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
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.”Email | Print