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

July 26th, 2009
Commissioners talk dev regs in Wimberley

Hays County commissioners spoke last week with western Hays County residents about development regulations in Wimberley. Left to right are; Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos). Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) is out of the frame. Photo by Sean Batura.

News Reporter

About 200 people crowded Wimberley City Hall last Tuesday evening to witness impassioned public comment and Hays County Commissioners Court deliberation on proposed development regulations.

After more than five hours of discussion and debate among commissioners, residents and consultants, the court adjourned just before midnight without taking any action on the rules, which have been three years in the making. The court may engage in further discussion on Aug. 4 and vote on the final draft of the rules on Aug. 11.

Detractors and opponents of the proposed regulations agree that new development rules would greatly affect quality of life for all county residents for years to come. The central issue revolves around water.

The proposed regulations include a larger minimum lot sizes than currently required in the state-designated Priority Groundwater Management Area (PGMA). Supporters of a larger lot size in western Hays County, where the PGMA is located, say fewer wells will slow the depletion of the Trinity and Edwards Aquifers.

San Marcos River Foundation Executive Director Dianne said during the citizen comment period that too many wells pumping water from the Trinity Aquifer may further imperil the San Marcos Springs, which, as of late in the week, flowed 101 cubic feet per second slower than the historical monthly average.

“It’s not just people with their wells that we have to think about,” Wassenich said. “It’s every stream, every waterway, that all the wildlife in this county depend on at times like this, that often are no longer flowing because we have so many wells. It’s also all of those streams flowing into the Blanco and then falling into the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and recharging the San Marcos Springs. The San Marcos Springs is critically low right now. They are transplanting endangered species because they’re sitting high and dry in the river. We are very afraid that if we lose the river one time, and all the endangered species are killed … There won’t be any regulations, there won’t be an Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA), and we will lose that river forever. The San Marcos River will become a dry ditch that only runs during flood periods if San Antonio (without an EAA) is allowed to pump as much as it wants.”

The current regulations specify minimum lot sizes of two acres for well owners with advanced waste water systems and three acres for owners with conventional systems in the PGMA. The proposed development regulations would require minimum lot sizes of 6.5 acres, which some at the Wimberley meeting said would entail lower property values and economic decline for the county.

“I have 137 acres in Henly,” said western county resident Jimmy Skipton. “I bought it … to basically insulate myself from my neighbors … I also bought it knowing one day I could develop it. Don’t really want to develop it in acre and a half lots, which, right now, I can in Henly. That’s not my intention. My intention would be to keep it forever. But forever is a long time. And one day my children may want to sell a piece. I may be broke and need to sell a piece. Which could be quick … but right now, if I wanted to split it off into a four piece on a corner, I could do that. If you change this, it’s going to have to be six and a half acres. There’s no reason for it.”

Dripping Springs Area Chamber of Commerce (DSACC) Executive Director Kim Johnson and DSACC Chairperson Charlene Farmer spoke against the proposed development regulations.

“We do believe the lot size change is too significant,” said Johnson. “Due to slow economy, we request any lot size change be minimal. A geological and an economic impact study must be done to support such a huge change. This change would cause severe decline in usable land and land value. Plus, it can cause a decline in revenues … It will require a tax base, so it will increase your taxes.”

Northern Hays County resident and real estate broker Alston Boyd said present economic costs must be weighed against long-term sustainability.

“I see the Wimberley seal up here over your head, with a spring flowing,” Boyd said. “And we’d all like to keep it that way all around the county. But as we’ve heard tonight from many knowledgeable people, we are pulling more water out of the ground than is being replaced. What that leads to over time … is that there are going to be a lot of homes with wells that are dry. And let’s talk about value — what are those homes going to be worth down the line with dry wells? Think about the effect on individuals who have those homes with no water. Think about the effects on the tax base. That’s tomorrow, and we need to be thinking about tomorrow.”

