Comal County residents and environmental advocacy groups are fighting to protect a property along the Devil’s Backbone — and hope the county will help in doing so.
On the Comal-Hays county line is a property known as El Rancho Cima — a Boy Scout ranch many residents of Comal County don’t want to see be developed into another subdivision or strip mall.
After the ranch was recently purchased by a private developer and split into seven parcels, members from the Comal County Conservation Alliance and Hill Country Alliance are hoping to see two of those parcels — totaling to 610 acres — get purchased by Comal County for conservation.
“As y’all probably know, Comal County is regularly (one of) the fastest growing county in the country,” said Cliff Kaplan, CCCA board member and Hill Country Alliance program manager. “The county is going to double in population in the next 25 years, we’re adding about 40,000 people every decade, and 1/3 of that growth is occurring in the unincorporated portion of the county where, as y’all know, there’s no zoning.”
It’s because of this rapid growth situation it is vital for the county to purchase and start conserving land now — before it’s too expensive or too late, Kaplan said.
“It’s not that any one of
these projects is so terrible, but the overall dynamic of rapid growth with really no strategy of how to preserve those places that make the county desirable, that’s the problem that we’ve got and that we need to address as quickly as we can,” Kaplan said.
The ranch, which has a long history dating back to 1954, is made up of land that is still mostly undeveloped with pristine wildlife habitats on hundreds of acres, said Leslie Collier, a Comal County resident who lives across from the ranch and an advocate for the land.
“It’s close to the Comal River, it falls on Comal and Hays County and the topography is one of the most unique in Texas,” Collier said. “This land is home to the golden cheeked warbler and blind salamander and, most importantly, it sits above the Edward’s Aquifer recharge zone.”
Of the seven parcels, several have already been purchased, Kaplan said. This makes it even more important the county steps up now, he added.
“Properties B and G, we believe have been purchased by neighbors and that they are conservation minded and are going to put conservation easements on their properties,” Kaplan said. “Properties E and F have most of the Boy Scout facilities and infrastructur,e and we believe that the capital area and Alamo Area Boy Scouts are hoping and planning to purchase these properties and continue to use them for Boy Scouts.”
Properties C and D, Kaplan continued, would be a great investment for Comal County. Totaling to 610 acres, these mostly wooded properties contain 510 acres that are Golden Cheek Warbler habitat and would make for great open space in the county.
“It could be a place where habitat mitigation, conservation is conducted, in other words we could conserve the acreage at the Boy Scout ranch to offset the government elsewhere in the county,” Kaplan said. “That’s not the only benefit … flood mitigation with the acreage would mitigate the extent of flooding. It would preserve water quality in the Blanco River and the aquifers. It would increase property values in the surrounding area, and it would preserve the Devil’s backbone as a treasured place for locals and for tourists, and it would demonstrate that Comal County recognizes the strategic importance of preserving our natural resources for the long-term well being of our communities.”
There are three strategies that the CCCA has come up with that members think the county should explore, Kaplan said.
“The first strategy is to establish a private-public habitat mitigation plan,” Kaplan said. “The property would remain in the current owners’ hands through negotiated agreement. Habitat would be conserved over time as development occurs in Comal County, and when enough habitat is conserved … ownership would be assumed by the county, and then that property could be used as a park as well as a habitat so seasonal trail access would open up.”
The second strategy would be a fee-simple acquisition, from diverse funding sources, Kaplan said. The first step here would be to put the property under a 12- to 18-month contract, which could be done with the help of a large conservation nonprofit such as the Nature Conservancy, he added.
“The nature conservancy for instance could provide funds to put the property under contract while the county and partners assemble funds to purchase the property. These funds could include grants and low interest loans, federal sources the sale of habitat mitigation credits, one-time contributions from jurisdictions and agencies that would benefit from the conservation of this property,” Kaplan said. “That could be NBU, that could be the city of New Braunfels, that could be the Edwards Aquifer Authority — and then a new funding stream interest in agencies, so that again could be NBU, for instance, could set up a small fee on water bills for the protection of water resources.”
The third strategy identified by the CCCA would require placing the property under contract, this time so that the county could conduct a green spaces bond election either in 2020 or 2021, Kaplan explained.
“The bond would fund projects for green spaces throughout the county,” Kaplan said. “The second and third strategies here would really set the county up for a more extensive conservation program to protect not just this property, but many of the natural resources that make Comal County a special place to be — and a vital piece for long term growth.”
Other counties, such as Bandera, Travis, Hays, Kendall and Bexar, have all held bond elections or “green space elections,” Kaplan said.
“So every bond election for open space conservation in our region, so in those four counties, has been successful with the exception of one — I want to say the Travis County bond in the 1990s,” Kaplan said. “Every bond that has gone out for open space conservation since then has passed, and the actual habitat for it has been increasing.”
In this regard, Comal County is behind, Kaplan suggested.
“The mitigation credits are a revenue stream that now is being sent to Bandera County, and Bexar County,” he said. “Comal County hasn’t yet identified land or land owners they think they can establish a date, but this is a prime example of where it could be established inside Comal County.”
Residents who believe in this mission or who feel strongly about it should talk to their county commissioner or county judge, Collier said.
“If you are interested in seeing Comal invest in the conservation of our natural resources, please reach out to these leaders and let them know,” Collier said.
For more information on how to contact the county commissioners and judge, visitwww.co.comal.tx.us/Comm.htm.