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2011-01-06

Commishes nix Big Gov land grab

By Judith Pannebaker BCC

During the final meeting of 2010, Bandera County Commissioners thwarted - for now at least - an intended land grab by the 1.7 million-pound gorilla to the southeast, Bexar County.
On Tuesday, Dec. 28, Charley Seale, executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association, offered an overview of the proposed Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan (SEP-HCP) and its implications for Bandera County.
The process has been in the works for several years, according to Judge Richard Evans. “When Lyle Larson was a Bexar County Commissioner, he came up here to explain about the plan. I told him, ‘We’re not interested in helping Bexar County out. Take care of yourself’,” Evans said. Prime objectives of local commissioners are to support private property rights and the ability of individual landowners to use their property.
According to Seale, the primary movers behind SEP-HCP - Bexar County and the City of San Antonio - are developing an application to submit to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a regional habitat conservation plan that would be comprised of multiple counties, including Bandera. Essentially, the plan calls for a “three acre to one” trade-off to assist developers in Bexar County and San Antonio. To develop properties in those areas, acreage sufficient to comply with the Endangered Species Act must be designated. The catch is, of course, that the conservation acreage would be located primarily in Bandera, Blanco, Kendall, Kerr and Medina counties, as well as in Bexar County.
Endangered species in this region include the Golden-cheeked Warbler, Black-capped Vireo and several kinds of karst-dwelling beetles inhabiting caves in Bexar County.
“What authority does this group have to do anything in our county?” Evans asked.
“Developers are trying to get elected officials to set aside land for conservation easements,” Seale said, describing the effort as “coming in through the backdoor,” using the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Currently, developers have prime areas near Camp Bullis in their crosshairs. “Camp Bullis is in the middle of critical habitat for birds,” Seale said. “Developers can’t go within five miles of it.” Therefore, under the aegis of SEP-HCP, developers are attempting to tie up acreage in other counties, which would enable them to develop around Camp Bullis.
“Once developers set up ‘voluntary habitat zones,’ the value of the land would decrease,” Seale said, adding, “To build new structures on their own land, owners would have to pay a tax to Bexar County officials.” In Travis County similar fees range from $1,500 to as much as $5,500 per acre.
“Camp Bullis is 25,000 acres. That’s why they need 70,000 acres in a habitat zone. It’s a one for three equation,” Sealedexplained.
Published by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the “Handbook for the Habitat Conservation Planning and Incidental Take Permitting Process” supports his contention. It explains that any changes to “voluntary habitat zones” would be subject to an Incidental Taking Permit.
“That ‘taking’ must be subjected to mitigation (payment of a fee) proportionate to the impact and the impact must be kept to a minimum,” according to Marida Favia del Core Borromeo, who works with the Exotic Wildlife Association.
Being a part of the SEP-HCP would impose severe and negative economic consequences not only to local landowners, but also to Bandera County. Apparently, land falling under a conservation easement is taxed only the equivalent of agricultural exempt land, decreasing the county’s coffers considerably.
“People can make their own deals with the US Fish and Wildlife. They don’t have to do it through the Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan,” Seale said.
“This makes the decision-making process take place in Bexar County,” Evans echoed. Additionally, he expressed concern that governmental agencies would use “condemnation rights” to secure their desired acreage.
“Don’t let Bexar County and the City of San Antonio get rich by developing their land at the expense of yours,” Borromeo wrote. “In essence, they are willing to condemn your land so they can continue to grow and develop theirs.”
Seale continued, “Kerr County opted out. They didn’t want anything to do with this plan. This is nothing but a backdoor approach to take your property.” Ironically, Kerr County Commissioner Jonathan Letz represents governmental entities and utility providers as a member of the SEP-HCP Citizens’ Advisory Committee.
Seale continued, “[Ad­min­istrators with] US Fish and Wildlife feel that the right of ownership of property is not guaranteed by the Constitution. They believe it’s a concept that has outlived its usefulness.”
In response to Seale’s presentation and Evans’ prior discussions with Larson, county commissioners voted unanimously to oppose the proposed DEP-HCP. The court also vowed to “continuously monitor and oversee any effort on the part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service or any other entity attempting to implement this or any similar plan in Bandera County.”
“They’ll be coming after your water next,” Seale predicted.
For more information on the proposed Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan, visit the website, www.sephcp.com.