Save a Salamander, Raise your Property Value

By: Jim Olenbush

In every major urban center the ongoing battle between sensitive ecosystems and urban development is de rigeur, but in quirky Austin, when an SOS was sent out on behalf of the rare Barton Springs Salamander, the city rushed to the rescue. Fortunately for Austin homeowners, the decision to funnel their tax dollars into saving this urban amphibian seems to be paying off in more ways than one.

The only place in the world to find the four-inch Barton Springs Salamander is in the natural springs located in Austin's downtown Zilker Park. And since it was listed as an endangered species in 1997, the city of Austin has really gotten behind their little buddy. Perhaps spurred by regulations set out by the endangered species act, or maybe just living up to it's reputation as one of the greenest cities in America, Austin has managed to raise the local Salamander population in just a few years and is making plans to keep it rising.

Green City USA

Austin's committment to the environment is undoubtably part of it's charm and the push to save the Barton Springs Salamander is in keeping with the city's green approach to urban planning. Named the Greenest City in America by MSN and the Greenest City in the American South by National Geographic, Austin residents are proud of their committment to the environment. In a 2007 survey citizens gave Austin top marks for its water and energy conservation programs, the preservation of green space, and its clean good-tasting drinking water.

The Price of Austin's Green Real Estate

So what does this all mean for Austin homeowners? On a very basic level, improving the critter's habitat also improves the habitat for other living creatures - most notably humans. For instance, saving the salamander will mean even cleaner water for Austinites. It also represents a significant investment in a public green space at the heart of a city of 660,000 people, which is certainly nice. But could Austin's tenancy to do things like save their salamander actually be boosting the value of their real estate?

Almost everywhere else in the country the housing market has taken a swift downturn and over the past year sales have dropped in most urban centers - except Austin. Austin continues to see fewer houses on the market for fewer days while prices continue to rise.

It's not rocket science. For homeowners around the perimeter of Zilker Park, the preservation and recovery efforts are having a favorable impact on quaility of life - it's simply a nice place to live - and when a lot of people want to live in a place, the property values go up. In Barton Hills and Zilker where the average home is already listed at $450 to $550K, this is outstanding news. Properties in the Rollingwood, Town Lake and other nearby neighborhoods are also seeing steady appreciation that's not likely to slow down.

Rescuing Austin's Amphibian

The three acre Barton Springs is a natural spring fed pool with a year round average temperature of 68 degrees. One of three main pools, the springs are located in Zilker Park, voted the "Best Outdoor Public Space" by Austin Chronicle readers in 2006. A popular gathering spot and event site, the park also hosts the annual Austin City Limits Festival, the Kite Festival and the Trail of lights.

To date, the smaller Eliza Springs which is also in Zilker Park, has been the test location for improvements to the salamander's habitat. Here workers have restored the springs, increasing necessary water flow, improving water quality and clearing rock formations. As a result of their efforts, monthly counts have seen the area's salamander population increase from a scant 12 in 2002 to a stable 400 in 2007, an increase of 3,333%.

Last year, a master plan for improving the ecosystem for the entire aquifer was commissioned by city council. The first phase of the plan, which outlines a series of short term projects, will be presented to council this month (August 2007) for inclusion in the 2008 city budget. Longer term projects will be presented to council in the fall. The last phase in the project will measure the results of these efforts - a process that may take up to two years.

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