What: 515 acres of new state park land, and further protections for a pristine Hill Country stream.
Who: The Urbanczyk family, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and a host of other conservation-minded individuals and organizations.
Why it’s so great: Ronnie and Terry Urbanczyk were out for a Hill Country drive one Sunday afternoon about thirty years ago when they spotted a piece of land for sale. Through gaps in the live oaks lining the highway, they could see an expanse of wooded grasslands that dropped down into a valley feeding the Guadalupe River to the north. The Urbanczyks lived in a nearby subdivision, but they’d always felt the pull of a more rural existence. “We fell in love with the ranch,” Ronnie remembers. They put an offer on the land, and not long after, they moved their young family of five into a six-hundred-square-foot farmhouse on those 245 acres, thirty or so miles north of downtown San Antonio.
They couldn’t see it from the road, but the Urbanczyks’ property butted up against Honey Creek State Natural Area, a Hill Country time capsule that protects a gin-clear stream winding through towering bald cypress trees. The natural area, which is owned by TPWD and accessible only by guided tour, lies at the southern extent of Guadalupe River State Park, a popular getaway for San Antonians and Austinites.
Over the years the Urbanczyks gradually added to the property, amassing some 750 acres. “It’s just been a huge part of our life for the last thirty years,” Ronnie says. But the kids grew up—all three of them held their weddings on the ranch—and moved on to lives of their own. Meanwhile, the region surrounding the property has also changed. “We thought it would be a nice, quiet little ranch,” Ronnie remembers. “The city just moved in around us.”
Ronnie owns a concrete company that pours slabs for homes and high-rises all over San Antonio. He figured that as more people moved to their part of the Hill Country, they’d need a place to live. He hatched a plan to build a subdivision on the ranch. It would be a labor of love, and it could be a windfall, allowing him and Terry to have a very comfortable retirement and to leave a significant inheritance to their kids and grandkids. That plan met resistance as soon as they began filing the paperwork necessary to begin construction. Some nearby residents and conservation groups worried that the proposed development—at one point planned to contain as many as 2,400 homes—would degrade Honey Creek and pose a slew of environmental and water quality problems in a sensitive ecosystem. The creek is frequently described as one of the most pristine waterways in Texas, and with surrounding habitats, it supports a slew of at-risk species. Among them are charismatic birds such as the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo, as well as the Comal blind salamander and numerous rare cave-dwelling invertebrates.
The planning process dragged on for years, with the Urbanczyks scaling back the number of intended homes by half and proposing a watershed-friendly wastewater treatment system. But even just the stormwater runoff from a new residential development of that size posed a threat to an ecosystem like Honey Creek.
That’s why when Texas Parks and Wildlife announced on June 22 that, with the help of the Nature Conservancy and other philanthropic organizations, the state would purchase 515 acres of the Urbanczyks’ ranch for $25 million, the news was met with near-unanimous jubilation. “Together with the adjacent Guadalupe River State Park, these protected lands encompass nearly 5,000 acres of habitat that sustain plants and wildlife, benefit water quality and provide opportunities for people to spend time in nature,” Texas State Parks director Rodney Franklin said in a statement. Eventually, TPWD plans to open the new land to the public, including for events such as weddings and family reunions, though no date has yet been announced.
“I couldn’t be more delighted,” Annalisa Peace says with a joyful laugh. Peace is the executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to protecting the springs, watersheds, and ecosystems that provide drinking water to more than 1.5 million Central Texans. Peace has had a watchful eye trained on the Urbanczyks’ property since they filed for a wastewater discharge permit in 2018. “I am just very grateful to the Urbanczyk family for making that decision,” Peace says.
Some environmental advocates worry that this was a high price to pay for just 515 acres in a state as vast as Texas, but Peace says you can’t put a price tag on this property. “It’s one of those things that we used to have a lot of, and we have very few left,” Peace says of the pristine ecosystem surrounding Honey Creek. She’s visited the neighboring land, beneath which Honey Creek’s headwaters flow through a cave system as an underground river. At the mouth of a cave on the property, Peace saw the frigid subterranean stream rushing toward Honey Creek Spring. The water is so cold that cavers who dare to enter have to wear a wetsuit as they submerge themselves. When she ventured into the cave, Peace had the remarkable realization that she was “swimming in the Edwards Aquifer.”
Because of lax state environmental regulations, particularly in rural areas, Peace explained that the favorable outcome at Honey Creek relied on “the goodness of those people’s hearts.” Peace and her allies have won some significant victories for Hill Country watersheds over the years, but the fight for clean streams and responsible development remains an uphill battle. “I’m not optimistic at all,” Peace says, noting that many landowners wouldn’t make the same decision. “This was contingent on the generosity of one landowner,” Peace says.
Indeed, the Urbanczyks say they stood to make some $125 million from the proposed development. Leaving that money on the table wasn’t an easy decision, especially after they’d toiled for decades to piece the property together, but Terry was never all that sold on the idea of a subdivision. “We were not aware that making it a park would be a possibility unless you just donate the land, which we couldn’t do,” Terry says. Instead, they decided that they would design the subdivision responsibly, taking care not to put more burden on the land than they felt it could handle. But after years of conversations with TPWD and the Nature Conservancy, a plan began to emerge. “It really did make me feel 100 percent better,” Terry says. “You can make a subdivision as pretty, nice, and spacious as you want, but it’s still a subdivision.”
The Urbanczyks want other landowners faced with a similar situation to know that organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the state parks department will work with them to make sure sensitive ecosystems are protected. “I would just really urge them to sit down with Parks and Wildlife and the Nature Conservancy, and just look at the options they have,” Ronnie says. “They get very creative about what they do.”
In fact, in recent years, funds for land conservation in Texas have grown significantly. Some of that is thanks to the resources of the Nature Conservancy, a deep-pocketed nonprofit. But 2020’s Great American Outdoors Act made hundreds of millions of federal dollars available annually to state parks departments for land acquisitions, and just this summer the Texas Legislature passed a bill that, pending voter approval in November, will set aside $1 billion for the acquisition of new land for state parks.
It’s not lost on the Urbanczyks that land conservation is largely about protecting wild spaces for future generations. Terry says their kids never loved the idea of a subdivision on their childhood home. She sensed “a huge change of attitude” when she told them turning the ranch into a park might be an option. She says she had to remind them that the family’s decision meant passing up a lot of money. Their response was: “How much money does somebody need?”
Likewise, Ronnie sat down with his nine grandkids—whom he refers to as his board of directors—shortly before deciding to sell to TPWD. “What do you guys think about making Honey Creek a state park?” he asked them. “They all hollered ‘Yay! Let’s do it!’ ”
Ronnie compares handing over the ranch to giving away his daughters in marriage—there’s something bittersweet and deeply emotional about it. “We’ve had a lot of fantastic memories out there, and now the people in Texas are gonna get to really enjoy it for the next thousand years.” He and Terry will keep forty acres with the original homestead on the east side of the property. “Right now we’ve got a great retirement place that sits on top of the hill that overlooks the state natural area,” he says with a laugh. “It’s nice to look out there and know it’s all I’m ever gonna see,” Ronnie says. “That’s a pretty big thing.”
- More About:
- Best Thing in Texas