By Megan Wehring
HAYS COUNTY — Several Dripping Springs residents disagree with new urban development brought in by Hays County, saying it could wither away the small town atmosphere.
When newcomers sign a contract on a house, some assume they will find a captivating main street just down the road. Matt Allison moved from Austin to Dripping Springs last year, thinking he knew the environment he was getting into. Allison’s family craved the cozy small-town charm. They were attracted to the promised town square and local retail – but the county’s plans got in the way of the developer’s original design.
“All of these people that bought into our neighborhood, [Howard Ranch], have been waiting on the [town square and community retail],” said developer Erik Howard. “The county has decided they want to blow that up without ever having engaged or spoken to our residents, nor have I had a phone call from a commissioner.”
Hays County is working to realign the intersection of RM 12 and RM 150 by installing a one-lane roundabout and shifting the intersection to the south to avoid impacts to Phillips Cemetery. The effort started in 2014 during the development of the FM 150 West Character Plan, which was completed in 2017. The county then conducted a traffic study using 2016 data that showed the current design was failing to control the high traffic count and number of turns.
But Allison said he thinks the number of auto accidents could increase with a roundabout.
“When you have all of the 18-wheelers and cement trucks,” Allison said, “there’s a lot of concern of them being able to slow down and handle that thing. But then when you have the brewery that’s located right there, along with a bunch of other drinking establishments nearby, feeding into the other side, I think it creates a real safety concern.”
The project was approved by voters in the 2016 Hays County Road Bond Program.
“It was the roundabout that was supported over a traditional four-way lighted intersection,” said Arin Gray, Project Team representative. “They thought the roundabout would be the best way to preserve the character and it could become a gateway.”
The county decided May 4 to move forward with eminent domain, because a voluntary agreement between the county and developer could not be reached.
Howard explained that according to the county’s design, the roundabout would be constructed where the town center and community retail would go. Pedestrian trails and bridges would also be impacted.
County officials said the project would not prevent future commercial development.
While several residents are unhappy with the interruption to local amenities, many believe there has been a lack of communication between Hays County officials and the public at large.
“The county seems to be bulldozing through this plan,” said Andrew Hisey, Howard Ranch resident, “without really taking the time to broadcast the details adequately and seek input from constituents like us who would be impacted. It just seems like a frustrating process where politicians are kind of operating independently of public commentary without the transparency needed.”
Last week, Hays County sent residents a fact sheet with frequently asked questions and background information about the project.
Howard said the county’s communication with the public has been subpar.
“It plays like a movie,” Howard told the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch. “The county hired a professional dog and pony show a couple years ago. I attended a few of the meetings and expressed my concerns publicly. They were ignored. It was a box checking exercise and a simple war of attrition in my view.”
Howard added that because the project is in Precinct 4, County Commissioner Walt Smith should have disclosed to the neighborhood early on that the commissioners court was considering eminent domain on the May 4 agenda.
Smith stepped back from the project in an official capacity in 2019, due to a conflict of interest as a Howard Ranch resident.
“At the time I was an adjacent property owner,” Smith said on a public Facebook post, “and my involvement as an advocate for or against the procurement of the property needed would have been, I believe, unethical. I therefore recused myself and chose to have county employees work on this project and have asked one of my colleagues on the Court to handle the management of the project.”
Precinct 3 Commissioner Lon Shell assumed sponsorship of the project for Hays County.
Final design is expected to be complete in mid-2021, according to the county fact sheet, and construction will begin later this year. Surrounding properties will still have access during and after construction.