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Hays examines Conservation Banking for Regional Habitat Plan

Friday, December 19, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

The Hays County Commissioners heard the latest draft of the proposed Habitat Conservation Plan last Thursday in Court. The plan, presented by representatives of Loomis Partners and attorneys from Smith Robertson, discussed the need for – and potential implementation strategies for – protecting habitat for the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo.

 

Due to exploding growth in Hays County, officials estimate that 18,000 acres of potential Warbler habitat could be lost in the next 30 years. The Vireo could see a reduction of its habitat of 2,700 acres. The federal Endangered Species Act requires that any activities, such as construction, that destroy habitat should be permitted with an Incidental Take Permit.

 

Currently, applying for such a permit at the federal level takes between one and two years. With a Regional Habitat Conservation Plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would effectively grant Incidental Take Permit authority to the County, allowing permits to be issued in the span of weeks instead of years. An RHCP would ensure that any loss of endangered species habitat is mitigated, thus minimizing the impact development would have on the species.

 

“Fundamentally, this is about local control and really putting you in charge of your destiny so to speak, in terms of endangered species protection,” Melinda Taylor of Smith Robertson told the court. The mechanism for such permitting would be conservation banking, similar to what is in place for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in Travis County. In such a scenario, Hays County would acquire a large parcel of endangered habitat lands and charge applicants a fee per acre of mitigation. The fee – which could be paid into a fund managed by a third party – would cover costs of future acquisition and land management costs.

 

To participate in the program, a mitigation fee would be paid to the county. Loomis recommended a $7,500 fee per acre, saying that was roughly the average being paid in other Habitat Conservation Plans in the region. The County would initially fund the conservation bank, with a large land purchase which would grow over time. The presenting parties recommended an initial bank of 664 acres estimated it would eventually result in an RHCP covering 11,827 acres over the next 30 years. The plan assumes a ratio of one acre of preserved land per acre of endangered land taken through the Incidental Take Permit.

 

The RHCP currently envisioned assumes that 75 percent of the preserve land will come through conservation easements. Hays could also budget up to 10 percent of the taxable value from new development to help fund the RHCP start-up. The current draft of the plan estimates that participation costs along with tax revenue would provide the nearly $35 million necessary for the RHCP to start up and run for the first 10 years. It also assumes the county will use some of the funds still available from the Parks and Open Spaces Bond to acquire an initial parcel. That fund still has some $5 million left.

 

Participation in the RHCP would be voluntary, although the county would have a list of projects and developers who do not participate. “While we can’t force someone to do it we can certainly sell them on it and encourage them,” said Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford. “And I suppose that if we wanted to we could let Fish and Wildlife know there’s someone they can talk to.”

 

The next step for the county would be to approve the plan and submit it to USFWS, likely at the end of January. The agency will do assessments and have a public hearing, probably in June. Summer and fall of 2009 would see revisions to  the document to include comments from the public and in late 2009 USFWS should issue the permit so it can be up and running by 2010.

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