In the contest for Comal County Commissioner, Precinct 3, Colette Nies is challenging incumbent Kevin Webb.
Colette Nies runs a land and energy research company, and is a Presbyterian chaplain. She holds a master’s degree from UT in social work, a Master of Divinity in ecological theology and pastoral care from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and is currently in a doctoral program in land, food, ethics, and faith formation. She has also volunteered on numerous committees for the City of New Braunfels and the City of Austin.
2020 General Election candidates for Comal County Commissioner, Precinct 3: Colette Nies and Kevin Webb
Meeting with our group, Ms. Nies listened and learned more about the proposed 1500-acre Vulcan quarry, opposition efforts to date, and the decided lack of county involvement in the matter. Relevant issues such as land justice and preservation of natural resources have been her focus for many years and she recognizes the importance of protecting Comal County’s environment—especially the Edwards Aquifer, Comal Springs, and our area water quality and supply—from the over 25 local quarries, concrete plants, and other aggregate facilities.
Ms. Nies brings a positive, “can-do” attitude to this race and has specific, actionable ideas on the table. Two examples of smart, creative solutions include her concept of a conservation commission of scientific professionals to advise Commissioners’ Court, and a 391 regional planning commission to empower the county in matters currently dominated by state agencies. She is also open to collaborating with and learning from neighboring counties and what they have achieved.
Kevin Webb is running for his third term as Precinct 3 Commissioner. Mr. Webb has a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M in recreation, parks, and tourism; is on the Alamo Area MPO Transportation Policy Board; and has been focused primarily on transportation and construction of county buildings.
In March 2018, in response to numerous requests from citizens urging the county to request a contested case hearing as an affected party on the proposed Vulcan quarry, Mr. Webb wrote that commissioners “have no interest in doing a resolution purely for political purposes if it does no good other than to get people off our backs.”
But a couple weeks later, despite having specific, proven tools and examples of other counties who have led the way opposing TCEQ air quality permits, commissioners did exactly that: passed a worthless resolution that failed to support their constituents fighting to protect their health and private property. Seemingly ignoring the data and options provided by Comal County residents, Mr. Webb stated, “this is what we’re capable of.”
“Because We Just Don’t”
More recently Mr. Webb admitted that Comal County indeed has additional authority from the state that they have chosen not to exercise “because we just don’t, we’ve been a conservative county for a long time, and that’s just been sort of the way that we do things.”
Mr. Webb also said, “we are willing to work with anybody that has ideas.” But despite multiple overtures to the commissioner, our ongoing attempts to meet to exchange ideas, explore options, and simply discuss issues related to Comal County quarries and APOs have been met with silence.
More than three years has passed since Vulcan applied for their air quality permit. Unfortunately, it is clear from his responses below that Mr. Webb has still not taken the opportunity to educate himself on the matter. For example, with the air permit, Comal County would only be an affected party if they requested this—and they never did. In his questionnaire response below, Mr. Webb mentions a contested case hearing for the water pollution abatement plan (WPAP); but a contested case hearing isn’t part of the WPAP process at all!
We understand that the intricacies of the TCEQ permitting process are cumbersome and difficult to grasp. But only one of these candidates has reached out, met with us, and educated herself on the details of this battle.
Both Comal County Commissioners’ Court races this year feature a sharp contrast between candidates bringing creative solutions and incumbents who are focused on excuses and reasons why they can’t step up to the plate.
In eight years as Precinct 3 Commissioner, Kevin Webb’s list of accomplishments related to protecting our natural resources, preserving open space, and supporting constituents advocating for these is thin to non-existent.
Precinct 3 residents and Comal County citizens are united in our desire to protect our precious water resources, springs, and rivers. Colette Nies is the best person for this job. She has a broad range of experience and knowledge, doesn’t have a problem thinking outside the box, and is focused on what commissioners can do to better protect Comal County citizens and our natural resources. She would bring a refreshing and much needed change to Commissioners’ Court. We strongly recommend Colette Nies for Comal County Commissioner, Precinct 3.
