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Travis County retooling language for conservation easement program

Monday, April 30, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Travis County Commissioners have been temporarily thwarted in their recent attempt to set guidelines for the county’s conservation easement program.


Commissioners are taking another week to change language in the portion of the guidelines that concerns public access, after extensive testimony explaining the current language, which seems to require it, will damage the program before it begins.


The message from those that spoke at the hearing was clear, with ranchers and conservationists alike asking the court to remove language that seemed to require landowners to have public access to things.


“Anything that sends the message of unlimited public access is necessarily going to be a concern for most landowners in Texas,” said Robert Ayers, managing partner for Shield Ranch, which has both donated and sold land as conservation easements.


County Attorney Tom Nuckols explained that though that may be the message being sent, public access was not actually required under the guidelines as currently written.


“In establishing public access as a threshold criteria, we’re not saying public access must be required,” said Nuckols, who explained that applicants were only required to explain how they felt about  public access. “If the landowner thinks public access is unsuitable and impractical and is not willing to provide it, he simply needs to say that in the application and the threshold requirement is met.”


Ayers explained that the ranch has provided public access to those easements despite it not being required and it was his opinion that this was typical for landowners who donated land.


“I am concerned about the public access language the way it’s written,” said Ayers. “One objective is to incentivize private landowners to participate in the program, and to specifically not de-incentivize… Conservation easements are perpetual – more or less forever– and they’re hard to change, by intention.”


George Cofer, the executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, agreed.


“Trust me, friends. This is what I do for a living and when they read that requirement of public access, we’re going to lose a lot of people from the get go… Land owners want to share. But not during hunting season, and not during critical ranch operation times. So when we start negotiating the details of what that public access looks like, that, I promise you, is burdensome on the landowner,” said Cofer, who referenced the cost of hiring a lawyer to work out public access contracts.


Many of the speakers noted that landowners might be wary of allowing carte blanche public access to land due to liability concerns.      


“I’m getting loud and clear that the words ‘public access’ is frightening to landowners who are contemplating this. I want to be careful about that because you are right. A willing landowner is gold,” said County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt. “I don’t want to infringe on the appropriate use of the property, but I really do want to say at the upfront: the public wants to maintain one stick in the bundle of sticks for the purposes of educating and researching.”


Eckhardt expressed concern that, if the county did not negotiate public access in advance, the landowner could deny access in the future when access was needed for something like determining water quality in the area.


John Williams, who served on the Travis County Bond Committee that helped create the conservation easement program, told the court that he did not recall any citizen requesting access to public easements during his time on the committee. “As I was voting, I wasn’t thinking that there would be public access in the traditional sense on these conservation easements.


“We were very careful in making our decision to separate conservation easements out in a different category than parkland,” said Williams. “To me, as a member of the committee, I was thinking of a park as someplace that had public access… A conservation district, its defining characteristic is conservation, or protection.”


The court will reconsider the rewritten guidelines this Tuesday, along with an item that could render the whole discussion somewhat moot for the time being. Though the bulk of the matter was discussed in executive session, the county’s head of Transportation and Natural Resources, Steve Manilla, spoke in open court about an opportunity that “could very easily exhaust the 2011 bond money for conservation easements.”


“There is a question of, if we were to follow through and spend the money in that fashion, it means all of the funds that were approved in the bond referendum will have been spent on one project,” said Manilla.


Currently, there is $8 million dollars set aside for the conservation easement program. The court will reconsider the large purchase again next week, which, it should be noted, could be the third easement project processed without guidelines in place.


“For Northeast Travis county, where we have farmers just hanging on by their fingertips, this is an opportunity for them to not have to sell their land, for them to be able to  preserve their agricultural heritage,” environmentalist Jon Beall told In Fact Daily.

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