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Whither the Warbler’s Habitat?

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Comal County’s one of the top 10 fastest-growing counties in the United States, and a loose coalition of concerned residents and activist groups think it’s time for residents to start thinking about protecting open space and acquiring park land — “before it’s too late.”

At Land Conservation Options for Comal County, a panel discussion Nov. 8 at the McKenna Events Center in New Braunfels, Katherine Romans, executive director of Hill Country Alliance; Annalisa Peace of Greater Edwards Aquifier Alliance; Jensie Madden with League of Women Voters of Comal Area (LWVCA); Dianne Wassenich of San Marcos River Foundation (SMRF); Comal County Engineer Tom Hornseth; and attorney Julie Koppenheffer examined conservation efforts in other Hill Country communities to see if those same tools can be used by landowners in Comal County.

Currently there are 12,000 acres or about three percent of Comal County’s total acreage under permanent protection.

Comal County’s population is expected to reach 140,825 by 2020 before doubling between 2050 and 2060, according to South Central Texas Regional Water Plan.

Most of the homes built to accommodate this growth will be built on land that is now ranchland or undeveloped woodland.

Romans says to protect the county from rapid development, the public must identify leaders from the community, find committed landowners partners, talk to local elected officials about local demand for conservation, and find resources to leverage funding.

Six Future Conservation Options

Madden chairs LWVCA’s Land Use Committee, which recently published Facts & Issues: Land Use Planning in Comal County, Impacts of Growth; Time for Action.

She says rapid growth in Comal County is converting much of Comal County’s current ranch lands and undeveloped wooded areas into subdivisions. Large areas for preserves are rapidly disappearing.

LWVCA suggests local governments work together to conserve natural areas by:

  • Using mitigation credits to preserve critical habitat, as outlined in Comal County’s Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP)
  • Purchasing land through bonds or sales tax
  • Creating special districts and tax incentives;
  • Working with individual landowners and land trusts to encourage conservation easements
  • Working with foundations
  • Creating a combination of donations, grants and public funding

The League’s tracked the impact of growth on Comal County since 2003.

Working the RHCP

Lots of acronyms, regulations and development will make it difficult for Comal County to create a 500-acre preserve mandated by the RHCP to preserve habitat for Golden-Cheeked Warblers (GCW).

The birds, also known as the goldfinch of Texas, are an endangered species that breeds in Central Texas. To get permitted, developers have to deal with warblers first.

Hornseth, recently named County Engineer of the Year by Texas Association of County Engineers and Road Administrators, oversees RHCP, describing it as an agreement with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) that assists with implementation of the Endangered Species Act. Finalized in January 2016, RHCP protects the birds’ habitat and facilitates landowners’ and other entities’ compliance with the ESA.

Hornseth says landowners, school districts and even TxDOT who want to develop properties with GCW habitat must obtain proper permitting and pay mitigation credits. Comal County acts as an agent of USFWS and can speed up the process for landowners.

The county helps landowners comply — but not necessarily look for habitat that needs protection.

To date, Comal County has permitted Capitol Aggregate and Cemex, which plan to develop their property into quarries. Because Comal County does not currently have a 500-acre preserve for GCW, credits went to a land bank in Bandera County.

How San Antonio Saved the Aquifer

There’s more than one way to pay for land conservation.

Koppenheffer,  formerly executive director of Green Spaces, she says although Comal County is currently at its maximum for sales tax, Texas Natural Resource Code allows counties to use additional sales tax for land conservation or other natural resource.

Facing similar concerns ten years ago, San Antonio voters passed Prop 1, which allocated an additional ⅛-cent of sales tax to protect property over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone from development.

Since its passage, over 130,000 acres have been preserved in order to protect the city’s main source of drinking water.

Koppenheffer says San Antonio succeeded by purchasing conservation easements that kept properties from development but allowed landowners to retain ownership of their properties.

“At first landowners were worried about conservation easements being under the ‘control’ of the City of San Antonio, but now there is a waiting list,” she says.

