A Rural Riddle
How Should Hays County Manage Growth?
Erin Foster has had her share of water problems at her northern Hays County home. One of her wells ran dry, and another gave her son a serious case of dysentery. "That's how I got concerned about water issues," Foster says over a plate of barbecue from the Salt Lick, Hays County's most famous eatery. She goes on to explain how living in the dry landscape outside of Austin's chaotic world of traffic and strip malls is peaceful and inspiring. Sure, neighbors sometimes have to borrow water from each other's spigots and shower at health clubs when the wells run dry. "There's a lot of downsides as well," she says.
So it may seem a bit strange that Foster is the stone in the shoe for the Lower Colorado River Authority's plans to run a water pipeline into Hays County. The $17.5 million pipeline, which is scheduled for construction in January, would run from just south of the Village of Bee Cave on Highway 71 to Dripping Springs along U.S. 290, and could potentially serve thousands of residents with clean, clear water -- lots of it. Without the water, residents are forced to rely on wells, many of which have run dry in recent years or yield poor quality water.
"Oh, I want the water," Foster says. "But I'm not going to end up getting it. It's destined for new development."
Foster -- who now is being pegged as the A-1 troublemaker by LCRA -- co-chairs the Hays County Water Planning Partnership (HCWPP), a nonprofit group that formed in July to try to force local officials to plan for the massive residential developments now on the horizon. Much of this proposed development is over the Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones, which ultimately affect drinking water in the area and the endangered Barton Springs Salamander, not to mention swimmers.
HCWPP's main focus is a request for LCRA to halt the pipeline project until the authority is more forthcoming about who is going to get the water and how much it's going to cost, Foster says. In fact, the request has been made in the form of a notice of intent to sue the water authority. But the partnership also has managed to get in the thick of things on other issues. The group sued Hays County last month, alleging that officials violated the Open Meetings Act while chatting with a developer over a steak dinner. HCWPP members managed to stop what they call a "done-deal" county transportation plan that includes, among other big road projects, an extension of MoPac to San Marcos. And they appear ready to go head to head with city of Austin public enemy #1, Gary Bradley, over his proposal to put hundreds of homes, a hotel, and retail development on the Spiller Ranch site in northern Hays County.
HCWPP critics, though, say the group is simply a zealous no-growth offshoot of the Save Our Springs Alliance that it is jeopardizing quality development and dependable water supplies for the county. "Erin Foster wants water to her subdivision and apparently doesn't want anyone else to have water," says Dede Stevenson, a Dripping Springs-area resident who stands to get a connection to the LCRA pipeline.
Hays County Judge Jim Powers, the target of many HCWPP attacks, released a statement saying that HCWPP members make "inflammatory remarks about the plans for development, are being completely unreasonable, and border on downright deceit."
On the other hand, Hays County residents are seeing what large-scale development and growth can do to a community by watching their neighbor to the north. "We don't want to be another Austin" explains Susie Carter, Hays County Commissioner for Pct. 2, in the same tone that someone from Austin would say, "Houston."
"So I believe that some restraint on growth would really be to the advantage of those who want to live here and maintain a high quality of life," she says. And restraint on growth appears to be what the HCWPP is all about.
HCWPP's slogan is: "LCRA Pipeline: at what cost?" The cry has a dual meaning, since the group wonders who will actually be able to afford hookups to get the water and worries that adding water supply for massive new developments will rob them of their peaceful, rural lifestyle.
What Price Water?
"Almost anyone you talk to will say, "I moved out there to enjoy the environment,' " Foster says, surveying a wide expanse of her neighbor's 22-acre plot of land. "I like to sit back at night and stare at the stars."
The shocker that spurred the formation of the HCWPP came in May when Newhall Land & Farming Company bought an option to purchase the Rutherford tract, a 6,000-acre parcel of land at FM 1826 and FM 967 near Foster's home. In addition to at least 14,000 homes, the development -- dubbed Rutherford Ranch -- would sport a hotel, golf courses, a resort, and shopping centers. Furthermore, it would lie directly over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.
Foster says the tract had long been considered for development and she has prepared for the reality of new homes. "But a city the size of San Marcos across the road from us?" she asks.
