How a small town in Hays County could double in size as the development boom grips the I-35 corridor

The small town of Hays, located along the rapidly growing Interstate 35 corridor south of Austin, is one of the smallest incorporated towns in the state, with a population at last count of 257.

It is so small that there is no grocery store, gas station, or source of commercial tax revenue within its city limits.

But due to the city’s proximity to Austin and San Antonio, an Austin-based developer is looking to build a 271-home subdivision, shopping center and trail system in Hays’ offshore jurisdiction.

It would transform the small town, and the town’s leaders and residents are divided on what it will mean for its future.

MileStone Community Builders, an Austin residential construction company, is seeking to take over an existing development agreement the city signed in 2013 with another developer, Walters Southwest. This agreement provided for residential homes and a large-scale commercial development just outside the city limits at Texas 45 and FM 1626.

the landscape with hills

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The new deal — should the city agree to enter negotiations with MileStone — would be slightly smaller but still meaningful. Preliminary plans for Hays Commons, as the development would be called, propose 271 homes – 184 on quarter-acre lots, 65 on one-third acre lots and 22 on one-acre lots.

Plans also call for an “urban grocery store”, a medium-sized retail space and a network of nature trails.

Garrett Martin, CEO of MileStone, said Hays Commons’ latest release is a “big change” from the 4 million square feet of waterproof cover proposed for the initial development.

“We think with the park system that we’re going to put in there, the compatibility of uses is much better” for the town of Hays, Martin said. “It’s really been a win-win conversation with management.”

Hays Mayor Larry Odom has been a champion of working with MileStone and said Hays Commons is in the best interest of the city as the city plans to annex the commercial portions of the development, which will ultimately give the city ​​from commercial tax revenues.

“I think it’s necessary for the financial survival of the town of Hays,” he said.

Hays is like Mayberry

But the proposed Hays Commons, both in its original form and in the current plan, exposes fractures in the town’s leadership and its residents, who say the development is simply too big for their small town and will change forever. the fabric of the city.

Hays is a small pastoral community nestled along the busy I-35 corridor, with residents who take pride in their country lifestyle.

Lydia Bryan-Valdez, acting mayor, said most homes in the city are “surrounded by trees” and described Hays as a “honeypot.”

“It’s like Mayberry was,” she said, referring to “The Andy Griffith Show.” “It’s so tight.”

Bryan-Valdez opposes Hays Commons, at least in its current form. She wants to see all the houses on whole acre lots, and she thinks the mayor and others are trying to rush the development deal through official city channels.

Hays Commons “will not only change our quality of life” due to increased traffic and effects on wildlife, she said, but it also risks “contaminating Little Bear Creek and the groundwater that sustains us. live”.

“There will be a 150-year-old family farm that this development will wrap around,” she said. “It’s going to wrap around our little town.”

Bryan-Valdez said the mayor is “very pro-commercial” and the city doesn’t need commercial tax revenue to survive. For its operating revenue, the city depends on property taxes and water sales.

Carol Pennington lives in the extraterritorial jurisdiction just outside the city limits of Hays in an area called Chaparral Park which would be affected if Hays Commons were built.

She goes to all city council meetings to protest the development and encourage MileStone to reconsider putting all homes on full acre lots.

She said the town didn’t need retail space – the small gas station on the outskirts of town was enough.

“We’re close enough to Austin and Buda that we don’t need publicity here,” she said. “We want to stay like this.”

But Martin insisted that MileStone’s conversations so far with Hays management have gone “very well”, and he said he doesn’t know of anyone who opposes the new plan. He also said that MileStone’s version of the development is low-density compared to Walters Southwest’s original deal and that mid-level retail space is more in line with city goals than space at big surface.

He said the only questions and concerns he’s heard about the project have come from people living out of town in greater Hays County.

Ultimately, he said, more than 160 people on average move through the Austin area daily, and they all need a place to live. Hays’ location just 20 minutes south of downtown Austin makes it a prime location for home building, allowing people to experience Hill Country living while being close to the big city. .

“People often struggle with change, especially in times like the one we’re going through right now” where growth is happening at record pace, he said. “But honestly that hasn’t been the case here, and I think that’s because it’s an improvement over what’s already allowed on the property.”

Martin said MileStone plans to implement a municipal utility district, which would essentially levy a tax on property owners in the development to pay for infrastructure improvements.

At its March 14 meeting, city council did not agree to accept the latest development agreement, which would allow the city to enter into more formal discussions with MileStone and move the project forward. Instead, the board opted to consider the current plan further and have time to review Hays Commons’ new parameters.

The story of Hays is one that plays out across the I-35 corridor and the Hill Country in general as more and more people move to the area. MileStone is the same company behind a controversial 2,500-unit housing development in Buda, also in Hays County, which has received very little support from city leaders due to its expected effects on infrastructure.

But development companies as far away as Dallas are looking to take advantage of little state regulatory oversight in unincorporated areas of central Texas, as well as explosive demand for central Texas housing that is more affordable. than what buyers can find within the city limits.

The Hill Country is expected to experience population growth of more than 50% over the next 20 years

Annie Blanks writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. [email protected]

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