Brent Evans calls the Hill Country the sweet spot of Texas.
“When you have quick changes in elevation, you get a much greater diversity of life, and so you get the creeks and you have the sinkholes and the aquifers being filled up and it’s marvelous,” Evans said.
A Kendall County resident, Evans and others have worked for decades to protect the 17-county region’s abundant resources, the natural springs, waterways and fertile ground situated between the Panhandle Plains and the Rio Grande Valley.
The Cibolo Center for Conservation in Boerne is a result of their efforts, and also the center of growing influence to guard against uncontrolled growth that threatens the natural resources sustaining an entire region.
Though his efforts have carved out 800 acres of land now under protection and helped the City of Boerne craft one of the most environmentally sensitive municipal development codes in the state, Kendall County remains in the crosshairs as the sprawl grows ever closer.
As San Antonio’s nearest Hill Country municipality, Boerne is on the development menu as builders work to keep up with population growth expected to be at a rate of 24% through 2024; in mostly rural Kendall County, the rate is 21%.
“The Hill Country is being eaten,” said Evans, co-founder with his wife Carolyn of the center they established on Earth Day in 1989.
A haven of nature the size of New York City’s Central Park, the Cibolo Center for Conservation has miles of trails covering five distinct ecosystems just minutes from Boerne’s quaint and bustling Main Street populated with boutiques and restaurants.
Saved from misuse and encroachment by the conservation-minded couple, the center is named for the giant bald cypress-shaded Cibolo Creek that contributes over a million gallons per day to the Trinity and Edwards aquifers, the primary sources of drinking water for an entire region, including San Antonio.
Outside of this tranquil preserve, some fear the very attributes that draw people to Boerne — the small-town feel, quality schools and natural beauty — are in danger of being lost.
“I love it here so I can’t blame other people for wanting to live here as well,” said Ben Eldredge, who has worked at the Cibolo Center for Conservation for more than a decade. “[My approach] is to ensure that it’s quality growth that is respectful to the place, the natural resource constraints and actually maintains it as Hill Country.”
Boerne adopted a Unified Development Code in 2021 to guide development in a way that guards the environment, with protections similar to those of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. But those protections can’t be enforced beyond the city’s jurisdiction, in the rest of the 663-square-mile county.
In addition, a county’s authority to deal with the problems of urban sprawl is limited by the Texas Constitution and state law despite the fact that much of the state’s population growth is occurring in unincorporated areas next to a major city.
“When you get outside the city limits … it’s the wild, wild west of development,” said Eldredge, the center’s director of conservation.
Since 1990, the population in Kendall County’s unincorporated areas has grown by 176%, from 9,785 to 27,000 people, according to a report by the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network.
The Conservation Network advocates for conserving land as fast as it is developed. That goal stands in stark contrast to two words on a billboard — “Tick Tock” — advertising a new Buc-ee’s store to open in 2025 along Interstate 10 West and dozens of other signs promoting new home sites along the Hill Country corridor.
In Boerne, more than half of all residents own their homes, and the median home value is $286,000, according to data from the city.
A map of residential developments provided by the Boerne Kendall Economic Development Corp. shows 21 neighborhoods and over 5,200 lots available or under development.
Yet there are many people on hold, looking to buy a home in the area, said Robin Morris, director of relocation and Hill Country sales for the Phyllis Browning Company, a real estate firm. “The apartments are full and people are renting just to find the right house [to buy],” she said.
In her three years working in the firm’s Boerne office, Morris has watched it grow from 15 agents and $70 million in annual sales to 45 agents and $200 million worth of sales last year. This year, agents have a long list of clients waiting as homebuilders struggle with supply-chain delays and steady demand, she said.
“We have so many people over the last year do walk-ins from California saying, ‘We sold our house, we packed our stuff, and we’re just driving around looking at different areas in Texas,'” Morris said. “‘And we love Boerne.'”
They are attracted to the Hill Country’s small towns “that still look like small towns,” she added, but are close to San Antonio. “So whatever you need is there … and it’s just far enough out of town to where you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m living in the Hill Country.”
The hotspots are anywhere between Fair Oaks Ranch and Boerne up to Comfort and Fredericksburg, she said. Not far from Fair Oaks, just outside the Boerne city limits and near the Bexar-Kendall county line, is a 120-acre parcel of land slated for a 500-home development known as Lily Ranch.
