Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Coalition builds deal to buy, preserve 1,500 acres near famed bat cave

October 9, 2014 | Updated: October 10, 2014 1:56pm
Billy Calzada / San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO — After more than a year of cobbling together a deal, a group of public officials and private organizations will buy 1,500 acres near Bracken Cave, the seasonal home for millions of bats, and prevent any future development there, officials said.

Galo Properties has agreed to sell the land for $20.5 million, said San Antonio Councilman Ron Nirenberg, who has been spearheading the effort. More than $15 million has been lined up so far, although final approval still is needed for some of the money.

“It just took persistence, because when people realized what this was all about, it was just a matter of figuring out how we could pool our resources,” Nirenberg said.

The property, when combined with an adjacent parcel north of San Antonio purchased through a similar deal in 2011, creates about 2,800 acres of land preserved in the past three years that supporters of the deal say will protect the bats, their cave, endangered golden-cheeked warblers and San Antonio's water supply.

The funding for the new deal comes in part from Bat Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy, which will jointly own and manage the property and together have raised $5 million.

The City Council will vote Thursday to allocate $5 million from the city's aquifer protection fund for the property, which is in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. That money, known as Prop. 1 funding, comes from a 1/8th-cent sales tax approved by voters.

Nirenberg, who represents a Northwest Side district, said he's confident the council will approve the funding.

And a developer, Forestar Group, is putting in $5 million in return for credits that will allow it to have denser development elsewhere or that it can sell to other developers.

BCI, which owns Bracken Cave, and the conservancy are responsible for raising the rest of the money. The conservancy also took out a loan so the group could finalize the deal, which is expected to close on Halloween.

Andrew Walker, executive director of BCI, said the coalition was not taking anything for granted before all the money was in place. But he added that “it feels really good.”

The property sits just south of Bracken Cave, where millions of female bats come from Mexico every spring to give birth and rear their pups before flying south in the fall.

Negotiations over the land, which is in unincorporated Comal County and in San Antonio's extraterritorial jurisdiction, have become enmeshed with a larger discussion about how to balance conservation as the region grows.

Galo had proposed building a subdivision with more than 2,500 homes on the parcel.

Opponents of development argued the property is a vital foraging area for young bats learning to fly and that the cave itself is particularly vulnerable because it serves as a nursery.

They also raised concerns about the possible consequences of a new residential development under the flight path of so many bats, saying potential rabies cases could lead people to turn against the bats and bat conservation generally.

Supporters of development have pointed out that bats and people coexist in other places and argued that BCI's estimate that more than 10 million bats use the cave — the group says it's the largest colony in the world — could be overstated.

Besides voting whether to spend the $5 million in Prop. 1 funding at its meeting Thursday, the City Council would have to approve measures related to Forestar's contribution.

Pending the council vote, Forestar will get 86 acres worth of impervious cover credits in exchange for its $5 million, city documents show. Up to half of those could be used at Forestar's Cibolo Canyons development, allowing for denser building there.

The San Antonio Water System also has to approve the transfer of the impervious cover credits.
Neither Galo nor Forestar responded to requests for comment.

Other agencies that have committed or intend to give to the conservancy to help it complete the purchase of the land include Bexar County, the Edwards Aquifer Authority and the U.S. Army.
Bexar County and the EAA are expected to contribute $500,000 each, while the Army will provide about $100,000, officials said.

The Army's interest lies not with the bats, but with birds. It's concerned development in the area could push the endangered warblers to Camp Bullis, making it harder to use it for training.

In 2011, Bexar County spent $5 million to buy more than 1,200 acres adjacent to the property now in question to create a preserve for the warblers. The Army pitched in $2 million, and Forestar also was involved.

The latest deal to buy the 1,500 acres from Galo almost fell through several times, most notably when a Dallas-based land investment manager, Stratford Land, announced it had plans to buy the land in December 2013. But it backed out for unexplained reasons.

Throughout the process, proposals to either buy a portion of the property or try to negotiate a deal so development would be limited were discussed, especially because it was taking so long to get money in line for the whole parcel.

But people involved with the purchase said the deal to buy the land reflected what can happen when different groups have the same goal.

“This is just a terrific example of partners coming together, working hard on a very complicated conservation deal,” said Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy, noting that the land was too expensive for any one group to buy.

Nirenberg added that he hopes the purchase will be a model for addressing regional challenges.
“A regionally collaborative solution ... what a great story to tell for ... the state of Texas,” he said.


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