Land could be added to Government Canyon in Texas
Land could be added to Government Canyon State Natural Area in Texas
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The second-highest point in Bexar County and the 461 acres around it could soon become part of Government Canyon State Natural Area — the culmination of several years of negotiations with a developer inclined to protect the land rather than bulldoze it.
At an elevation of 1,530 feet, the limestone ridge overlooks Government Canyon and acts like a funnel into caves that are occupied by endangered species and carry rainwater to the Edwards Aquifer. The San Antonio skyline, 20 miles to the southeast, juts out from the horizon.
The past superintendent of Government Canyon, Dierdre Hisler, calls it Dealing Hill, the place where she would bring would-be donors, volunteers and politicians to see the awe-inspiring vista and convince them that the land was worth protecting.
Arguably her most important meetings on the hilltop were with the man who owns the land, Stephen Lowder, who agreed to sell it for public use.
On Thursday, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission will vote on whether to accept Lowder's land as part of the 8,621-acre Government Canyon.
It's a deal that Hisler, Lowder, the city, the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy have worked on for more than two years. The Fish and Wildlife Service awarded a $1.6 million grant this summer to help make the deal happen because it wants to protect endangered species there. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department committed $300,000 so Government Canyon could be expanded.
The city will soon decide whether it will pay $7 million, which would come from the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, funded by a voter-approved sales tax of 1/8 cent. The advisory board of the program has voted in favor.
To ensure that the deal happens, Lowder agreed to sell his land at 25 percent below its appraised value.
That was not his original plan.
Thirteen years ago, he bought a 957-acre tract that includes Dealing Hill with the idea of building hundreds of luxury homes.
The most prized lots would surround a cul-de-sac at the high point, where there is now a field of bright yellow wildflowers.
"When Steve and I first started out with the negotiations, he was all about development and making a buck," Hisler said. "There were many times that we met up there, and he had all his maps and he was trying to figure out how he could cram more houses on it. I would have to take a deep breath and point out to him to look at the view."
Hisler said she watched Lowder, 54, a successful developer from Dallas, slowly change his focus from profits to ensuring that the land would be around for future generations to enjoy.
"This is being preserved in perpetuity for my grandkids," Lowder said in a phone interview. "It's a win-win for everybody."
Lowder has sold other land in environmentally sensitive areas.
When The Shops at La Cantera were to be built on Loop 1604 above caves with endangered species, the developers needed to mitigate the damage by protecting similar caves with the same species. Lowder, whose property had caves, sold them 75 acres, which are now protected from development.
In 2005, Lowder sold 421 acres next to the 75 acres for $5 million to become part of Government Canyon. That deal was made possible by a $3.5 million grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service, $750,000 from the city and $750,000 from the San Antonio Water System.
The wildlife service wanted protection for the endangered species there, while the city and SAWS wanted protection for the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
After that sale, Lowder went back to the drawing board and secured permits to build 650 homes on the remaining 461 acres.
Hisler then asked him to reconsider and give her some time. She sought more federal grant money. In 2011, the application was denied. This year, the award came through but for $1.6 million, not the $3 million requested.
Lowder made up the difference by dropping his price.
Last week, Chris Holm, the new superintendent of Government Canyon, was up on Dealing Hill showing visitors the view.
"This would be an ideal place for a camp-with-a-ranger program or a sunset or sunrise hike," he said as he walked among the waist-high wildflowers.
Lowder agrees. "100 percent," he said.
On the ground, Lowder spotted his highway toll pass, which had fallen out of his Suburban the week before. He had been up on the ridge, just taking in the view.
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com
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