Earlier this year, Kendall County commissioners approved developer Ashton Woods’ request for variances to buffers and setback standards that reduced lot sizes and increased density in the proposed Lily Ranch.
“It was something that I did not support,” said Commissioner Richard Chapman (Pct. 3), but it would have violated state law which limits a county government’s powers to control development. “But we need the tools.”
Last year, county commissioners helped state Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) draft legislation, Texas House bills 3883 and 3884, to provide development rules and regulations to protect the region’s natural resources while allowing for new economic development. The two bills died in committee less than a month after being filed.
Without those tools, officials can’t say no, said Commissioner Richard Elkins (Pct. 2). “Usually, these types of developments are looked at in a city, but this one’s way out in the middle of a rural area,” he said of the smaller-sized lots.
Lily Ranch’s smaller lots mark a change in Kendall County, which has mostly seen development far less dense, on tracts of between 1 and 10 acres per house. More density sparks fears of more traffic congestion and more pressure on local schools and water infrastructure in addition to the ecological impacts.
Chapman’s precinct, which lies in the northeastern part of Kendall County, is more rural than other parts of the county. He sees less dense development because the area does not have access to out-of-county water sources.
Homes, water and schools
The southern part of the county, with its close proximity to San Antonio, is another story. Under the Texas Water Code, the San Antonio Water System is responsible for providing services to 520 acres of the county through its water and wastewater certificates of convenience and necessity, or CCNs, the infrastructure is presumably in place.
But in March, SAWS staff briefed trustees on a request by Lily Ranch developers to supply water to the subdivision, costing SAWS an estimated $50 million to construct infrastructure, and how the utility could respond. One alternative would be to transfer the CCN to another water provider, a staffer said.
Ashton Woods did not respond to a request for information on its plans for Lily Ranch.
In promoting the new neighborhood, the Atlanta-based developer’s website states that Lily Ranch will offer luxury homes in an area with historic charm, plentiful recreation and excellent schools.
“One of the main reasons that people move here is because of Boerne ISD schools,” said Bryan Benway, director of communications for Boerne ISD.
For the past five years, Boerne’s student population has increased an average of 6% annually, said a spokesman, and officials expect its current enrollment of 10,000 to more than double in the coming decade.
To manage that growth, the district built three new schools after voters passed a 2016 bond. A new bond package on the May 7 ballot consists of two propositions totaling over $165 million that would add an eighth elementary school, expand the two high schools and middle schools, and design a third high school.
‘San Antonio Northwest’
“Just seeing the change over the past decade, to me, the community just keeps getting better and better,” said Amy Story, president and CEO of the Boerne Kendall County Economic Development Corp.
Story said that’s because officials have created a deliberate strategy to manage the growth while also preserving “what makes Boerne unique and special and not have it simply be a bedroom community for San Antonio, not have it eventually be ‘San Antonio Northwest.'”
The strategy is built around attracting businesses that are not intensive users of natural resources, such as tech companies, satellite offices and entrepreneurial ventures, including breweries, wineries and distilleries.
A planned business incubator space developed through a public-private partnership is set to open in Boerne later this year.
“I think it’s an exciting time,” Story said. “People come here and say they had no idea this community is in San Antonio’s backyard. We’re close to big cities, but really a world away.”
The reset button
Also designed to be a world away, the nature center started out with a mission to teach people to value natural areas and protect resources, with its programming geared especially toward schoolchildren.
“We wanted them to get outside of their air-conditioned box and air-conditioned cars and totally programmed lives and immerse themselves in a place in nature where they can kind of hit a reset button and think about their place in the universe and maybe what kind of life they want to have,” Evans said.
But it has expanded in the last four years to include Eldredge’s role in stewarding policy change on issues that affect the environment. He ensures the center’s interests are represented through various citizen-led committees on issues such as water and transportation.
“That’s really in response to all the growth that we saw coming to our region,” Eldredge said.
“We realize that you can teach people to do the right thing,” he added. “But when you’re talking about out-of-state developers, they’re not going to be coming to see us to learn about the best practices, nor will they necessarily respect this place in development that is respectful of the natural resources here.”
This article has been updated to correct Carolyn Evans’ name.