Saving the last of the ranches

More than 1,200 acres of the Triple C Ranch in Driftwood is in the process of being protected from future development through a land conservation program. From a location called Church Hill on the property, the rooftops of some of the 350 homes in the LaVentana neighborhood, a former ranch, can be seen in the distance. (Photo by Kim Hilsenbeck)

by KIM HILSENBECK

A stone’s throw from the Duchman Family Winery off F.M. 150 West in Driftwood is a gate at the entrance to a long, windy dirt road.

Passersby on the main road may catch a glimpse of open space ranch land as they cruise by the 1,242-acre property. But what they won’t see, now or into the future if the Hill Country Conservancy has anything to say about it, are rooftops.

The land behind that gate, called the Triple C Ranch, belongs to the Shannon and Hudson families. It’s one of the last large parcels of land remaining intact in the Driftwood area of Hays County — the eleventh fastest-growing county in the United States and the third fastest-growing county in the state of Texas.

Much of Hays County’s remaining ranch land is located directly in the path of future development. The 2009 Texas Land Trends study showed that loss of open space and agricultural lands is increasing rapidly with escalating population growth.

Harper Scott, communications director for the nonprofit land trust organization Hill Country Conservancy, recently gave this reporter a tour of the Triple C Ranch.

According to Scott, more Texas families like the Shannons and Hudsons are turning to land conservation groups like HCC to protect their property from development.

“The land owners don’t want a ranch like this one subdivided,” Scott said. “They want to keep it for their children and grandchildren well into the future.”

Organizations like HCC step in to buy the property development rights, often at a fraction of market value. For example, Triple C’s owners sold the development rights to HCC for $2,000 an acre; the market value, Scott said, is about $15,000 an acre.

Putting land into a trust, or easement, allows property owners to keep the land and work it, give it to their children, or sell it so long as it is not for development.

By purchasing the development rights, land conservation organizations ensure the property will not have houses, apartments or shopping centers on it.

And that, says Scott, is good for all Central Texans, because it protects ecosystems and aquifers, as well as limits pollution and the destruction of native trees.

But property owners at similar ranches around the state, including several in Hays County, are using their ranch land for new purposes, including hunting leases, ecotourism, camping, wildlife game ranches, parks and vineyards. Of course, some still use their land for good old-fashioned ranching of cattle and goats.

While the acreage may be sold for pennies on the dollar in such a transaction, funding the purchase of ranch development rights is no inexpensive endeavor.

Buying the Triple C land development rights required more than $4 million in grant money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Phase I includes 414 acres and is scheduled to close before Sept. 30, 2012. NRCS will contribute $1.5 million in grant funds through its Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP).

Phase II will include an additional 828 acres and is scheduled to close before Sept. 30, 2013. NRCS has obligated an additional $3 million in FRPP grant funding for the Phase II conservation easement. The Phase II conservation easement will require approximately $1.5 million in additional matching funds.

The purchase also included a donation of $750,000 by the landowner.

Land trust organizations also rely heavily on private donations and memberships, which can be as little as $6 a month, to fund such purchases.

Standing on a hillside inside the ranch aptly named Church Hill, the view seems endless. A wall of limestone, called Chalk Bluff because of the chalky look of the rock, juts high over Flat Creek. As far as the eye can see are native oak-juniper and brush that grace the land. The ranch landscape also includes grassland savanna, wooded canyons and riparian habitat. The property also includes 3.6 miles of Flat Creek and its tributaries, which drain into Onion Creek just east of the property.

According to the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, “Onion Creek is the main contributor of recharge to the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, contributing an estimated 45 percent of total recharge,” demonstrating the importance of conserving Onion Creek for the benefit of Barton Springs and our regional water supply.

Yet just over the next ridge, some 350 rooftops of the development La Ventana can be seen scattered among the trees. That neighborhood sits on a former Hill County ranch.

Triple C Ranch will never have all those houses built on it. Once a property enters a land trust agreement, the development rights are extinguished forever.

HCC is currently seeking donations and applying for grants to raise approximately $2.2 million in additional matching funds; $750,000 must be raised by Sept. 30.

Onion Creek runs through the edge of Triple C Ranch in Dripping Springs (Photo by Kim Hilsenbeck)

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