POWER PLAY 

 
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Phil Gramm

The Gramm family knows how to push its weight around. Just ask City Public Service.

There is a place nearby where swaths of land are washed in gold and violet wildflowers, birds sing at daybreak in the juniper trees, and porcupines scuttle through the scrub.

At Government Canyon State Natural Area, a 9,000-acre tract of land in northwestern Bexar County, you can hike in the wilderness to the top of a ridge and survey where dinosaurs once roamed, Indians have hunted, and what urban sprawl has wrought - from Seaworld to subdivisions.

Not only bobcats prowl the canyon, but also political forces: Former United States Senator Phil Gramm, his wife Wendy, and other wealthy landowners whose property lies near GCSNA, are wielding their influence to prevent electrical transmission lines from running near their ranches. Yet at stake is not only private interest but also the public good: GCSNA, purchased with public and private funds, is one of South Texas' few green spaces. The canyon is buffered by city land, bought with Proposition 3 funds, money voters approved during the 2000 referendum to protect environmentally sensitive areas. The canyon also provides a home to several endangered species, and 80 percent of it lies over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

At issue are 345-kilovolt transmission lines that City Public Service wants to string from northwest San Antonio into Kendall County. The utility's current plan is to sidestep GCSNA and build the lines to the west, along Highway 211, and across a private road leading to the Gramms' 1,000-acre spread.

Transmission lines are always a sticky issue for utility companies, but Gramm - whose Enron connections and Congressional voting record on the environment earned him a 0 percent rating from several natural resources groups - is using his power to try to convince city, state, and federal officials to divert the line back east, across GCSNA.

Ralph Alonso, CPS' director of project management and process improvement performance, confirms that he met with Wendy Gramm about the project. Apparently, the Gramms and their neighbors have also brought in reinforcements: Alonso says he has fielded calls from the offices of U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla, and Texas Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, who, despite the war in Iraq and a faltering national economy, have taken a sudden interest in transmission lines in Bexar County.

Deirdre Hisler, natural area manager for GCSNA, says that a member of the city's Proposition 3 Committee called her several months ago and said transmission lines would be coming through the area, possibly through GCSNA. She also received a call from Bonilla's office concerning the lines. "I said, 'That should never happen,'" explains Hisler, a feisty defender of the canyon. She adds that federal funds used to buy parts of GCSNA prohibit high-voltage transmission lines. "But you know, if you throw enough money at something, you can go around the law."

Neither Gramm's nor Bonilla's aides returned calls to the Current.

Gramm was able to have his land, which extends into Medina County, designated as a Wildlife Management Area, meaning he pays very little property tax.
There is plenty of money in the San Geronimo Valley, where the Gramms and many of their neighbors live on huge ranches whose value has dramatically increased in the past decade as San Antonio's urban sprawl has crept northward.

Jeri Moravits, whose family's ranch also lies west of the canyon near Highway 211, insists she and other landowners are not NIMBYs (meaning the lines should go anywhere but "not-in-my-backyard"), but only want CPS to "fully examine the alternatives."

"CPS, in an attempt to circumvent Government Canyon and city land, is taking a circuitous route to say the least," says Moravits, who, with members of Bonilla's staff, approached the Proposition 3 committee. "CPS is taking the path of least resistance. It's easiest to impose on people who live outside of San Antonio. They should use existing easement lines that minimally encroach on Government Canyon."

Due to GCSNA's vulnerability, some areas will be off-limits to the public. Moravits suggests that CPS can build the towers and the access roads "where it's not visible. It's very hilly and doesn't impact anybody.

"Once the transmission lines are built, they won't disturb anything," Moravits adds. "I think it's a smokescreen. What people can't grasp is that farmers and ranchers are the biggest conservationsists."

But it was one rancher's lack of conservation that enabled the state, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, SAWS, Trust for Public Lands, and many private donors and foundations to buy the land that would become GCSNA. In 1927, the Jacob Hoffman family sold their ranch - a 19th-century supply trail - to local theater owner William Lytle. In 1967, Lytle's son sold the 8,000-acre San Antonio ranch to investors, who had planned to build a development for 80,000 people. But the development never happened, and in the 1990s, the federal government foreclosed on the land. With Trust for Public Lands brokering the deal, in 1993 SAWS, EAA, and Texas Parks and Wildlife bought 4,700 acres for $2 million. In 1996, with city, county, and federal funds, TPW purchased another 1,100. Within the past four years, private donors and foundations have anted up to allow the state to buy more than 3,300 additional acres.

The purchase is even more remarkable because as Danielle Milam, one of the original proponents of GCSNA, notes, "This was during a time when Texas Parks and Wildlife was getting rid of properties because of the economy." The land purchase, backed by city, county, and state officials and thousands of people of all political leanings, filled a huge hole in the state's parks plan, nearly doubling the amount of green space in Bexar County.

"There are layers and layers of resources out there," Milam says. "Dinosaur tracks and archeological finds. We don't even know what's out there."

