Dripping Springs Rep. Rick Green has worked himself into a veritable lather over the last month, filing not one, not two, but six bills to create special water, road, and development districts in his Hays County legislative district. (And nary a hair blown out of place!) The bills, squeezed onto the House Local and Consent Calendar over rising objections from the Save Our Springs Alliance, Hays County Water Planning Partnership, and the Save Barton Creek Association, would create several quasi-governmental districts that would be exempt from some of the development controls that apply in surrounding Dripping Springs. (One, to be developed by Cypress Realty, would become a 2,700-acre "Water Control and Improvement District" that would include some 2,700 houses -- an average of one home per acre, or triple the maximum density allowed over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone under current law.) The districts would also have the power to issue bonds, impose taxes, and condemn land for development. So they've become, as you might imagine, a bit controversial among enviros and others who'd rather not see the aquifer paved just upstream from Barton Springs.
Given all that, why has there been so little to-do about Green's (and, in the other chamber, Ken Armbrister's) late filing frenzy thus far? According to SOS general counsel Bill Bunch, people simply didn't have time to blink before the bills had sailed through to Local and Consent. "I'm sure [special districts have been carried on the Local and Consent calendar] before, but I've never seen such an onslaught in the way the bills were introduced after the filing deadline," Bunch says.
At press time, two of Green's Water Control and Improvement District bills had passed out of Local and Consent and were scheduled to be heard on the House floor; a third WCID bill had been left pending in committee (where it was expected to stay); and yet another (the Cypress bill) had been withdrawn from Local and Consent and sent to the regular House Calendars committee after a Monday night public hearing, at which the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District voted to oppose the legislation. Meanwhile, one development district bill was pending in committee, and another -- the so-called "Bradley bill" creating a special district for a hotel and golf course resort on Gary Bradley's land -- was moving forward, but only in the Senate, where it was waiting to be scheduled for floor debate. Also in the Senate, the same WCID bills that passed Local and Consent in the House were scheduled for approval on consent; the Cypress WCID had been passed on to the House; and as for the Bradley bill -- well, more on that later.
SOS and the SBCA were quick to issue statements last week opposing all six proposed special districts. According to the resolution issued by the SBCA and signed by its president, Jon Beall, "the sheer magnitude of the proposed districts" -- reported to be about 5,000 acres total, although Green's office did not provide a map -- "and their potential cumulative impact represents a clear threat to rural and suburban water wells, Barton Springs, the City of Austin's municipal water supply, and the quality of life in Northern Hays County and Southern Travis County."
So far, the city has opted out of lobbying Green and Calendars Committee members on the legislation. City Legislative Director John Hrncir says the city is "watching" the bills but hasn't taken a position because none of the bills sufficiently "impact the city's authority." City Attorney Andrew Martin adds that "notwithstanding the fact that [the districts are] within the Barton Springs watershed, it's not within our jurisdiction." Bunch disagrees, pointing out that the impact of the districts, which would likely intensify development in northern Hays County, is hardly confined to Dripping Springs: "Pollution flows downstream" -- and thus into Barton Springs and the recharge zone. "This is the most vulnerable aquifer in the state of Texas," Bunch thunders. "Hell, yes, we have an interest!"
That doesn't mean the city isn't keeping busy: Last week, legislation drafted by Mayor Kirk Watson as a substitute for Armbrister's version of the Bradley bill (which, in its previous form, created an "education district" that dedicated hotel and resort tax revenues to education but also had the ability to build roads and sell bonds, among other powers) was circulated at City Hall; on Tuesday, Watson's bill was offered by Armbrister as a committee substitute for SB 1812. The new bill takes away all the district's road building and bonding powers, and creates a board of elected officials (three from the city of Austin, four from Hays County) to funnel money into the private, nonprofit Hays Consolidated ISD Educational Foundation -- on whose board Bradley, incidentally, serves.
"The bill expressly states the district has no powers or duties that are not expressly provided in the legislation," Watson says. "It can do three things: levy tax, collect tax, and issue revenue" to the foundation. While the bill may not "reopen the Bradley settlement" -- a claim Watson says he's heard from critics of the legislation -- it does link the foundation's revenue closely to the success of Bradley's developments, and thus, some say, to environmental degradation in Hays Co. "As presented, the bill pits 'education' against saving Barton Springs: this is a false choice perpetuated by developers and which should NEVER be reinforced by elected officials who claim to care about Barton Springs," Bunch wrote in a letter to the mayor and council this week.
But Watson says promoting education is his overriding goal: "We want to have a strong economy. We can't do that if we are not able to fully educate" area schoolchildren, Watson says. Watson dismisses concerns that the bill could be amended by future Legislatures to expand the district's powers, pointing to a section in the bill stating that future Legislatures should not "impede the purposes set forth in this act" by altering the duties and powers of the district without the approval of the district's board, the Hays County Commissioners' Court, the Hays Consolidated school district, and the city of Austin. The Lege, of course, can do what it wants -- a Legislative Council attorney laughed when he heard this portion of the bill, noting that although a legislator can express any "intent" he wants, one Legislature can't prevent another Legislature from doing anything. But Watson believes it's "less likely that a majority would amend the legislation without the approval of four governing bodies," he says.
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