Left to right: Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board members Jim Camp, Gary Amaon, Melinda Mallea, Todd Derkacz, Kathy Boydston, Hays County Grants Administrator Jeff Hauff, City of Dripping Springs Adminstrator Michelle Fischer, and Hays County Parks Administrator Jerry Pinnix. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County now is accepting proposals for use of the remaining $3.5 million in parks and open space bond money approved by voters in 2007.
At least five projects are expected to be submitted: two in San Marcos, one in Buda, another in Dripping Springs, and one in Wimberley.
Applicants for the remaining funds have until Oct. 1 to make the case for their projects to the county’s Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB). POSAB, appointed by the commissioners court to give advice regarding the use of parks bond funds, will use scoring criteria developed in the last few weeks to rank the proposals.
“Habitat land is not going to score well under this criteria,” said POSAB member Gary Amaon at the group’s Sept. 1 meeting.
Commissioners last year had reserved most of the parks bond funds — then about $8.5 million — for at least 500 acres of endangered bird habitat and put a $600,000 cap on funding for recreational projects.
After they more or less secured the habitat acreage last month by voting to spend $5 million for 1,000 acres of the Nicholson Ranch in western Hays County, commissioners tasked POSAB with developing scoring criteria to evaluate proposals for bond funds involving mainly recreation activities. Last week, commissioners removed the cap on recreation-oriented projects and widened the scope of the call for projects to include uses besides recreation. The commissioners court allocated fewer parks bond funds for endangered bird habitat than it anticipated.
Amaon said the county should buy more habitat land. A longstanding dispute between some POSAB members and the commissioners court is whether too much bond funding has been used for recreation projects.
Chris North, who recently resigned as POSAB’s chair, said the commissioners spent too much bond funding for recreation projects and said they used POSAB “for political cover.”
Last year, commissioners formed POSAB 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 overuse of bond funds on recreation projects. Commissioners formed POSAB after putting the $600,000 cap on bond funding for recreational projects.
“The commissioners court has historically not taken our recommendations to heart,” North said “And the most egregious example to date is the Village of San Marcos, which had nothing to do with parks and open space. It was infrastructure for a social services complex. And we voted that down. And now we’ve got this shooting range thing. Why are we still talking about it?”
A nonprofit conservation organization, Texas Shooting Sports Complex (TxSSC), is seeking county parks bond funds for land to build shooting ranges, a riverfront park, and an hunter educational facility on the 563-acre Hillert Tract, which lies between Staples Road and the San Marcos River.
TxSSC also is investigating the possibility of locating the shooting sports complex at an alternative location at the site of the old City of San Marcos landfill near the San Marcos Municipal Airport.
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) said projects to which commissioners awarded bond funds constitute “a fine list of parks all across the county.”
Said Barton, “As it’s developed, it’s pretty well-balanced geographically in the county. It’s really well-balanced between open space and rec projects. I think we did all … have different ideals about how to get there. We might all do it slightly differently today, but the end product is one we can all take a lot of pride in.”
A project expected to be proposed for county bond funding by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) would result in the preservation of 289 acres of Golden-Cheeked Warbler habitat, open space, and aquifer recharge land adjacent to the 463-acre Purgatory Park (Wonder World) Greenspace in San Marcos.
POSAB evaluated the 289-acre parcel for parks bond funding late last year during a call for land that would satisfy the provisions of the county’s regional habitat conservation plan (RHCP).
“While this parcel met those criteria, it was smaller in scale and thus was not ultimately included in the final group of parcels considered by the county,” said TPL Senior Program Director Scott Parker. “Still, it’s a very worthwhile property, and protecting it would help the county and the city meet their goals of protecting open space. We are looking to help, and that includes trying to find the money needed to do this project. We’re looking at a wide variety of potential pots of money — federal, local, and private donors. As you know, there is a lot of interest in this project, but at the moment, we don’t have anything we can announce about funding. We all know the challenges of finding money in this economic climate, whether the funding sources are public or private. But despite those challenges, we are hopeful we can achieve our goal, which is to protect this land for the people who live in San Marcos.”
Carma Development, LP, has offered to pledge up to $300,000 to help the City of San Marcos acquire the 289-acre tract. The pledge would help the company meet the city’s parkland dedication requirements for the 1,340-acre, 3,450-unit Paso Robles development that Carma proposes for construction near the intersection of Hunter Road and Centerpoint Road.
Parker said an award of county parks bonds and the Carma money would serve to partially fund the acquisition of the 289-acre tract. Parker said the TPL is not involved in negotiations with Carma and the City of San Marcos. Parker declined to say how much the landowners are asking for the tract. According to the Hays Central Appraisal District (HCAD), the 289.53-acre tract is owned by Clovis Barker and Medical X-Ray Consultants, PA. HCAD values the land at $902,520. In 2009, TPL estimated the value of the property at $5.78 million, based on the owner’s estimate, with the fair market value to be determined by a qualified appraiser.
At least two of the nine POSAB members present at the Sept. 1 meeting expressed support for using the rest of the bond funds to continue acquiring Warbler or Vireo habitat pursuant to the RHCP. Commissioners decided enough of the parks bond funds have been used for that purpose, having authorized $5 million for about 1,000 acres of Nicholson Ranch. According to the county, 800 acres of Nicholson Ranch may contain Warbler habitat.
An approved RHCP would allow the county to receive an incidental take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which would allow the county to sell mitigation credits to private and public entities wishing to engage in activities that might cause harm to Warblers or Vireos. The RHCP, which has yet to be approved by USFWS, calls for the county to purchase land or conservation easements for between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of Warbler or Vireo habitat in the next 30 years, with federal grants possibly paying some of the cost.
Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), in whose precinct lies the Hillert Tract proposed for a shooting sports complex, has not yet taken a stance regarding the proposed facility. Ingalsbe is soliciting input from residents near the proposed facility.