Farmer and Johnson, among others at the meeting, said some provisions of the proposed regulations conflict with state and federal law.

“It’s my understanding also, after talking to some attorneys, that…the legislature currently has not given (the county) the power to authorize the regulation of the lot size in relation to density and such as that,” Farmer said. “We know, as in the past when we’ve passed things that are are ill — not lawful, we’ll put it like that — we’ve been sued, and we’ve lost. When you get sued, it’s our tax money — it doesn’t come out of our salary, it comes out of our tax money. And, more than likely, there will be some lawsuits.”

Johnson said a one proposed provision is even unconstitutional. That provision would require some PGMA subdivisions served by individual wells to dedicate a public easement of at least 50 feet by 50 feet for groundwater monitoring wells.
Naismith Engineering consultant Grant Jackson assured commissioners court members that legal experts had examined every draft of the proposed development regulations to insure consilience with state and federal law, though some commissioners expressed unease over the public easement requirement.

“I don’t have an issue with it, to be honest, if we’re paying for (the easement),” said Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos). “I do think some people may feel uncomfortable 1) by not having proper compensation (paid to the owner), and, 2) by having public access. If it is a public easement, not only could (Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District officials) go down there and monitor, which is the intent, but I could walk down there any time I care to. And so could anybody else in the county, in somebody else’s neighborhood, right in their backyard.”

Jackson told commissioners court members the rules could be revised to restrict public access to the monitoring well.

“Certainly, we could revise that to include it as part of the parkland requirements, to make it a separate dedicated easement that did not convey public title and public access to the property,” Jackson said. “There’s a wide variety of different approaches.”

The proposed regulations include the requirement, to which DSACC also objected, that subdivisions establish parkland or open space, pay a fee to the county in lieu of establishing parkland/open space, or undertake some combination of both, at the rate of one acre per 50 acres.

Naismith Engineering had formulated the 6.5-acre minimum lot size requirement against the recommendations of Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD), which recommended nine acres. HTGCD Board Member Andrew Backus (District 3) said Wednesday that the calculation yielding the 6.5 acre figure allocates 75 percent of recharge for human production, in contrast with a Texas Water Development Board report by Robert Bluntzer recommending that 10 percent be reserved for pumping. At the commissioners court meeting on Jan. 27, Backus told the court that Bluntzer recommended a minimum lot size of 25 acres for the Hill Country.

Of the 27 people who spoke during the citizen comment period, which lasted at least two hours, 19 supported the proposed development regulations. Among the regulations’ supporters, some of whom carried signs reading, “6.5 keeps our springs alive,” were Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD) board members, Wimberley Valley Watershed Association members and western Hays County residents who lamented their dry or sedimented wells.

The eight people who spoke against the proposed rules during the citizen comment period included hydrologist and Take Back Texas co-founder Phil Savoy, who said there might be enough water in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to supply all of Hays County.

Speakers on both sides of the issue drew applause from the audience after concluding their remarks. Most speakers had strong opinions about the proposed minimum lot size requirement, though, by the time commissioners court members began discussing that issue, it was after 11 p.m. and the audience had dwindled from about 200 to twenty people.

At around 11:30 p.m., Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) asked her colleagues whether they would support a six-acre minimum lot size.

“I’ll just throw that gauntlet down on the table,” Ford said. “Can we make some agreement?”

Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-WImberley) said she wanted the nine-acre figure but knew it wasn’t realistic. Sumter said she was “comfortable” with 6.5 acres, which she said was an “excellent compromise.” After Ford’s challenge, Sumter turned to Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) and praised him for his past efforts to protect the Edwards Aquifer before she challenged him, in turn, by accepting Ford’s offer of six acres.

Before answering, Barton asked the other commissioners to “jump in.” Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) said she would find it hard to support a figure much higher than five acres.

