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Helotes: cornfields to Wal-Mart?

Helotes residents arrived early for a recent meeting of the City's planning and zoning commission, and for good reason. The Helotes City Council had locked out many of them during a previous vote to remove a moratorium that would allow Wal-Mart to build a store at the corner of Bandera and Scenic Loop roads.

The patrolman handed out slips of paper at the entrance. The seating limit of about 55 persons would be strictly enforced.

John Allan, one of the founders of the Helotes Heritage Association, opponents of the Wal-Mart proposal, lamented that his dog Millie was banned from City Council Chambers; she had been a regular at the meetings before Allan filed to campaign against Mayor Steve Hodges after the Wal-Mart issue surfaced.

Those who managed to squeeze in, including at least four city council members, were in for a treat. Mayo Galindo, a former assistant city attorney for San Antonio and a longtime counsel for various smaller cities in the area, addressed the Helotes master development plan.

"Wal-Mart is inconsistent with your master plan," he said, explaining that Helotes was allowed to incorporate in the 1980s by special legislation. Helotes was located in San Antonio's extraterritorial jurisdiction. "San Antonio lobbyists were asleep, and they didn't catch the bill."

Galindo explained that cities generally adopt a set of "organic laws" regarding development within their limits, including a comprehensive land use plan, a zoning ordinance and a subdivision ordinance, all designed to prevent development from adversely impacting the community.

"New development must be harmonious with the rest of the city," said Galindo. And the Helotes master plan outlines a residential suburb with a rustic atmosphere. Its intent is to "protect residents from the ill effects of urbanization."

The Wal-Mart planned for the Helotes ETJ is 200,000 square feet; Galindo said there is not enough room for parking, nor could the intersection of Scenic Loop and Bandera roads accommodate increased traffic. "The answer is 'no."'

Galindo further pointed out that the Helotes Fire Department would be hard-pressed to protect a development the size of Wal-Mart. The promised revenue from sales tax would quickly be gobbled up by the purchase of fire-fighting equipment that could handle a major fire. "Look at the enormity of what it does to the city ... the sales tax revenue would be eaten up by providing services," he said.

As a general-law city, Helotes would be able to annex the Wal-Mart property only if the company requests. "If they stay in the county, the city won't get one red cent."

Helotes City Attorney David Earl is well-known for representing development interests, but agreed with Galindo about the master plan. "The laws say follow the land use plan when platting property, the planning and zoning commission should follow the Helotes master plan."

He added it was likely that if the city denied a plat for the Wal-Mart project, the city likely would be sued in district court. Would Wal-Mart go away? "I have no idea," Earl said.

The P&Z commission took no action during the meeting on the Wal-Mart issue, but it attracted the attention, and attendance of one of Helotes' founding City Council members; Guy Barnett.

Barnett, who served two terms during the early days of Helotes, when it had to adopt zoning laws, arrange franchise agreements with cable television and other entities, and negotiate with TXDoT for a traffic light on Bandera Road, says he believes Wal-Mart is a "bad idea, but I don't know what to do about it."

With the architect and former councilman weighing in on the issue, the Helotes Heritage Association members who attended the meeting were reminded that the intention behind this small suburb on the edge of the Hill Country was to avoid the urban sprawl that has plagued San Antonio.

Said Barnett: "I can't imagine a Wal-Mart at that corner."

By Michael Cary


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