San Marcos City Council votes to apply for $4.4 million loan for preservation of Edwards Aquifer land

San Marcos City Council on Tuesday voted to apply for a $4.4 million loan from the Texas Water Development Board to preserve an undeveloped stretch of land over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

Mayor John Thomaides was the only dissenting vote, arguing that he did not want to risk adding more expenditures to the city's already tight budget by potentially funding the land currently owned by the San Marcos River Foundation.

"For me, this is not an issue of whether we’d like to acquire the property or not," he said during Council's lengthy discussion. "It’s can we afford it."

Council Member Jane Hughson recused herself from the vote and was not in Council chambers during the discussion.

The San Marcos River Foundation purchased the land—located within the Sink Creek drainage basin, which drains directly into Spring Lake, the headwaters of the San Marcos River–to preserve it and plans to apply for grants to cover the cost of the loan, but foundation staffers say they need the city's backing in order to get the grants.

The San Marcos River Foundation argues that since the 300-acre area is situated in a recharge zone, it must remain clear of development and impervious cover so water can flow into the ground and protect the city from flooding.

The foundation purchased two ranches in the surrounding area to help prevent development from occurring. It also purchased Dreamcatcher Ranch’s conservation easement, located off of Lime Kiln Road, earlier this year through funding from the National Resources Conservation, The Meadows Foundation in Dallas, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Agricultural Lands grant program, the Dreamcatcher Ranch landowners and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Trust.

"We have a loan that we have extended and we will continue to extend as long as we have the promise that we will be able to preserve it," the foundation's Executive Director Dianne Wassenich said.

If the foundation fails to start paying off the loan, the property could be seized and sold, possibly to a developer, Wassenich said.

"The city would get [the land] at almost no cost, and it would be a great advantage and a legacy for the future that people would think you were very wise to have done before the place exploded to double 72,000 [San Marcos residents]," she said.

How much the city would have to pay cannot yet be determined, While the TWDB loan is for $4.4 million, if approved, the city could receive up to 45 percent loan forgiveness through various programs. In addition, any grant money that comes in could be applied to the TWDB loan.

City Attorney Michael Cosentino said Council's vote Tuesday night comes with the caveat that Council members revisit the application in December or January to assess how much grant money is available. Depending on what grant money is available, City Council can choose to amend the application to lower the dollar amount requested.

Council Member Lisa Prewitt said she supported applying for the loan.

"For me, this is a huge legacy that the city of San Marcos could do right now for the future generations of San Marcos," she said.

Council Member Melissa Derrick echoed Prewitt's sentiments.

"I look at this as a gift that these entities have brought to us," she said. "For us to turn it away, I can’t do that."

Laurie Moyer, the city's director of engineering and capital improvement department, said the city can expect an answer on whether the TWDB loan application is approved by November.

Wassenich said the city's options on what to do with the land once it begins making payments include leasing the land to ranchers that graze cattle on it, like the river foundation is doing currently, or turning into a public park.

"We have considered very carefully selling it to private people, but then we realized there would not be public access," she said.

Brian Olson, who has vocally opposed the removal of Cape's Dam on the San Marcos River, said he opposed possibly spending up to $4.4 million on this land.

"I don’t believe we should help bailout or fund a piece of property for someone that now is not able to afford it," he said, adding it was not guaranteed that grants would be available.

"As much as I believe in conservation and we all want to protect the river and we all want the water to flow, I think coming in here on a fourth quarter type deal and adding $4.4 million to the budget is concerning to me," he said.

Staff will come back to Council with the status of any grants made available in December or January.