The Centex Brigade
From San Antonio to Austin and back again
Five years ago, the staff at Austin's Save Our Springs Alliance was scrambling not only to maintain clarity at Barton Springs but to assist a handful of budding nonprofits setting their sites on conservation action. SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch, now a member of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance board, assisted on the white paper that developed into the guiding principles of San Antonio's Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. And in the years since, in the wake of the increasingly developed geography between the two urban centers, a blossoming of the common-minded has occurred. As the GEAA describes it, "Citizen-based conservation organizations working in their own local areas (San Antonio, San Marcos, Wimberley, Dripping Springs, and Austin) recognized the need to work collectively – across the entire Edwards Aquifer region – to be more effective."
Five years ago, "SOS was sort of the only organization that had a full-time staff with attorneys," said Bunch. "Our main focus was on Barton Springs, but we were also getting calls from groups around the Hill Country that didn't have staff, that were having the same issues with water and wildlife and growth in their areas." It would take more than one organization to address the length and breadth of the Hill Country environmental problems. When SOS was preoccupied with a $300,000 court judgment it had been dealt and the challenges of bankruptcy reorganization last year (while Hill Country development continued at an unprecedented clip), a slew of related groups was already actively filling the breach.
One of those middle-territory upstarts is Blanco County-based Preserve Our Water. The group took shape under the congealing shadow of high-density development. In a land not known for abundance of water, where lot sizes tended to the 5- and 10-acre range, the Rockin' J Ranch was proposing 1,300 homes, half-acre lots, and 185 million gallons of water pulled from the Trinity Aquifer annually, all packed around lush golfing links. It was a departure for developer Lee Roper and a first for the folks of Blanco.
Although neighbor Shirley Beck, who has been working to transform her ranch into a ecotourist destination, challenged the Rockin' J's permits before the TCEQ, neither she nor the fledgling Citizen's Alliance (which later morphed into Preserve Our Water) was able to keep the "J" at bay. However, with the help of some friends, POW was able to stop the creation of a municipal utility district at another high-density development in the northern part of the county, the Rancho San Miguel. Those friends included state Rep. Patrick Rose and another recently formed nonprofit, the Hill Country Alliance.
The Hill Country Alliance – described as one of the "great lights" by Bunch – spun out of western Travis County over a mounting concern about the pace of residential development. Christy Muse helped found the group in 2004 as a way to help steer development toward more sustainable practices. Muse's group has already spread across more than a dozen counties and, interestingly, also made inroads with the building and real estate communities. "They want to sell a beautiful prosperous region," Muse said. "They don't want to sell overcrowded roads and dirty creeks. They want to sell the Hill Country." She called the value shift toward preservation a "slow awakening." "I'm seeing it happening all over the region," she said. "A lot of it is because growth is getting further and further out into the rural areas. So people who hadn't really been affected by it before are now realizing: 'Hmm. That's not exactly what I meant by protecting my property rights.'"
HCA is increasingly becoming an environmental-information clearinghouse for other community groups fighting high-density development in some of the region's most sensitive areas. It has also begun to facilitate dialogue among leaders. A newly formed Coalition of Counties, representing 15 Hill Country-area counties from Hays to Edwards committed to wresting broader controls over development from the state, is gathering Friday with its respective state reps at an event the HCA helped assemble. Muse downplayed her own part in the meeting, saying that it is more important that the participating politicians be acknowledged. She said Hays Co. Judge Liz Sumter and officials in Kerr and Bandera counties were particularly instrumental in organizing the summit.
Whatever comes from the gathering (or from the 2009 Lege, for that matter), the success of maintaining the Hill Country's rural charms and natural resources will depend largely on cross-country connections among groups like GEAA, POW, HCA, and SOS, and their success at continually engaging the public's imagination and energies. While the slumping economy has momentarily taken some of the edge off surging development, it can also put economic pressure on citizens' groups, which rely so much on volunteer time and money.
"The challenge is to have people be able to see ahead how horrible the future that we are mapping out right now is and, on the other hand, to visualize a different future," Bunch said. The fact that new groups are appearing across the region has been great for SOS. "Sometimes people might feel a little turfy or competitive, but mostly there's a huge amount of cooperation," Bunch concluded. "From my view, I'm glad, really happy to see folks sort of waking up and saying, 'My gosh, we're losing the Hill Country in rapid fashion if we don't do something.'"