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251 acres adjacent to Aquarena Springs preserved as a city park

By Marc Speir
University News Service
July 19, 2007


The 251-acre park remains mostly undeveloped, with the exception of a few overgrown hiking trails. Access to the park will only be available through guided tours with the Greenbelt Alliance of San Marcos. (Photo by Marc Speir)

The city of San Marcos, Hays County and Texas State University-San Marcos have successfully secured the $5.1 million necessary to purchase approximately 251 acres adjacent to Aquarena Springs from the Nature Conservancy of Texas (NCT) to create a new city park and greenbelt.

A $360,000 grant from the Emmett and Miriam McCoy Foundation on June 11 completed the fundraising for the Spring Lake preserve, a venture in the works for more than two years.

The NCT acquired ownership of the land in May of 2006 from developer Terry Gilmore in a partnership to transfer the management and ownership of the tract to the city as soon as the $5.1 million could be raised, with Texas State serving as an integral part of the fundraising effort.

City officials will close on the property by the end of July and are planning a community celebration for the park in late August. Access to the park will only be available through guided tours with the Greenbelt Alliance of San Marcos until park trails are developed.

The acreage is planned as a nature park with hike and bike trails, bird watching and picnic areas within the heavily wooded hills overlooking San Marcos.

The region contains a wide variety of flora and fauna, acts as home to an array of animal life, and provides a significant recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer. Designed for use as a low-intensity recreation area, the tract is without such amenities as soccer fields or tennis courts.

“This is a part of a larger master plan with the city and county to improve everything with more green space,” said Andy Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State. “Ultimately, we might see something like the hike and bike trail in Austin.”

Texas State President Denise Trauth celebrated the purchase as a victory for the environment.

“This acquisition presents our community with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect one of the most important recharge areas for our river and its headwater’s springs,” Trauth said.

The buyout will protect the quality of water in Spring Lake and the San Marcos River, including several endangered species indigenous to the area. In addition, the deal secures clean drinking water for many Central Texans provided by the Edwards Aquifer.

Half of the tract is situated over the environmentally sensitive recharge zone for the aquifer and also contains Sink Creek, the uppermost tributary of the San Marcos River. Although Sink Creek is normally dry and is unusable for water recreation, the watershed is considered an environmentally precious landmark.

Andrew Sansom
“There is a 50 percent recharge zone for Spring Lake over that area,” said Sansom. “That is why we initially became interested.”

Sansom, former executive director of both the NCT and Texas Parks and Wildlife, served as liaison for the university to help secure private and public grants to buy the land.

“It’s been a real collaborative effort,” Sansom said. “We had our students active in the bond issue and we’ve worked with all the government and private entities to make it happen.”

Texas State, in tandem with the National Park Service, will develop a plan supporting longevity for the new park. University researchers will weigh the impact felt by local wildlife, vegetation and water flow, and plan around the ecosystem accordingly.

The Center for Nature and Heritage Tourism at Texas State, along with the Rivers and Trails Program of the National Park Service, will work with the site as an educational post for programs in environmental education, nature tourism, biology, geography, history, archeology, outdoor recreation and teacher education.



Large growths of fruiting prickly pear cactus are some of the native species that highlight the new park. (Photo by Marc Speir)

Sixteen acres of university property will serve as a section of the park and a gateway for the public. Upon opening, the new park can be accessed by following signs put in place near the River Systems Institute building at the intersection of Allen and West Laurel.

Currently, there are no public access points for the park until master planning for the property is completed and a trail system is developed.

Guided tours are available through the San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance. A schedule of events can be found at: www.smgreenbelt.org/NewsEvents.htm.

History of the new park

The San Marcos River has flowed continuously for more than 10 million years, supplied by underground springs from the Edwards Aquifer. The area around Aquarena Springs is believed to be one of the most continuously inhabited in North America, with an ongoing human presence for more than 12,000 years.

“The human remains found at Aquarena Springs are as old as anyone has found anywhere in all of North America,” Sansom said.

In 1849, General Edward Burleson built a dam to power a gristmill on the San Marcos River, thus forming Spring Lake. In 1926, A.B. Rogers purchased land around Aquarena Springs and built the Aquarena Springs Resort in 1928.

The 251 acres adjacent to the resort supported ranching and hunting for decades, left undisturbed in recent years with the exception of a few hiking trails.

The 90-acre property of Aquarena Springs was sold to Texas State in 1994 and the university changed its emphasis from a theme park to an educational center.

The 251 acres adjacent to the center were increasingly considered for private residential development by investors.

In 2004, the city and local developers initiated plans to build a large hotel and conference center at the highest point of the acreage. Construction plans were halted because of access points to the proposed buildings and the proximity of the Edwards Aquifer and headwaters of the San Marcos River.

In March 2005, developers moved the conference center and hotel plans to IH-35 and McCarty Lane, a mile north of the outlet malls. The 10-story Embassy Suites Hotel and San Marcos Conference Center are now under construction and will open in fall 2008.

In May 2005, the city, county and university entered into a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on acquiring the 251 acres for use as a natural area.

The entities agreed to plan an environmentally sensitive green space from Spring Lake Hills along Spring Lake and the San Marcos River to IH-35. Around the same time, the university began promoting a multifaceted master plan to add green space around campus.

In September 2005, Hays County Commissioners Court committed $700,000 of the county’s Parks and Open Space bond funds to the project. San Marcos citizens provided  $2 million to the project from a city bond program approved by voters in November 2005.

After being asked to assist in the land acquisition, the NCT purchased the 251 acres from RYS Limited, LP, for $4,869,000 in May 2006, holding it until the city and county could raise the necessary funds to purchase the property.

Principle developer Terry Gilmore sold the land at a bargain price, with appraisals listed at $6 million.

“Mr. Gilmore was very generous to allow us the opportunity to buy the land for less than its worth,” said Sansom. “Essentially, it was an in-kind gift of over a million dollars.”

The remaining costs were absorbed through a combination of city funds, county money, grants, government and private fundraising. The final tally totaled $5.1 million instead of the $4,869,000 the NCT paid due to accumulated interest holdings.

Other major contributors and contributions include: $1 million from the U.S. Department of Interior, $355,670 from the Meadows Foundation, $400,000 from Texas Parks and Wildlife, $200,000 from the Lower Colorado River Authority, and $100,000 from the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority. The final remainder was satisfied with a $360,000 award from the Emmett and Miriam McCoy Foundation.