Wednesday, August 5, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Council likely to purchase endangered species tract

Despite questions about the price from City Council Member Don Zimmerman, Council appears poised to move forward Thursday with the purchase of a significant tract of land in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. The tract is within Zimmerman’s District 6.

City real estate specialist Junie Plummer told Council on Tuesday that an independent appraiser had appraised the 10.099-acre tract at 11101 and 11105 Zimmerman Lane at $400,000. She added that the so-called “highest and best use” of the property would be for housing, even though it is surrounded on three sides by the BCP.

Willie Conrad, division manager for the Wildland Conservation division of Austin Water utility and secretary of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Planning Organization Coordinating Committee, told Council that the land is developable and would be contributing to the tax base if it were privately developed.

However, the city and Travis County have a deal with the federal government to purchase property for habitat for endangered species. That allows other landowners in the BCP area to develop their property without going through the extremely lengthy and tedious process otherwise required for developing on habitat land. Those property owners pay into a fund split between the city and Travis County to finance the purchase of habitat for 27 species that are at risk, such as the golden-cheeked warbler.

Zimmerman questioned the appraisal received from the appraiser hired by the city, pointing out that the Travis County Appraisal District had assigned a value of only $90,000 to the tract, which is known as the Lucas Tract.

He also asked Mayor Steve Adler where the city stands on its challenge to TCAD’s appraisals. Adler told him that Council would hear about that in executive session and explained that the matter would be heard in district court.

Zimmerman then said he would try to persuade his colleagues on Thursday to send the item to a committee for study, perhaps to the Audit and Finance Committee or the Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee. But Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who chairs the audit committee, said she wanted to hear from Zimmerman about what his questions were.

He replied, “Either TCAD was terribly wrong on their appraisal or the appraisal that’s come in at $400,000 is wrong. Somebody’s wrong by a factor of 400 percent.”

Tovo said she did not think it was a good idea to send the matter to committee. After all, she said, no one on either of those committees is an appraisal expert. Adler chimed in that he would not support sending it to a committee either.

Plummer then said that the city had purchased a nearby tract of 10 acres for the BCP for $405,000 last year.

Zimmerman also argued that the city was wasting money and preventing the tract from being used as residential property when that would in fact be its “highest and best use.”

Austin Water’s Sherri Kuhl, who will likely take over as secretary of the BCCP committee when Conrad retires at the end of August, told the Austin Monitor that the city and Travis County need this particular property to protect the area around Bull Creek. She said that although the two entities have surpassed the original goal of preserving 30,428 acres, they have not completed some other federal requirements.

Austin and Travis County have purchased about 30,500 acres in total but have not completed acquisition of properties within the Bull Creek preserve area, Kuhl said. So far, she said, “we have about 5,000 acres, and the target was about 5,600 acres.”

According to a memo from Greg Meszaros, director of the Austin Water utility, the property in question “is one of the last remaining undeveloped and unprotected private pieces of land on the main tributary of Bull Creek. Where the tributary crosses the property, there is a flowing spring. Jollyville Plateau salamanders occupy this spring and its spring run. Additionally, the track contains occupied high-quality golden-cheeked warbler habitat.”

Photo by Jason Crotty made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan: Established in 1996, the Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan set rights and standards for incidental "take" of eight endangered species, jointly, for the City of Austin and Travis County.

Office of Real Estate Services: This city department manages acquisitions and leasing of property for the city government. They also oversee easement releases, street and alley vacations and the sale and lease of city property to others.

Travis Central Appraisal District: The tax appraisal district for Travis County.

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