Monday, March 30, 2015

Hay's County Struggles as it's Population Surges


   One of the fastest-growing counties in the nation is feeling the pinch as its resources are stretched thin.

 ByAsher Price and TaylorTompkins

Construction crews continue work on the Green at Plum Creek apartment buildings just outside Kyle on Thursday. The population boom in Hays County has stretched its water, housing and government resources in ways that will take years to address. PHOTOS BY LUKAS KEAPPROTH / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

A sign along RM 150 in Kyle illustrates how the water supply in Hays
County has become a topic of concern as the area’s population continues to grow. Local communities depend on a haphazard mix of river water and groundwater sources.

Single-family homes go up in the Blanco Vista neighborhood of San Marcos last November. Due to the scarcity of available housing in Hays County, homes in San Marcos are on the market for an average of 133 days, according to a Realtors’ association official. If no new homes were put up for sale, the current housing inventory in Hays County would be sold in just two months, according to the association. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2014

Hays County residents gather outside the Hays City Store in Driftwood last month to protest the controversial Electro Purification well field being developed near Wimberley.

On the face of it, Hays County’s population boom — its growth is the second highest in the country among heavily populated counties — has been good for business.
Median income outstrips the rest of the state, with the average Hays household earning $58,651, compared to $51,900 in the rest of Texas.

But the boom has stretched the county’s water, housing and government resources in ways that will take years to address. The jail is overcrowded. The scramble is on to secure more water for growth. A lack of major arterial roads means too much traffic is forced onto Interstate 35.
And more people are on their way to Hays every day, many of them migrating from the two metropolitan centers it sits between.

County Judge Bert Cobb said the cost of living in Austin is a direct factor in Hays County’s growth. “The feeling that a lot of people have is, ‘Well, if we don’t build it, they won’t come,’ and that’s destructive,” Cobb said. “They’re coming here for all the reasons everyone comes here — there’s space. As Austin gets worse, they’re driving them into San Marcos and Kyle and Buda.”
Newcomers get their first glimpse of the county’s struggle to meet demand as they shop for a place to live.

There is a severe lack of housing that is driving up prices while making it harder to find a home in Hays County, according to James Walker, vice president of the Four Rivers Association of Realtors, a nonprofit trade group that includes Hays County.

“We’re a very fast growing area and there’s very little inventory out there, particularly in the affordable housing arena,” Walker said. “There are some developments that are coming; they’re just not here yet. Unfortunately, in the past, particularly in San Marcos, they haven’t been real receptive to the idea of bringing in new housing developers.”

Homes are on the market for an average of 133 days in San Marcos, and once a home is put on the market it quickly receives multiple offers, some in cash, Walker said.
If no new homes were put up for sale, the current inventory would be sold in just two months, according to numbers from the association.

Yet even without an abundance of housing, people keep coming.

According to new Census figures released Thursday, Hays is the nation’s second-fastest growing county with a population of at least 100,000. The county saw a 4.8 percent population increase between July 1, 2013, and July 1, 2014.
And the growth is not likely to slow.

Currently nearing 180,000 people, Hays County could grow by 30,000 people in the next five years and to 440,000 people by 2050, according to projections by the state demographer.
Finding the water to serve all those people is a work in progress.

Waters for fighting

Hays County’s communities depend on a haphazard mix of river water and groundwater sources that have a spectrum of oversight. Working to meet their growing needs, the communities are trying individually strike deals with a variety of water suppliers, even as the county tries to shepherd them into a unified plan.

The broader issues at play with water — issues of private property, of resource preservation, of population growth, of rural versus urban interests, of patchwork regulation — are on display in the fight involving Electro Purification’s groundwater project. The project would pump up to 5.3 million gallons a day to meet the burgeoning drinking, washing, lawn-watering and bathing needs of a rapidly growing area along I-35.

The company says it is lawfully pulling up water and selling it to communities that need it. Neighbors of the project say it will rob them of their own groundwater and that the company has exploited an unregulated store of groundwater.

“We need to take a stand against living unsustainably,” said Purly Gates, who lives in a subdivision adjacent to the Electro Purification well field. “We’re ruled by economic gain. We need to listen to the land. We’re stealing our resources for private gain. We’re fouling our nest in the name of growth.”
But the Goforth Special Utility District, which has a contract to take the lion’s share of the Electro Purification water to serve its 5,600 connections spanning Hays, Caldwell and Travis counties, says it needs the water to meet rising demand.

Goforth, in a lower-income area, has seen a 6 to 8 percent growth rate in its area over the past decade, said the utility’s attorney, Leonard Dougal. Going forward, “our engineer says just expect more of the same,” he said.

Playing catch-up
Growth is at the heart of a web of issues facing Hays county government.
“The organism has to work as a whole,” Cobb said. “If you concentrate on just one aspect of it, you cheat another part of it.”

One piece of the puzzle is transportation.

Commissioners have a transportation plan that would give the county a much needed east-west roadway by connecting RM 150 to Texas 130 in the east and U.S. 290 in the north.
The proposed roadway could take some of the congestion off of Interstate 35 headed into Austin and is waiting for funding from the Texas Department of Transportation, Cobb said.

“Right now it’s easier to get to downtown Austin than to get to Dripping Springs from Kyle,” Cobb said.

Money problems also plague the Hays County Jail, which is outdated and overcrowded.
The jail maxes out at 311 inmates, and the 25-year-old facility has sent inmates to neighboring jails on and off since last July.

While there is talk of building a new facility, county commissioners are looking at the judicial system as a whole. Special courts, such as a veterans court, psychiatric court and drug court, have been or are being developed to save jail space for people who pose a bigger threat to public safety, Cobb said.
The labor cost of those who would work on new dockets is a concern in addition to the cost of building a jail. A study is being done to analyze the needs for a jail facility in order to not build too much or too little, Cobb said.

Like the other struggles that the county is facing, the jail issue requires action soon.
“The problem will only get worse unless we do something,” Cobb said. “Inaction is a decision. We can’t afford to do that any longer.”

American-Statesman data editor Christian McDonald contributed to this report. Contact Asher Price at 512-445-3643. Twitter: @asherprice

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