Austin could buy, preserve 607 acres in Hays County for $18 million

Austin officials initially fought a developer’s plan for 1,000 homes and a sewage plant atop an environmentally sensitive tract in Hays County. Now they’ve reached a deal to buy and preserve the land.

With $18 million in bond money, the city of Austin plans to buy 607 acres on RM 967 in northern Hays County and protect the land from development. The land sits over the Barton Springs recharge zone, a part of the Edwards Aquifer that feeds into Barton Springs.

Jeremiah Venture, the limited partnership that owns the land, had planned to build a 1,000-home subdivision there and use treated sewage to irrigate it. Activists argued that would allow pollution to seep into the aquifer and threaten the water quality at Barton Springs. The Austin City Council fought Jeremiah Venture’s plan until earlier this year, when it narrowly agreed to a modified version of it.

Now that the city plans to buy the land, it would conserve it as open space, said Junie Plummer, a program manager with the city’s office of Real Estate Services. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the land sale Dec. 12.

The property has several porous features, called karst, that allow rainwater to seep into and replenish the aquifer. Rainwater from the land flows into Onion Creek, a large water source to Barton Springs, according to a city summary of the land buy.

“The (recharge zone) is like Swiss cheese, so rainwater runs through all of those holes and reaches the aquifer quickly. … This particular tract of land is in an area where rainwater very quickly reaches Barton Springs, which is about 15 miles away,” said Laura Huffman, state director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas, a nonprofit that helped negotiate the land sale for the city. “Purchasing properties like this one allows the city to steward the land so that there are fewer pollutants going into the aquifer — so that when it rains, the water flows over native habitats and grasslands instead of streets and parking lots.”

The property sits in unincorporated Hays County, west of Buda and south of Austin. A private appraiser hired by the city valued the land, with its development potential, at $18.3 million, Plummer said.

The Hays Central Appraisal District has valued the ranch land at just $3.5 million, but agricultural exemptions reduce the taxable value to about $77,000, Plummer said. So the property currently generates $1,665 a year in property taxes, she said.

The $18 million will come from $30 million set aside for open space purchases in a 2012 bond package that voters approved. The Nature Conservancy would be paid $60,000 for helping negotiate the land sale.

“We had developers and builders looking at this (property) and ready to buy it, so if the city wants to buy it for the same price, we have no problem with that,” said Lee Weber, president of Weber Properties, which is a general partner in Jeremiah Venture LP.

Since 1998, Austin has spent more than $145 million from voter-approved bond packages to buy and protect nearly 27,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land in and near Austin, Plummer said.

“Big-picture, Austin buys property in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer for water quality purposes,” said George Cofer, executive director of the nonprofit Hill Country Conservancy, which works to protect open space. “Since that aquifer is one of the most fragile in Texas, conserving land over it and having good grasslands and well-managed properties makes the water that goes into the caves and recharge features of a higher quality than the kind that would be coming off of a subdivision.”

This 607-acre parcel will add to a contiguous stretch of about 14,000 acres of open space that the city of Austin has been assembling in Hays and Travis counties for several years, Plummer said.

However, the purchase will block the construction of homes that would have generated more property tax revenue for Hays County.

“I don’t know if it’s fair for a municipality in an adjacent county to come into another county and take (properties) like this one out of their tax base,” Hays County Commissioner Ray Whisenant said. “There might not be a law that prevents that, but it’s something that needs to be considered among governing entities.”

At the same time, Whisenant noted this purchase would be similar to other properties and easements the city has acquired in Hays County.

“The city of Austin has already bought a number of acres in the area for conservation easements, so I don’t see any inconsistencies with that” from this purchase, Whisenant said. “The only people they have to justify that to are the voters” who approved the bond money, he said.

Plummer said the public probably won’t be allowed on the 607 acres in the short term. However, it could someday become part of the Violet Crown Trail, a 30-mile planned hike-and-bike path that will run from Zilker Park to Hays County, she said.

Jeremiah Venture has tried to develop the land for more than five years, and it first proposed building 1,400 homes and a facility to treat wastewater and use it for lawn-watering and landscaping in the subdivision.

Initially, the city of Austin and several other entities that worried about the project’s environmental impact fought to keep the state from issuing permits for it.

The Austin City Council voted 4-3 in August to drop its opposition in exchange for a modified development plan with tougher environmental protections. The nonprofit Save Our Springs Alliance is the only entity that hasn’t settled out of court.

“Eighteen million dollars sounds like a whole lot of money for only 600 acres,” Save Our Springs Alliance director Bill Bunch said Wednesday. “Of course we want that land preserved and protected, but I am concerned about the appraisal … and making sure the city is getting the best (environmental protection) for the dollar.”

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