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Hays again postpones new development regulations

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Hays County Commissioners again put off adopting new development regulations for the county again last week due to confusion and protests from property rights advocates, development and real estate interests. 


The primary point of contention was a proposed minimum lot size of 6.5 acres. The proposed lot size requirement would apply lots with individual wells located in the Priority Groundwater Management Area in the western part of the county and to wells created after the effective date of the new rules, whenever that may be.


Some 15 citizens spoke on the controversial measure that would attempt to limit the density of developments over the aquifers which provide Hays County with the majority of its water. Additionally, the proposed regulations would require that developments utilizing local groundwater with some exceptions conduct water availability studies before obtaining development authorization from the county. 


W.F. Smith, president of a real estate appraisal firm in Dripping Springs and a consultant with the Hays Central Appraisal District, was one of several citizens to speak against the rules.


“I’m concerned about the negative economic impact this ordinance will have. I don’t believe you have a thorough takings or economic analysis,” he told the court. He cautioned that the county would see an increase in tax appeals on vacant land due to the new regulations. He compared the water availability requirements to a box of donuts. “You have a box of 12 donuts… right now we know when we buy a piece of property or an individual sells a piece of property, they know how many donuts they can get out of that box. After this ordinance passes nobody knows if they can pay the same amount of money for that box because they don’t know what’s going to be in the box until they spend 60, 70, $80,000 to drill wells to do your water availability study.”


Others complained the already cash-strapped and subsidized Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District doesn’t have the resources to swiftly address the flood of information and applicants.


David Baker, Place 4 Director on the HTGCD told the court that the Trinity Aquifer had seen a deficit in aquifer recharge water levels over the past few years. He discussed the logic behind lot sizing.


“A big element I think in this whole discussion is about a water budget,” he said, adding that the presumed available water for usage is determined by factoring in recharge percentage and average rain. He told commissioners their policy decision was essentially drawing the boundaries between private and community well being. “6.5 is an adequate number to provide well spacing but it really comes down to is, ‘Is there water there or not?’ Some areas are going to have plenty of water some aren’t. We’re going to have to work together as a community.”


Craig Payne, a former Hays County Commissioner and a real estate broker, said he understood both sides of the issue and called the new rules a “heavy handed document.” He worried that the lot sizing would price smaller landowners out of the market.  There were a few supporters of the potential restrictions who countered that the larger lot sizing would allow for more managed growth and would protect the limited resources of the area as well as current landowners with wells and said their own wells had run dry due to development.


Jimmy Skipton, a property owner, complained that it was difficult for him and other interested parties to even figure out what the proposed regulations were and said that until recently the county had posted the wrong version on its website. Grant Jackson of Naismith Engineering, who is steering the regulations through the adoption process, told the court his company had posted accurate information on their website and the court apologized for any mix up.


However, it soon became clear that several of the more vocal opponents had in fact been parsing the language of a previous draft of the regulations.  Pct. 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton tried to sort out what he said was a misunderstanding of the proposed rule language. He indicated that there were provisions allowing for 6.5 acres to effectively serve as the maximum minimum, and with options like rainwater harvesting, developers could achieve lower lot sizes. When he began to describe some of the language, puzzled critics realized they had been working off of an older copy of the rules, before commissioners had amended language in March.


Ultimately, Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford offered that the court delay adoption until more meetings with the public could occur, ensuring that everyone was on the right page, literally. “At this point I’m not ready to move forward with adoption, but I do want to move forward with a discussion,” she told the court. Although no firm dates were set, commissioners indicated that additional public meetings would occur in the coming weeks.

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