Williamson County officials and the development community are concerned development and growth in the county could be slowed—and even stopped—if a trio of salamander species that reside in Williamson County are listed as endangered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The salamanders are being fast-tracked for consideration as a result of a settlement to a lawsuit against USFWS. Environmental group Wild Earth Guardians sued USFWS, claiming the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act because it had allegedly failed to evaluate many species in a timely manner. USFWS reached a settlement with Wild Earth Guardians, which specified a listing timeline for each species.
The three salamanders found in Williamson County will be considered along with the Austin blind salamander as a group. The salamanders are on a 12-month timetable, meaning USFWS must issue a finding by September 2012. USFWS Field Supervisor Adam Zerrenner said it saves time and money to consolidate the species into one package because the conservation methods recommended for one species would apply to the rest as well.
“Those four salamanders, because of the commonalities and the similarities in the threats and being relatively close in proximity, the agency decided to consolidate them all into one listing action,” Zerrenner said.
He added that USFWS would take the conservation efforts of Williamson County, Travis County and the City of Austin into account when making a listing recommendation. The Willimson County Conservation Foundation authorized $160,000 for its subcontractors helping with the study to come up with comments to send to USFWS to help inform the agency’s listing decision.
Fear of the unknown
Area developers are worried about the potential impact listing the species as endangered could have.
“There is a whole series of questions that arise, and because we don’t have any kind of hard and fast [rule], what you have now is a lot of speculation,” said Ercel Brashear, a broker with Georgetown-based Brashear Properties.
Brashear said the worst case scenario to him would be adhering to the Barton Springs recharge zone rule adopted by the City of Austin in 1992. That rule allows for only 15 percent impervious coverage, the percentage of a lot that is covered by structure or pavement, within the recharge zone.
“The city can’t go build a road without studying that impact. Highways, roadways, shopping centers, schools, [it could impact them all],” Brashear said. “What if that spring is in a park? What do you do at the Fourth of July? I don’t know.”
New rules could not only affect city, county and private projects, but they could also have an impact on homeowners looking to add on to their homes.
Impervious coverage rules vary throughout the county depending on where the development is located, what zoning is in place and if the development is located on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
Brashear said part of the difficulty in determining the potential impact is that no one knows how much land could be affected. Controlling water quality in the Edwards Aquifer is a major part of protecting the salamander, and the entire Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, which comprises North Austin to Salado, could be affected.
Any subsequent rules that result from an endangered listing could deter developers from building in the county, Brashear said, because the rules could increase costs.
“It could have a negative impact on the county. We’re looking at different options and different ways to deal with the issue,” Williamson County Commissioner and WCCF member Valerie Covey said.
The other fear is that finding a spring or a salamander on one’s property would decrease property value, said Tony Dale, Cedar Park City Councilman and former WCCF board member.
“There’s no grandfather clause in the Endangered Species Act. It’s either listed or it’s not, and if you’re building something, you’re done,” he said.
Animals vs. people
One of Dale’s complaints is that once a species is listed, there is not much of a chance for the species to be unlisted.
“It’s almost like there’s no turning back,” Dale said. “And then you’ve got the economic impact that’s associated with it. One of the fundamental flaws in the Endangered Species Act is that it doesn’t take into account humans.”
Williamson County created the WCCF to coordinate conservation for five endangered species found in the county, and it also provides for a study of the Georgetown salamander. Williamson County Commissioner and WCCF board member Lisa Birkman said she thinks that USFWS should stick to the Regional Habitat Conservation Plan it agreed to, which includes the five-year study of the Georgetown salamander. Birkman said since not much is known about the species, it makes sense to wait until the study is completed before drawing conclusions.
“I think it’s premature because, we again, don’t have much research on the salamanders. That’s why we’re doing the research,” Birkman said.
Lefton said good development depends on having good, reliable natural resources.
“We have a responsibility for all the citizens to protect and conserve the resources that we now enjoy for future generations,” Lefton said. “We would never do anything to hurt jobs and economic security.”