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Exclusive: Travis County reaches $90M deal for 1,500 acre wilderness park near Spicewood

Bridget Grumet
Austin American-Statesman

Jordan Scott remembers his grandparents鈥 RGK Ranch as the summer playground of his youth 鈥 a Hill Country landscape where you could go tubing in the shallow waters of Bee Creek, find deer antlers and snapping turtle shells, embark on excursions, and christen unlikely landmarks like Two Tire Alley, the rocky passageway where Scott and his friends, then in their 20s, had to change two flats at once on their old Chevy Suburban.

鈥淎s a kid, it was a blast,鈥 the Austin-area investor and affordable housing developer said of his ranch adventures.

For more than 50 years, RGK Ranch has been a private family retreat bearing the initials of Ronya and George Kozmetsky. She was a philanthropist who supported everything from children's hospitals to higher education. He was Austin's tech godfather, a visionary who transformed what is now the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas during his 16 years as dean. Together the couple mentored numerous Austin tech philanthropists.

Now the ranch that the Kozmetskys passed on to their children and grandchildren is going to become a massive wilderness park. This month Travis County is finalizing the purchase of 1,506 acres off Texas 71 between Bee Cave and Spicewood.

This aerial photo shows RGK Ranch near Spicewood on Friday. Travis County has reached a deal to buy the 1,506-acre property and will transform it into a public park.

"To know those spaces will remain in their natural condition, and other people will have their own experiences seeing a ringtail cat or watching a 15-point buck walk out, to know that鈥檚 going to stay with the people of Central Texas is what gives me the goose bumps,鈥 Scott said.

The $90 million purchase, the largest amount for a buy in Travis County Parks鈥 history, was made possible by voters鈥 approval last November of a $276 million bond for parks and land acquisition, as well as the decision by Scott鈥檚 mother, Nadya Scott, to donate roughly $30 million of her stake in the family ranch to bring the price tag into the county鈥檚 budget.

County officials are thrilled: RGK Ranch is one of the last major undeveloped tracts in southwestern Travis County that just as easily could have become a sea of rooftops. Preserving it brings a wealth of environmental benefits.

Plus, the site is tantalizingly close to Milton Reimers Ranch Park 鈥 which Travis County is expanding with the separate purchase of the 475-acre Castletop property 鈥 furthering the possibility of a parkland network running from Texas 71 to Hamilton Pool Preserve.

Bee Creek flows through RGK Ranch on Wednesday. Spring-fed waters mean the creek never runs dry.

鈥淭he opportunities to add this (type of land) are coming to an end in Travis County just because there's not that much undeveloped land left,鈥 County Judge Andy Brown told me. 鈥淪o, yeah, this is a huge step for Travis County.鈥

This park will be worth the wait

I bet you鈥檙e wondering: How soon can people visit this new park?

鈥淚t's going to be several years before we can actually formally open this to the public,鈥 said longtime Travis County Parks Director Charles Bergh, sounding almost apologetic about the timeline. But it will take that long to plan and develop amenities such as parking, trails and restrooms for such a sizable park.

In the end, though, Travis County will gain a haven for hikers, mountain bikers, birdwatchers and stargazers.

Last week I hopped into an all-terrain vehicle and got a private tour of the site. Longtime ranch manager John Barber showed off the stunning Hill Country vistas and fields bursting with Indian blanket wildflowers, took us through stands of sycamore and past a lightning-scarred black walnut tree, pointed out a wild turkey scuttling into the scrub, and led us down rocky inclines toward Bee Creek.

The roughly 1,500-acre site is so hilly, Barber joked, 鈥渋t would be 3,000 acres if you flattened it out.鈥

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In one spot, eons of erosion have carved a shallow pool out of the limestone. The spring-fed waters mean Bee Creek never runs dry. In rainier times, the creek also channels stormwater to Lake Travis.

Preserving RGK Ranch protects habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and other wildlife. But the greatest benefit comes from preventing thirsty development in an already sensitive ecological area.

Jeff Francell, associate director of land protection for the Nature Conservancy in Texas, played a pivotal role in negotiating the sale between the extended Kozmetksy family and Travis County. He noted that RGK Ranch had entitlements to build about 1,400 homes, plus extensive commercial development along Texas 71.

鈥淟ook at Lake Travis now,鈥 Francell said, with that regional drinking water reservoir . 鈥淣ot having (development of RGK Ranch) depending upon our diminishing lake supplies is a good thing.鈥

Preserving RGK Ranch protects habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and other wildlife. It also prevents thirsty development in an already sensitive ecological area.

A generational legacy of land

Multiple developers made unsolicited offers of more than $130 million for the ranch, Jordan Scott told me. But Travis County was able to make serious offers for RGK Ranch and the nearby Castletop property, owned by another family, thanks to the parks bond referendum that voters approved last November.

鈥淚f we had to wait another five or six years for (different) bond funds to come around, these properties would have been lost,鈥 Francell said. 鈥淭hey would have been developed.鈥

The parks bonds included about $200 million for land acquisition: $100 million apiece for the western and eastern halves of the county. The county spent $40 million on the Castletop deal, which closed last month, leaving $60 million in bond funds for RGK Ranch.

Rocky inclines lead to the spring-fed waters of Bee Creek.

To fund the rest of the $90 million ranch purchase, Travis County took out $30 million in certificates of obligation, a different form of borrowing that doesn鈥檛 require voter approval.

Coordinating the sale also meant reaching terms with the Kozmetsky heirs: daughter Nadya Scott, son Gregory Kozmetsky and the seven grown children from their families. With her children鈥檚 support, Nadya Scott donated most of her stake to make the $90 million sale price possible. (She is keeping a 90-acre tract with a vacation home but no other development rights. The county may buy that tract in the future.)

Jordan Scott told me that his mother's donation was inspired, in part, by her family鈥檚 love of the Will Rogers State Historic Park, a 186-acre park off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, where they used to hike, picnic and fly kites. Rogers鈥 family donated that estate to California in 1944 so everyone could enjoy the land.

An old cabin sits on the RGK Ranch, which will need several years of preparation before the public can enjoy it as a park.

鈥淪he's traveled the world and seen some pretty beautiful spaces that people have saved to share with others rather than develop or make private,鈥 Jordan Scott said of his mother. 鈥淪he felt strongly that the RGK Ranch should be preserved as a space for everyone in Central Texas.鈥

Indeed, the largest piece of this deal is not the vast acreage or the sweeping hilltop views, but the reach across time, preserving this swath of wilderness for countless generations to come. Everyone I spoke with cherished the idea that their children, grandchildren and those yet to be born will enjoy this space long after we鈥檙e all gone.

鈥淚t's the coolest thing I'll get to do as a county commissioner,鈥 said Commissioner Ann Howard, who championed the parks bond referendum and played a key role in the talks to reach the RGK Ranch deal. 鈥淚t's just so long-lasting.鈥

Grumet is the Statesman鈥檚 Metro columnist. Her column, ATX in Context, contains her opinions. Share yours via email at bgrumet@statesman.com or on X at @bgrumet. Find her previous work at statesman.com/opinion/columns.

Coming Wednesday

A developer planned to build nearly 900 homes on the Castletop property. How did Travis County get the site for parkland?