South Austin wildlife gallery draws ire from Bouldin Creek residents


Highlights

Bouldin Creek residents launch petition opposing wildlife gallery.

Wildlife gallery in South Austin hopes to apply for a permit that would qualify it as a cultural service.

Though Bouldin Creek is typically a quiet residential area, some in the neighborhood say that for about three years they’ve endured the ongoing construction of a private wildlife gallery that could bring property tax, traffic and parking issues.

But the owner’s vision for the gallery, which displays hundreds of stuffed exotic mammals and birds in a museumlike setting that replicates their natural habitats, could bring educational opportunities for youths, according to Jesse Ramel, the gallery’s property manager.

World-traveling outdoor sportsman Rick Warren purchased the Bouldin Avenue property, which was formerly a church, about six years ago with plans to build a large house with a private gallery showcasing a taxidermy collection from his global hunting expeditions.

The Travis County Appraisal District lists the appraised value of the 14,001-square-foot property as $2,828,286. The home and gallery, which includes a pool, sits on 36,046 square feet. Warren has also acquired additional property, according to Ramel, in the neighborhood to convert into parking areas. 

Warren hopes a wider audience will help raise awareness about sustainable hunting and wildlife conservation, said Ramel. For that to happen, he said, Warren hopes to apply for a conditional use permit, which would qualify the gallery as a cultural service.

“The intent is to be able to open the facility and gallery for educational purposes so that, for example, school groups can come in,” said Stephen Rye, an urban planner hired by Warren to oversee the conditional use permit process. “It won’t be open to the general public,” nor would it be open for visitors to walk up and purchase a ticket.

Neighbors recently launched an online petition opposing the permit, and it has gathered more than 700 signatures. Last week, the city received a complaint about a land use violation against the property, and the case is pending review.

The neighborhood’s zoning committee recently recommended not to oppose a possible permit application if the association could negotiate and set conditions to protect the neighborhood. However, some residents say that’s a losing strategy.

“There’s nothing of cultural value that I could see of a museum with stuffed dead animals,” Bouldin Creek resident Beverly Johnson said. “I think it’s horrible, and just a storage for his taxidermy.”

READ: Uncommon Objects moving from longtime South Congress home

The gallery includes specimens that Warren has hunted around the world, as well as pieces he’s acquired. The collection includes passenger pigeons from 1875 and pieces from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 safari expedition, which were originally commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution.

“It’s quite clear that a gallery with different subject matter could easily qualify for this (cultural) designation with the full support of neighbors and stakeholders,” Rye said in a statement. “To discriminate on content and viewpoint, as some would like to do, is a violation of the First Amendment that the city cannot abide.”

The Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association has not taken an official position on the matter, but according to the group’s president, Cory Walton, a vote is expected at the association’s October meeting.

“Some folks are aghast and emotionally upset,” Walton said. “With this kind of outpouring, they will demand a vote on a position.”

The online petition states: “It is highly likely that this (conditional use permit) request is being made in an attempt to ultimately get a (Travis Central Appraisal District) exemption from property taxes. For a property owner of over 12 normal size lots in Bouldin Creek, and an annual tax bill well in excess of $100K to be using this wildlife organization to pay an effective property tax rate of zero percent is obviously appalling to many local residents on many levels, especially those that send our kids to public schools right here in the neighborhood.”

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Rye said that property taxes are not a motivation for the owner to seek a conditional use permit.

Obtaining a permit, according to city officials, doesn’t equate to receiving tax exemption status. It’s unclear what will happen with the nonprofit the group has created with the same mission and whether that will eventually be linked to the property.

“As a nonprofit institution dedicated to an educational mission, as such it would be entitled to the same consideration as other institutions with similar missions,” Rye said in a statement. “Beyond that, there is no desire or effort to try to define the gallery as uniquely deserving of a tax exemption.”

Rye and Ramel said they hope to work together with the neighborhood residents and be as inclusive as possible.

“What’s not to love about a neighborhood like this?” Walton asked. “The only problem is preserving it.”



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