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Land prices underscore need to save Balcones Canyonlands

Thursday, February 5, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Twelve years ago, Austin and Travis County undertook creation of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve to protect the habitat of eight federally endangered species. At the time, land was $5,500 an acre in Western Travis County. Now it’s upwards of $30,000 per acre. So the city and the county are hoping to buy more land as quickly as possible. This fiscal year they purchased 1,100 acres, bringing the total to 28,369 acres.

On Tuesday night, the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP) Citizen’s Advisory Committee met to discuss the preserve’s progress. From a permit point of view, the two jurisdictions are in no rush. Joe Lessard, chair of the committee, noted that the preserve is only in the twelfth year of a 30-year timeline.

But Kevin Connally of Travis County pointed out that land prices are getting higher and the competition for federal matching dollars is getting tougher. Connally said there were few protected preserves in the country when it started 12 years ago, but now Balcones competes with some 400 other projects across the country for federal dollars. Still, the conservation plan is more or less on track. The goal is to have 30,400 protected acres in the preserve, so the preserve is around 93 percent complete.

However, as Lessard noted, the completion of the preserve is not all based on acreage, but whether it is successfully protecting endangered species and environmentally sensitive locations in the area. And those goals may take more than 30,000 acres. For instance, as Connally observed, a total of 20 karst caves must still be protected. Each of those caves could require between 10 and 50 acres for adequate environmental protection.

The goal of protecting wildlife factors in as well. Preserve manager Willy Conrad said that some lands in the area were dedicated to both Golden-cheeked warbler and Black-capped vireo. But the two birds have different habitat needs. The assessment of the US Fish and Wildlife Service would appear to indicate that protecting the Golden-cheeked warbler takes precedence over the Black-capped vireo, Conrad said. So some adjustment in habitat – most likely the need to preserve additional vireo habitat — may be down the road.

So the city and county continue to fight for more acreage. Some of the most recent acquisitions have been contentious, including a trip to the US Supreme Court over a 22-acre deal. The county did pick up a donation of 827 acres in Volente, although the land already was under a US Fish and Wildlife 10-a preservation permit. The landowner has requested the county maintain the property as a proper wildlife refuge.

“That 827 acres already had a 10a permit, but just because it was counted did not mean it was managed as habitat,” Connally said. “That property was wide open. You had kids with paintball guns. You had mountain bikes, dirt bikes, all sorts of activity. Everyone was there. So we are excited about the fact that we will actually manage it, appropriately, for the first time. The acreage really is BCCP property, for the first time.”

Staff also has begun the process of assessing the need to raise – or lower – participation fees. Lowering the rates has happened. When the fees were set in 1996, they were intended to be $5,500 per acre. That was lowered to $3,000 in 1998 to increase participation and has steadily risen back to $5,500.

The citizens advisory committee will make its own recommendation on fees to council members and commissioners, which will set the fees by ordinance. The committee discussed certain guidelines, like the need to keep fees low enough to encourage voluntary participation. Peter Torgrimson asked for an analysis of the fees to see whether property owners were getting a benefit out of the price.

Tax-increment funding also provides dollars to the preserve, through tax dollars that come from the increase in values on the city and county tax rolls once the land is added to the TIF. One-time participation fees generate about $3 million a year, Lessard said, but the real “bread and butter” revenue for purchasing lands comes from the TIF zone. The TIF has generated about $8 million in tax dollars to be used for the purchase of land.

Lessard does not predict the economy will have a strong impact on the fee pricing. The current downturn, according to the state’s own staff, is expected to last another year or so in Texas. Lessard predicts many landowners will simply take a “hold and wait” attitude on their property until the economy recovers.

Council and commissioners are expected to approve some changes to the BCCP fee structure sometime mid-year as part of the budget review cycle. The citizens advisory committee is expected to revisit the issue in April.

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