Storm Ranch deal is sealed

Dear FA Friends, Neighbors and Members,

Someone, somewhere, somehow, should knight George Cofer, Director of the Hill Country Conservancy. And while at it, send them a check. Please read on.

>From the Sunday Statesman.

The road to preservation, less traveled After five years, Storm Ranch deal is sealed between family and Hill Country Conservancy.

By Stephen Scheibal AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Monday, August 08, 2005 In the waning days of a hot summer and hotter economic boom five years ago, a group of environmentalists, developers and business leaders rallied around a 5,700-acre ranch they all wanted to save.

The Storm Ranch had Hill Country views as dramatic as its name. It was the perfect launching pad for an audacious five-year plan to raise $300 million, enough money to wall off giant swaths of the environmentally sensitive region from development.

Then came the bust. Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and war. Then nine-figure fundraising goals drifted into hallucinatory memory, and the conservation coalition was left to scrap for $10 million ? just enough money to preserve Storm Ranch as it is.

The coalition, known as the Hill Country Conservancy, turned a corner last week when its leaders and the Storm family completed a deal that will protect nearly half of the terrier-shaped ranch in Hays County between Dripping Springs and Wimberley.

The $4 million that the conservancy raised and paid the family does not buy the land. Rather, it seals a contract that locks in very strict restrictions guaranteeing that the land will remain free of any significant development, particularly the strip centers and subdivisions that are spreading across the Hill Country.

In coming months, the conservancy hopes to raise $6 million more, most of it in federal grant money, to buy development rights over the rest of the Storm Ranch.

The ranch is the largest land tract in the Barton Springs watershed, a 371-square-mile zone that funnels water into an aquifer that feeds Austin’s iconic swimming hole and provides habitat to the endangered salamander that lives there.

Both buyer and seller celebrated the closing, calling it a conquering of a dismal economy and so much red tape that Texas’ senior senator had to help hack through it.

“There were a lot of places where people could have easily and quite legitimately given up,” said Robin Rather, an environmental activist and the conservancy’s vice president. “Every time we felt like we were about to get over the hump, some new complication would come up. . . . A lot of people thought it would never happen.”

The milestone also represents a very different beginning from the one five years ago, both for Storm Ranch and for efforts to save land like it. But, all sides emphasize, it is a beginning.

Intact heirloom

On Storm Ranch, $10 million will buy, most precisely, nothing.

The money will not change the hills, lush with grass and dotted with trees, that roll away from the rise at the heart of the ranch.

Nor will it put a new owner in place of Lynn Storm, a petroleum engineer by training who invented an oil drilling device and used the considerable spoils from it to assemble the land in the 1950s and early ’60s.

Storm is 90 now. He still drives guests around his ranch in a massive GMC Suburban, surveying the land’s contours and treasures the way other people look over family photos.

But the economy of urban growth treats farms and ranches as assets, not heirlooms. Already, the Storms must pay big property tax bills. At some point, they will face an even bigger inheritance tax payment.

The family has sold corners of the ranch in the past to cover obligations. In the future, the Storms would probably have little choice but to carve up the land and sell swaths of it to developers.

Unless, of course, they could find someone who could pay them to keep their ranch intact.

“We were going to keep the place,” Storm said, “one way or another.”

As the Storms evaluated their options nearly a decade ago, the Hill Country Conservancy coalesced to build on the $78 million that Austin voters approved for conservation land in 1998 and 2000. The money helped the city preserve about 20,000 acres of open space.

The ranch’s size moved it toward the top of Austin’s priority list, but the city didn’t want to cover the full amount by itself.

The conservancy’s leaders, plucked from factions that had long warred over development in environmentally sensitive areas, looked for a quick acquisition to show potential benefactors that the effort was a serious one. The group and the family soon cemented a partnership that would meet both sides’ needs with a tool seldom used in Central Texas.

Using what is known as a conservation easement, the Storms would keep the land, and the conservancy would pay them a fraction of the land’s value not to develop it.

Neither side thought it would be easy. But no one expected it to be as hard as it was.

The wait is over

Just after the conservancy launched its fundraising effort, private money began drying up in the region’s economic downturn. The group turned to the federal government, which had money for land conservation and was eager to help preserve Storm Ranch.

But then officials realized that intricate legal wrinkles might disqualify the project from receiving any money at all. To the Storms and the conservancy, the delays seemed interminable, occasionally hopeless. Lynn Storm and his three children, any one of whom could have scuttled the deal, vowed to hold out as long as they could.

“It was a year and a half dead in the water, where everybody was beating their heads against a wall trying to solve a seemingly insoluble problem,” said Scott Storm, who also signed off on the easement with his sisters Lynne Storm and Anne Geis. “It’s extremely hard to get anyone to finally make a decision or interpretation of any of those kinds of issues.”

A number of agencies ? Austin and the Lower Colorado River Authority among them ? contributed money for the first $4 million phase of the project. The range of contributors, combined with the project’s nontraditional nature, added to the challenge, said Bob Pine, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Austin office.

“The fact that everybody was willing to persevere through all that just goes to show how important this is,” Pine said.

Even U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison wrote to federal regulators trying to clear the blockage.

Still, a few anxious conservancy board members repeatedly considered walking away from the partnership and moving on to something that might prove more productive.

Finally, a federal lawyer signed off on the deal, and it began to move forward.

Last week’s closing does not mark the end of the process, not for the Storms and certainly not for the conservancy. The group has received nearly $2 million more in federal money and has applied for $3 million on top of that. The sum, with additional donations, would extend the conservation easement to all of Storm Ranch.

From there, the conservancy expects to raise more money to preserve more land in the Hill Country, relying heavily on conservation easements while pushing preservation initiatives at City Hall and the Travis County Courthouse.

Over the past five years, the group has accepted a donation of conservation land on Lake Austin and aided the city in some of its land purchases. While conservancy officials have pursued other deals, they have had little time or money for anything outside Storm Ranch.

The Storms will start fixing up the barns, roads, fences and fields that fell into disrepair while the family waited for the deal to close.

Lynn Storm said he is most excited about finally being able to clear cedar trees off his property.

“It’s fun to work on something,” he said, “when you know you’re going to whip it.”

sscheibal@statesman.com; 445-3819

Saving Storm Ranch

The Hill Country Conservancy raised $4 million to limit development over nearly half of a 5,700-acre ranch in Hays County. Here’s how it works:

The agreement: Known as a conservation easement, it strictly limits dense development, or the addition of roads and other forms of pavement, on 2,283 acres of the ranch. It allows some public access by school groups, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and utility companies, provided the activities don’t interfere with ranching operations.

The money: Austin contributed nearly $1.5 million for the conservation easement. State and federal officials added $1 million, as did the Lower Colorado River Authority. Other contributors include the Houston Endowment and several surveyors, lawyers and other real estate professionals who contributed their services.

The future: Both the Hill Country Conservancy and the Storm family say they would like to extend the conservation easement over the entire ranch. That would probably require an additional $6 million, most of which the group is trying to raise from federal grants and matching money.