County officials met with Newhall representatives on several occasions and were enthusiastic about the quality of the development after flying out to California to examine other Newhall projects. But the deal died after Newhall officials bailed out of the project in September. Newhall officials publicly say that they needed to reserve the money pegged for the Rutherford Ranch project for a stock buyback that would make their company more stable and profitable. Environmentalists with SOS and HCWPP say their opposition to the pipeline and highway additions had a considerable impact on the Newhall company decision as well.
Karen Bondy, LCRA's chief engineer for the pipeline project, says Newhall representatives met with LCRA officials but did not formally ask for water.
The Rutherford Ranch proposal, however, awakened Foster, who went seeking other residents fearful of negative impacts from development. She found a sympathetic soul in Jim Camp, who now co-chairs the partnership. Camp has long been involved in environmental issues. He helped found Texans for Aquifer Protection in 1986, a drive that led to the formation of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, and he later helped form the Save Bear and Onion Creeks Association.
Camp says the HCWPP is unique, because it seeks direct input from residents, something he says is lacking in Hays County. "We're the only group that addresses growth issues," he adds.
Then there's Foster's background. LCRA and others angry with her like to point out that she is a former SOS board member. (She resigned this summer to devote more time to the HCWPP.) She has fought her share of environmental battles, including a lawsuit filed against Austin Community College over its pursuit in 1996 of the Shadowridge Campus on the aquifer. SOS also filed suit against ACC, which eventually abandoned the Shadowridge site.
Robin Rather, SOS board chair, says that while her organization and the HCWPP share many common concerns and a lawsuit against LCRA over the pipeline project, they are by no means joined at the hip. "They are completely independent of us," says Rather. "I think the planning partnership is important because it is made up of Hays County people working on planning for growth," she adds. "I would view Hays County as under siege by development. If I lived out there, I would be completely beside myself."
Foster recalls that she was initially hesitant about joining the SOS board. "I thought about it long and hard, because they have such a bad name here (in Hays County)," she says. She grimaces and mentions that Austin American-Statesman editor Rich Oppel described the HCWPP as a "cousin of SOS." "It pisses off everyone on the Water Planning Partnership, because I was on the SOS board. They've already got that bad image here."
Camp isn't as worried about such labels. "We're not SOS, but we share a lot of the same concerns," he says. "Protecting the salamander is important to us, but there are other issues."
Foster, a realtor, says she mainly is trying to protect her lifestyle, and that of her neighbors along FM 1826. She previously gained recognition for leading a successful effort to get the city of Austin to release her subdivision from its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). The subdivision incorporated and became the Village of Bear Creek in an attempt to get water, and Foster served as the first mayor.
However, it's Foster's own pursuit of water that has been at the heart of much of the controversy surrounding her and the HCWPP.
LCRA maintains that its pipeline project is a direct response to citizens' request for quality water in areas of Hays County hard hit by dried-up or contaminated wells. It's a fact that the water is requested, since many Dripping Springs area residents are ready, waiting, and asking for the water. "This pipeline is an absolute necessity," says DeDe Stevenson, a six-year resident of the Sunset Canyon subdivision near Dripping Springs. "My well has experienced times that it will go dry." And Stovey Bolin, the Barton Springs/ Edwards Aquifer Conservation District general manager, maintains that the pipeline will be an improvement for Hays County and the aquifer, because wells and septic systems can be harmful to public health and the environment.
Who Wants the Pipeline?
But HCWPP members don't buy into LCRA's intent. Members stress that the primary motive for the pipeline is new development, though a few lucky or well-off existing residents might enjoy its benefits.
Foster says that LCRA studies show that it is extremely expensive to bring water to subdivisions. The pipeline itself isn't that costly. What's expensive is the infrastructure to get the water into the neighborhoods. And the pipeline itself does nothing to help those neighborhoods.
In fact, Foster currently has a Hill Country Water Supply pipeline that runs along her subdivision, carrying city of Austin water. The problem is that it will cost an estimated $800,000 to bring the water into the Village of Bear Creek, far more than its 400 residents can pool together.
Camp says other subdivisions will face similar costs. "From what we've seen in the LCRA reports, if you look at the economics of serving existing subdivisions, the cost would be overwhelming. The only way to make it feasible is serving large developments."
Roger Kew, another area resident and HCWPP member, agrees. "I'm sure the cost would be prohibitive," he says. "I believe the sole purpose of this pipeline is for new growth, and the type of growth it's designed to supply is high density."
So Foster envisions a new pipeline, new development, new traffic and new noise. "And I'll sit here with yet another pipeline in front of my neighborhood and no water."
