Unique and Creative Approaches for Conservation
By Lon Shell
May 16, 2022
May 16, 2022
As our population surges, will the Hill Country retain its character? I believe it can, however it is a challenge that will require unique and creative approaches to balance that growth with preservation of the very things that drive it.
We live in a remarkable place with beautiful resources, wonderful people, and amazing opportunities. People want to live here. They want to experience the quality of life that our region provides. They want to swim in the rivers and creeks, take in the views from the hilltops, and breathe clean air—and at the same time, have access to good jobs, affordable homes, low taxes, and a safe place to raise families. Unfortunately, without careful attention, this growth will negatively affect all the things we cherish and that drew us to this region in the first place.
In the recently published State of the Hill Country report, we can see a significant percentage of this growth is occurring in the unincorporated areas of the Hill Country counties. These areas are represented by County Judges and County Commissioners that have little to no authority related to land use. A rock quarry can be established next to an existing neighborhood. A new subdivision with hundreds of homes can be built off a narrow, rural road with no shoulders or turn lanes.
Rarely a day goes by that I don’t have conversations with concerned residents related to land use and its impact on their lives. Through these discussions most folks understand property rights and the importance of protecting them, and only ask that counties be granted reasonable opportunities to protect their way of life and the safety of their communities.
Rapid growth affects our community in many ways from stressing our transportation system to depleting our water resources. Growth requires costly and constant attention because road building is expensive, and all lives depend on water. The burden of this cost is carried by our citizens.
We realize residential growth alone will likely not support the level of revenue required to manage it, so the local taxpayer is continuously strained as they are asked to pay for what others have likely caused. It is not that current residents don’t want to be welcoming, they just want to make sure their investment and quality of life are protected so that future generations may experience the Hill Country they have grown to love.
So, what can be done? First, we must recognize that residents of the Hill Country are resilient and eager to work on solutions. We should encourage constructive dialogue with local and state representatives on what types of local authority can protect our property rights and the character of this special place. I believe we can find reasonable and responsible ways in which counties can allow their citizens to have more of a say in addressing what happens in their community. That, after all, is the purpose of representing them in the first place.
Second, let's share our success stories and build on the momentum. Our residents understand that transportation infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects must be made, but ask also that we invest in preservation of our natural resources.
In 2020, Hays County voters approved a $75 million-dollar investment in parks and open space with 70% approval. This is in addition to approving bond packages of $3.5 million in 2001 and $30 million in 2007. Many of the projects included in these bond initiatives focused on land conservation.
These public investments can help offset the ever-growing impacts related to development. Conservation projects can help protect water quality, mitigate flood risks, preserve wildlife habitat, as well as provide public recreation opportunities and preserve rural lands that will help maintain the character of the Hill Country. When residents support investments in conservation like they have in Hays County, it becomes a model and motivation for others in the region to build similar support.
Third, we must leverage investments in conservation. Our citizens deserve to see their money not only used for public benefit but used efficiently. We have seen that sometimes relatively small investments can be used to produce large results. Collaboration with regional partners can lead to innovative uses of current funds, like the Texas Water Development Board’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund for land acquisition related to water quality protection and flood mitigation. The proper use of these funds can help offset future costs for expensive infrastructure projects while at the same time preserving open spaces.
Finally, if growth is inevitable, we must strive to provide homes for future residents in a way that respects those that are here now and those that came before us. This means working with those investing in our region and finding creative ways to include and incentivize our community’s conservation goals.
Hays County is now working on the creation of guidelines and rules for conservation-minded development. I believe we can provide a balance to growth by working with the development community on ways to lessen the adverse impacts of their activities by conserving portions of land that otherwise would be developed. The resulting neighborhoods will not only be recognized as models for responsible development, but they will also be valued and enjoyed by those that choose to live there.
Whether we have been here for generations or only a short time, we are all shareholders in the Hill Country. We have the responsibility to ensure our investment here is not only in our home or the property which we own, but we must also invest in protecting the character of the Hill Country as we make room for others to enjoy it.
Lon Shell has served as a Hays County Commissioner since 2017. In that role he has been an active voice for land conservation, the need for more groundwater science, protecting the county’s natural resources, and supporting trails and public parks for people.
Small-town Boerne Works to Preserve Resources as Development Gobbles Hill Country Land
By Shari Biediger
April 24, 2022
April 24, 2022
Brent Evans calls the Hill Country the sweet spot of Texas.