“For me, affordability was a very big issue and still is hard to overcome, because I know that a very large majority of our population falls into a category that cannot afford these large tracts,” Ingalsbe said. “So I’m still having to overcome that issue in my mind. I feel comfortable with five … It’s just where I can inch up to. I think we just need a little more discussion. But that’s where I’m at. Affordability is a very big issue for me, but I really believe that the decisions we make will eventually affect the rest of the county, and that is a bigger concern to me, and I want to do what’s right.”

Conley said he is comfortable with five acres.

Barton said he might support a minimum lot size of between 5.5 and six acres, but would have to consider the matter further.

“When my family came to this county, there was no county — it was Mexico,” said Barton. “Somebody said if you build it, they will come; if you drain it, they will leave. It’s kind of an appealing thought … I’m not really willing to destroy the village in order to save it.”

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0 thoughts on “Commissioners talk dev regs in Wimberley

  1. despite what many people are saying the science is really not there to firmly support a 6.5 acre minimum lot size. 5 acres is much better for a number of reasons. Several of commissioner Fords experts are not licensed geoscientist and should quit pretending that they are.

  2. We can’t keep building in floodplains and on the recharge zone like we have in the past. We have a huge water problem (in Central Texas, the State, our country, the world) and we need to start valuing and considering water issues properly. Plus, we really do need to work from a regional coordination perspective (which is what we have to-date been unsuccessful in getting some of our municipality/governmental neighbors to consider). Speaking of potential property value movements, guess where they’ll go if water really becomes scarce, unavailable, and/or exorbitantly expensive.

  3. Give me a break Andy. How is 5 acres better than 6.5 “for a number of reasons”? YOU think its better because it equals more lots which equals more business for you. You are using the same argument that creationists use, “the science is really not there to firmly support a 6.5 acre minimum lot size”? Just as historical evolution can’t be proven (unless you had a time machine), neither can ideal minimum lot size, if using a Popperian approach to science. This debate is not a question of who has the best scientific support for lot size – its obvious that our aquifers are best served by larger lots and less wells. The differences arise when we don’t agree on how this affects our quality of life. You may not mind if this area turns into the Chihuahua Desert, but I do. And where did you get your geology degree from?

  4. Planning based on minimum lot size alone just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s one of the biggest contributors to sprawl. I would much rather see an approach that allowed more density, albeit reasonable density, if open space were required as part of the deal. I’m tired of seeing rooftops. I would like to see more creativity beyond a bunch of ranchettes. I hate that term.

    And as for turning this place into a desert. I think that historically Central Texas has always been more dry than wet. We just tend to forget this during the wet years.

  5. They need to make the ordinance adaptable to conservation development. Also, though this may be in the proposed regulation, a groundwater availability study similar to what Comal County uses for any developments sticking straws in the ground is a good idea to include. Comal County was one of the first counties to use adequate availability of water to regulate minimum lot size. The Comal County Engineering Office has run through a number of issues since making that change around 2002, and would be a good group to have lookover the proposed regulations for any pitfalls.

  6. Simple math and the exercise of a little common sense is all one needs to understand the problem…and the solution. In the best of times and in the worst of times there is a finite amount of groundwater in the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer, and in the Hays County portion of the Trinity Aquifer. How much water there is at any given time is the net difference of recharge (a rain event function) and usage (related to the number of wells). Not even the Texas Legislature can change that relationship. As for the math, that’s what the local Groundwater Conservation District has been doing with its research these past nine years, and it discovered that usage increasingly exceeds the amount of recharge. Clear evidence of that is being experienced throughout ALL of the Hays County portion of the Trinity Aquifer with dozens of wells failing every week (water levels falling below well pumps) according to independent reports from well service companies, water purveyors, well pump sales and official data. Now for the common sense. We need water every day, not just in times of plenty, and if the lower water levels during dry periods cause wells to fail, at a minimum it behooves county and municipal authorities to require sufficient ground area (minimum lot size) to recharge an amount that a new resident uses, both to protect existing well owners and new well owners in the worst of times. So why did Rep. Rose refuse to introduce local legislation giving local voters a choice to decide if they wanted to tax themselves so our local Groundwater Conservation District could protect their water wells, but did pass local legislation giving the San Marcos Water Institute a $1 million grant of tax dollars to spend on non-water well projects? Rose also opposes a minimum lot size that equates recharge rate to rate of usage. Beware of politicians bearing gifts paid for by taxes. Like Rose, County Commissioners Jeff Barton and Will Conley are also funded by special interests and the three of them are for a five acre minimum lot size, NOT an equivalent acreage to equate recharge and usage. They are about their benefits of political office, not about what makes good sense and positive leadership for our citizens.

