Author’s Note: This article is part of a brainstorming process for my undergrad research paper. Studying environmental science, I am interested in the connection between high property taxes in Texas and the land use change in the western Austin suburbs, where fast, unregulated development of housing and roadways in recent decades have impacted the ecologically and hydrologically sensitive Hill Country region.
Texas is seeing a giant population influx, Texas has one of the highest property tax rates in the nation, and Texas has a uniquely beautiful nature. These things relate to each other and pose a great challenge to nature conservation. In the Texas Hill Country– a geological region with limestone formations, rich biodiversity, and clean aquifer water– the landscape remained mostly undisturbed for centuries until metropolitan areas began their sprawl into the hills. Former semi-natural ranches, savannas, and juniper shrublands are being converted into mansions and retirement homes, thanks to the beautiful views, and are fragmented by countless roadways. This can be seen if you look closely at Google Earth’s historical satellite images.
(Austin suburbs southwest of Lake Travis in 2002, image via Google Earth)
(Same region as of 2020)
Many people do not realize how destructive this is to the natural environment. Low-density housing and roadways make it impossible for animal species to live and migrate, introduce invasive plants, produce more air pollution, and, in the case of the Edwards Aquifer, worsen underground water quality.
However, what does this have to do with the high property tax mentioned earlier? My professor at UT’s Department of Geography told me that he owns a piece of land near Dripping Springs, where he left it undeveloped for nature conservation purposes. Texas has no state property tax and the rate is instead calculated based on each county office’s estimation. However, the average is still much higher than the rest of the nation. In Austin, an especially fast-developing city, many landowners can no longer afford to own their land anymore and thus are incentivized to sell it instead. With data collected from the Hays County Central Appraisal Office’s website, I sampled several plots around Dripping Springs and graphed out the change in appraised land values over time. Notably, property values started to climb up rapidly in recent years.
(Change of four selected samples’ property values in the most recent decade in Hays County, TX. The samples may be different in acreages with exemptions applied.)
There are several common types of tax exemptions, including agricultural (which typically requires more than 10 acres of land area with agricultural activity), homestead (with usually low exemption amount), disabled veteran, etc. Obviously, not everyone is qualified for such exemptions. On the other hand, landscapes that are considered with conservation value must have undisturbed vegetation, meaning they should not be developed for residential, commercial, or agricultural use. Many residents in the Texas Hill Country own land with conservation values but in light of high taxes prefer to sell their land. Worse, many counties do not have zoning restrictions in the vast unincorporated areas, and few areas are protected by the state or federal government. With a booming real estate market, developments can easily take over.
All those factors have contributed to the landscape we see today as we drive westward from Austin: endless housing developments in continuous patches spread among the rolling hills, scattered with some ranches and commercial buildings, and fragmented by highways that leave clear-cut edges on the hills.
This research is still in the preliminary stage, thus what final results may be found are still unclear. Many questions remain, such as the spatial pattern of suburban growth over time, legal procedures of real estate development, and evidence of environmental degradation in the region. However, this connection between property tax and land use change has not been thoroughly investigated at all in academia and this research may give insight into future economic and environmental policies. I am optimistic about this research as it goes on.