Bill McCann, an LCRA spokesman, says the authority needs only 4,000 hookups to the pipeline to pay for the expense. "We would not need a large development to justify this project," he says. Furthermore, the LCRA says it can accommodate only about 6.8 million gallons of water daily, which would only serve a maximum of 7,000 homes using an average of 15,000 gallons a month. Anything beyond that would require additional treatment facility expansions, engineers say.
Also complicating the issue of who will be served is the fact that water supply companies have areas of service certified by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. So the LCRA cannot put water pipelines into areas already certified for other companies without their permission.
The Village of Bear Creek, for example, is in the Hill Country Water Supply (HCWS) zone, so they would not be eligible for LCRA water unless HCWS asks for it. However, LCRA officials say that if residents truly want the water and can afford hookups, the authority would try to negotiate a deal with their supplier. "We want to work with water suppliers to ensure we meet the needs of the residents there," says Steve Parks, LCRA project manager for the pipeline.
A utility company associated with Spillar Ranch -- which lies adjacent to Circle C and will include at least 700 homes, a golf course, and a large hotel -- previously asked for water from the LCRA, according to Karen Bondy, chief engineer for the pipeline project. She says the LCRA agreed to provide water, but the developers of the project -- including Circle C founder Gary Bradley -- have since sought water and sewer service elsewhere, including a recent proposal for service from the city of Austin.
Representatives with the Newhall Land & Farm Company also met recently with LCRA officials to outline the Rutherford Ranch, though Bondy says they did not ask for water. The LCRA's own supply estimates indicate that the authority would have had to expand its treatment plant to supply the development with water.
Many Hays County residents complained that LCRA would never reveal the exact costs for homeowners to hook up to the pipeline. But the authority did recently offer figures that show the average hookup costing about $4,250 with a monthly charge of about $75 a month.
Judge Powers views the county's role in water supply quite simply. In a written statement he notes, "As the fourth-fastest growing county in Texas, we have the responsibility to plan for water availability for the people who already live here, as well as those who are moving her.. To that end, we are negotiating a plan with the LCRA to bring surface water to Hays County."
The Hays County development battles are quickly sinking into the politics of exclusion. Although the HCWPP sees itself as a valid stakeholder in future growth issues and an important organization for representing area residents, not everyone is so enthusiastic about its purpose.
You're Not Invited
The LCRA, for example, failed to include HCWPP in its Regional Planning Oversight Committee, a group charged with planning for the pipeline project. The committee's origins are somewhat odd, since LCRA gave Hays County $100,000 for regional planning, and told Judge Powers to form the committee. The gesture was meant to appease pipeline critics who said the authority never really justified the need of a pipeline or looked at how it might affect the county.
HCWPP members were wary of the committee from the beginning, Foster says, but at least they thought that it would address regional planning -- issues like how to make sure the pipeline wasn't used to proliferate large-scale, destructive development. The committee, however, ended up packed with pipeline supporters. Left off were the HCWPP and SOS as well as the other side of the political spectrum -- property rights groups such as Take Back Texas.
Brigid Shea, former communications director for SOS, says the exclusion was fine with SOS, since the alliance didn't want to be part of any committee that puts the project before the planning. But Foster and Camp say they feel like their exclusion is "ridiculous." SOS chair Rather adds, "There really does need to be a regional plan out there, but there's literally no environmentalists included in the planning. It already was a ridiculous exercise. It's even more laughable that they wouldn't include environmentalists."
LCRA spokesman McCann says the committee makeup was designed to include only water suppliers and policy makers -- such as officials from Dripping Springs, Hays County, LCRA and the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. "Everyone who lives in Hays County is a stakeholder in this process," says McCann. "But it wouldn't make any sense to have everyone in the county on the committee." He adds that area residents will have several opportunities to offer input to the committee. (It's not entirely true that the committee doesn't include any environmentalists, either; it does include a U.S. Fish & Wildlife representative, David Frederick. The agency has been working with LCRA on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to ensure that any new developments hooking up to the pipeline adhere to new, stricter EPA/Fish & Wildlife guidelines being developed. However, the agency recently put the MOU on hold pending further review.)
But HCWPP and SOS leaders are all the more confused about the Oversight Committee's purpose, since it began on Sept. 9, but suspended meetings until January, the starting point for the pipeline project. McCann says the delay is necessary, since committee members want to further refine their mission and purpose before meeting again.
