Enemies Mingle at Hill Country Conservancy Fiesta
Beer, brisket, and land preservation help unite political foes for a night
The guest list read like a who's who of Austin's business, environmental, and real estate development communities, which is to say that the Hill Country Conservancy's Lyrics & Legacy Gala, held last Tuesday night as Stubb's BBQ, had the potential to be as volatile as a Bloods and Crips potluck. By most accounts, however, things went smoothly no doubt lubricated by the full open bar as attendees celebrated the organization's fundraising and land-acquisition triumphs for the year. Chalk up the recent deal to preserve the 5,685-acre Storm Ranch, located in northern Hays Co., not to mention gifts of $400,000 from the Real Estate Council of Austin, and a whopping $2 million from Stratus Properties, and there was no shortage of things to toast. The $250,000 raised at the event was also worth a bottoms-up or two.
A glance online at the Hill Country Conservancy's board shows a weightiness of real estate developers and their legal cohorts that would appear dubious to many greens. A couple of board members noted privately that AMD's presence has been felt in a big way in the board room, also airing concerns over the motivations and appearances of the Stratus donation. Nonetheless, everyone I spoke with agreed that despite years of citywide political battle over lands to the west raging now as much as ever the Conservancy is accomplishing its mission as an apolitical preserver of precious Hill Country land.
After six years and about 8,000 acres preserved, Executive Director George Cofer thinks the HCC is making strides and has a good shot at meeting its goal of preserving 50,000 acres in 10 years. Referring to the local "movers and shakers" associated with the HCC perceived in the community as both ecological heros and villains Cofer said "these people are professionals; they've been debating for over 15 years, and it makes things a whole lot easier to take the night off and celebrate." Now, Cofer said, the organization's success is breeding success: Recent large donations are creating the potential to double and triple the HCC's money with federal matching funds, and more landowners are expressing interest in conservation or private land preservation easements. Easement agreements like the one used to preserve Storm Ranch, for example let owners keep their land, while getting paid a little not to develop it. Cofer said the HCC has bought the development rights to about 40% of the ranch, paying out about $4 million of the negotiated $9.5 million so far, with hopes of completing the deal soon.
Conservation easements are just what some old-school ranchers need to hang on to their property, Cofer says, as they become less able to work the land and keep up with taxes. He cited a Texas A&M study, which found that Texas has the highest fragmentation rate for ranches in the country. Project Manager Frank Davis said the HCC is focusing on watershed and water quality protection in Hays and Travis counties in part through consolidating remaining working ranches. For HCC land acquisitions, Cofer said a property's conservation value, price, and most of all its proximity to another conservation tract are considered. Not only do developers not possess undue influence, he said, but "the real estate interests really go out of their way to make sure our deals live up to the highest standards."
Beau Armstrong of Stratus Properties said the HCC's path of purchasing open space is the "only sure way to preserve land," and that "history has proven that to believe development can be legislated away is not only irresponsible but wrong and silly." He said Stratus' landmark $2 million "no strings attached" donation is "clearly linked to AMD," but in no way implies that the HCC endorsed the Lantana site. Cofer said he expects AMD to donate to community land preservation later this summer.
HCC board member and environmental activist Robin Rather said almost everyone she had ever fought was at the event. Lauding the HCC's success, she said that while she's not afraid of a good fight, sometimes diplomacy and cash on the barrel head is the best strategy. "For land preservation, this is what it takes. ... We can't do it all with bonds." She believes an underlying yearning for community brings the HCC together, even amid all the recent contention. Newly added board member Christy Muse, director of the Hill Country Alliance, called the HCC "an essential moving part ... a player among many players and area environmental organizations, and a group that's doing good."