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Travis County Commissioners to consider rules for conservation easements

Thursday, November 3, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners’ Court got an early look at a proposed set of rules that would guide its newly acquired power to purchase land conservation easements on Tuesday. Though nothing in the law requires the court to come up with guidelines for the process, the county appears set to move in that direction anyway.


That fact prompted Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt to urge county staff to take their time. “We can work on this diligently and make it a really good document because we are not under the gun,” she said. “If something comes across the transom we’re not barred from doing it.”


The rest of the court seems inclined to agree with Eckhardt. On Tuesday, court members took no action on either the guidelines or a resolution that is designed to help would-be land sellers illustrate their generosity to the Internal Revenue Service. Still, though Travis’ self-imposed rules have not been approved, the county’s 2011 bond election includes some money for conservation easement acquisition.


Conservation easements are a tool that can be used by jurisdictions to help dissuade land owners from selling their property for development. As Eckhardt put it, “you pay for the reduction in value” over what the landowner could have made from development.


Texas counties did not have the power to purchase such easements until this past legislative session when a bill from the Texas Senate granted it to them. Former City of Austin Mayor and current Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) sponsored that legislation.


County staff offered the court three basic “threshold criteria” that would be used as minimum criteria when selecting a property. These include whether the property in question has a “tangible benefit” for Travis County, whether it would be a “perpetual” easement, and whether the county would be responsible for ensuring the landowners compliance with the rules of the easement.


Should a potential acquisition pass those tests, it would then be evaluated on seven additional features. These include the type of preservation that would result with the acquisition, whether it’s consistent with local planning priorities, if public access to the property can be controlled, whether the acquisition would be cost effective, a series of site characteristics, its uniqueness, and whether the site is threatened by development. This second set of criteria would be assessed via a point system.


County Judge Sam Biscoe wondered how appraisals for potential easement acquisitions would be conducted. Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols told Biscoe that the appraisals would be different from those the court has seen in the past.


“It’s a very different creature from our typical real estate transaction,” he told the court.

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