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Liz Sumpter, Hays County judge. photo by Christine Middleton like Belterra, are sited. Counties cannot assess fees on developers for roads, fire and police protection, and traffic controls. They can’t say no if someone wants to build a motocross track next to schools or homes. They can’t limit lot sizes or say no to developments with private wells that might lower the aquifer and threaten older wells nearby. In Texas, beyond fire and police protection, county government can do very little to protect the environment or quality of life. Counties try to govern land use through the few tools at their disposal, mostly through wastewater permits, and water availability and drainage issues, on which state law allows county governments some voice. In that sense, Hays County lawmakers blocked the Belterra development the only way they could. In fact, Hays County’s opposition to the Belterra wastewater permit is a good example of the limits of county government. Hays County has no actual authority to reject the permit; local officials can only make a statement of opposition. It falls ultimately to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to make the final decision, although it can be appealed in state court. In the end, Hays County’s great victory may only delay the Belterra wastewater permit. The Texas Legislature doles out land-use authority like starvation rations. Suburban counties in Texas have fought for more land-use authority for years. \(Some rural counties in Texas, with little growth, often don’t want more land-use authority or zoning authority because of the expense of mainurgency because the Hill Country is straining from so much development. “We’re under siege here with growth:’ says Gene Miertschin, a Kendall County commissioner. “My precinct in Kendall County [just north of San Antonio] is a perfect example of the problems we’re having … For every $1 we collect in taxes [from new subdivisions], we pay out about $1.27 in services. We need to be able to assess some impact fees on these developers to help pay for new roads, but we don’t have the power to do it. We just don’t have enough to work with:’ Kendall County tried to gain some of that power during the last legislative session, in 2007. Perhaps a little naively, county lawmakers even wrote a draft of the bill themselves to help facilitate the process. It never made it out of committee, in part because it contained the fatal words “impact fees:’ Miertschin says. “Our own representative at that time told us he would be thrown off the floor of the House if he even mentioned the words ‘impact fees.”‘ This time, when the Hill Country Coalition pitches its legislation to lawmakers during the legislative session that begins in January, impact fees will be rephrased as safe road funds. Such a feint is probably not going to dissuade the opposition. The powers arrayed against reform of county land-use laws are formidable. As just one example, the Texas Association of Builders, through its political action committee, HOMEPAC, is one of the state’s most prolific campaign contributors. In 2006, the PAC gave more than half-a-million dollars to the campaign committees of 224 legislators, judges, and state officials, Democrat and Republican, according to Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group. Gov . Rick Perry received more than $71,000. HOMEPAC opposes broadening county land-use authority, says Interim Executive Director Scott Norman, with the exception of allowing counties to create some buffers between noisy industry and housing. Norman says that if counties could assess impact fees, then those costs would fall to homeowners, and “especially entry level buyers will be priced out of the market.” \(“I don’t think so,” responds Judge Sumpter. “Impact fees for roads, which is all we’re probably going to be asking for, would increase prices HOMEPAC is hardly alone. Other powerful and well-funded groups such as the Texas Realtors Association and the Farm Bureau also oppose the counties’ efforts. Even if the Legislature does make new law regarding county powers, it is likely to make them “permissive says Miertschin, the Kendall County commissioner, which means voters in each county would decide if the commission should have new powers. Those local elections would be another opportunity for developers and homebuilders to defeat county land-use reform. “The big money opposition will come out with both barrels:’ Miertschin predicts. “They will give it their spin about property rights being threatened. County government just doesn’t have any money to get our message across.” He adds, “I’m hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.” Rusty Middleton specializes in writing about natural resources and the environment. He can be contacted at [email protected] rr.corrl. NOVEMBER 14, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15