Early voting begins on October 13 and election day is November 3, 2020. Visit the Comal County Elections webpage for polling locations and sample ballots. Candidate responses to our questionnaire are listed below.
Preserve Our Hill Country Environment sent a candidate questionnaire to both candidates in August, then followed up with each candidate. Responses from each candidate are shown below verbatim. As per instructions, responses have not been edited for spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors. “No response received” is shown for any candidate who did not reply by the September 23 deadline.
Question 1. Texas counties do not have the same powers as cities when it comes to zoning and certain types of regulation. However, counties do have many tools available to protect the health and safety of their citizens against the well-documented risks of air and water pollution from quarries and other aggregate production operations (APOs). Some of these tools include the ability to participate in contested case hearings as an affected party, issue a county-wide moratorium, form a commission to require TCEQ coordination with local authorities, and create a comprehensive county development plan. These tools have already been and are currently being used by other Texas counties. The aggregate industry and their shell companies now own over 25,000 acres in Comal County: seven percent of the entire county land area. Which of these tools have you used (for challengers, would you use) to support your constituents who are concerned about our natural resources and the health effects of the proposed Vulcan Materials quarry and future aggregate facilities in Comal County? (Selection options: Contested Case Hearing, Moratorium, Commission, Development Plan, Other.)
Nies: CONTESTED CASE HEARING, COMMISSION, DEVELOPMENT PLAN. Commissioner’s Court needs to create a Conservation Commission of scientists, geologists, ecologists, economists, and other professionals to gather data and advise the Court on behalf of the citizenry related to all things air and water quality, land conservation, native species and habitat protection, environmentally sensitive areas, recharge zones, soil infiltration, land grant opportunities, establishing regional partnerships, etc. This would give great insight to the court in how they may respond to over-development, how to verify TCEQ data, health disparities, and to document future planning. This will encompass more than the aggregate challenges and allow for an educated, scientifically-based responses to growth. For Comal County to rely solely on attorney-client privilege or permitting organizations with excessive ethics violations, to make complicated environmental decisions on behalf of the entire public without scientific insight is short-sighted, economically irresponsible, and ultimately undermines the power of the county. Open communication with other counties or organizations that have successfully averted aggregate mining operations on environmentally sensitive areas, as well as protected constituents from eminent domain, pollution, and massive financial property losses, need to also be considered. I personally have been involved in land issues (ownership-wise as well as ecologically) for decades. There needs to be a paradigm shift by those who govern to acknowledge and cease perpetuating the fallacy that financial responsibility and ecological stewardship are opposed to one another. History, as well as data, shows us that protecting sensitive areas and natural resources ensures future economic wellbeing and stability.
Webb: If Comal County is an affected party as defined by TCEQ and I feel like it is in the best interest of our citizenry, I will support our participation in a contested case hearing. While I do believe that private property owners should be able to do what they want with their land, I also believe we’d be better off with other types of more environmentally friendly development. These other options listed are either not in our purview or would be meaningless as they hold no real and usable power or authority. If I didn’t know better, I’d think all of these things are fine ideas, but we’ve diligently worked through and researched all of our options. The truth is that they would have no bearing on an application to TCEQ. It is critical that people understand that while the Office of Public Interest Counsel (OPIC) may advocate for a county or municipality to be an affected party, only those named as such by the administrative law judge (SOAH) or Executive Director of TCEQ will be granted that status and can request a contested case hearing. Anyone can claim that status and the OPIC will certify them, but they will ultimately be rejected if they don’t fit TCEQ’s definition of an affected party.