“When you have quick changes in elevation, you get a much greater diversity of life, and so you get the creeks and you have the sinkholes and the aquifers being filled up and it’s marvelous,” Evans said.
A Kendall County resident, Evans and others have worked for decades to protect the 17-county region’s abundant resources, the natural springs, waterways and fertile ground situated between the Panhandle Plains and the Rio Grande Valley.
The Cibolo Center for Conservation in Boerne is a result of their efforts, and also the center of growing influence to guard against uncontrolled growth that threatens the natural resources sustaining an entire region.
Though his efforts have carved out 800 acres of land now under protection and helped the City of Boerne craft one of the most environmentally sensitive municipal development codes in the state, Kendall County remains in the crosshairs as the sprawl grows ever closer.
As San Antonio’s nearest Hill Country municipality, Boerne is on the development menu as builders work to keep up with population growth expected to be at a rate of 24% through 2024; in mostly rural Kendall County, the rate is 21%.
“The Hill Country is being eaten,” said Evans, co-founder with his wife Carolyn of the center they established on Earth Day in 1989.
A haven of nature the size of New York City’s Central Park, the Cibolo Center for Conservation has miles of trails covering five distinct ecosystems just minutes from Boerne’s quaint and bustling Main Street populated with boutiques and restaurants.
Saved from misuse and encroachment by the conservation-minded couple, the center is named for the giant bald cypress-shaded Cibolo Creek that contributes over a million gallons per day to the Trinity and Edwards aquifers, the primary sources of drinking water for an entire region, including San Antonio.
Outside of this tranquil preserve, some fear the very attributes that draw people to Boerne — the small-town feel, quality schools and natural beauty — are in danger of being lost.
“I love it here so I can’t blame other people for wanting to live here as well,” said Ben Eldredge, who has worked at the Cibolo Center for Conservation for more than a decade. “[My approach] is to ensure that it’s quality growth that is respectful to the place, the natural resource constraints and actually maintains it as Hill Country.”
Boerne adopted a Unified Development Code in 2021 to guide development in a way that guards the environment, with protections similar to those of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. But those protections can’t be enforced beyond the city’s jurisdiction, in the rest of the 663-square-mile county.
In addition, a county’s authority to deal with the problems of urban sprawl is limited by the Texas Constitution and state law despite the fact that much of the state’s population growth is occurring in unincorporated areas next to a major city.
“When you get outside the city limits … it’s the wild, wild west of development,” said Eldredge, the center’s director of conservation.
Since 1990, the population in Kendall County’s unincorporated areas has grown by 176%, from 9,785 to 27,000 people, according to a report by the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network.
The Conservation Network advocates for conserving land as fast as it is developed. That goal stands in stark contrast to two words on a billboard — “Tick Tock” — advertising a new Buc-ee’s store to open in 2025 along Interstate 10 West and dozens of other signs promoting new home sites along the Hill Country corridor.
In Boerne, more than half of all residents own their homes, and the median home value is $286,000, according to data from the city.
A map of residential developments provided by the Boerne Kendall Economic Development Corp. shows 21 neighborhoods and over 5,200 lots available or under development.
Yet there are many people on hold, looking to buy a home in the area, said Robin Morris, director of relocation and Hill Country sales for the Phyllis Browning Company, a real estate firm. “The apartments are full and people are renting just to find the right house [to buy],” she said.
In her three years working in the firm’s Boerne office, Morris has watched it grow from 15 agents and $70 million in annual sales to 45 agents and $200 million worth of sales last year. This year, agents have a long list of clients waiting as homebuilders struggle with supply-chain delays and steady demand, she said.
“We have so many people over the last year do walk-ins from California saying, ‘We sold our house, we packed our stuff, and we’re just driving around looking at different areas in Texas,'” Morris said. “‘And we love Boerne.'”
They are attracted to the Hill Country’s small towns “that still look like small towns,” she added, but are close to San Antonio. “So whatever you need is there … and it’s just far enough out of town to where you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m living in the Hill Country.”
The hotspots are anywhere between Fair Oaks Ranch and Boerne up to Comfort and Fredericksburg, she said. Not far from Fair Oaks, just outside the Boerne city limits and near the Bexar-Kendall county line, is a 120-acre parcel of land slated for a 500-home development known as Lily Ranch.
Earlier this year, Kendall County commissioners approved developer Ashton Woods’ request for variances to buffers and setback standards that reduced lot sizes and increased density in the proposed Lily Ranch.
“It was something that I did not support,” said Commissioner Richard Chapman (Pct. 3), but it would have violated state law which limits a county government’s powers to control development. “But we need the tools.”