Rick Anderson and Robert Mayo of Austin-based Anderson Group own the Hillert Tract and said they would accept $5.5 million for it.
On Aug. 18, TxSSC held a public meeting about the shooting sports complex proposed for the Hillert Tract. TxSSC held a similar meeting on Aug. 11.
“I want to commend everybody for their presentation, and I think everybody that has spoken tonight has made a fine presentation and a very compelling one for everything that has been proposed,” said Roy Hotz, Jr. at the Aug. 18 public meeting.
Hotz expressed opposition to the riverfront park TxSSC also proposes for the Hillert Tract. TxSSC said the property offers 2,000 feet of river frontage where the park would be. Hotz said he lives closest to the Hillert Tract and is concerned about the affect of more recreational users of the river in that area. Hotz said litter and excessive alcohol use on the river is already a problem where he lives.
Anderson and Mayo said they have worked in the past four years to bring all the entitlements to the tract that would allow them to make it a high-density home development with a park. Anderson said he and Mayo are intrigued with TxSSC’s proposal because they would like to preserve the land and still profit.
“If the park isn’t put there, there’s going to be like a 1,500-home development that’s going to have a park down there on the river,” said Hillert Tract owner Bob Mayo in reply to Hotz. “So those 1,500 (homes), times four people, are going to be like, however many — say, 9,000 people that would be also floating the river.”
District 45 State Representative candidate Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) attended the Aug. 18 TxSSC public meeting and said the project would have positive economic and cultural outcomes for the county.
“I think it’s an investment in the community, to help this group get the shooting complex here in Hays County,” Isaac said. “It’s going to attract people to come into events, competitions that would happen here, and you’re going to wind up putting people in hotels and RV parks and visiting restaurants and the other businesses, and really drawing people into the San Marcos area and boosting our tax dollars. So it makes good business from what I’ve seen so far, and I’ve been on the email list for a couple years. I’ve always been interested in this. The planning process has been over two years.”
District 45 State Representative Patrick Rose (D-San Marcos), who is running for re-election against Isaac, was not at the Aug. 18 meeting. Rose later said that he supports a shootings sports complex and hunter education-training center in Hays County.
“It is up to local leaders to decide where to locate such a project,” Rose said. “In the meantime, I have communicated with Steve Hall at Texas Parks and Wildlife, and he knows that I stand ready to testify before the (Texas Parks and Wildlife) Commission to request a $1.5 million grant to match the county’s investment.”
Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife (TPW) Education Director Steve Hall, who was at the TxSSC public meeting on Aug. 18, said he wants the facility proposed by TxSSC to include a statewide hunter education training center modelled after similar projects in Utah, Arizona, and Illinois. Hall said he will ask the TPW Commission to give $1.5 million over three years to help build a shooting sports complex in Hays County. Hall said such as facility would confer great economic benefits to the county.
“Central Texas is void of any really good outdoor ranges,” Hall said. “The reason this would be called ‘Texas Shooting Sports Complex,’ is it would be the first big range in Central Texas.”
Hall said people would probably come from as far as Dallas to shoot at the facility proposed by TxSSC.
Ingalsbe suggested TxSSC explore the possibility of acquiring land adjacent to the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center near the City of San Marcos Municipal Airport. The proposed property is the old city landfill that was closed in the mid 1980s.
“That would be an interesting project out in that area,” said TxSSC President Stephen Marlow recently. “We would have to do another site plan.”
Marlow said his group has not determined whether the old landfill would be adequate to contain the shooting sports complex, which may require 350 acres.
TxSSC wants the county to buy only the land for the shooting sports complex. TxSSC proposes to use grants and donations to pay for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the shooting sports complex. TxSSC proposes that the county own all equipment, buildings, and other improvements on the land, and collect all revenue generated from range usage fees. The shooting sports complex is proposed to accommodate activities associated with archery, air rifle and pistol, bench rest shooting, shotgun, skeet, trap, 5 stand, sporting clays, handgun, rifle, small bore, and muzzleloaders.
Marlow said his group may apply for county bond funds in this new call for projects, whereas before his group expected its project to be considered via a process that did not involved evaluation by POSAB. In a July 7 letter to the commissioners court, POSAB said the use of parks bond funds to purchase the Hillert Tract at $5.5 million “is not in line with the original intent of the parks and open spaces bond approved by county voters … However, the use of $600,000 on reserve for recreational projects may be appropriate.”
Marlow said relations between the county’s Shooting Sports Task Force (SSTF) and POSAB have improved. Commissioners formed SSTF in 2009 to find land for a shooting sports complex. Commissioners appointed active members of TxSSC members to SSTF.
The approximately $3.5 million commissioners said is leftover in parks bond funds includes the $1.7 million they set aside for the City of Dripping Springs’ Harrison Ranch Park project on Aug. 17. The $1.7 million was reserved before the scoring criteria was developed and a call for projects issued.
Commissioners last week decided to free up the $1.7 million. Harrison Ranch Park received $775,000 in December 2007, and its proponents say Dripping Springs has received a disproportionately small portion of bond funds. Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) said Nicholson Ranch is not really a Precinct 4 project, but an RHCP project geared towards benefiting the whole county through the mitigation credit bank system.
Ford, who proposed the reservation of funds for Harrison Ranch Park (HRP), changed course last week and assured her colleagues and the assembled residents that HRP would “go in competitively through the process just like everyone else does.” Proponents of Swimberley, a natatorium proposed for construction in Wimberley, had reacted in outrage at the reservation of funds for HRP and had asked commissioners to put all potential parks bond-funded projects on an equal footing.
POSAB may complete its evaluation of applications for parks bond funding by Oct. 12, the target date set by commissioners.