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Briggs subdivision fails to get vote, but denial could bring legal trouble

Lone Pine Ranch, Burnet County, Texas

The old entrance to the Lone Pine Ranch in northeast Burnet County might soon lead to a 210-lot subdivision, The Estates at Dominion Ranch. Burnet County commissioners denied preliminary plat approval for the subdivision, but developers have met all requirements to move forward with the project. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The Estates at Dominion Ranch subdivision near Briggs was denied approval of its preliminary plat amid water supply concerns, even though developers have met all county and state of Texas requirements. 

With only three members of the five-person Burnet County Commissioners Court present at the Tuesday, June 13, meeting, one “nay” delayed the approval process, which could spell legal trouble for the county. 

The court was down two members, leaving the decision to commissioners Joe Don Dockery, Damon Beierle, and Jim Luther. Dockery and Beierle voted in favor of the preliminary approval, while Luther voted against it. Agenda items require a minimum of three votes to pass, regardless of a majority.

Commissioner Billy Wall was out sick and County Judge James Oakley is still suspended from his duties while facing one felony and four misdemeanor indictments in district court. 

The issue is expected to be on the court’s agenda for its next meeting on June 27 at 9 a.m. in the second-floor courtroom of the County Courthouse, 220 S. Pierce St. in Burnet.

The 1,000-acre subdivision is a few miles north of Briggs on FM 2657 in Precinct 2, which Commissioner Beierle represents. Plans are to subdivide it into 210 lots that range from 4-9 acres each. 

“The fact of the matter is we were told by all of our sources that this subdivision was legal and we can’t deny them,” Beierle told DailyTrib.com after the vote. “Decisions like this, when we make them this way, we are opening ourselves up to litigation.”

Burnet County Attorney Eddie Arredondo confirmed that the developers could pursue legal action against the county for denying the preliminary plat approval, seeing that all county and state requirements were met. Burnet County Development Services Director Herb Darling agreed.

“While I don’t like it, and I don’t think it’s going to be self-sustaining, I am forced to recommend to the court that they approve the applicant’s request for this subdivision,” Darling said at the meeting.

Commissioner Luther voted against plat approval because he wanted more time to review the information presented, he told DailyTrib.com.

“I’m just concerned for the impact that will be had on the surrounding wells (from the subdivision),” he said. “I’m going to look at the information that was presented and visit with the (Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District).”         

Luther wasn’t the only one with concerns. Preliminary approval of the subdivision was also on the agenda during the May 23 meeting. At that time, Beierle requested the matter be moved to a later date so he could discuss the issue with his constituents and the developers in search of a compromise.  

Some of that feedback came at the Tuesday meeting, when Briggs-area residents spoke during public comment and cited several concerns over the planned subdivision.

Opal Campbell of Briggs, Texas
Briggs-area rancher Opal Campbell told Burnet County commissioners that mass development in the county is an existential and generational issue. She and her family have been in the area for more than 100 years. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

“This is an issue for our kids and our grandkids,” said Opal Campbell, a Briggs-area rancher. “I’m third generation on my ranch. My family has been in that area for over 100 years. This is not something that we can take lightly. We have to preserve our way of life in Burnet County. We have to save our water.”

Rancher Suzanne Gasparotto lives on 100 acres next door to the proposed subdivision and is worried about the future viability of her and her neighbor’s wells.

“(The developers) apparently did no due diligence in terms of availability of water prior to their purchase,” she said. “Even a cursory investigation into water resources prior to purchase would have revealed a scarcity of water.”

A third-party study from the geoscience and engineering firm INTERA showed that shallow wells in the area surrounding Dominion Ranch would likely fail in less than 30 years. The study also showed that wells drilled more deeply and penetrating into the Travis Peak formation of the Trinity Aquifer would likely provide sustainable water for 30 years or more. Furthermore, according to the study, the existing shallow wells will likely fail within 30 years, whether or not the subdivision is built.

“(INTERA’s) study does show that there is sufficient water for those 210 lots; however, there is a major caveat for that,” said Mitchell Sodek, general manager of the Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District. “Every single well in that subdivision needs to be completed to the base of the Trinity Aquifer.”

Sodek weighed in during the meeting to provide context for INTERA’s data. Wells will have to be drilled at least 570 feet to penetrate into the appropriate portion of the Trinity, he explained. The district also sets certain standards for developments on certain aquifers, like the requirement for 2-acre-minimum lot sizes for residential wells drilled into the Trinity.

Dominion Ranch lead developer Rahul Kundavaram
Dominion Ranch lead developer Rahul Kundavaram told the Burnet County Commissioners Court on June 13 that he and his partners have done everything required of them to move forward with their project. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Lead subdivision developer Rahul Kundavaram stood before the Commissioners Court and expressed his desire to reach a compromise with the county. He reminded the commissioners that he spent $800,000 clearing Ashe juniper trees from the property to help alleviate evaporation concerns, worked with Texas A&M Forest Service officials on groundwater impacts, is willing to put deed restrictions on the lots that would force buyers to drill deeper wells and restrict water-sapping landscaping, and is also willing to adjust tract sizes on different portions of the property to accommodate variable groundwater availability.

“We have been here for two and half years trying to accommodate all requests and be good neighbors,” he said.

The commissioners and Darling recommended reaching out to District 24 state Sen. Pete Flores and District 19 state Rep. Ellen Troxclair to better understand Texas law regarding subdivision rules and regulations.

“We will have to work with state leaders to come up with some regulations that make sense for everybody,” Beierle told DailyTrib.com. “We know growth is coming. We live in the most beautiful place in America. People are coming.”

dakota@thepicayune.com