by Crystal Gottfried
Comal County Commissioners recently received a presentation outlining the Comal County Regional Habitat Conservation Plan.
The presentation, prepared by Smith, Robertson, Elliott, Glen, Klein, & Bell, L.L.P. and SWCA Environmental consultants showed sweeping scenes of the county’s hill country that could be set aside forever in “open space land preserves” which could also contain endangered species.
Commissioners received grant funding of $612,852 for a Habitat Conservation Plan last September, a planning assistance grant, but the county stills needs to secure a minimum of $214,284 in additional funds through cash or in-kind donations to reach the total project budget of $817,136.
Rapid growth in the county prompted commissioners to apply for the grant last year because, according to County Judge Danny Scheel, “at the rate we are growing, my biggest fear is seeing rooftops from San Antonio to Austin.”
“I want to make sure we preserve some portion of Comal County so my grandchild can enjoy it like I did,” said Scheel. “I think this is our first step in seeing that it will happen.”
The county is exploring ways to eventually purchase development rights to several potential pieces of land to preserve wildlife habitats and endangered species but needs a conservation plan to help develop local solutions to endangered species issues, provide a means to attract significant grant funding for the county, protect natural resources and preserve local and cultural heritage while also setting aside open space lands for future generations.
Consultant Alan Glen told commissioners because the area had seen a 51 percent population increase from 1990 to 2000 that created land use changes and development and because of the many rare species and natural resources that need protection, now is the time for Comal County to plan for a regional conservation district. He also said that other regional conservation efforts leave a “conservation gap” in the county.
Williamson County Precinct 3 Commissioner David Hays narrated the presentation, comparing the growth explosion of Comal County to what Williamson County has experienced.
“Much of the land is being built up by houses,” he said. “We needed to plan for endangered species habitats in the limestone on the west side of the interstate and that conservation planning helped us and others get through the lengthy endangered species process faster.”
“I do believe that this is an historic opportunity for Comal County to protect scenic vistas, preserve open space park lands and enhance water quality,” said Glen. “Fees are set at the local level and this presents a great way for the county to maintain local control of land development.”
The fee benefit to the county relates to a time benefit for developers who would work with the county controlled conservation district to get through the endangered species act provisions process much sooner.
According to Hays and Glen, it generally takes a developer two years to work through the endangered species act process with Texas Parks and Wildlife.
The conservation plan would also give the county leverage for additional funding from state, federal and private sources.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Jay Milliken said that he would support any plan that would help the county get federal or state funds for open space land protection.
“We need to protect some land in this county whether it has endangered species on it or not,” he said. “We had better get our minds wrapped around this one and get going on it.”
The next step for the county in the 24-month process of setting up the regional habitat conservation plan is to select a consulting team, develop a committee to work with the consulting team’s attorney in creating an interlocal agreement and to develop a detailed work plan.