  7. Yes, Commissioner Conley is picking his nose. Watch the on-line court videos and observe for yourselves how often he does it. What Conley does with his extractions is a matter of personal taste.

  8. I really don’t understand why people are making such a fuss over lot-sizing and claiming it is preventing them from developing their property.

    This restriction only applies to new individual wells on previously-unplatted land and would not even come up if a homeowner wisely chose to spend their money on a rainwater harvesting system instead of drilling a well.

    This lot-size requirement will not discriminate against persons with less money to spend on land unless that person is hell-bent upon using more groundwater than the land they live on can replenish with rainwater. We are already overpumping the aquifer, so limits to groundwater use are a no-brainer.

    We need open space to recharge the aquifer and this should be a major aspect of subdivision regulations. Keep plenty of land from having anything at all built on it and discourage more wells any way you can.

    Those who decry this lot-sizing as some kind of assault on absolute property rights need to join the rest of us in the 21st Century. Just as in surface water law there are junior and senior water rights, we will need to realize something similar as regards groundwater eventually. We also need to accept that the Rule of Capture, our outdated and unsustainable (and inherently unfair) system of groundwater distribution is Dead in the Water.

    You can quibble about setbacks and right-of-way all you want, but water is not negotiable. Politically- or financially- motivated opinions do not an aquifer recharge.

    It is both proper and necessary that our local governments do whatever they can to protect our groundwater supplies, having gotten zero help from our legislators in this endeavor. Thanks again, Patrick.

    If the Trinity Aquifer is so full of water like Conley and his buddy Mr. Grubbs are always telling us, then why has Jacob’s Well stopped flowing and why are springs all over this area dried up? Why do the creeks all look like gravel pits and why have so many wells gone dry?

    I agree with Lila that fewer rooftops would make for a better view and our subdivision regulations should find a way to encourage a way for us to live more lightly on this good land.

    We also need to stop encouraging migration into Hays County. There is nothing “natural” about folks moving here, there is an active recruitment drive by the developers of ticky-tacky housing. Maybe these guys in the construction game need to find new jobs. Try rainwater harvesting or installing solar panels.

    What we need to encourage are businesses, clean ones, green ones, who will provide living wage jobs and real career opportunities for the citizens of this county who live here now. How about we start producing solar panels in Hays County? How about local educational institutions, including our high schools, doing more research and practical training in alternative energy and rainwater harvesting careers?

    Please don’t let politicians whose war chests are filled with developer and road building money decide growth policy for the rest of us who stand to lose our quality of life if these people’s business plans succeed.

    If we don’t force our local pols to step up and insist on stronger water protections, our water, our land, our sense of place and our collective integrity as a community will go the way of the horned toad. Hard to find.

    Yes, Conley plays with his nose a lot. That’s the only way he can keep it from growing, Pinocchio-style.

  9. As usual, Charles forgets that the county does not in fact have the right to impose lot size. Hell, I personally sued and won to develop Heatherwood despite the fact that Charles and company opposed it. i say again, if charles is against it, it must be right. I almost had to sell my ranch, but since i won the lawsuit, i don’t even have to work anymore. Bring it on! I want to get enough money so that my ruination of PEI Electric will be paid for.

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