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2015-06-11

Habitat conservation plan for Southern Edwards Plateau

By Milan J. Michalec Hill Country Alliance

Bexar County and the City of San Antonio are working on a regional planning effort to balance the conservation needs of rare plants and animals with the demand for economic growth and development. This program is known as the Southern Edwards Plateau, Habitat Conservation Plan (SEP-HCP). The website is http://www.sephcp.com/.
Since the initial public comments were recorded during the scoping period in 2011, this program has been has been controversial. Commissioners' courts in Bandera, Blanco, Kendall, Kerr and Medina counties, representing 5 of the 6 affected counties in the region, all approved resolutions opting out of the plan.
The summary of public comments recorded during public meetings held in Helotes and Kerrville during February 2015 showed no change of public opinion - despite four years of public outreach from Bexar County and the federal governments.
The consensus of county commissioners' courts has generally been that this plan would give Bexar County the mechanism to destroy habitat critical to certain endangered species by acquiring land in Bandera, Blanco, Comal, Kendall, Kerr and Medina counties which would then be designated critical habitat.
On the other hand, the SEP HCP could provide interested landowners with an opportunity to preserve their property into perpetuity and receive significant federal tax benefits. It would allow interested landowners with endangered species on their property to place that land into a conservation easement in exchange for payment.
To provide the public a forum to discuss these and other aspects of the plan, the Hill Country Alliance called a meeting of interested parties to gather at the Chamber of Commerce in Boerne in March to air concerns and gather information about the plan.
The intended purpose of this informal gathering was to help the community appreciate the different points of view concerning the plan, dispel misunderstandings and provide a forum for the free exchange of ideas.
Meeting participants included, landowners, county officials, members of the county ad hoc committee formed to draft a resolution of concern regarding the program, a representative from the Kendall County Economic Development Council, directors of Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District, board members of the Cibolo Nature Center, the Cibolo Conservancy Land Trust and a representative from the consulting group hired by the Bexar County and City of San Antonio who had been involved in drafting the plan and knowledgeable of US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) powers.
Prior to this meeting, local op-ed writers expressed the opinion that the plan represented a "land grab" by the federal government. Another countered with opinions that were more positive and supportive of the plan.
From active discussion, participants learned that landowners in Kendall County were not in danger of losing their land or their rights to it.
In reality, the program would permit Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, developers and landowners to mitigate their impacts to endangered species land by purchasing development rights to similar properties from willing landowners within Bexar and the surrounding six counties, including Kendall County.
This mitigation could occur through the placement of a conservation easement on a property, thereby protecting endangered species on the property forever. No property owner in Kendall County or any of the other participating counties can be required to participate, and no adjacent property owner would lose any development rights through a "buffer zone."
Any lands wishing to be considered for conservation through this program must first be extensively studied for the presence of endangered species and habitat and land conditions evaluated on the property. The final reports would be very extensive and account for numerous variables that might affect the stability and survivability of a population of endangered species.
The SEP-HCP would be responsible for all aspects and costs associated with setting up the conservation easements, including the biological studies and purchase of the development rights, usually around half of the market value of the property. No federal or state taxpayer dollars would be used to pay for any of these conservation easements from which mitigation credits would be generated.
The USFWS is tasked with helping Bexar County and the City of San Antonio setup this process for facilitating land conservation within Bexar County and the counties surrounding the San Antonio extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). The responsibility for administering the program would belong to Bexar County and the City of San Antonio.
All land placed in a conservation easement would remain the property of the landowner - and under the jurisdiction of the county in which the conservation easement exists.
Private landowners, who place an easement on their property, maintain ownership of their conserved land, including the right to sell, pass on to their heirs, deny access to the public and prosecute trespassers, just like any other landowner.
In spite of differing opinions about the Endangered Species Act and the SEP-HCP Program, there appeared to be a general consensus that Kendall County is in danger of over-development, and that effective conservation measures would be good for that county.
There was also concern that the plan had not been developed well, communicated well and coordinated well with surrounding counties and citizens. Additionally, there was not agreement about the over-all benefit of the plan, but, there was respectful dialogue and a free exchange of ideas, which allowed all points of view to be aired.
What is known is that the expanding population of the greater San Antonio area along with the ongoing development activities to accompany and support the region's rapid growth has caused the loss and degradation of endangered species habitats. This largely occurred without the benefits of the corresponding conservation measures that would otherwise be implemented through the SEP-HCP Program.
Protecting the Hill County's natural scenic beauty, native wildlife, in particular species known to endangered, is imperative if we are perpetuate the local historical and cultural heritage of this unique region.
Just as important is the impact of on-water resources. Much of these known habitats within the Hill Country occur over areas within the recharge and contributing zones of the Edwards Aquifer and would contribute to aquifer protection.
The SEP-HCP would provide for the coordinated conservation of the Hill Country's important natural resources at a scale that would help secure the status of endangered species and contribute significantly to their ultimate recovery.
The SEP-HCP would be another tool in the conservation toolbox, which groups could utilize for assistance in regional-scale conservation efforts, not only endangered species protection and recovery, but protection of the Edwards Aquifer and other important natural resources of the Hill Country.
In the future the Hill Country Alliance hopes to provide more opportunities for citizens to listen to each other about matters involving protection of natural resources, so that as a community we can work together for a future that reflects our shared values.
(Michalec is a member of the Board of Directors of the Hill Country Alliance, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to raise public awareness and build community support around the need to protect the natural resources and heritage of the Central Texas Hill Country. Website is www.hillcountryalliance.org.)