Wimberley Valley Watershed Association Executive Director David Baker, left, and Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley), right, discuss the Jacob’s Well Natural Area at last week’s Hays County Commissioners Court meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
With Hays County’s remaining $8.4 million in parks and open space bond money likely to shrink by about 80 percent in the next month, supporters of various park proposals are scrambling to get in before the window closes.
Hays County commissioners voted 4-1 last week to acquire Jacob’s Well in Wimberley with parks and open space bond funds (parks bond funds) approved by voters in 2007. In the same motion, commissioners agreed to consider using parks bond funds for improvements to Harrison Ranch Park in Dripping Springs and three parks projects in Kyle. The same day, commissioners voted unanimously to acquire 1,000 acres of Nicholson Ranch with $5 million in parks bond funds in order to initiate a habitat conservation plan and sell mitigation credits to developers and other entities.
There may be about $1,843,164 left out of the original $30 million in parks bond funds from a 2007 election if the county pays for the Nicholson Ranch tract, Harrison Ranch Park improvements, the Jacob’s Well Natural Area project, the proposed improvements to existing parks in Kyle, and the development of a new county parks and open space master plan. Those costs don’t factor in other costs and revenues not included, such as bond issuance fees and interest earned on the current balance.
As funds dwindle, the fight for parks funding has drawn on differences of opinion as to whether the money is best spent on recreation or conservation, considerations of regional equality within the county and, inevitably, political posturing.
“Precincts 1, 2, and 3 have received commitments from (parks) bond funds of 25 percent, 45 percent and 24 percent, respectively,” said Republican Precinct 4 county commissioner candidate Ray Whisenant last month. “These three precincts will receive 95 percent of the currently-committed 2007 park and open space bond funds. Being a resident, business owner, voter and taxpayer in Hays County Precinct 4, I am respectfully posing these questions to the court: Why have Precinct 4 and the City of Dripping Springs received less than five percent of the committed bond funds? By what criteria would projects in Precinct 4, its municipalities and/or its local organizations, be eligible to receive unallocated funds from the bond proceeds?”
Two weeks later, Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs), who is running for re-election in November, took action to place an item on the court’s Aug. 17 meeting agenda regarding the allocation of $1.7 million for Harrison Ranch Park.
Dripping Springs elected officials requested $1.7 million in parks bond funds for recreational improvements to Harrison Ranch Park, which was previously allocated $775,000 in parks bond funds. The Jacob’s Well Natural Area purchase of 50.199 acres will cost the county $850,000 in parks bond funds. The Nicholson Ranch tract, yet to be purchased by the county, is valued at $5 million.
Kyle elected officials offered to release the $2.479 million in parks bond funds already dedicated to them in exchange for $1.2 million to improve existing parks. Kyle officials do not wish to proceed with Kyle Vista Park until they can secure more city funds for the project. The city’s drive to build a $20 million recreation center on the property has been delayed from going on a city ballot for well more than a year as the economy struggles and Kyle citizens have ousted much of the regime that pushed for that plan.
Of the parks bond money spent so far, totaling about $22 million, Precinct 2 (the Buda and Kyle area) has received $8,504,000, followed by Precinct 3 (Wimberley area and western portions of San Marcos) at $7,450,000. Precinct 1 (eastern San Marcos and eastern Kyle) has received $5,010,917, with Precinct 4 (Dripping Springs) receiving only $1,041,919.
Following is a list of projects so far approved:
• Five Mile Dam Park, sponsored by Hays County, $1,311,500.
• Harrison Park, sponsored by the City of Dripping Springs, $775,000.
• Christian Federation of Police Officers Park, sponsored by Village of San Marcos, Inc., $1,618,417.
• Jacob’s Well, sponsored by the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, $3,000,000.
• 50.199 purchase for Jacob’s Well Natural Area, $850,000.
• Sports Complex, sponsored by North Hays Optimist Foundation, Inc., $ 581,000.
• Blue Hole Regional Park, Village of Wimberley, $2,000,000.
• Stagecoach Park, City of Buda, $775,000.
• Northeast Regional Park, City of Kyle, $2,479,000.
• Combined Parks Projects, City of San Marcos, $3,100,000.
• Conservation Easement/Public Access, Dahlstrom Ranch, $5,250,000
• Founders Park Sports Fields, Dripping Springs Youth Sports Association, $266,919.
Including other costs related to debt issuance, due diligence, closing costs, among others, there is currently about $8,464,164, left in parks bond funds. The exact amount fluctuates frequently due to interest earned on the balance.
Supporters of a Wimberley-area project called “Swimberley” have appeared before commissioners in the last three weeks to request funding from the dwindling parks bond funds. Swimberley is proposed to include water slides, a lazy river, an activity pool for children, a splash pad for toddlers, and indoor swimming pools with a full length lap/fitness pool and a warm water teaching/rehab pool. An open space park with pavilions and playgrounds is proposed to surround the pools and slides.
