Hays County Courthouse, San Marcos, TX
The Hays County Commissioners Court voted 5-0 Tuesday to move forward with purchasing a 1,000-acre tract of the Nicholson Ranch, located in Precincts 3 and 4 in western Hays County. The property, appraised at $5.5 million, will be sold to the County for $5 million, with the funds coming from voter-approved 2007 park bonds. The Commissioners Court has been working to acquire its first U.S. Fish and Wildlife-approved habitat conservation property for more than two years, and could close on the land as early as next week.
The property will be designated as a preserve to protect endangered golden-cheeked warbler habitat and as a mitigation bank under the County’s Regional Habitat Conservation Plan (RHCP).
The RHCP was developed to help protect endangered-species habitat and position Hays County to support responsible growth and development. Under the RHCP, the County can help streamline public projects and private development in areas where the federal Endangered Species Act applies by providing “credits” that offset “takings” of those sensitive lands. Through its RHCP, the County hopes to ultimately acquire between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of protected land.
The Nicholson Ranch tract was one of 15 properties submitted under the County’s call for properties issued in October 2009. The County had requested that properties submitted have at least 250 acres of endangered-species habitat that would address the goals of the RHCP, and the biological assessment by Hays County’s environmental consultant showed that the ranch has some 800 acres of golden-cheeked warbler habitat. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service the County would receive at least 800 environmental credits for the acreage if it is managed for the protection of habitat.
The Nicholson Ranch contains the headwaters of Onion Creek and is considered to be a high-value habitat. It has been the Nicholson Family Ranch since 1950.
The Parks and Open Space Advisory Board, which counsels the Commissioners Court on allocation of park bond funds and other park-related matters, was tasked with establishing criteria to rank properties submitted for consideration under the RHCP. Those criteria included considering protection of water quality, public access to water and the potential for recreational activities in addition to habitat conservation. The County had named The Nature Conservancy as its real estate advisor for the land selection and negotiation process.
The County will work with The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to determine the level of public access to the new property, which could vary depending on the time of year and the nesting season of the golden-cheeked warbler. For a map of the Nicholson Ranch tract, click here.