Question 2. Vulcan Construction Materials will likely soon submit a Water Pollution Abatement Plan (WPAP) for their proposed 1500-acre quarry in Comal County. In recent years, Texas counties such as Kendall, Kerr, and Burnet have supported their citizens by contesting or opposing TCEQ permits for rock crushers. Water quality and supply are vital to Comal County—both as a foundation for the local tourism industry as well as for human consumption and agriculture. Heavy industrial operations, quarries, and mining directly over the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones endanger one of our most precious natural resources—water. When Vulcan submits their WPAP for this facility, how, specifically, will you be involved, and what actions will you take as a Comal County commissioner?
Nies: Groundwater management and the importance of base flow for rivers, quality of springs and aquifers, and how those are affected by droughts and environmentally damaging industries are of utmost importance. We need to manage water resources and protect our water supply from over pumping and this needs to be in the forefront of Comal County over the next few decades. All documents and research that Vulcan submits when applying for their WPAP, as well as TCEQ, shoud have full transparency and be available to the public for viewing before being (if) approved. This would allow County staff and the public to request an inspection of any and all documents with the NREQ. The South Central Texas Regional Planning Group, Region L in its next 5 year regional planning session needs to implement more progressive water management strategies to be coordinated and supported by the Texas Water Development Board and Groundwater Districts (GMA’s) to emphasis conservation regarding groundwater supplies and usage.
Webb: As a commissioner I will not seek a contested case hearing as Comal County is not an affected party as defined by TCEQ. The statute specifically states that the county must be affected in a manner not common to members of the general public. We are affected precisely as is the general public as we have no facilities near the quarry and none of our operations are directly adversely affected. If, for example, if the quarry was within a half mile of the Road Department offices or another county facility where our employees would be directly adversely affected, we may be considered an affected person/party and could rightfully request a contested case hearing—which I would likely support. I will ask our partners in other agencies like the Edwards Aquifer Authority what their authorities are in regard to this application and see what they may be able to do to protect our water resources.
Question 3. Comal County is home to numerous natural features, including many amazing caves and caverns. In 2019, local landowners discovered a brand-new chamber in Double Decker Cave, located less than a mile from the proposed Vulcan quarry site. New passages are being explored in Natural Bridge Caverns, just a few miles south of the planned quarry. Just to the west, Honey Creek Cave is the longest known cave in the state of Texas, currently measuring over 22 miles. Unfortunately, Texas allows quarries, such as the nearly three-mile-long facility proposed by Vulcan Materials, to destroy caves encountered during the blasting and mining processes. The next Natural Bridge could be at risk of destruction—even before it is fully explored. Aquifer recharge features such as sinkholes and caves are also in jeopardy. As a Comal County commissioner, what specific actions have you taken (for challengers, would you take) to identify and protect caverns, caves, and other unique geological formations that are so abundant throughout the county—especially the area in and around the proposed Vulcan quarry?
Nies: Caves are integral to our groundwater system. These ecological formations create a giant funnel system for the pollutants and runoff of the APO’s to directly enter the environmentally sensitive Edward’s Aquifer Recharge Zone (EARZ). This aquifer is the only one in the state that is considered a sole source aquifer and 90% of the water flows through Comal County. This puts a much greater priority of Comal County to do its due diligence to not only safeguard the water supply of almost 2 million people, but to protect it from contamination due to pollution and waste. Due to the great number of areas that have not been mapped, we simply do not know what ecological wonders may be destroyed or how the collapsing of a cave system will have long term affects on the aquifer system as a whole. As your next Commissioner, my plan is to heed the advice and academic research on steps that need to be taken to ensure the protection of our environmentally sensitive areas and caves system here.
Webb: The county doesn’t and shouldn’t have the authority to interfere with private landowners on their land in these matters. If people wish to preserve the natural resources on the land they own, I would work to help them to try to find ways to do that through state and private organizations that work in this field. We’ve had conversations in this regard as recent as earlier this year and I’m hopeful more people will come forward to help preserve these resources. I am happy to work on preserving land with people in conservation easements, habitat conservation preserves, and through the county’s outright ownership of land to preserve open space and our beautiful natural areas. The challenge is securing partners and funding to do these things and I have worked and will continue to work on it. While I work primarily on transportation issues for the county due to the urban nature of Precinct 3, my degree from Texas A&M is actually in Recreation, Parks, and Tourism, and open space is a serious interest of mine.