At the moment, the proposed Jacob’s Well Natural Area is separated into two tracts of 46 acres and 50.199 acres. The Wimberley Valley Watershed Association (WVWA), which owns the 46-acre tract, agreed to deed 31 acres of the property to the county. WVWA will retain the remaining 15 acres in fee simple ownership as a headquarters and base of operations. The 31 acres to be transferred to the county includes Jacob’s Well, an artesian spring. Jacob’s Well water emanates from the Trinity Aquifer and feeds Cypress Creek, which flows downstream through Woodcreek, Wimberley, the Blue Hole swimming area, and into the Blanco River, thereby contributing to the recharge of the Edwards Aquifer and the San Marcos Springs. Jacob’s Well is also one of the longest underwater caves in Texas.
Commissioners agreed to acquire the 50.199-acre tract near Jacob’s Well from Westridge Joint Venture with $850,000 in parks bond funds and with $850,000 loaned from The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Commissioners agreed to pay TNC back over three years using whatever funds can be raised from public and private sources. WVWA Executive Director David Baker said two appraisals of the 50.199 acres came to $2.45 million and $1.4 million, respectively, compared to the $1.7 million purchase price.
The 46-acre tract including Jacob’s Well is now subject to a conservation easement. The county agreed to give TNC a conservation easement on the 50.199-acre tract. The easement would prevent the land from being developed and limit impervious cover to five percent of the net site area.
WVWA agreed to use $400,000 left from previously-awarded parks bond funds for maintenance and operation of the Jacob’s Well Natural Area. According to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between WVWA and the county, the two entities will jointly raise additional funds as needed for operation of the preserve.
“We are the only institution in the western part of the county who has the capability of possibly saving this natural resource,” Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) said. “There’s no other entity in the west that has the ability to. We need not just the people in the Wimberley Valley, or the people within the (Wimberley Valley Watershed) Association, or the Nature Conservancy. We need every citizen in Hays County to have a chip in the game. To protect the well and preserve it, all hands must be on deck. By the county creating this partnership, we will develop that vehicle to get us there.”
Conley likened the Jacob’s Well Natural Area proposal to Spring Lake Preserve, created via another collaborative effort in 2007 by the City of San Marcos, Hays County, Texas State and TNC. The preserve was created, in part, to prevent a hotel and conference center from being built on the site, which is adjacent to and above the San Marcos Springs.
Purchase of the 50.199 acres near Jacob’s Well would settle lawsuits Westridge Joint Venture brought against WVWA and the City of Woodcreek three years ago. Westridge developers sued WVWA to build a road across from Jacob’s Well for their proposed residential resort, and they sued Woodcreek to avoid being subject to the city’s ordinance regarding impervious cover limitations.
The principle members of Westridge Joint Venture are Austinites Robb Haug and Vince Wood. Haug and Wood also own Windemere Ranch in San Marcos, which they propose for a 235-acre mixed-use development. The proposed development has generated controversy due to its proximity to the San Marcos Springs and its location in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. The city planning and zoning commission has not yet approved a development agreement for Windemere, though commissioners are expected to discuss and possibly take action regarding the development at their Aug. 24 meeting.
Under the terms of a property acquisition agreement between TNC and Hays County, the county promises to preserve the Jacob’s Well Natural Area as a greenspace for use as a passive recreational-use, public-access preserve, which would include amenities such as “hiking trails, camping areas, restrooms, interpretive exhibits and displays, and roadways and vehicle parking areas needed to serve these uses,” in the language of the agreement.
Under the terms of the MOU between the county and WVWA, The Jacob’s Well Natural Area will be managed and operated by WVWA, which “shall allow public access during certain times of the day and week as determined in a Jacob’s Well Natural Area Management Plan crafted in conjunction with the Nature Conservancy and consistent with sound ecological and watershed management,” in the language of the MOU.
In 2005, WVWA acquired the 46-acre tract including Jacob’s Well with a $2 million private loan and a gift of one million dollars, Baker said. Commissioners in 2008 gave WVWA $3 million in parks bond funds to pay off the debt on the land and continue the restoration, management, and the building of capital improvements on the site. WVWA hosts educational events and seminars at Jacob’s Well, offers free public tours at the well on Saturdays starting at 10 a.m., and sponsors field trips for schools and community groups at the site.
At least five individuals who offered comment during the Aug. 10 commissioners court meeting opposed the county’s purchase of the Jacob’s Well Natural Area as proposed, including Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD) board members Mark Key and Jimmy Skipton. At least three individuals who offered comment during the same meeting expressed support for the county’s proposed purchase of Jacob’s Well, including Woodcreek resident Eric Eskelund and HTGCD board member and WVWA board President Jack Hollon. Eskelund, the mayor of Woodcreek, said he made his comments as a citizen and not as an elected official.
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) cast the lone vote on Aug. 10 against acquiring the Jacob’s Well Natural Area as proposed.
