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Hays leads Hill Country counties’ fight for expanded authority

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

Hays County Commissioners are leading a regional effort to urge state legislators to provide local powers when it comes to development in the Hill Country.


Judge Liz Sumter, who is the Hays County representative on the Hill Country Coalition of Counties – a 15-county organization formed to lobby the Legislature, has spearheaded the effort.  Rep. Patrick Rose (D-Hays County) plans to reintroduce legislation in the upcoming session to give counties expanded control over rural development.


Although Hays was among the first counties to approve the resolution, all 15 are expected to pass similar measures. The counties are asking for authority to “manage subdivision development in unincorporated areas;” for set backs between “Incompatible land uses,” to “regulate population density as it relates to resource protection and availability” and authority to assess impact fees.


These powers would only be specific to the 15 counties in the coalition, including Bandera, Comal, Edwards, Hays, Kendall, Mason, Kimble, Llano, Blanco, Uvalde, Medina, Gillespie, Burnet, Kerr and Real. These counties largely make up the Hill Country Priority Groundwater Management Area.


The proposed legislation would allow each county the ability to choose some or all of the four powers they want to adopt. Sumter stressed the flexibility of the proposed legislation, saying said each of the rules could become law through county action or citizen initiative.


Sumter said this allows picking and choosing, “as each county grows… they may want some of it now and some later.”


Hill Country Alliance President Christy Muse has been in contact with the Commissioners and Rep. Rose’s office and is familiar with the resolution and the legislation.


“What they’re asking for is really minimal tools… that virtually every other state in the country gives their counties,” Muse said. “We think what the commissioners and judges (of the HCCC) are doing is fantastic and we’d love to see them be successful because any effort that’s going on right now to do regional planning is hindered because counties don’t have the authority to implement regional plans, so this is definitely a step in the right direction.”


Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford suggested a change to the resolution that clarified the density provision, in order that it includes the phrase, to regulate population density “as it relates to resource protection and availability.” She said it was important to show, “we’re interested in regulating density not for its own sake but only to make sure that we have proper stewardship of our natural resources.”


The resolution claims that, “the cost to Hays County to provide and maintain necessary infrastructure and provide services… threatens to exceed its capabilities.”  It further states that the Hill Country is prone to flooding and that dense development and the impact on water availability has aggravated the problem.


Sumter said, “We expect that all our senators and representatives will support it,” and said that each county was speaking to its Legislative delegation. “I think if you look at the 15 counties, they’re basically Republican counties,” she said, indicating that this bill would not likely be shut down due to partisan politics. “This is really a bottom up initiative,” she said.


In 2007, Rose carried a bill for expanded county authorities, which he was unable to get out of committee. Since then, Rose said, his mission has been to “task counties within the Hill Country to come to consensus on what rules making authority they desired and to pass formal resolutions of support for that authority. You saw Hays County move forward and do that, you’ll see other hill country counties do that. We’ve been in meetings with county officials over this interim and we’ll be filing the legislation and building the legislative coalition and hopefully succeeding in passing the legislation this session.”


Travis County and the City of Austin have supported expanded authority for urban counties for a number of years.

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