County commissioners ramped up efforts to preserve the area’s natural landscape and protect its endangered species Thursday by pushing forward the Comal County Regional Habitat Conservation Plan.
The plan, which has been the result of more than two years of study by consulting firms and local advisory committees, is designed to have the county and local landowners participate in making sure thousands of acres of Comal County’s untouched wilderness stay that way.
“I remember being here in the ’50s, when this was a very rural county with picturesque views of landscape and rivers, and now everywhere you look there are more and more subdivisions,” Comal County Judge Danny Scheel said. “At some point in time, this entire county could be covered in rooftops, and I just can’t stand the thought of that. I think our forefathers would be so disappointed in us if we didn’t do something to try and preserve part of this county in its natural state.”
Habitat Conservation Plans, in general, are tools non-federal entities can obtain under the Endangered Species Act used to minimize the potential impact of land development on endangered wildlife.
In this case, the plan would give commissioners an avenue to preserve the habitat of the federally endangered species that call Comal County home — specifically the golden cheeked warbler and the black capped vireo.
The two bird species cover an estimated 65,000 acres of land in the county, at least 10,000 of which is expected to be developed over the next 30 years, according to a presentation to commissioners Thursday prepared by environmental attorney Alan Glen.
If approved, an RHCP would have the county implement conservation measures in exchange for a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That permit would allow the county to regulate limited development of the birds’ habitat with the voluntary participation of local landowners.
The advantages, according to the plan, are that it will not only help preserve wildlife habitat and open space, but also make potential development easier for county residents.
For an individual property owner looking to lawfully develop in an endangered species’ habitat, obtaining the proper permits through federal channels can be costly and take years, County Engineer Tom Hornseth said.
By having a county-run HCP, the county would be in charge of that permitting and would sell individual landowners permits for roughly $7,500 per acre for development, provided all the necessary environmental guidelines have been met.
Commissioners voted to send the final draft of the plan to the Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday for its recommendations and approval.
If granted, commissioners would have to vote on funding options to pay to get the plan off the ground. Tentative estimates are that it would cost $2 million in the first year before becoming self-sustaining, according to the RHCP. County Auditor David Renken said Thursday that the county could pursue a number of financing options to launch the plan, including issuing bonds or entering into a tax-increment financing agreement.
It would be money well spent, County Commissioner Jay Millikin said during Thursday’s Commissioners Court.
“Out of all the things we could do for the future this county, I don’t know that anything would have a more lasting legacy than this,” Millikin said.
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