Last year, county commissioners helped state Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) draft legislation, Texas House bills 3883 and 3884, to provide development rules and regulations to protect the region’s natural resources while allowing for new economic development. The two bills died in committee less than a month after being filed.
Without those tools, officials can’t say no, said Commissioner Richard Elkins (Pct. 2). “Usually, these types of developments are looked at in a city, but this one’s way out in the middle of a rural area,” he said of the smaller-sized lots.
Lily Ranch’s smaller lots mark a change in Kendall County, which has mostly seen development far less dense, on tracts of between 1 and 10 acres per house. More density sparks fears of more traffic congestion and more pressure on local schools and water infrastructure in addition to the ecological impacts.
Chapman’s precinct, which lies in the northeastern part of Kendall County, is more rural than other parts of the county. He sees less dense development because the area does not have access to out-of-county water sources.
HOMES, WATER, AND SCHOOLS
The southern part of the county, with its close proximity to San Antonio, is another story. Under the Texas Water Code, the San Antonio Water System is responsible for providing services to 520 acres of the county through its water and wastewater certificates of convenience and necessity, or CCNs, the infrastructure is presumably in place.
But in March, SAWS staff briefed trustees on a request by Lily Ranch developers to supply water to the subdivision, costing SAWS an estimated $50 million to construct infrastructure, and how the utility could respond. One alternative would be to transfer the CCN to another water provider, a staffer said.
Ashton Woods did not respond to a request for information on its plans for Lily Ranch.
In promoting the new neighborhood, the Atlanta-based developer’s website states that Lily Ranch will offer luxury homes in an area with historic charm, plentiful recreation and excellent schools.
“One of the main reasons that people move here is because of Boerne ISD schools,” said Bryan Benway, director of communications for Boerne ISD.
For the past five years, Boerne’s student population has increased an average of 6% annually, said a spokesman, and officials expect its current enrollment of 10,000 to more than double in the coming decade.
To manage that growth, the district built three new schools after voters passed a 2016 bond. A new bond package on the May 7 ballot consists of two propositions totaling over $165 million that would add an eighth elementary school, expand the two high schools and middle schools, and design a third high school.
‘San Antonio Northwest’“Just seeing the change over the past decade, to me, the community just keeps getting better and better,” said Amy Story, president and CEO of the Boerne Kendall County Economic Development Corp.
Story said that’s because officials have created a deliberate strategy to manage the growth while also preserving “what makes Boerne unique and special and not have it simply be a bedroom community for San Antonio, not have it eventually be ‘San Antonio Northwest.'”
The strategy is built around attracting businesses that are not intensive users of natural resources, such as tech companies, satellite offices and entrepreneurial ventures, including breweries, wineries and distilleries.
A planned business incubator space developed through a public-private partnership is set to open in Boerne later this year.
“I think it’s an exciting time,” Story said. “People come here and say they had no idea this community is in San Antonio’s backyard. We’re close to big cities, but really a world away.”
THE RESET BUTTON
Also designed to be a world away, the nature center started out with a mission to teach people to value natural areas and protect resources, with its programming geared especially toward schoolchildren.
“We wanted them to get outside of their air-conditioned box and air-conditioned cars and totally programmed lives and immerse themselves in a place in nature where they can kind of hit a reset button and think about their place in the universe and maybe what kind of life they want to have,” Evans said.
But it has expanded in the last four years to include Eldredge’s role in stewarding policy change on issues that affect the environment. He ensures the center’s interests are represented through various citizen-led committees on issues such as water and transportation.
“That’s really in response to all the growth that we saw coming to our region,” Eldredge said.
“We realize that you can teach people to do the right thing,” he added. “But when you’re talking about out-of-state developers, they’re not going to be coming to see us to learn about the best practices, nor will they necessarily respect this place in development that is respectful of the natural resources here.”
Disappearing Way of Life
Surging Development In The Hill Country Has Its Small Towns Worried
By Annie Blanks STAFF WRITER
Photos by William Luther / Staff photographer
March 6, 2022
Photos by William Luther / Staff photographer
March 6, 2022
The Sunfield community is east of Interstate 35 in Buda. The Texas Hill Country is one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation, according to the 2020 census.
Gone are the days when the Texas Hill Country was just that — rolling hills as the backdrop to a country ways of life, a relatively undeveloped and untouched of the Lone Star State.
Gone are the days when dark skies were actually dark, longhorns roamed in wide-open fields for miles and miles, and major rivers from the Savinal to the San Marcos snaked unobstructed through the plains.
