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Hays County takes action to preserve Jacob’s Well

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Hays County Commissioners Court Tuesday took action that will clear the way for the preservation of the Jacob’s Well Natural Area. By a 4-1 vote, the commissioners moved to acquire just over 50 acres of land for $1.7 million. The new acreage will be added to the 46 acres already included in the reservation.


County Judge Liz Sumter cast the lone dissenting vote.


With its actions, the court enabled the settling of a series of lawsuits that had sprung up around the Jacob’s Well project. In the process it offered some closure to the lingering question of how the site would be preserved. 


It all came as the court heard testimony from flustered constituents who protested the fairness of the process it has used to divvy up $30 million worth of park and open space bonds. Despite a lengthy attempt to better define the means it uses to determine recipients of funds derived from that election, the court decided to postpone any move in that direction until it receives input from its Parks and Open Space Advisory Board. 


Along the way the commissioners hinted at other future actions. For much of the morning and afternoon, the possibility that the City of Kyle would release its hold on roughly $2.5 million it had been awarded to help construct Kyle Vista Park hung in the air. In return, Kyle Mayor Lucy Johnson asked the court to give the city $1.2 million for a host of other parks efforts, including a sizeable contribution to the Jacob’s Well preservation. 


However, because that question hadn’t formally appeared on the commissioners’ agenda, action here was also postponed. Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton — who had worked out the deal with Kyle as Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley and other county officials sorted out what had become a fast-moving Jacob’s Well situation — suggested that formal consideration of that item could appear as early as next week.


After hearing from a large group of residents who favored assigning some of the bond money to the revamping of Harrison Ranch Park in Dripping Springs, Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford suggested that she’d like to see $1.7 million assigned to that project. She noted, however, that she would first like to see the proposal vetted by the Parks and Open Space Advisory Board.


As she prepared to submit her “no” vote, Sumter reminded the court of her personal commitment to the preservation of Jacob’s Well. “As you know,” she noted, “I’ve been an ardent supporter of the Jacob’s Well, I’ve been on the board. I’ve put a lot of my own personal thousands of dollars toward making sure there wasn’t any creek discharge that could somehow damage (the site).”


Still, she said, she couldn’t support the measure. Along with potential problems with the cost of maintaining the facility, Sumter cited the very process that had caused such debate earlier. “I truly believe in an even playing field,” she said. “I think that this hasn’t gone through the process … I believe that we haven’t had a call for projects. I think it should be competitive. I think that’s really, really important, that process.  And it got even further diluted today.”


Conley, who represents the region of Hays County where Jacob’s Well is located, and who brought the item to the court, dismissed Sumter’s concerns. “I think we’ve had a good process with Jacob’s Well,” he told In Fact Daily. “There has been no other project that comes to my mind that has been more vetted by the citizens of this community or different commissioners courts,” he said with a chuckle.


He called Sumter’s reaction “very typical.”


“You hear it a lot, (if) you’re in this business enough, that when somebody just doesn’t agree with what you’re doing and they run out of things to say, they blame the process,” he said.


Barton told In Fact Daily that he also did not share Sumter’s concerns about the Jacob’s Well process. “What we decided today was to move forward … after going through a process to get there,” he said. “It was an expedited process because to be able to get this land and to settle a court case and stop this development we had to move quickly.”


For Barton, the court’s decision to open the proceedings around Jacob’s Well was telling. “Rather than making that decision unilaterally,” he said, “or without some public transparency or some public comment — which I think could have been justified under the circumstances — we went above and beyond and went out to our own parks board, to the Kyle parks board, to city councils, articles in the paper.”


Barton defeated Sumter in March to become the Democratic nominee for County Judge. Conley is the only Republican currently serving on the court.


According to figures calculated by Conley on the dais, Hays County has roughly $3.65 million remaining in its 2007 open spaces bond funds. That number includes the $1.2 million that has been suggested for the City of Kyle and a potential $5 million purchase of conservation land that the court also began in yesterday’s action.


Jacob’s Well is a natural spring and underwater cave in Wimberley. Activists have been trying to preserve the site since 1996. Just before they were scheduled to go to trial in a lawsuit brought by neighboring developers, those developers approached the groups interested in the well’s preservation and asked if they would purchase the parcels of land that would have hosted construction.


With its action, the court has now committed $4.7 million to Jacob’s Well.

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