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City to purchase preservation land

Friday, August 7, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin will move forward with the purchase of slightly more than 10 acres of land in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, despite concerns from some City Council members about whether the purchase price could be lower.

Council voted 9-2 to move forward with purchasing 10.099 acres at 11101 and 11105 Zimmerman Lane for $400,000, with Council members Ora Houston and Don Zimmerman voting in opposition.

The land will become part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which is a multi-agency conservation effort that operates under a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service permit issued under the Endangered Species Act. The BCP is managed jointly by the city and Travis County, with the goal of setting aside 30,428 acres as a habitat for endangered species, migratory songbirds, karst invertebrates and “species of concern.”

Zimmerman took issue with the city’s purchase of the land on more than one level. He protested the cost and questioned why it was so much more than the $90,000 value assigned by the Travis County Appraisal District. He also seemed dissatisfied with the current operation of the BCP in a more general sense.

“I view the BCCP’s (Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan) appetite for land kind of like the Bastrop wildfire,” said Zimmerman. “It never says, ‘enough.’”

Willie Conrad, who is the division manager for the Wildland Conservation division of the Austin Water utility and secretary of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Planning Organization Coordinating Committee, disagreed with the idea that the preserve had an “infinite goal” and told Council that the plan had clearly defined goals. He pointed out that any changes to those goals would be up to policymakers.

More specifically, Zimmerman objected to the burden that would be placed on taxpayers if the purchase went through. However, as Conrad clarified, money for the purchase comes from the selling of “mitigation credits” within the preserve. The credits allow property owners in the preserve to develop land while complying with the endangered species act. The money raised by the sale of credits, in turn, is used to purchase preservation land, like the tract in question.

As Council Member Leslie Pool summed up, “The money would not be used for anything else. It is, essentially, in a bank to buy and to maintain the preserve.”

Zimmerman insisted that the cost would be passed on to taxpayers in some other way, perhaps by prohibiting development on a piece of land that could help ease high occupancy rates that lead to high rents. “It’s a terrific place to develop places for people to live,” he said.

Houston abstained from a proposal to amend the purchase price from $400,000 to $100,000 that won support only from Zimmerman. However, she did question the purchase price for the tract.

“It seems like what we are paying for this piece of property is way out of bounds for what it’s appraised at. So I have a real concern about the practicality of using that much money,” said Houston.

Junie Plummer, who is a specialist with the city’s Office of Real Estate Services, told Council that the city had conducted one appraisal on the land, and that appraisal went through an “elaborate review process” before reaching Council. She also spoke to the feasibility of commissioning a second appraisal for properties under consideration for purchase by Council.

“I will tell you that I invest a lot in these appraisals. We do pay very much for them. … Appraisals are expensive,” said Plummer. “They are reviewed, as I said, by city staff that are appraisers and qualified in this area. It isn’t that I’m saying we couldn’t – I just think this needs to be considered financially.”

Photo by Vince Smith from London, United Kingdom [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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