San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

November 18th, 2010
Commissioners approve Nicholson Ranch purchase for bird habitat

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Left to right: Nature Conservancy Blanco River Project Director Rachael Ranft, Nature Conservancy Director of Land Protection Jeff Francell, and Hays County District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy at this week’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Hays County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to buy 1,000 acres of Nicholson Ranch for $5 million.

Opponents of the Nicholson Ranch purchase made a last-ditch effort Tuesday to persuade the court to at least postpone action on the matter until after the new commissioners — all Republicans — are sworn in. The political composition of the court will change in January from four Democrats and one Republican to four Republicans and one Democrat.

All the incoming court members and some of their supporters attended Tuesday’s meeting to witness and possibly influence the court’s vote on the Nicholson Ranch tract purchase. Of the incoming court members, only Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner-elect Ray Whisenant (R-Dripping Springs) offered a statement during the meeting’s citizen comment period.

Nicholson Ranch is a 3,300-acre tract located in commissioner Precincts 3 and 4 near the Blanco County line.

Commissioners approved the Nicholson Ranch tract purchase pursuant to the county’s regional habitat conservation plan (RHCP), though the RHCP has yet to be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The RHCP may be approved soon after Jan. 1, said Hays County District Attorney Civil Division Chief Mark Kennedy.

Commissioners authorized the execution of real estate closing documents for 1,000 acres of the ranch after about three months of land negotiations with Nicholson Partners LTD. The land deal may be concluded next week. Nicholson Ranch was appraised at $5,500 per acre, said Kennedy. The property is to be purchased with leftover money from the $30 million in parks and open space bond sales approved by voters in 2007.

Some opposed to the Nicholson Ranch tract purchase include proponents of projects competing for dwindling parks bonds, of which about $3.4 million remain, not counting the approximately $5 million allocated for the Nicholson Ranch tract in August.

All five of the residents who spoke during the public comment period at Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting favored at least holding off on the land purchase, and none offered unequivocal support for the deal. Those who spoke were San Marcos resident Sam Brannon, Henly resident Jimmy Skipton, San Marcos resident Leneé Lovejoy, Dripping Springs resident W.F. “Dubb” Smith, and Whisenant.

Whisenant said the purchase price for the Nicholson Ranch tract seems too high. Whisenant said he wants to be in a position to have all the facts, to investigate alternative RHCP properties under consideration, and to be involved in the final decision. Pending closing on the property, much information regarding negotiations for the Nicholson Ranch tract is not available to the general public, and is accessible only to certain public officials and others, as provided by law. Whisenant said the decision to purchase the Nicholson Ranch tract seems rushed.

“Every deal reaches a place, a momentum, where we either need to fish or cut bait,” said Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle). “And reluctantly, honestly, I’m convinced that we’re at that point here. It’s not a decision I’ve come to easily, but I do think that’s where we are. We are going to get a piece of property that follows the intent of the voters when they passed the bond overwhelmingly. We’re going to get a piece of property that follows the intent of the habitat plan (RHCP) that was initiated by the Republican court, paid for by a Democratic court, and will be, I guess, finally administered by another Republican court. And we’re going to close on a piece of property that is likely to make a profit for Hays County when we sell these mitigation credits. I know it’s a complex prospect for most people. It’s not easily understood, but we’re likely to make a profit on it.”

Proponents of the RHCP say it will protect endangered-species habitat and position the county to support responsible growth and development. The RHCP’s supporters say it will streamline public projects and private development in areas where the federal Endangered Species Act applies by providing credits that offset harm to species covered by the county’s RHCP.

The RHCP calls for the county to eventually acquire or create conservation easements for between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of protected land for the Golden-Cheeked Warbler or Black-Capped Vireo. If USFWS approves the RHCP, the federal government will issue an incidental take permit to the county.

The term of the incidental take permit associated with the RHCP would be 30 years with the option of being renewed. The permit would enable the county to sell mitigation credits to private and public entities wishing to engage in activities that might cause harm, or “take,” to either of the two aforementioned endangered bird species. The permit also would grant the county “incidental take authorization” to engage in activities expected to cause harm to the species.

The county would use the money gained from mitigation credit sales to buy more Warbler or Vireo habitat land and sell more credits. The price of each mitigation credit would be determined by the county according to a general policy set forth in the RHCP.

In the interim, county officials will work with the Nature Conservancy and USFWS to determine the level of public access to the new property, which could vary depending on the time of year and the nesting season of the endangered bird species covered by the RHCP. Recreational activities allowed on the property could include hiking, bicycling and other low-impact pastimes unlikely to disturb the species.

Three commissioners court members expressed support for blanketing the county’s portion of Nicholson Ranch with a conservation easement and selling it on the private market. The conservation easement would prohibit development of the habitat, and selling the property would put it back on the tax rolls. Barton, Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) and Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), expressed support for that option. Of those three, only Conley and Ingalsbe will still be on the court once the new members take office.

