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 Adminsitrator Michelle Fischer, and Hays County Parks Administrator Jerry Pinnix. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
After hours of debate and public comment, Hays County commissioners voted 3-2 last week to spend just more than half of the remaining parks and open space bond money on the Harrison Ranch Park project in Dripping Springs, leaving approximately $1.559 million in un-expended funds.
Commissioners will likely decide how to allocate the remaining bond funds to as many as five other projects before the new commissioners take office in January. The next scheduled commissioners court meeting where action on the matter may occur is Dec. 7.
A proposal to expand the 463-acre Purgatory Creek Natural Area in San Marcos by about 601 acres is among the five projects most likely to receive at least some funding from what remains of the $30 million bond passed in May 2007.
It took two votes of the court before Harrison Ranch Park received funding. Preceding a vote to fund only Harrison Ranch Park, three of five commissioners defeated a measure to immediately fund both the park and the Purgatory Creek Natural Area expansion.
During the interim between the two votes, tensions ran high, as the meeting was well-attended by Harrison Ranch Park supporters, who spoke of a need for the court to fund the park immediately or risk endangering matching grants and encountering higher construction costs.
County officials said plans for the 68-acre Harrison Ranch Park include a wildlife viewing/study area along Little Barton Creek, primitive tent campsites, trails, disk golf, playground, picnic areas and venues that can be rented for weddings and group events.
Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) cast the lone votes in favor of immediately funding both Harrison Ranch Park and the Purgatory Creek Natural Area expansion. Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley), who represents the area including the Purgatory Creek Natural Area, said he voted against immediately funding that project because he wants to explore whether the City of San Marcos and Carma Texas are willing to contribute funds to it.
The Purgatory Creek Natural Area expansion involves the purchase of two tracts of land. Pursuant to a development agreement with the City of San Marcos, Carma Texas agreed in October to contribute $300,000 towards the purchase of a 289-acre tract. Carma’s pledge would help the company meet the city’s parkland dedication requirements for the 1,340-acre, 3,450-unit Paso Robles development proposed near the intersection of Hunter Road and Centerpoint Road.
Out of 12 projects ranked about a week ago by the Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board (POSAB), only the top four can be fully funded with the remaining bond funds. Harrison Ranch Park was ranked number one on POSAB’s list. Number two was the Purgatory Creek Natural Area expansion.
“I would like us to have a dialogue on how we move forward and massaging maybe some of the numbers to get the most out of our dollars for as many people as we can on the remaining balance of the list … on the assumption that would be (projects) two through six,” Conley said last Tuesday to his colleagues on the court.
At least Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) expressed agreement with Conley and no court member indicated disagreement.
POSAB awarded the following scores to the 12 projects and ranked them in the following manner:
1. Harrison Ranch Park, sponsored by the City of Dripping Springs, which requested for $1.7 million for the $3,789,930 project. The project scored 84.6 points.
2. Purgatory Creek Natural Area Expansion, sponsored by Trust for Public Land, which asks for $950,000. The total estimated cost of the project is $8.95 million. The project scored 80.2 points.
3. Bradfield Park Trail and Trailhead connecting Stagecoach Park, City Park, and downtown Buda, sponsored by City of Buda, which requests $334,200 for the $668,400 project. The project scored 73.7 points.
4. Skate Park, sponsored by City of Buda, which asks for $150,000 for the $300,000 project. The project scored 71.7 points.
5. Bear Creek Greenbelt Trail Extension and Neighborhood Park, sponsored by Hays County Water Control and Improvement District No. 2, which requests $280,000 for the $560,000 project east of Dripping Springs. The project scored 68.9 points.
6. Hays Youth Sports Complex Improvements, sponsored by Hays County Youth Athletic Association, which asks for $1,478,823 for the $1,605,173 project. The project scored 68.3 points.
7. Craddock Park of San Marcos, sponsored by Friends of Craddock Park, which requests $2,281,900 for the 135.89-acre project. The estimated total project cost is the same as the sponsor’s request. The project scored 67.7 points.
8. Whispering Hollow Off-Leash Park, sponsored by City of Buda, which asks for $25,000 for the $50,000 park. The project scored 65.3 points.