Question 4. Texas law (TCAA § 382.111, 382.015) states that counties have the same authority as TCEQ to monitor and inspect air quality and emission violations, including the power to install and operate air quality monitors, and to enter public or private property to determine if permitted plants are exceeding allowed emission levels. Harris County has already done this and operates multiple county-owned air monitors to help protect its citizens. Have you (for challengers, would you) helped protect Comal County citizens by actively supporting the installation and operation of county-owned air quality monitoring equipment and initiating periodic inspections of aggregate facilities by Comal County to supplement the gaps in TCEQ air monitoring and oversight? (Selection options: Yes, No.)
Nies: YES. Absolutely. Comal County has twice the rate of asthma than the national average. The vulnerable aging population is highly susceptible to health issues related to air quality and particulate matter 2.5 produced through the aggregate operation industry. We are in the process of having close to 50K residents retire in the near future and are at risk for a variety of air quality associated diseases and co-morbidities. However, Comal County cannot make decisions about how to protect our air quality if we do not have sufficient data specific to our area analyzed and reviewed by us. Comal County needs to have numerous PM 2.5 air monitors installed to collect data 24/7 for a minimum of 3 years. Comal County would also benefit from a Dark Sky Initiative to curb light pollution and modernize antiquated lighting systems.
Webb: I have not supported the installation and operation of county-owned air quality monitoring systems. We have no subject matter experts in this field, no budget to support it, and no desire to enter private property to do this. It would be a huge expansion of county government, an enormous expense, and a massive intrusion on the property rights of our landowners. Because air quality issues are generally regional, the state entrusts TCEQ with these responsibilities and we have asked them to enforce their rules. We should continue to request that the State require that its agencies enforce their regulations and fund their departments at levels which will allow them to do that important work. Each county having its own air quality rules or enforcement systems would be impossible for businesses and residents navigate, and I don’t support that.
Question 5. Westward Environmental provides consulting services to aggregate companies such as Vulcan. Texas Aggregates and Concrete Association (TACA) is a lobbying group representing Vulcan Construction Materials and other aggregate companies. Did you communicate with or have contact with, or receive campaign contributions from Vulcan, Westward, TACA, or any representatives or their subsidiaries prior to public notice of permit application number 147392L001 in July 2017? (Selection options: Yes, No.)
Nies: NO. No, nor have I after July 2017. I also support 100% full financial transparency in political donations (in kind or other) in any amount.
Webb: I haven’t received any contributions or donations from them and I don’t believe I’ve spoken with them. That’s not how things work in Comal County. We do what the law says that we should do regardless of the parties involved and any implication otherwise is just flat out wrong. I think a lot of opportunities for cooperation were squandered early on in this process due to the type of mistrust engendered in this question. It is my hope that as we go forward and people more clearly understand our true role and what we can do to help, we can come together and work side by side on these things. I think we will have other developments like this is the future, and if we are not united—at least to some degree—the results are sadly predictable. Consensus and compromise are hard at times, but that’s the business we’re often in. We have to be able to share ideas, work through all the possibilities, and even disagree on certain things while still collaborating on other issues if we are going to be successful in protecting our environment—or in just about anything else.
Question 6. Comal County is experiencing rapid growth, much of which is occurring in unincorporated areas. County commissioners have claimed they have insufficient authority when it comes to regulating incompatible land use or protecting citizens against threats to their health and property. What specific actions have you taken (for challengers, would you take) to rectify this lack of authority and foster a reasonable and predictable approach to development that protects all property owners?