Meanwhile, although Foster says she would be happy to have Take Back Texas included in the area planning, she isn't so inviting when it comes to her own meetings. Before a Sept. 27 event billed as "Ranch Road 1826 Neighborhoods Meeting," Foster told Circle C residents inquiring about the meeting that there wasn't enough room for them to attend, even though the gathering was held in a large field.
Then she set up a sign-in table with instructions not to let anyone from Circle C or Take Back Texas into the meeting. One man who was turned away later wrote a widely distributed letter criticizing the HCWPP for suing over Open Meeting Act violations while shutting people out of its own meetings. T.J. Higginbotham, a member of the Hays County Infrastructure Advisory Committee, wrote, "Does anybody recognize the term "hypocritical?'" But Foster shakes off the criticism. "Was this a public meeting? No. Was this private property? Yes."
Camp notes that ordinarily it would be easy for more conservative residents of Hays County, of which there are plenty, to dismiss HCWPP as a bunch of no-growth salamander lovers. Except, he says, conservatives share one thing in common with the partnership -- a hatred of closed government, and dissatisfaction with the recent actions of elected officials.
A Quorum Over Steak
The stink began over steak. HCWPP charges that three members of the Commissioners Court (County Judge Jim Powers, and Commissioners Russ Molenaar and William Burnett) formed a quorum with an unposted meeting with Newhall company officials at the Salt Lick on August 3. Foster, who was at the meeting, says the discussion centered on the topic, "Hays County Planning: The Next 100 Years." The bash, sponsored and paid for by Newhall Land & Farming, included substantial discussions on development and planning, she says. "So we decided to sue."
Powers did not respond to questions about the event. But an attorney retained by the county, Jennifer Riggs, says in a written statement that the "lawsuit was filed solely to harass county officials," and that no violation of the Open Meetings Act occurred.
HCWPP members say the idea that no direct business was discussed is ludicrous. "This is the kind of thing that fuels our group," Camp says. "When they did that, people practically threw checks at us."
The lawsuit may have added membership, but it made the HCWPP persona non grata in county government circles. "When Judge Powers found out we were suing him for the open meetings violation, we became nonexistent," Camp says.
A mere month later, the Commissioners Court was again under fire, this time for trying to approve a county transportation plan with several new projects that seemed designed for new development, including an extension of MoPac lanes to San Marcos and construction of several new four-lane roads over the Edwards Aquifer. HCWPP members say the roads are obviously intended to accommodate large-scale development.
County officials and consultants drafted the plan as official input for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's 2025 regional plan, then put it up for approval on the Sept. 14 court agenda. Foster and Camp rallied 22 protesters to the meeting to halt adoption of the plan. The commissioners acquiesced and agreed to hold four public hearings on the document, but many residents are still bitter about the county's lack of effort in getting public input for the plan. Even some officials grumble about the process. "I don't feel like I had a chance to study the plan at all," says Carter, the Precinct 2 commissioner. "I had a week.
"I have to say that I agree with [HCWPP] on a lot of points," says Carter. "We need to include all of the community, not leave anyone out."
Adding to the anger over the surprise document was the revelation that two of the consulting firms involved with the plan -- Pix Howell's firm, Concept Development & Planning, and Prime Strategies Inc. -- also were involved in other development projects, including the Rutherford Ranch.
"Organizations that contract with the county shouldn't seek to contract with developers and the county," Carter says. "It's a conflict."
Foster says it's more than a conflict, it's a developer using his planning firms to supply roads by working for the county. Judge Powers did not directly respond to questions on the plan or how the consulting firms were chosen, but he did note in a written statement, "We must begin planning for the imminent growth that lies ahead in Hays County. Therefore, we must be prepared to provide roads for those areas in Northern and Central Hays County, which will be developed one way or the other. This planning will include one or more major highways and the improvement of most of the other existing roadways."
It's too early to tell when and where the HCWPP will find its niche, if it finds one at all. The group hails itself as a champion of rural life that has played an important role in stopping massive developments such as the Newhall project.
HCWPP member Kew likens the group's role to a critical "vigilance" to protect the landscape and rural neighborhoods. "It's necessary to have a group of citizens to protect our investment," he says. "Everyone has a right to sell property at the highest price possible. And certainly, development is going to happen. But if we're going to have development, let's plan it together so nobody suffers."