August 4, 2018
By Taylor Goldenstein – American-Statesman Staff
Updated: 11:29 a.m. Sunday, August 05, 2018 | Posted: 3:07 p.m. Saturday, August 04, 2018
The county uses conservation easements as a way to retain open space and protect natural resources.
It’s often much faster and less expensive than buying land outright, county leaders say.
Developers mail Michael Murphy letters every week or so, imploring him to sell his 397-acre Dripping Springs property, Los Madrones Ranch, which he named after the madrone evergreens that dot the land, so striking with their deep orange, flaky bark.
While he very likely could have made millions more doing just that, Murphy and his wife, Julie, decided to work out a nearly $2 million deal with Travis County this year to keep the land, which has been in his family for 50 years, in its natural state forever.
Travis County this week closed on a deal to conserve its third ranch near the Hamilton Pool Preserve, including Murphy’s, bringing the total protected this year along the corridor to more than 1,500 acres. That’s in addition to the more than 800 acres that’s been preserved since 2010.
“It was a real gift to grow up here and then to raise two kids here,” Murphy said, weaving down a hilly, gravel road in an open-air truck Friday. He looked out on old troughs from the property’s days as a cattle ranch and former lookouts from its days as a nature photography rental. These days, the former state employee keeps the site as wildlife preserve and leases some of it to hunters.
The county uses these conservation easements, the technical term for an agreement by a landowner to restrict development, as a way to retain its open space and protect natural and cultural resources. Often children of farmers or ranchers decide they don’t want to continue the business, so they look to either sell or enter into one of these deals.
“You can see all the development going on. Land fragmentation is a serious issue for this state, and all these conservancies are helping to make that not as severe,” he said. “With the conservation easement, we can continue operations, and the ranch can still be passed onto heirs or sold. But now we know that the property will remain as unspoiled, open, natural space for generations to come.”
The deal Murphy struck allows for some minor development — his children each chose a site where they might one day build homes, for example — but beyond that, only the birds, deer, ducks and other animals will make the ranch their home.
Murphy’s ranch and the 738-acre Peacock Ranch easements were paid for using the last of the bonds from 2011, when voters approved $8.3 million in funding for conservation easements.
The 423-acre Puryear Ranch was the first project to be completed with 2017 bond funding. Voters approved $16.6 million for conservation easements that year. The project also was financed by grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The Puryears worked with the Hill Country Conservancy for about three years to come up with a deal. While easements don’t usually involve public access, Adrienne Longenecker, the conservancy’s chief operating officer, said the public enjoys the benefits, such as protection for wildlife and sources of drinking water and retaining Hill Country views.
For Travis County, which does not have zoning authority like a city, easements are a powerful tool, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. Although the negotiation process can sometimes be lengthy, it’s often much faster and less expensive than buying land outright, she said.
“We’ve got property disappearing very rapidly because we’ve got such a hot real estate market,” Eckhardt said. “Families like mine that have lived here for generations know what it is to love this land and fear its disappearance. With these partnerships, we ensure that future generations and newcomers will have the chance to love and protect the unique splendor of this land, too.”
The county — through conservation easements and its joint effort with the city of Austin to set aside land for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve — has now preserved more than 30,000 acres of Hill Country in the west and blackland prairie in the east, Eckhardt said.
As Hays County’s and southern Travis County’s population continues to soar and development increases, these types of conservation projects will become even more important, said Laura Huffman, state director for the Nature Conservancy in Texas.
“This is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, and the only way to balance that rapid development and support its health and resilience is by conserving its ecologically critical areas,” Huffman said in a statement. “These three transactions safeguard some of the last extensive open space in the area and make an enduring investment that will benefit this region for generations to come.”