Whisenant said he supports the RHCP and the sale of mitigation credits. Some of the other citizens who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting have voiced opposition to the RHCP.

“Mr. Conley seems to be in solid support of it,” Whisenant said. “I feel like that’s at least some point of confidence.”

Conley, the sole Republican on the court, attempted to assure purchase opponents that the Nicholson Ranch purchase and RHCP will benefit county residents. Conley said most county residents believe “in the importance of protecting our natural assets in this county and the importance of conservation.”

Conley said the RHCP and the Nicholson Ranch purchase will provide more predictability to the real estate market and streamline the land development process. Conley added that the RHCP will allow a traditionally two-year infrastructure development process involving endangered species to occur in as little as 60 days. Conley warned that not proceeding with the RHCP may result in a loss of economic activity to nearby RHCP-bearing counties.

“I have no doubt that my new colleagues coming on the court, once they are on the other side of this deliberation, will understand that this is the best way forward,” Conley said. “You may not agree that it’s the best way forward for the country, but you will make the determination that it’s the best way to move forward for us here in Hays County at this point in time. I wish we could delay this deal today to where we have that opportunity (for new court members to deliberate), but we’ll have that opportunity in future projects and future discussions. We’ve invested, at this point in time, close to $100,000 in two years to get to the point where we are today. They call it in defensive driving, ‘The point of no return.’ We’ve kind of hit that point with this deal.”

Conley said he would have preferred a different RHCP property, but said he respects the process. Conley said the court has deliberated for two years to get to Tuesday’s decision. Conley said the court received “assurances” from USFWS, from the region’s congressmen and U.S Senator John Cornyn that the county could move confidently forward with the land purchase even though the RHCP has not yet been approved by USFWS.

Ingalsbe said she did not receive as clear an answer as she would have preferred from USFWS and from congressional representatives as to whether it is safe to purchase the Nicholson Ranch tract without an approved RHCP. Ingalsbe said that despite her concerns, she is comfortable with purchasing the Nicholson Ranch tract.

“We have been working on this for a very long time, the conservation plan, trying to select a project to move forward with the habitat conservation plan and on mitigation and our credits,” Ingalsbe said. “I understand the desire of this court to move forward and to kind of finish off a phase of a project that we’ve been working on for a long time, and I also respect the desire for the new court members to want to come in and have some say and some discussion on this. And it’s a struggle for me.”

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. Nicholson Ranch would constitute the first property.

“Slowly, painstakingly, I think we’ve been driven to this property,” Barton said. “In fact, there are some of us that really thought one or two of the other properties had some real advantages. And yet, these properties and these owners came back with terms that made it more attractive. Our biologist and our scientists in the field came back and uniformly told us that this (Nicholson Ranch tract) was the property that we should be pursuing. And our partners over at the Nature Conservancy who were willing to step forward and negotiate for us came back and told us that this was the property.”

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11 thoughts on “Commissioners approve Nicholson Ranch purchase for bird habitat

  1. I don’t like this deal at all, and it needs to be stopped. My letter to the Commissioners Court is below.

    We’ll still be trying to stop this on Tuesday morning, 9am at the Commissioners Court. Join us…

    From: sam_brannon@hotmail.com
    To: lizsumter@co.hays.tx.us; debbiei@co.hays.tx.us; jeff.barton@co.hays.tx.us; will.conley@co.hays.tx.us; karen.ford@co.hays.tx.us
    CC: bert.cobb@gmail.com; markjonescampaign@gmail.com; raywhisenant@gmail.com
    Subject: Please Stop the Parks Bond Spending
    Date: Fri, 19 Nov 2010 06:39:25 +0000

    Judge Sumter and Commissioners Ingalsbe, Barton, Conley and Ford:

    I am asking you again to stop the process on all Parks Bond spending ( including Nicholson Ranch ) until the next court convenes in January.

    1) Economic conditions have changed drastically since 2007 when this bond package was passed. As was mentioned in court Tuesday, it’s unimaginable this bond would pass today. The people can’t afford it, and everyone I know who’s watching the County budget closely (including members of this court) has admitted that the next court will face some tremendous challenges to avoid a rather significant tax hike. This situation hasn’t been honestly discussed with the community, and it should have been.

    We hear testimony almost every Tuesday morning about hard economic times and rapid growth in poverty and child hunger. Hays County residents continue sacrifice while our various governments take a greater percentage of our earnings, and we just can’t afford to spend money on conservation land and recreation projects. This is borrowed money, and we’ll have to pay it back through higher taxes next year and for years to come. Please don’t lay anymore financial burden on the People of Hays County.

    2) As the Hays County RoundUp story states (http://hayscountyroundup.blogspot.com/2010/11/10-million-swimberley-proposal-under.html), there are a lot of questions on how the project money was allocated to this point. I recall standing room only in the court one day, and a full courthouse another time or two where taxpayers shared their frustrations and suspicions. The project scoring system wasn’t even finalized until over $20 million had been spent.

