Parks and Open Space Recommendations

$75M Parks and Open Space Bond on the Nov. 3 Ballot

by Ray Don Tilley, Wimberley Valley Watershed Association

San Marcos 8/11/20: Hays County Commissioners Court ordered a bond election for the Nov. 3 ballot, proposing a total of $75 million in response to recommendations from the Parks & Open Space Advisory Commission.

Commissioner Lon Shell offered the motion, specifying that “four general categories found in the bond proposition language would be open space / conservation, connectivity / multimodal improvements for alternative transportation, urban parks, and flood mitigation / riparian health.” Shell reserved mention of any project by name, adding, “I believe that we can follow this bond order with information that describes how we would invest in specific projects, which will also become part of our contract with the voters.”

The $75 million total was the lower end of the range recommended by POSAC, and below the $94.9-million combined request of the 16 project proposals recommended. The vote was 4–1. Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (Pct. 1) praised the work of the advisory commission and the quality of the projects, but said she could not support a bond proposal during the COVID-19 pandemic’s “hurting situation” for constituents. Likewise, Judge Ruben Becerra expressed reservations about the measure “in a time of mass unemployment,” but said he would vote yes to give voters the ultimate decision.

Public comments and debate, along with deliberations in Executive Session, extended four hours. Commissioners’ comments centered on fiscal responsibility and timing of the request to voters. Shell argued that a high-turnout election is the right time for such a vote, so that the proposition receives the greatest voter input. Compromise wording deferred project designations until further discussion as the ballot measure is prepared.

Wimberley Valley Watershed Association’s Coleman’s Canyon Preserve, is POSAC’s highest recommended project. “This is a monumental achievement,” said David Baker, WVWA Executive Director. “It cannot be overstated how important the Court’s decision is for our community and the future of our region.”

POSAC has been chaired by Scott Way and facilitated by Karen Ford, since its founding by Commissioners Court on March 3. Vice chairs are Lori Olson and Kathryn Nichols. Jim Camp, Burt Dement, Laura Dupont, Carolyn Gonzales, Blanca Lova, Lisa Prewitt, and Scott Tomhave round out the commission’s roster.

By creating four modified project categories and asking POSAC’s members to continue their work, the Court initiated refinement of the project list and funding amounts. If passed by voters, the $75 million bond package will be the County’s first Parks & Open Space improvements authorized since $30 million in bonds passed in 2007.

Thanks to all of you that spoke up and wrote to the County Clerk, Judge, and Commissioners!  Comments included:

    • Need and Opportunity: The last five months have uncovered strong need and great opportunity, and an appetite for this type of bond – all during heightened concern in the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Positive Public Poll:  A scientifically executed citizen poll in June showed strong support for a $75 million bond – especially when the County tax rate is not affected.
    • Population Growth: Hays County’s strong record of population growth will continue—the tax revenue from that growth will pay back much, if not most, of the bonds.
    • Vision and Legacy: The Court has shown vision to create a positive legacy by bringing this proposal forward now, to protect so much for so many.
    • Conservative Fiscal Management: Because bonds can be sold in phases, the Court can judiciously roll out the project package over years, satisfying urgent needs yet taking advantage of matching funds and beneficial market conditions.

In this pandemic, as in the floods of 2015, Hays County residents have pulled together for the greater good of our community. We plan ahead and provide for times of need and for future generations. In that spirit, we must take action today to protect and increase parks, natural areas, and water quality for all our tomorrows.

Hays County voters last passed a parks bond in 2007. In two well-attended Zoom webinars this week, Hays County’s Parks & Open Space Advisory Commission presented their recommended projects after a thorough proposal process. Both the List of Recommended Projects and the Webinar Presentation are available online.

WVWA Coleman’s Canyon Preserve, Regional Conservation Fund

Colemans Canyon Preserve page Regional Conservation Fund page

Wimberley Valley Watershed Association proposed Coleman’s Canyon Preserve, 117 acres that would more than double the size of Jacob’s Well Natural Area. Its significant karst features recharge Jacob’s Well Spring and include the Wimberley Bat Cave. The project expands trails, scenic vistas, greenways and preserves, with over 100 acres of Golden-Cheeked Warbler habitat. Coleman’s Canyon could lessen flooding potential through strategically located green infrastructure projects.

