The Williamson County Commissioners Court approved the enrollment of six new properties in the county's Regional Habitat Conservation Plan on Feb. 6. This plan facilitates a mutually beneficial collaboration between county conservation efforts and land development, ultimately leading to the protection of endangered species in the area.

The overview

Initially adopted by the county in 2008, the RHCP is a voluntary program open to governmental entities such as cities and school districts, landowners and developers. Participating in the program involves paying certain fees, which in turn expedites the permitting process for the developer.

These fees are subsequently directed to the Williamson County Conservation Foundation. The foundation provides regional environmental services aimed at balancing the conservation of endangered species with the requirements of new development projects.

Having this plan in place has helped streamline infrastructure projects in the county, said Josh Renner, WCCF environmental program director.

“[RHCP] facilitates some of these infrastructure and road projects while being in compliance with the Endangered Species Act,” Renner said. “It’s a more programmatic, holistic approach that provides a net benefit for both ends. The development community benefits from streamline permitting, and the conservation community benefits from a more holistic approach to conservation.”

Within the program, participants are able to receive permitting within 60 days—a stark difference from the typical two-year timeframe a property owner might wait when submitting a request through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Commissioners voiced heavy support for the program, noting RHCP has resulted in “millions of dollars” in savings for both the county and private sector.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long noted the prolonged waiting periods during the permitting process results in delay costs for these projects with additional money being spent on construction and right of way.

"Time is money," Long said.

Diving deeper

Initial enrollment fees are required to participate in the RHCP and are determined based on the specific property's direct impact to protected species.

Renner explained that Williamson County sits on Edwards limestone, which is highly karstic, meaning it's characterized by numerous caverns.

“That's a lot of what our enrollees are getting covered for. Since they're over the limestone, you really don't know what you're gonna find until you start construction,” Renner said.

These caverns are often home to several species of endangered invertebrate—spiders and beetles—in Williamson County.

While other counties in the area have similar plans, Williamson County has a unique approach for long-term funding of its Conservation Foundation, Long said.

In addition to the initial enrollment fee, a volunteering property is initially assessed and valued. As the property develops and the value of the land increases, 15% of that incremental value gets taxed by the county and allocated to the Conservation Foundation.

The foundation establishes guidelines and ensures developers adhere to them in order to minimize disturbance to habitat lands. For example, if a property includes habitat land for an endangered bird, developers are restricted from construction movement during nesting season.

The money allocated to the Conservation Foundation is utilized to acquire additional preservation land and conduct monitoring of endangered species in the county.

“It's both best management practices and a way to be able to offset or mitigate the impact elsewhere,” Renner said.

Who it’s for

Endangered species found and protected in Williamson County include:
  • Black-capped vireo, song bird
  • Golden-cheeked warbler, song bird
  • Tooth Cave ground beetle, karst invertebrate
  • Bone Cave harvestman, karst invertebrate
  • Coffin Cave mold beetle, karst invertebrate
The Georgetown salamander is also a candidate for the endangered species program and is covered by the RHCP.

One more thing

Since its inception in 2008, 139 properties have enrolled in the program.

Based on estimates of the incremental tax the county will receive and investments planned, the county anticipates over a $20 million surplus for county conservation efforts by the end of the 30-year program, according to county documents.

Find more information on the county’s conservation efforts here.