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November 19th, 2010
Hays County commits to purchase Nicholson Ranch for bird habitat

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The Hays County Commissioners Court unanimously voted Tuesday to move forward with the purchase of a 1,000-acre tract of the Nicholson Ranch to be used for habitat conservation, county officials announced this week.

The property, located in Precincts 3 and 4 in western Hays County, is appraised at $5.5 million but will be sold to the county for $5 million, with the funds coming from voter-approved 2007 park bonds, officials say.

Commissioners have been working to acquire its first U.S. Fish and Wildlife approved habitat conservation property for more than two years, and could close on the land as early as next week, officials say. The purchase is expected to bring some 800 acres of endangered golden-cheeked warbler habitat into the county’s Regional Habitat Conservation Plan.

The RHCP was developed to help protect endangered-species habitat and position Hays County to support responsible growth and development. Under the RHCP, the county can help streamline public projects and private development in areas where the federal Endangered Species Act applies by providing “credits” that offset “takings” of those sensitive lands. Through its RHCP, the county hopes to ultimately acquire between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of protected land, officials say.

The Nicholson Ranch tract was one of 15 properties submitted under the county’s call for properties issued in October 2009. The ranch contains the headwaters of Onion Creek and is considered to be a high-value habitat. It has been the Nicholson Family Ranch since 1950.

The county had requested that properties submitted have at least 250 acres of endangered-species habitat that would address the goals of the RHCP. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the county would receive at least 800 environmental credits for the acreage if it is managed for the protection of habitat.

The county will work with The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 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 golden-cheeked warbler.

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3 thoughts on “Hays County commits to purchase Nicholson Ranch for bird habitat

  1. 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…

    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. Life doesn’t stop just because there has been an election. Neither does government. We are fortunate to have a commissioners court that continues to function regardless of the political climate. Decisions still have to be made.

    We don’t get to just put “government on hold” for two months.

  3. I heard that the commissioners sold this tract, but I don’t recall any items in CC, or any media coverage. If indeed the tract was sold, I don’t know how this wasn’t an agenda item in CC. I understand that some types of real estate transactions may be discussed in executive session, but this type of transaction does not qualify. Sec. 551.072 re: Executive Session “it does not allow a governmental body to ‘cut a deal in private, devoid of public input or debate'”

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