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 the settlement of 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.
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 Williamson County Conservation Fund 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
Ercel Brashear, a broker with Georgetown-based Brashear Properties, 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.
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.
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.
Salamanders in focus
The Georgetown salamander, Eurycea naufragia, is thought to live only in Williamson County. It lives entirely in springs and does not live on land as an adult as many other salamanders do. Adults grow to be about 2 inches long.
The Georgetown salamander lives in springs along five tributaries of the San Gabriel River and in a cave in Georgetown as well. According to Fish and Wildlife, the salamanders are threatened primarily by the possibility of water quality degradation.