WVWA also submitted a Regional Conservation Fund proposal for $20 million to permanently protect priority parcels of 20 acres or more in the Jacob’s Well Groundwater Management Zone and the Regional Recharge Study Area. WVWA envisions match funding to conserve a total of 5,330 acres for connectivity, flood mitigation, groundwater recharge, habitat protection, and scenic view preservation.

Coleman’s Canyon Preserve was POSAC’s top recommended project, followed by Sentinel Peak and other outstanding proposals, including San Marcos River Recharge, Regional Park, Purgatory Creek, Rathgeber Park, Violet Crown Trail, and Cape’s Fishing Pond.

Dedicated POSAC Leadership

The ten members of POSAC, two each appointed by County Judge Ruben Becerra and County Commissioners Debbie Ingalsbe, Mark Jones, Lon Shell, and Walt Smith, were chaired by Scott Way and facilitated by past commissioner Karen Ford. Members included vice-chairs Kathryn Nichols and Lori Olson, along with Jim Camp, Burt Dement, Laura Dupont, Carolyn Gonzales, Blanca Loya, Lisa Prewitt, and Scott Tomhave. They were a creative and resourceful team: ten of their eleven meetings were held virtually via Zoom.

Early on, POSAC took pains to establish selection criteria and provide a public orientation on the need for these projects. Its April 29 meeting, in particular, featured a series of presentations, which you can still view via the Commission’s website. In one hour, Commissioner Ingalsbe, Mark Kennedy, and Mitch Wright covered the San Marcos River Project; Commissioner Jones reviewed the CAMPO transportation plan; Kevin Thuesen detailed land investments in Hays County for water quality by the City of Austin; Katherine Romans covered the dire need for land conservation in Hays County; and Frank Davis delivered a primer on conservation easements.

Continuing a Record of Parks & Open Space Support

The POSAC effort also draws on and will support successful implementation of the Cypress Creek Watershed Protection Plan and the new Jacob’s Well Groundwater Management Zone. These leaps forward help secure the natural underpinnings of Hays County’s economy, which depends on hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who enjoy our parks, trails, and natural areas.

We owe economic benefits we enjoy today to the County’s 2007 Park/Open Space Bond Funds, which has spent $30 million for Blue Hole Regional Park, Jacob’s Well Natural Area, Winter’s Mill / Blue Hole Loop Trail, Dahlstrom Ranch, Five Mile Dam Park, La Cima Ranch, and the Wildenthal Property, among many others. Funding came amid great stress, and provided jobs and construction activity, leveraging local resources to achieve $76 million total impact.

Then, as now, projects satisfied goals of the County’s Parks & Open Space Master Plan, updated in 2012. Now, more than ever, we should invest in outdoor recreation for health, well-being, and economic vitality. Voters’ commitment to $80 million in bonds may yield up to $200 million in total projects’ value.

POSAC Answers Public Concerns

In their responses to questions from the public in the webinars this week, POSAC members made clear that the proposed County bond package is right for this time and our opportunity. Without affecting the County tax rate, we can commit ourselves to these projects today, so that tomorrow they are not swept away in development for the projected 267% population growth over the next 30 years, as we receive nearly a half million new residents.

The role of conserved lands in preventing floods or lessening their impact was a frequent discussion point. Just as roadways need bond packages for improvements that serve decades, our recreational areas and natural environment deserve investment toward long-term benefits for the community. Moreover, the importance of outdoor activities and nature to good health has never been more clear than through COVID-19-related distancing.

For some citizens who wonder whether Tier Two projects or even possibilities not yet identified could be covered by the bond package, Chair Way outlined $15 to $20 million of the $75 to $80 million total that will be reserved for just such future projects. The bonds are thus grounded in certain highly desired immediate proposals, yet flexible to accommodate additional opportunities that are sure to come.

Our Call to Action

Please take a look the presentation and list of worthy projects. Then, let your County Commissioner and Judge Becerra know you’re counting on them ahead of their August 11 meeting. If you can, please also attend the meeting and speak in Public Comments.

Hays County Contacts:

It’s a good time to preserve our natural heritage and build well-considered recreational facilities, with clear eyes on flood mitigation and anticipation of a growing population. Bond interest rates are as attractive as ever. Why not now? The parks and open space proposals cannot vote; they need your voice to make them happen.

graphics: Robin Gary; sourced from Hays County POSAC meetings, webinars, project proposals, and website information; CAMPO 2045 Regional Transportation Plan.