“It pains me not to vote ‘yes’ to this,” Sumter said. “As you know, I’ve been an ardent supporter of Jacob’s Well … Not only have I been personally involved, but I’ve been financially involved, and my reasoning (for voting ‘no’) is this: future maintenance costs for the county is a big concern for me, especially in this economy, although it looks like we’re getting over that, at least for the first couple of years. I truly believe in an even playing field. I think that this hasn’t gone through the process. I’ve heard Swimberley (supporters) loud and clear. I believe that we haven’t had a call for projects. I think it should be competitive. I think that’s really, really important to that process. And it got even further diluted today. I was really hoping we wouldn’t do that, but it sounds like we’re continuing that process, which the exception of maybe…Swimberley, our folks at the shooting range, and others who obviously have an interest in these funds, too. So, for me, the process hasn’t been fleshed-out.”
Sumter said she is concerned about regulating access to Jacob’s Well when some nearby residents have easements granting them access to the spring.
“And so I see a lot of headaches for the county in the future in terms of maintaining or because of those easement problems,” Sumter said. “I also don’t see a conservation easement in the (agenda) backup, so I really don’t know what that says. And I don’t know what the public access is, and that bothers me, too. I don’t have enough information in terms of those areas to know where we’re going. So that’s the reason I’m voting ‘no.’ I think Jacob’s Well is a wonderful project, always have. I just don’t think we’re there yet.”
Formed shortly after Hays County residents approved the $30 million in parks bonds, the Citizens Parks Advisory Team (CPAT), appointed by commissioners, used the 2002 Hays County Parks & Open Space Master Plan to develop criteria for scoring and recommending projects for parks bond funding.
In February 2009, CPAT threatened to disband because most of its members felt the court had not taken their recommendations seriously and had used too much of the bond funds for active recreation projects rather than for open space, wildlife habitat, and water quality/quantity/access preservation. In response, commissioners agreed to cap total funding for future recreational projects at $600,000 and 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 Feb. 17, 2009 motion. With the same motion, CPAT was reformed as the Parks and Open Board, now known as the Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB).
The county is in final negotiations to purchase the Nicholson Ranch tract as Golden-Cheeked Warbler habitat to initiate the aforementioned regional habitat conservation plan. The plan has yet to be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“As far as I’m concerned, the monies that were reserved for quote-unquote conservation — we have met those goals and agendas,” Conley said last week. “So, as far as Precinct 3 is concerned, we have x amount of dollars left in our 2007 parks bond. I don’t label them ‘recreational,’ or ‘conservation.’ I believe we have x amount of dollars.”
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) said it will be a few weeks before commissioners know if they will close on the Nicholson Ranch property and how many of the remaining funds will be used for habitat, open space, and water quality/quantity/access.
“For me, it’s not $8 million set aside for habitat,” Barton said. “It’s a commitment by this court to get (500) acres to start our habitat plan. We think we’ve done that. We haven’t closed on the land…I would like to put that money back on the table.”
POSAB is currently developing scoring criteria for active recreation projects, which include softball, baseball, football, and soccer fields, swimming pools, basketball and tennis courts, and similar items. In 2009, POSAB created scoring criteria to evaluate projects involving the preservation of habitat, open space, and water quality/quantity/access.
POSAB did not score the proposed improvements to the three parks in Kyle, or the proposal to spend $850,000 in bond funds for 50.199 acres near Jacob’s Well. However, Barton, Conley, and Kyle Mayor Lucy Johnson presented the Kyle/Jacob’s Well plan to POSAB to request a recommendation.
Johnson said funding her city’s matching portion of the Kyle Vista Park would require a “significant bond issuance,” something she said the city council is “very hesitant to do” with “the economy the way it is.” Johnson said Barton approached her earlier this year to propose that her city release its county parks bond funds dedicated to Kyle Vista Park. In return, the county would issue $1.2 million in parks bond funds for the city to improve existing parks, making the purchase of the 50.199 acres near Jacob’s Well more feasible.
“(POSAB) approved our plan unanimously and enthusiastically,” Johnson said. Johnson said POSAB supported the plan “far more enthusiastically” than CPAT approved the Kyle Vista Park proposal two years ago.
“I just want to state for the record that I do — as a member of the parks board, as a citizen — I do like the project at Jacob’s Well,” said POSAB Chair Jim Camp to commissioners last week. “As I mentioned earlier, I voted for it when it came before us (CPAT members) a few years back. And I do like the trail project that Kyle has, but as I stated, I just felt that it was a situation where we were just trying to help solve a problem when approached by some of the commissioners, and I thought that we tried to do that and do it the best we could. And that’s all I have to say.”
In a “friendly amendment” to Conley’s motion to acquire the 50.199 acres near Jacob’s Well, Ford asked that the amendment in the previous allocation of parks bond funds to Kyle placed on the court’s Aug. 17 agenda for discussion and possible action. Ford also asked that the proposal to reserve $1.7 million in bond funds for improvements to Harrison Ranch Park, pending a presentation to and recommendation from POSAB, be placed on the court’s Aug. 17 agenda for discussion and possible action. The two items are now on the court’s Aug. 17 agenda.Email | Print