The location of the Nicholson Ranch property in western Hays County. Hays County image.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County Commissioners unanimously decided Tuesday that part of the 3,300-acre Nicholson Ranch near the Blanco County line is their choice for habitat conservation property.
Commissioners voted unanimously to instruct the Nature Conservancy and county staff to move into final negotiations with Nicholson Ranch landowners. The county is seeking to buy about 1,000 acres, valued at $5 million, for endangered bird habitat.
The purchase would leave the county with $3.4 million left with the approximately $8.4 million left of the $30 million in parks and open space bonds approved by voters in 2007.
County officials will sign closing documents for the property if negotiations with the Nicholson Ranch owners succeed and if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determines that the 1,000-acre parcel contains at least 500 acres of Golden-Cheeked Warbler habitat. The biological assessment by Hays County’s environmental consultant indicates the ranch may have about 800 acres of Warbler.
The extent of public access to the Nicholson Ranch preserve would be determined by a land management plan, yet to be created, and the county’s regional habitat conservation plan (RHCP). The land management plan must approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The RHCP proposes some passive recreational uses for habitat land, such as bicycling and hiking. The public would probably be prohibited from accessing the land during Warbler nesting seasons, which occur from early to mid-March to the end of July.
The Nicholson Ranch tract may contain some karst features, which allow substances to more easily enter aquifers. The property includes a small section of Glen Rose limestone, is at the headwaters of Onion Creek, includes several branches of the creek, and may possess springs. The property is about eight miles from Dripping Springs, just south of Henly, and about four miles from the intersection of Highway 290 west and RR 165 between RR 165 and Pursley Road.
The county wants at least 500 acres of Warbler or Black-Capped Vireo or habitat to initiate its RHCP, which says the county may 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. The RHCP is under review by USFWS, which must approve the plan before it can be implemented.
The county must control at least 250 acres of Vireo or Warbler land in order to receive an incidental take permit, which would allow the county to sell mitigation credits to private and public entities wishing to engage in activities that might cause harm to the Warblers or Vireos. The county would use the money gained from mitigation credit sales to buy more habitat land and sell more credits.
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). The county formalized an agreement with the Nature Conservancy earlier this year to help select one or more RHCP land/conservation easement purchase 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.
The Nicholson Ranch tract is one of 15 properties submitted under the county’s call for RHCP properties issued in October 2009. The county requested properties with at least 250 acres of Vireo or Warber habitat. The county could acquire the Nicholson Ranch tract by the end of 2010 if negotiations for the land are successful. Should negotiations for the Nicholson Ranch tract fail, the county has identified two other submitted properties as high-quality choices.
Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford, left, Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, center, and Parks and Open Space Advisory Board member Jim Camp, right, talk at Tuesday’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.Email | Print