Complex (TxSSC), a nonprofit conservation organization, would pay for construction, operation, and maintenance of the gun ranges with grants and donations, if Hays County buys the land for the shooting sports complex and park. The county would own the shooting sports complex, including all associated equipment and buildings, and collect any revenue generated from usage fees.
The idea of using the 563-acre Hillert Tract for the gun ranges and park was first proposed by the Hays County Shooting Sports Task Force (SSTF) at the May 18 commissioners court meeting. The court created SSTF in January 2009 to find land for a shooting sports complex.
The Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB) opposes using any parks/open space bond funds for the proposed shooting sports complex/park project, while SSTF favors using some of those funds for the land purchase. The POSAB voted unanimously Monday to request a presentation by SSTF.
“We’re going to ask for a presentation from the shooting sports complex folks,” said POSAB Chair Chris North. “And the purpose of that, we feel, is to have press and the public and people from the Hills of Hays neighborhood — who will be backing up to this proposed shooting range — and shine some light on it.”
The commissioners court created POSAB in February 2009 to examine and recommend properties suitable for purchase as Golden-Cheeked Warbler and the Black-Capped Vireo habitat pursuant to the county’s Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP).
TxSSC Vice President and SSTF member J.B Kolodzey said that buying the Hillert Tract for the proposed gun range/park project falls within the intent of the parks/open space bond proposition language.
The parks/open space bond, 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.
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. Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley), one of the strongest advocates for using bond funds for the shooting range land, cast the dissenting vote.
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.
Conley and Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) have expressed the strongest support for prioritizing the parks/open space bond funds for acreage sufficient to initiate the RHCP, and then using the remaining funds for buying the shooting sports complex land. Conley and Barton expressed confidence that the county can fund both shooting sports complex land and RHCP acreage.
“We want the commissioners court to respect their own resolution that they passed and use the remaining bond monies on habitat conservation and open space preservation, whether that’s 600 acres or 2,000 acres,” North said. “We want them to do what they said they were going to do.”
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) said the remaining bond money is probably not enough to fund both the shooting range land and the RHCP acreage. Sumter said Tuesday that the county has not entered into negotiations with the Anderson Group for the Hillert Tract.
“I think all the money we have right now is spoken for habitat, so I don’t see any funds available (for the gun ranges/park),” Sumter said. “So, I really don’t know. It hasn’t been explained to me where those funds would come from.”
On May 18, TPW Education Director Steve Hall told county commissioners that his agency may be able to channel $1.5 million in federal money during three years to help build the shooting sports complex.
“Our goal is for there to be safe places to shoot and for there to be places to teach hunter education, so we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that the money from the feds that are available for target range construction flow to Hays County just like we would any target range,” Hall said Wednesday. “And the timing in this case is going to be different because the land has not been secured yet. But, again, I accept (grant) applications year round. I typically only consider them in August, but there’s been two cases where we’ve considered range grants in January and in April.”
Kolodzey said a major shooting sports event during a weekend can bring in 1,000 out-of-county visitors.
“All we want is a contract to lease the land with no cost to the county other than — they’re buying open space anyway,” Kolodzey said. “We’re giving money back to the county, we’re not taking anything from the taxpayer, period. We’re bringing money to help keep our taxes down. The more economic development we can bring here — which is out-of-town money — the more sales tax revenue the city gets, the county gets, hopefully our local taxes will stay down or won’t rise as fast.”
The RHCP is under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which must approve the plan before it can be implemented. Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff said there is no telling when USFWS may approve the RHCP. According to the 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 USFWS approves the RHCP and the first piece of habitat land or conservation easement proposed for purchase by the county, 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.