9. Storm Ranch-Conservation Easement Purchase (352 acres), sponsored by Hill Country Conservancy, which requests $400,000 for the $2.85 million project near Dripping Springs. The project scored 63.8 points. 63.8 points.
10. Baseball/Softball 2010-2011 Field Improvements for Hope Hanks Park, sponsored by the Dripping Springs Youth Sports Association, which asks for $129,268 for the $258,536 project near Dripping Springs. The project scored 61.2 points.
11. Wimberley Aquatics Recreation Park, sponsored by Swimberley, Inc., which requests $2 million for the $9,596,443 project in Wimberley. The project scored 61.1 points.
12. Texas Shooting Sports Complex, sponsored by the Hays County Shooting Sports Task Force, which asks for the balance of the remaining funds to be used for the land purchase only. The task force said funding for the ranges themselves is all but secured and the landowners are asking for $5.5 million. The project scored 50.1 points.
Barton and Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) were the two court members who voted against immediately funding any projects. Ingalsbe and Barton favored examining the matter further before allocating any bond funds.
“I really had hoped that we would gather this information and not necessarily put it off until January first, but at least take a little time to just be accurate and have some discussion … ,” Ingalsbe said. “I truly support the recommendation of the parks board (POSAB). I know that they weren’t necessarily looking at funding, but the way it was presented to us … that’s what it looked like. I’m not saying that I’m not willing to fund the first two (projects) to 100 percent. I’m just saying there are other projects that we should take some time to talk about, a week or two weeks.”
As last week’s commissioners court meeting progressed and the court received more information, the number of available bond funds quoted by commissioners evolved from about $3.4 million, to $3,359,746, to $3.259 million.
“I think that technical correction is kind of emblematic of where we are,” Barton said after Sumter announced the latest total. “We’re just scrambling. We’ve got information that’s still flowing to us as we try and make decisions.”
Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner-elect Ray Whisenant (R-Dripping Springs) and Hays County Judge-elect Bert Cobb (R-San Marcos), who were in attendance at last week’s meeting, said the court should have immediately allocated all the remaining bond funds to fully fund the projects POSAB ranked highest.
“I think I understand why they did what they did,” Whisenant said. “In my personal opinion, they should have taken the recommendations more to heart that they were given by the advisory board they appointed (POSAB). I think it took some of the objectivity away from the scoring system that they asked them to create … I think they compromised their own process.”
Cobb said commissioners seemed to have disregarded what he called the “personal time and effort” POSAB members spent scoring and ranking the 12 applications for parks bond funding.
POSAB members scored the projects according to criteria they developed and commissioners unanimously approved. POSAB incorporated suggestions from court members when creating the scoring criteria.
Commissioners also voted unanimously for a resolution in support of the Purgatory Creek Natural Area expansion in order to increase the chances that the project will receive a federal grant. The resolution does not state the county will fund some or all of the project. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approves Hays County’s Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP), the Purgatory Creek Natural Area expansion project will be eligible to receive an HCP Land Acquisition Grant of up to $6 million.
The county’s grant administration office said the RHCP may be approved in three to six months. The Trust for Public Land (TPL), which sponsors the Purgatory Creek Natural Area expansion project, said it can submit a grant application to the federal government before the county’s RHCP is approved.
Conley said the court’s effort to determine appropriate parks bond funding seemed “uncoordinated” because most commissioners had assumed they would not be making the decision on parks bond funding until early to mid-December. Barton said his initial preference was to let the new court vote on the matter “to experience the joys of public service,” as he jokingly put it.
The issue of parks and open space funding has been one of the most heated and political for the court this year, as constituencies all over the county have pressured commissioners to favor projects in their precincts.
Public comment on the parks bond matter and other controversial issues during last Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting resulted in the event lasting from 9 a.m. to 8:53 p.m. with about an hour break — the court’s longest and most well-attended meeting of 2010.
Unlike most cities and counties in the region, the Hays County Commissioners Court typically does not place time limits on comments from members of the public. In contrast, the City of San Marcos and San Marcos CISD, for example, limit public comments to three minutes for each speaker.