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Public comments on new Hays development regulations

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

Issues ranging from affordability and water availability to onsite sewage facilities and lot sizes were up for discussion last week as Hays County Commissioners held their final public hearing concerning the proposed new development regulations for the county. Several citizens and stakeholders voiced their concerns over the proposed ordinance. 


David Glenn, a former geologist in the oil industry and a water activist in Wimberley, was concerned about new minimum lot sizes. They range from one-half acre for lots in the Edwards Aquifer Contributing Zone that get groundwater from public systems, up to two acres for lots using a private groundwater system. Areas outside the contributing zone or the recharge zone were not subject to minimums. Glenn gave a detailed explanation of the shared recharge and contributing zones of the Edwards and Trinity aquifer, and urged that a blanket lot size be used across the county.


Saying that recent geological findings have indicated the Edwards and Trinity share a water stream, Glenn reasoned that there was more yet to be discovered about the Trinity Aquifer, and noted, “we can always take the strictest approach and if we find out more information we can later scale it back.” Glenn also said the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District and Kirk Holland, GM for the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District supported this position. 


While Pct. 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton seemed skeptical of such an approach, Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford said the court may need to “re-think how we  look at our county being a division of the Edwards Aquifer and the fact that thousands of people get water from the Trinity.”


Another point of contention was the new sewage disposal regulations that require homes to have a 100-foot setback from any wells and a 40-foot property line setback for spray dispersal of wastewater. Ford said this was to prevent “aerosol drift” from contaminating neighboring lawns. Such a regulation would compensate for wind blown wastewater.


However, developer Winton Porterfield was concerned the combination of the two regulations in conjunction with the minimum lot sizes would render some properties worthless. “One of the balances includes the affordability of living in our county and the kind of county we want to be in 20 years and the kind of life we want to live,” he told the assembled. Warning of unintended consequences, Porterfield asked, “What happens if you put in a series of rules much more stringent than before and forces the prices up and keeps development from happening?”


The balance between private ownership and public good was on full display as the commissioners and public discussed the issue of affordability. Planner Terry Tull pointed out to the court that they represented the, “forefront on the issues of balancing my rights as a land owner to develop how I want to, and my neighbor’s right as a citizen to enjoy his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness…”


The concern for business and social responsibility made for interesting bedfellows as Republican Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley found himself in agreement with Democrat Barton. “We share some insights there but come with… different perspectives,” Barton said.  “I’ve been in small business most of my life, my wife’s in small business, my parents are in small business and I’m sympathetic to that aspect as well, but I guess I’m driven first by the social consequence and I see the business end as important as well.”


Another notable change in the regulations concerns stormwater run-off. Complete build outs must now have an equal volume and rate after completion as the property had before any construction. New regulations would also stipulate that developers communicate details of potential subdivisions with contiguous neighbors and other nearby subdivisions. Notices must be posted detailing utility services, final build out information, timeline for the completed project and estimated population.


While the commissioners and majority of the citizens seemed to agree that the county was long overdue for an overhaul in its regulations, it appears there is still some work to be done. Said Barton, “We’re close to getting the mix right. We don’t quite have it yet, because just putting in tough language doesn’t get you good results, and in fact it can have counter-productive results if that language isn’t carefully crafted and isn’t tied to the right science and the right mix of incentives.”


Naismith Engineering project engineer Grant Jackson is steering the new regulations through various iterations based upon stakeholder input, commissioners’ policy requests and citizen input. Jackson will be compiling the feedback commissioners have received and either propose further alterations to the regulations or provide input allowing commissioners to make informed decisions. Assessing public opinion thus far, which amounted to 44 written pages, Jackson told In Fact Daily it was, “a mix of opinions as you would expect.” Depending on how quickly the commissioners can iron out their subtle differences, the regulations could go into effect by the end of the year.

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