The Texas Hill Country has officially been discovered, and there’s no turning back.
“There’s a gold rush mindset in terms of development in the Hill Country,” said Connie Barron, a city councilwoman in Blanco and a board member of the Hill Country Alliance. “And, unfortunately, there’s little to no regard for what that will mean for the future of the region."
The Hill Country is one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation, according to the 2020 census, and leaders of the small towns that dot the region say that makes them increasingly concerned. Developers are flooding the Hill Country with thousand-plus-homes subdivisions, often overwhelming small-town infrastructure and placing the “Hill Country way of life” in jeopardy.
The Hill Country Alliance, a nonprofit that counts more than 11 million acres in 18 counties as its namesake region, works to preserve the environment and strengthen conservation efforts amid explosive growth. In addition to the big cities of San Antonio and Austin, the region is home to the headwaters of 12 Texas rivers.
But as growth soars in the major metro areas, spillover has led to a development boom in the Hill Country. Homebuilders from across Texas are gobbling up available land, which is often in unincorporated parts of rural counties that have little government oversight.
Katherine Romans, executive director of the Hill Country Alliance, said the pandemic has only accelerated the rate of “fragmentation” in the region — the splitting up of large tracts of land to make way for dense development.
“We always knew that to be a challenge — the loss of family ranching land, the subdivision of large tracts of wildlife habitat and open spaces,” she said. “But it has intensified over the last two years.”
Blanco, for instance, is attempting to fend off a 1,500-home subdivision that would more than double the city’s population of 1,800 when finished. And Buda is preparing for a 2,500-home subdivision in its extraterritorial jurisdiction that’s being built despite near universal opposition from city leaders who say they just can’t handle the additional stress on their infrastructure.
Ranchers in Dripping Springs are preparing for the possibility that Hays County will exercise eminent domain over their lands to build a four-lane highway through the hills to accommodate increased traffic associated with the population boom.
The developers are often at odds with city leaders who want to preserve the once-quiet Hill Country way of life, said Colin Strother, a political strategist who lives in Buda and served on the town’s planning and zoning commission for 10 years.
“These developers, they don’t give a damn about us,” he said. “They just don’t care.”
CITIES CAN'T MANAGE GROWTH
The Hill Country Alliance, or HCA, has carefully tracked population growth in the region over the past 20 years.
Nearly 3.8 million people lived in the Hill Country as of 2020, according to the HCA, a growth of almost 50 percent since 2000. The region is expected to grow by 35 percent over the next 20 years, reaching 5.2 million people by 2040.
And while some of that growth has taken place within city limits, in cities such as Fredericksburg, Boerne and Kerrville, most of it has happened in unincorporated areas — places that are not located within city limits and aren’t subject to city rules and regulations.
More than 864,000 people lived in unincorporated areas of the Hill Country in 2020, according to the HCA — a jump of 103 percent since 1990.
The mass migration into unincorporated areas of the Hill Country is reflected best in places like Bandera and Medina counties. According to the 2021 State of the Hill Country Report — for which the HCA analyzed the region’s population growth, water quality and conservation efforts — the population in unincorporated areas of Bandera County more than doubled after 1990.
Meanwhile, the city of Band-era’s population stayed nearly the same. And in Medina County, the populations of several cities decreased after the 1990s, while the county’s overall population expanded. The growth of unincorporated areas is important because counties have fewer tools to manage and plan for responsible growth than cities do, per Texas law. Developers are able to build subdivisions in unincorporated areas of counties without having to be subject to cities’ density, zoning or wastewater regulations.
“Texas is the only state in the country that does not allow counties tools to plan for and manage growth,” the HCA’s Romans said. “We are seeing this huge amount of growth come to our region, and more and more incompatible land uses coming in next to each other.”
That can look like a concrete plant coming in across from a hospital, or an amphitheater with large outdoor lights coming in next to a quiet neighborhood.
Representatives from the Greater San Antonio Builders Association, the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin and the Hill Country Builders Association did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.
Many city leaders point to the passage of House Bill 347 in 2019 as the impetus for a lot of developer takeover in the Hill Country. The bill ended involuntary municipal annexation, or the ability of a city to annex parts of unincorporated county territory into its city limits without voter approval.
