by KAY RICHTER and BRAD ROLLINS
The Hays County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 to appropriate $1.7 million in voter-approved parks bond money to the Harrison Ranch Park in Dripping Springs as the pool of available funds grows steadily smaller.
Supporters of the project, along with those advocating or opposing 11 others under consideration, packed the courtroom beyond capacity in a reflection of what is the most controversial of issues: the distribution of resources. After the Harrison Ranch Park allocation, $1.55 million of the $30 million bond package is unspoken for; pending requests total more than $10.7 million, including two applications from the city of Buda for the Bradfield Park Trail ($334,200) and a skate park ($150,000).
The Harrison Ranch project was ranked at the top of 12 projects submitted for consideration. The Parks and Open Space Advisory Board was charged by the court to review applications for the funding and rank them according to established criteria. Pct. 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton and Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe voted against immediately funding the project, or any other, in favor of allowing the new court, which takes office Jan. 1, to “experience the joys of public service,” as Barton wryly put it.
Earlier in the meeting, Barton and Ingalsbe were joined by Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley in voting against allocating both the Harrison Park request and $950,000 toward buying a 289-acre tract to expand the 463-acre Purgatory Creek Natural Area in San Marcos, a project sponsored by the Trust for Public Land. Conley said he wanted to first solicit contributions from the city of San Marcos and from Carma Texas, the development company planning a 1,340-acre high-end golf subdivision called Paso Robles. Carma has already agreed to contribute $300,000 to the expansion.
Indeed, the court decided to wait on awarding funds to any other projects until the parks and open space board and the court had more time to gather information and possibly scale down the size and scope of some of the top contenders. The Purgatory Creek expansion, which was ranked number 2 by the committee, followed by the two Buda requests, ranked third and fourth, respectively.
The 68-acre Harrison Ranch Park was acquired from the Harrison family by the city of Dripping Springs to serve multiple uses. Among the plans are 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.
Other park projects under consideration, in order of their ranking by the parks board, include Purgatory Creek Tracts (Trust for Public Land), Bradfield Park Trail (City of Buda), Skate Park (City of Buda), Bear Creek Greenbelt Park (Hays County Water Conservation and Improvement District #2), Hays Youth Sports Complex Improvements (Hays County Youth Athletic Association), Craddock Park of San Marcos (Friends of Craddock Park), Whispering Hollow Off-Leash Park (City of Buda), Storm Ranch Conservation Easement (Hill Country Conservancy), Baseball-Softball Field Improvements (Dripping Springs Youth Sports Association), Wimberley Aquatics Recreation Park (Swimberley, Inc.), and Texas Shooting Sports Complex (Hays County Shooting Sports Task Force).
Also on Tuesday, the the court finalized the purchase of 50 acres adjacent to the 30-acre Jacob’s Well Natural Area in the Woodcreek area. For the purchase, the county will spend $850,000 from the 2007 voter-approved Park Bond fund – money that was returned to the fund when, working with the county, the city of Kyle chose to expedite some higher-priority but lower-cost park projects. To meet the $1.7 million asking price for the Jacob’s Well land, the county has also arranged to borrow $850,000 from The Nature Conservancy. The county intends to seek partnerships and donations to help retire that loan.
As part of the overall project, the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association (WVWA) will dedicate approximately 31 acres of land that includes Jacob’s Well to Hays County and retain approximately 15 acres for the WVWA’s current operations. The court also voted to enter into a three-year agreement with the WVWA to manage the property, which will be put into a conservation easement held by the The Nature Conservancy. The county and the watershed association will co-develop the operations and management plan for the entire area to determine how to improve access for the public and for research while maintaining the pristine natural environment.
The watershed association currently manages the existing natural area and provides free guided tours each Saturday at 10 a.m., except for holidays.