Nies: County governments can implement initiatives to value the collective knowledge of experts and organizations in their planning to strengthen local control. This can happen through establishing commissions to protect citizens and the landscape/wildlife. Developing a Parks and Open Space Commission, (i.e. Conservation Commission), a 391 Commission, as well as other measures like promoting green infrastructure and establishing better groundwater models/air quality monitors. While not implementing zoning changes, the county can encourage developers move through the process quickly if they limit lot sizes, create plans that protect the watershed, add rain water collection systems and reclamation practices, build communities around open space, plant native species and grasses to promote carbon sequestering and water absorption, refuse to clear cut large areas at time, etc. We can formalize and establish bond initiatives (here and join with other counties) that work with land grants, regional partnerships, and private landowners, etc. to approach new strategies in development, promoting conservation, and mitigating growth. Working with the City of New Braunfels and other cities on providing housing in more populated areas would also reduce urban sprawl and rejuvenate areas that need better infrastructure and access. The County needs to focus on modernizing storm water engineering to also reduce runoff pollution and seriously look into the permeable groundcover effects on runoff and absorption.
Webb: In the past, Comal County asked the legislature repeatedly for more local control without results and there is no reason to believe that has changed. It just puts our local state legislators in a no-win situation as those bills won’t go anywhere. I’m also not a proponent of giving counties zoning authority, and that’s what is likely hinted at by “foster a reasonable and predictable approach to development that protects all property owners.” There are cities and unincorporated areas with POAs and HOAs where people can choose to live with those protections. A lot of people move out into the county to be away from exactly those things. With the authorities we do have, we are enforcing our subdivision, on-site sewage facility, and floodplain regulations, working through our Regional Habitat Conservation Plan to mitigate habitat loss of endangered species, and working with area partner agencies and landowners in an attempt to create our own RHCP preserve. These and other efforts to preserve open space so that incompatible land uses are minimized will continue and hopefully expand.
Question 7. Eminent domain has recently been used by a Vulcan subsidiary, Southwest Gulf Railroad, to condemn properties that Medina County landowners refused to sell. Now this Vulcan company has built a nine-mile railway to connect a quarry to the Union Pacific line. In Hill Country counties just to the north, Kinder Morgan is using eminent domain to seize land and easements for their Permian Highway Pipeline. What specific actions have you taken (for challengers, would you take) to help correct the imbalance of power between large corporations and their lobbyists, and regular citizens and landowners when it comes to property rights and eminent domain condemnation?
Nies: County Commissioner’s have the right to establish a 391 Regional Planning Commission. This is one way to level the playing field and influence the consideration of local landowners and regular citizens to have a seat at the table and help correct the imbalance of power of large corporations and lobbyists. The 391 Commission would give local government more power to demand local impact studies and analyses, as well as invoke coordination between state agencies and municipalities. Because a 391 Planning Commission is considered a political subdivision of the State of Texas, it brings a balance of power to counties, school districts, etc. and may also improve inefficiencies for local government when unmitigated growth is normally in the hands of TCEQ and TXDOT. There are numerous ways in which county governments can reestablish local control and the rhetoric of “we cannot do anything” needs to stop. There is always something commissioners can do on behalf of their constituents. If they tell you that, then you should vote them out.
Webb: Personally, I’m not a proponent of eminent domain. I imagine there are conditions where it is necessary in emergency situations, but I struggle to come up with a circumstance where I could support it. I think if there was an issue where a corporation was trying to take land from our citizens in Precinct 3 that didn’t involve an obvious, immediate, and overwhelming public necessity, I’d work with our citizens and state and other partners against it.
Comal County precinct map. Click map for more details and voting precinct information.
Preserve Our Hill Country Environment (DBA Friends of Dry Comal Creek, Stop 3009 Vulcan Quarry) is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit social advocacy organization formed to preserve, protect, and restore the land, water, air, wildlife, unique features, and quality of life in the Texas Hill Country against the aggressive and insufficiently regulated expansion of the aggregate industry. To learn more, visit www.preserveourhillcountry.org and the Preserve Our Hill Country Environment Facebook page.