The towers and their construction could harm not only what lives above ground - endangered species such as the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo - but beneath it as well: cave-dwelling invertebrates and San Antonio's water supply.

Geary Schindel, the EAA's chief technical officer and a professional geologist, says the area's rough topography could require extensive road-building that could chew up the land. If dirt clogs the drainage areas or if any herbicides are used to keep the access roads free of weeds, it could harm the aquifer and cave dwellers.

CPS is also worried that the hilly, craggy landscape where Jeri Moravits would like the towers placed would make it difficult and extremely expensive - even more than the projected $1 million per mile - to build towers and access roads. If CPS still decided to build the lines in GCSNA, it also would have to pay for a habitat conservation plan, which could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bob Pine, field supervisor at U.S. Fish & Wildlife, explains that a habitat conservation plan allows someone to get a permit to kill or harm endangered species; two plans are already in place or in progress in Bexar County, at La Cantera golf course and the proposed PGA Village.

The cost of the conservation plan and additional construction would be passed on to CPS ratepayers.

Yet, even with a permit, CPS could permanently damage the caves and other areas in the porous aquifer recharge zone. "The karst features are all irreplaceable," Pine says, adding that a Gramm representative had contacted U.S. Fish & Wildlife's federal office. "But we have no problem entertaining a proposal. It's our job to come up with the best possible means."

Developer George "Tim" Hixon served on the TPW commission in the '90s and later donated personal money to help the state purchase more land. He opposes any lines running through the canyon. "It was a slam dunk for me," Hixon says of the initial project. "A whole lot of people put their heart and soul into this, and we didn't put this deal together to have it screwed up. This is such an exceptional value to the people of San Antonio, and one or two landowners are putting their will over a public good."

Ironically, Hixon contributed $3,000 to Gramm's various senatorial campaigns; despite the fact the two stand on opposite sides of this issue, Hixon says, "Senator Gramm will be my friend when it's all over. I think he was a terrific senator. I never asked him for anything, but I wish he'd drop it. He's being a NIMBY."

 
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The Government Canyon State Natural Area is the large blue shaded area on the right. The Gramm property is the gray shaded triangle shaped area at left center. Highway 211 runs between the two properties. (Map courtesy of the Bexar County Appraisal District)

This issue is rife with ironies. In the '90s Gramm's senatorial office sent a letter to TPW supporting purchasing land for the canyon. In 1998, Gramm bought his 1,000-acre tract near the GCSNA from William and Doug McNeel for a song: $250,000. Gramm was able to have his land, which extends into Medina County, designated as a Wildlife Management Area, meaning he pays very little property tax: According to 2003 county tax and appraisal records, for a 96-acre tract valued at $96,000, Gramm was assessed just $78.08. For the 851 acres that lie in Bexar County, Gramm's 2003 property tax was just $2,417 - and most of that was assessed for a 1,700-square-foot house he built in 2002.

Besides the Gramms' ties to Enron - Wendy served on its board after chairing the Federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the energy company became one of Phil's largest campaign contributors - the senator and his wife have spotty environmental histories.

In Congress, Gramm voted to open the Arctic Wildlife Area to oil and gas drilling; several years ago, Wendy Gramm was named "Villain of the Month" by the Clean Air Trust for her role as director of regulatory studies at the Mercatus Center, a conservative thinktank at George Mason University. According to a Village Voice report, the Mercatus Center is responsible for several Environmental Protection Agency rules that were singled out for White House review. These included lowering the standard for arsenic in drinking water and weakening rules regarding New Source Review, which allows utilities such as CPS to modify their power plants without decreasing pollution levels.

And in a further entanglement, two TPW commissioners from San Antonio, Peter Holt and Mark Watson Jr., have contributed to Gramm and Bonilla's previous campaigns. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1994-2002, the Holt family and business gave $12,500 to Gramm and $22,250 to Bonilla. Watson's family contributed $3,500 to Gramm and $3,250 to Bonilla.

The commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, establish state parks policy and run TPW, from Executive Director Bob Cook in Austin, down to Deirdre Hisler at GCSNA.

While Gramm, his neighbors, and other politicians continue to put the thumbscrews to CPS and TPW, other politicos are defending the canyon. County Judge Nelson Wolff was mayor when the project began, and also served on the CPS board. "I respect their `Gramm and the landowners` opinion, but speaking for most of us, we worked hard and don't want power lines through Government Canyon."

To satisfy its critics, CPS will likely place the canyon route on the list of possible routes, and as Alonso says, let the public comment process weed it out. CPS' Citizens Advisory Committee already passed a resolution opposing the canyon route. CPS will hold additional public meetings later this year and into 2004.

But the controversy not only could delay the transmission lines, which are supposed to be on in 2006, but could postpone the park's opening, slated for next year.

"This is here for the public trust for aquifer protection, to educate and interpret what all that means," says Hisler. "Transmission lines are in direct conflict with the heart and soul of the project." •


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