‘Just Do It,’ San Marcos Urges

Wassenich, who’s served on the San Marcos River Foundation since its inception in 1985, says Comal residents should “just do it” and embrace land conservation.

Five years ago, the foundation was approached by a resident who asked them to purchase his 75-acre ranch. Another landowner asked for help getting a conservation easement on his small property.

“SMRF took on these challenges and learned as they went about special loans for land conservation, conservation easement for small properties, et cetera. SMRF was able to save both properties.”

The group’s now working to become its own Land Trust, which Wassenrich says is critical in urbanizing areas where large properties no longer exist.

Citizen Efforts So Far

Comal County residents past, present and future have a long and storied history with land preservation.

“Because the landowners and citizens who came before us were conservation-minded, we have some real gems in our county that have been protected for future generations to enjoy and benefit from,” Madden says. “Now it is our turn to continue that tradition.”

Civic-minded land conservation and preservation initiatives include –

Landa Park
The Landa family purchased the property in 1860. Citizens of New Braunfels took over in 1936, preserving not only the 300-year-old Founder Oak but Comal Springs as well.

Fischer Park
In 2006, New Braunfels Parks Foundation was established as a 501-c-3 tax-exempt organization that could accept land and financial donations to be used in applying for matching grants. Proceeds were donated to City of New Braunfels to create Fischer Park.

Guadalupe River State Park
Some 1,940 acres were acquired from a local landowner by the State of Texas in 1974, preserving this portion of the Guadalupe River and its riparian (interface between land and river or stream) habitat, making it a haven for birds, butterflies and wildflowers.

Honey Creek Natural Area
Located next to GSRP, these 2,294 acres were acquired by State of Texas in 1985 with help from a deed from Texas Nature Conservancy. The area is only open for guided nature walks on Saturday mornings.

Canyon Lake Gorge
Canyon Lake Gorge is preserved by Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA) with the volunteer assistance of Gorge Preservation Society. The county itself operates Jumbo Evans Sports Park and Hidden Valley Sports Park, designed as youth playing fields.

Morton Golden-Cheeked Warbler Preserve
This 288-acre tract of prime habitat for warblers was preserved by the Morton family and sold to Comal County in 2007 through a grant from USFWS. It’s not open to the public but will be administered in perpetuity by Comal County to protect GCW and other rare species.

Speaking before Comal County Commissioners Court in 2007, Timothy Morton said, “For my last 50 years I’ve been devoted to preserving this land. I love this area – I love the dirt! Finalizing this land so it remains natural forever is a lifelong dream and aspiration, and a commitment that I made to my grandfather long ago.”

Curry Nature Center and Kleck Park
These small natural areas boasting short hiking trails were donated to the county by the Curry and Kleck families.

Bulverde Community Park
This 13-acre park, established in 2014, features walking trails and other recreational amenities.

Garden Ridge
The 15-acre Paul Davis Park was created by Garden Ridge Lions Club and Women’s Club. Park Lane Park, a so-called ‘pocket park,’ is described as a “dream of adjacent property owners who organized volunteers and donations.”

Cibolo Bluffs Preserve
Situated about 20 miles northeast of San Antonio, Cibolo Bluffs is a scenic landscape that encompasses nearly three miles of Cibolo Creek, which spans both Comal and Bexar counties. It was created in partnership with Bexar County and the United States Army. Rapid development of the land surrounding Camp Bullis, the 28,000-acre military installation was fast becoming a ‘lone island of refuge’ for the warbler. The Conservancy entered into a cooperative agreement with the Army to protect warbler habitat off-site in exchange for mitigation credits, which allow the Army to clear vegetation and develop property surrounding the camp.

It’s home to Natural Bridge Caverns, BCI’s Bracken Cave Preserve (home to 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats).

In 2013 a proposed new subdivision in the area caused residents and conservationists to join forces to protect the 1,500 acres. Included in the coalition of public and private organizations were City of San Antonio, BCI, Edwards Aquifer Authority, U.S. Army, Bexar County and Nature Conservancy.

The Preserve includes preservation easements.

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