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County continues to struggle with development ordinance

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By LPR Staff

Editor/POST-REGISTER

While talk about the proposed Caldwell County Development Ordinance continues to go round and round, Caldwell County Commissioners and Judge Tom Bonn are starting to show signs of frustration.

The ordinance, which was introduced to the public in a draft form in October, has been picked apart, line by line, b

y a group of Caldwell County citizens who are concerned that the ordinance does not draw distinctions between individual landowners and property developers, and who fear its passage will hamper personal property rights within the county.

Those talks, which have circled for months and sent representatives from the consulting firm Loomis Partners back to the drawing board repeatedly, may have come to a head on Monday during the first regular meeting of the Caldwell County Commissioners Court.

Since being sworn in last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Fred Buchholtz has been working to review and pare down the ordinance. Buchholtz, an experienced real estate broker and property developer, said his intention was to streamline the ordinance and make it more “user friendly,” something opponents of the ordinance have said they wanted all along.

However, Caldwell County Assistant District Attorney Ron Heggemeier cautioned against too many significant changes being made. A complete redraft of the ordinance, he said, would negate the work already done and force the County back to the first step of the process, preparing a Takings Impact Assessment to post for public review.

The current incarnation of the ordinance, which was poised for passage in late December until Commissioners heeded the wishes of several members of the concerned public who asked them to wait until Bonn and Buchholtz had taken their seats and voted to wait.

Now, Bonn said he wants a resolution within the next 30 days.

“We can”t keep going around in circles on this thing,” Bonn said. “When these land developments evolve in the county,  it impacts the county budget, and if it affects the county budget, it affects the taxpayer. We need to get a resolution on this thing and move on to other issues.”

Bonn said he believed much of the “hysteria” over the document was based on misinformation, and that by introducing the Development Ordinance, the Court was not trying to place an undue burden on property owners. Rather, the Commissioners want to be able to help Caldwell County “grow gracefully” and increase potential for development.

Precinct 1 Commissioner John Cyrier also tried to assuage some of the public”s fears, reminding critics that the Development Ordinance is a living document, and that the Court would retain the power to make adjustments if portions of the ordinance don”t work.

“We have to start somewhere,” he said. “We can go back and scale it down if it doesn”t work. But once we pass it, we can”t adjust it up.”

Cyrier”s statement alludes to a state law that prevents counties from strengthening restrictions once they are in place, but allows them to reduce those restrictions at any time.

The Court originally entered into a contract with Loomis Partners last year for the preparation of the ordinance, to the tune of $56,000. As of Monday, according to Loomis representative Tracy Bratton, that contract is “maxed out,” and any work done on the ordinance moving forward is above and beyond the original contracted amount.

The Loomis contract itself has fallen under fire from critics, who say the county should have worked with local resources to develop the ordinance, instead of relying on “an outside contractor” without personal knowledge of Caldwell County residents and their wants and needs.

However, Bratton has attended each meeting of the Commissioners Court when the ordinance has been discussed, and has met several times with individuals and groups of concerned citizens since the ordinance was introduced.

His efforts did not keep him from facing harsh criticism on Monday morning, as one concerned resident questioned not only his job performance, but his ethics.

“All he did was plagiarize,” said Peggy Duda, citing the fact that much of the ordinance was borrowed from the development ordinances in place in other areas. “[Loomis Partners] didn”t write it, they just took excerpts. That”s against ethics, and the fact they took money for it is shameful.”

Duda, as well as others in the room, suggested there was no need for Bratton, or other Loomis representatives, to be involved in upcoming meetings about the ordinance.

Bonn, Cyrier and Buchholtz each defended the county”s working relationship with Bratton and Loomis, and said it was unreasonable at this point to meet about the ordinance without them.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Neto Madrigal and Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Roland were both silent during the discussion.

Near the end of the discussion, surveying professional Linda Hinkle cited a concern about provisions in the ordinance that exempt property owners with a certain amount of road frontage from platting requirements spelled out in the ordinance. She said there should be limits on such transactions. Bratton pointed out that in the original draft of the ordinance, those limitations were in place – but they were removed after a public request to do so was backed by the Commissioners.

Future suggestions for changes to the ordinance, Bonn said, should be submitted to the Caldwell County Judge”s Office in writing, in bullet-point format with contact information for the requestor.

Buchholtz said his review of the document was expected to take another three weeks, at which point the Commissioners will likely bring the measure back to the table, perhaps for approval.

In other business, the Commissioners approved a resolution in support of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which will soon embark on a project that will measure and map flood activity in the Guadalupe River basin, which includes portions of Caldwell County and the San Marcos River.

The project, according to GBRA representative Tommy Hill, will allow the river authority to gather updated information about the patterns of flooding, including where runoff is highest during periods of heavy rain. The study, he said, which will include laser-generated elevation measurements, is expected to take around six years to complete, and is planned to be funded with grants from the Texas Water Development Board and the Corps of Engineers.

Some members of the public in attendance expressed concern that the project could result in damming or otherwise altering the flow of the rivers and creeks, which could then impact property owners” wells.

However, Bonn, Buchholtz and Hill offered assurances that the project was simply a study. Although the study could result in information regarding a need for alterations of the water flow, those suggestions would be brought back to the Commissioners Court for discussion before any actions were taken.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Joe Roland expressed concern about the resolution as it was presented, in that the draft resolution included language saying Caldwell County agreed to commit matching funds and in-kind services to the project. Despite Bonn”s comments that the provision existed only in the event Caldwell County wanted to move forward with implementation with flood avoidance measures in the future, and that the County was not committing funds to the project at this time, Roland chose to vote against the measure.

The other Commissioners voted to approve the resolution, which passed 4-1.

In brief news:

The Court voted to lift the outdoor burning ban after this weekend”s rains place the county in the “green zone,” according to the Keetch-Byram Drought Index.

They appointed several members to the Caldwell County Historical Commission.

The Commissioners voted to enter a contract with the Texas Department of Health and Human Services for the future prosecution of certain fraud cases.

The county paid bills in the amount of $167,441.68, which includes $7,140.85 for indigent legal defense.

They also approved a change to the current scheduling of Caldwell County Commissioners” Court meetings. Effective Feb. 1, the meetings will be moved from the first floor of the Caldwell County Courthouse to the meeting space at the Scott Annex on FM 20E. The change, according to Bonn, will allow more space for the gallery in Commissioners” Court meetings, and will increase the technology available during the meetings.

The Caldwell County Commissioners meet at 9 a.m. on the second, third and fourth Monday of each month, currently in Room 100 of the Caldwell County Courthouse. The meetings are open to the public and concerned residents are encouraged to attend.

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