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Dahlstrom Ranch deal almost complete

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

Hays County Commissioners Tuesday voted unanimously to pledge $4.9 million to the long-awaited Dahlstrom Ranch conservation easement, which is now only one technical step away from becoming a reality for Hays County.


The deal still needs to be finalized, but the Commissioners commitment and approval of further negotiations practically ensures the 2,252-acre ranch along Onion Creek would become one of the region’s most valuable green spaces. The deal could not have been possible without crucial financial assistance from the Hill Country Conservancy and the City of Austin, who were able to commit $4 million and $1 million, respectively. The HCC was able to get their money from a grant provided by the National Resource Conservation Service.


The Dahlstrom family had been asking $9.9 million for the permanent development rights to the property, which was valued at $25 million. The Hays County commitment sealed up that sum.


Cassie Gresham, an attorney with Braun and Associates, representing the Dahlstrom family, gave a detailed presentation to the court. She said it was, “unheard of that a family would agree to give this much…” Gresham also provided some insight into the thinking of Gay Dahlstrom, the owner of the property, “It’s her desire to put a conservation easement across this property and ensure that when she’s dead and gone the property is not developed and also that Hays County residents have some places to ‘be with nature’ as she calls it.”


Gresham also told the court, “This is a water quality and quantity project first and foremost.”


According to Gresham, karst studies done by City of Austin and the BSEACD, “boils down to this – this is the best piece of property the City of Austin has had to be a part of.” Dahlstrom Ranch contains a number of significant recharge features such as the Possumhaw Cave and Horseshoe Sink, which drains more than 700 acres of recharge rainfall. Many of these recharge features have been clogged up for decades, as the holes posed a danger to cattle when the property was a working ranch. Grazing on the ranch has been significantly diminished since 2005.


Under the terms of the deal, the conservation easement could not be subdivided. If the Dahlstrom family decides that they would sell the land, they would be required to tell the four partners two years in advance of any sale. The partners would then have the right of first refusal. However, even if the land were sold, the County would still retain the development rights. The conservation easement on the quarry would be donated.


The Dahlstrom’s are donating a public access lease that will likely enable citizens to access Howe Pasture, which at 370 acres is roughly the size of Zilker Park. Proposed development for the ranch could be divided into two phases. The first phase, would cover access roads, a pavilion, picnicking, horseshoes, washers, volleyball courts, a backstop, This portion of the plan was developed by the Lower Colorado River Authority, a value estimated at $375,000.


George Cofer, Executive Director of the Hill Country Conservancy told the court the money his group acquired was the largest grant awarded by the NRCS in the state of Texas, “so I think this is a solid project.” The National Park Service has also indicated that they will provide some support with the project, though the extent of that is unknown until later in the month. 


Austin Council Member Lee Leffingwell took the lead in garnering the city’s support. He told In Fact Daily this was the first partnership the between the city and Hays County and, “I was very impressed with both the environmental value of the ranch in terms of the recharge features and the way the ranch has been maintained. I think it’s going to be a valuable part of the watershed protection effort.”


Jeff Barton said the ranch is unique with, “Open space, water quality protection, access to the public: it encompasses a number of different things in one stroke on a single piece of property.” Barton also praised “building an alliance that can serve us well for years to come and serve us on many other projects. It’s a symbolic alliance but it’s also a very practical alliance that brings dollars with it.”


Finalization of the ranch’s status should be completed by the end of the year.

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