The bill was heralded by many as a way for those who live in unincorporated areas to not have to be involuntarily annexed into a city, thereby becoming subject to increased city regulations and taxation. But the bill has had the
unintended consequence, some say, of preventing cities from being able to get a better handle on development on the outskirts of their limits, most often in their extraterritorial jurisdictions, or ETJs. Developers will take advantage of the little county oversight and build large subdivisions in a city’s ETJ, while being close enough to a city to still require its water, wastewater, emergency and public service resources.
Barron, the Blanco councilwoman, said the bill effectively stripped cities of their ability to have “more control and protection, and greater opportunity for revenue” necessary to sustain a small town in the Hill Country.
“At the same time, it is empowering developers to come into these unincorporated areas and build their own infrastructure to create incredibly dense communities right on our outskirts,” she said.
Strother, the political strategist in Buda, said HB347 was akin to the Legislature taking a “meat cleaver” to cities’ abilities to control growth and development.
“They just lopped off a whole section of the code that gave cities what little power we did have to help manage our own growth,” Strother said.
EFFECT ON WATER SUPPLY
One of the main concerns of increased development is the effect on the environment, particularly with the strain that all the new houses are placing on the Trinity and Edwards aquifers — the two main aquifers that supply drinking water to the Hill Country.
Barron likened the current water supply situation to a glass of water that used to have just one or two straws in it. Now it has 10 or 11.
“We just can’t keep putting more and more straws into the same glass of water and expect it to last as long as it lasted when there was just one in that glass,” she said.
Simply put, more houses and subdivisions means more groundwater pumping from the aquifers, which could, in theory, lead some of the wells that pump from them to dry up.
Jacob’s Well, one of the most well-known and important spring wells in the region, went dry for the first time in the late 2000s because of a combination of excessive pumping and drought, after never having run dry in recorded geographical history. It’s run dry a number of times since then, Romans said.
“We know the Hill Country was once the land of 1,100 springs, but unfortunately we don’t know how many of the original springs are still running,” she said. “The point is, once we start losing those springs, we see dramatic and irreversible impacts on the surface water.”
The Edwards Aquifer Authority and local groundwater conservation districts manage and cap water permits. They have been working for years to manage the number of new water permits that are issued so new homes or businesses can be built.
But developers and environmental purposes still can be “at odds with each other” sometimes, said Roland Ruiz, general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. He said it’s up to developers and environmental stakeholders to take into account things such as groundwater supply, endangered species and conservation efforts when planning for new growth in the Hill Country.
“It’s complicated and complex,” Ruiz said. “But we believe there’s a workable path forward, and that’s why we do what we do — so that we can, perhaps, move forward together.”
Strother said the draw of the Hill Country is still its “rolling hills, starry skies” and proximity to the big cities.
But the big-city folks who want to live in the Hill Country are ultimately going to be its demise, he said. “These actions aren’t just hurting the small communities. It’s hurting the entire region because we don’t have adequate infrastructure to handle this at all,” he said. “As a result of this unchecked growth, we’re damaging the entire region.”
State of the Hill Country Report Reveals Threats to the Region
For Immediate Release
February 28, 2022
Dripping Springs, Texas
February 28, 2022
Dripping Springs, Texas
Booming population growth and sprawling development, groundwater depletion, changing climate patterns, extreme droughts and floods, and a unique set of policy challenges threaten the natural resources that define the Hill County region—resources on which millions of people rely.
A recently released report from the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network (THCCN) sets a baseline for eight key metrics to examine the current state of conservation and growth in the Hill Country. What it reveals is a region at a crossroads, facing tremendous threats to its future.
“This report makes it perfectly clear—the Hill Country’s breathtaking vistas, natural spaces, clear waters, abundant wildlife, starry night skies, and small-town charms must not be taken for granted,” warns Katherine Romans, Hill Country Alliance Executive Director and Chair for the THCCN. “The choices we collectively make now will determine whether the region and its inhabitants survive and thrive, or whether we willfully live beyond the means and carrying capacity of this place we call home.”
The eight metrics used for the State of the Hill Country Report are:
The State of the Hill Country Report is a product of the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network, a partnership of dozens of organizations working across the 18-county region of Central Texas to expand protection of natural resources through collaborative conservation and promoting better ways to accommodate growth.
“This report is a call to action for sustained collaborative efforts to secure the valuable assets delivered by Hill Country land, water and skies,” said Jennifer Walker, National Wildlife Federation’s Deputy Director for the Texas Coast and Water Program and Vice Chair of the THCCN. “The window of opportunity to protect and sustain the Hill Country’s natural treasures will likely close within our generation. Understanding how to balance development and conservation in service of these goals is key to that sustainability.”