County eyeing purchase of controversial property | News
Val Verde County Commissioners Court has issued a notice of intent to borrow $6 million to buy a large ranch between Del Rio and Laughlin Air Force Base.
“The piece of the property that we’re looking at purchasing is 2,900 acres, called the SE Ranch. I’ve already had constituents call and ask why we are buying all of it, and the reason is, just as I told the owner, it’s to the county’s benefit. Everybody that lives in the county, whether you’re military or school or whatever, it’s to the county’s benefit that we control the destiny of this property,” Val Verde County Judge Lewis G. Owens Jr. said in an interview Wednesday.
The SE Ranch became the center of controversy more than a decade ago when a planned development on the site roused fears that the development would negatively impact Laughlin Air Force Base’s pilot training mission.
Owens said one of the property’s principal owners is San Antonio attorney David Earl.
“In 2007, 2008, he and the city and SE Ranch Holdings sued each other, and that lawsuit cost the city at least $700,000. The county commissioners court looked at this and thought it would be a good piece of property to develop as long as whatever we did there would be compatible with whatever mission Laughlin Air Force Base has,” Owens said.
On Sunday, county commissioners court published legal notice of its intention to issue $6 million in certificates of obligation (COs) to buy the 2,900 acres of land. Owens said the county will be required to make annual payments on the debt of slightly more than $400,000.
County commissioners court will make its final decision on issuing the COs during a meeting on Sept. 4.
Owens said he and the other members of the court do not intend to raise the county property tax rate this year for the 2019-2020 budget, and he said they also hope not to raise the tax rate for the following year, for the 2020-2021 budget, in support of the $6 million certificates of obligation.
“Our ultimate goal would be to do something on this piece of property that pays for itself, that pays the note and is compatible with the missions Laughlin has,” Owens said.
The county judge said the published notice was one of the first steps in issuing the certificates of obligation and buying the land.
“We published a notice this past Sunday, and this coming Sunday, we’ll publish another notice that we intend to go out for certificates of obligation, basically, a loan. It’s not a bond, it’s a loan, and we will use our tax base to guarantee the loan,” Owens said.
“Right now, we’ve done an appraisal, and we are in the process of ordering a survey,” the county judge added.
Owens said the SE Ranch property lies to the east of Del Rio, roughly between the city limits and Laughlin.
“If you’re going out on Highway 90 East and get on SL 79, it’s the property between 90 East and Highway 277 South, and once you cross the railroad tracks and go over the overpass on SL 79, it’s between the city limits and the base, everything on both sides of SL 79,” Owens explained.
Owens said although there are no firm plans to develop the property, the court is looking at several options.
“Some of the things that court would be looking at – and we haven’t taken a vote – but some of what I’m hearing is, do a sports complex, some walking trails. We need to do more for the citizens, especially if we can get it to where it doesn’t cost us to buy the land.
“One of the ideas that we’ve talked about, and I don’t know if it’s going to work, is maybe doing a solar farm. There are two companies that have come in, and the base has already told us there is a particular type of solar panel that doesn’t reflect as much as others, and in saying that, we’ve had discussions with a company from California and one from San Antonio.
“We would give them an abatement, and we would lease them the land, that way we would know what our dollar amount is going to be on the land every year, to where you give them an abatement with a depreciation, the solar farm, just like the wind farm, it could be five years, it doesn’t make a payment,” Owens said.
“Best case scenario: We lease them the land, we give them an abatement – and I’m telling everyone, this all has to go before the court – and then the only way this will really work is if there are three pieces: the land we lease, we get to charge you a tax and we get to save money buying electricity,” Owens said.
The county judge said he would seek a 15 to 20 percent reduction in the cost of buying electricity if the county can buy it from the solar farm.
“I would like to try and get the city, the county, the school district and the hospital district to all buy the power, and we could all have that savings,” he said.
Owens said he would eventually like to see the base purchase that electricity as well.
“We’ve been talking about a sports complex, we’ve been talking about some type of ‘fairplex,’ like they have in Uvalde, we’ve been talking about everything in the world. We have Precinct 1 and Precinct 2 looking for a place to put yards,” Owens said.
First and foremost, though, Owens said if the county owns the land, residents of Val Verde County won’t have to worry about whether any development of the land would encroach on the base.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why are you buying all of it?’ It’s real simple: The reason you go and purchase all of it is that you don’t want to have to deal with this again. As a community, we’ve been dealing with this since 2007, and nobody’s pulled the trigger to fix the problem. I’m extremely proud of this court because they’ve done it,” Owens said.
He reiterated, “We are buying the property to make sure that whatever’s on the property we have a handle on it, that whatever is done on the property is compatible with the mission of the base.”