    Given the magnitude of the unanswered questions on the Swimberley project, the Nicholson Ranch project and others, the entire process needs to be halted now, and left for the next court to decide rather than push $8 Million through a lame duck session during holiday season. We need you to act responsibly. Now.

    3) There are serious objections to the $5,000,000 Nicholson Ranch purchase to be set aside as conservation area. The price is inflated, and its unlikely it will be developed within a generation even if we don’t buy it – its sloped and has no water (in an area with little water available) or access. It just can’t be developed, even if we do nothing. It completely unnecessary, other than to help developers build in other environmentally sensitive areas through a “cap-and-trade” type scheme. Well… We don’t have that kind of money for that kind of thing.

    Even more confusing is that as late as this past Tuesday, the court was still discussing whether the land will be kept as conservation area (which is mostly off limits to people), placed under a conservation lien and resold, or for some other use. According to the contract I reviewed, the current owner of the land will retain mineral rights, and the contract even allowed for oil drilling sites. There’s nothing about this project – or the $5 million – that makes sense.

    By now, the County has likely assumed the contract from Nature Conservancy. If not, stop the deal now and let it die. If so, forgo the $100,000 earnest money and walk away.

    It seems the only land deals getting done these days are done with public money, and that’s telling. Putting taxpayers on the hook for another $8 million in debt via some very suspect projects does not serve the interest of the People of Hays County in any way. Its irresponsible to continue to spend this money as it will require greater sacrifice from the people you’ve sworn to serve.

    I ask you all to stop this now, and leave them for the next court.

    Commissioner Ingalsbe and Commissioner Conley… The People of Hays County expect your help. Judge Sumter, that would be an elegant legacy to leave.

    Best –
    Sam Brannon

  2. It should be noted that the reported $753,750 spent on the regional habitat conservation plan was really over $1 million, and it was paid primarily to Loomis Partners and to the law firm that introduced the idea to then County Judge Jim Powers. Both benefactors are special interests that contributed to the election campaigns of Conley and Barton. Moreover, Conley was instrumental in getting the RHCP funding because he knew it streamlines the development permit process for developers. The cost of purchasing mitigation acreage will be less than the cost to developers who previously had to obtain federal letters of approval for “taking” of endangered species habitat in their development tracts. We need to keep a close eye on how the court prices mitigation costs.

    Sadly, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would have helped the County with its RHCP for free or for minimal cost—but then the special interests would have been denied a million dollars at the taxpayer expense. This is just another example of why our taxes continue to rise.

  3. Winchester… These are examples of “faux-conservationism”, using public money to do land deals under the pretext of conservation, but which serve no real conservation purpose. Another example appears to be Jacob’s Well, which is on the agenda for Tuesday, the 23rd, 9am. We’ll have more information on that at the meeting, if not before.

    Our first reaction is to applaud anything claiming to be “green” or “environmental”, but we have to look more closely at the mechanisms working behind the scenes. If we waste money on faux-conservation projects, that won’t do anything to make the world more livable for any species, endangered or otherwise.

    Join us Tuesday, and take part in the discussion…

  4. Jacob’s Well is a doomed sprig because of existing development water usage. The well can’t be saved short of a 50% conservation of existing water usage and no more development using groundwater. It’s fate of becoming a wet weather intermittent spring is sealed. This is bad public money after bad public money.

    That said, the political shenanigans by Will Conley, his behind closed door dealing, and total disregard of the POSAB review process created by Conley and the other court members clearly demonstrate his self-serving motivation and attitude that he knows best and that anything goes to keep him in office so he can service his special interests. (Think of the developer entourage)

    This deal stinks and creates a serious and wasteful financial liability into the future. To violate the public process is insult on injury. I’ll work hard to hold the public officials responsible for this one more public screwing accountable.

  5. There is nothing faux about Mr. Skipton’s attitudes toward development; he’s never met on he didn’t like, unless he thought it was too small or not dense enough.

  6. It should be noted that the RHCP does NOT comply with the language of the bond proposal, no matter what Mr. Barton said prior to the vote to spend five million bucks on the Nicholson ranch deal.
    The bond proposition was for preservation of open spaces and wildlife habitat. The RHCP scheme encourages the development (thus destruction) of thousands and thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, all on the preposterous claim that preserving a total of 1,000 acres was teh goal of the bond election.

    I thought the County could only spend the money on things set forth in the language of the proposition we voted on. I want open spaces and wildlife habitat preserved. This Nicholson deal is just a way for hundreds of large tracts to be subdivided, by paying juice to the incorporated county government to buy a few “endangered species acre credits” to facilitate develpment and destruction of wildlife habitat. This just makes money for developers, by allowing destruction of thousands of acres, using our five million dollars of tax monies to “preserve” 1,000 acres.

    What a rip off. Too bad we didn’t hold a recall election prior to this misappropriation of bond monies.

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