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Court moves forward with conservation easement guidelines

Thursday, April 19, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court appears ready to adopt a set of guidelines for purchasing land under a new state statute that offers counties new authority to use bond money for land conservation easements. However, a question about whether court members should insist on public access to the new purchases gave some pause to at least one commissioner.  


In response to a push by County Judge Sam Biscoe for increased public access, Commissioner Karen Huber suggested last week that public access could undermine the purpose of the easements. “I understand the public access standpoint and I think that that is something that should be negotiated,” she said. “But…to me, it flies in the face of the whole purposes of conservation easements as have been negotiated by the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands.”


The court ultimately approved a draft of the guidelines by a 4-0 vote, with a provision that adds public access to a list of threshold requirements for a potential project. Huber was off the dais. The rules will be back for a public hearing on April 24.


This set of guidelines marks the second attempt by county staff to establish a set of guidelines for acquiring conservation easements. In November, the court expressed some concern about an earlier draft of the rules. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 3, 2011.)


County staff employed a committee to come up with a set of guidelines on the heels of legislative action that opened the door for Texas counties to use bond funds to offer land owners an incentive not to sell their property for development. With the legislation, counties can now offer property holders money to offset any fiscal loss they might see by foregoing development in favor of selling an easement to the county for conservation purposes.


According to a document provided to court members, “the purpose of these guidelines is to set the parameters of the land conservation program, to define the respective roles of Travis County and partnering entities, and to identify criteria for selecting projects for county funding.”


The guidelines would create a set of criteria by which each potential conservation easement would be evaluated. Staff has proposed a two-step process that would set a threshold to establish minimum requirements for each project. These include whether the purchase would offer an “identifiable benefit to Travis County,” whether the easement would be perpetual, and who would hold the rights to the easement.


The county’s head of Transportation and Natural Resources, Steve Manilla, pitched public access as the fifth of the threshold criteria. Under that provision, the court would have the right to waive public access. However, it remains as one of the first hurdles that a potential purchase would have to clear. 


If a project crosses the initial thresholds, it would be scored on a points system informed by seven additional criteria. A conservation easement purchase would have to earn at least 70 of 100 points to be eligible for purchase with Travis County bonds.

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