Safety dance, City gets demo bill, CEOh-no?, and more...

Safety dance
Is the emphasis at San Antonio’s City-run Dangerous Structure Determination Board shifting from demo to repair, or are they just sensitive to overwhelming demonstrations of community support? `We suspect B; see “Kangaroo court,” April 21, et al.` Near the end of Monday’s hearing over the fate of Westside conjunto institution Lerma’s Nite Club, DSDB member Kay Hindes asked everyone in the audience who had come to support Lerma’s to stand up.

“I think we all certainly see your passion and your love, and I would just like to thank you all,” she said to the two-dozen individuals who sprang to their feet: old musicians and young activists, more than one LGBT-friendly attorney, and a handful of visual artists. There was little question at that point that the board would come back from its executive session with a recommendation that owners Gilbert and Mary Garcia be given time to put together a proposed repair plan for the building, which includes a dry cleaner (since moved out) and a tire shop, as well as the club and bar. The Garcias must return to City Hall in late September.

Hindes, who was representing the Office of Historic Preservation on the DSDB, twice commented during the proceedings on the numerous letters of support that Lerma’s advocates had submitted, and noted for the board’s edification that the club’s Deco architecture was in keeping with its 60-year-plus history in the community.

KEDA (Radio Jalapeño!) DJ Mark Weber, dressed in fancy boots and a black button-down shirt embroidered with a guitar and musical notes, was not the only supporter to cry at the podium. “You want to get real conjunto music, you better go to Lerma’s,” he said.

“This building needs some work, everyone can see that,” he added, but he reminded the DSDB, “Gilbert Garcia, he’s not only a musician, he’s passionate about the culture that San Antonio has.” Like many of the speakers, Weber referred to conjunto’s uniquely South Texas fusion of polka, waltz, cumbia, and ranchera. Writer and café owner Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez said her mother would tell her she was free to enjoy other music, “but always remember, conjunto music is who you are.”

Tiendita proprietaria Susana Segura, who worked to alert the community to Lerma’s troubles, and fellow activist Fabiola Torralba told the board that Lerma’s is a cultural touchstone for younger generations as well as the viejitos. “I consider that a community center. We go dance and hang out and talk chisme,” Segura said. “We communicate with our elders; we dance with our elders.” Torralba, who lives close to the club, reminded the audience that San Antonio breakout band Girl in a Coma filmed their 2007 “Clumsy Sky” video at Lerma’s, the classic Aztec-warrior-carrying-a -princess mural in the background; at the end, they affix a Polaroid of themselves to the wall next to other music legends.

“From the perspective of a younger person of color, especially one that’s from this community — it’s an integral part of our identity,” Torralba said.

It wasn’t all arts and culture, either. Another musician testified that the lost venue is costing performers money, and the operator of the tire shop reminded the board that the City shut down his business, too, when they pulled the plug on the Garcia’s building. “I’m the poor-man’s mechanic,” he said. “I take care of this neighborhood.”

It won’t be cheap to get Lerma’s (and its tenants) back in operation; the one bid Garcia brought with him Monday was an estimated $25,000 to fix the roof, and a senior inspector who spoke (and made it clear that he, too, is a fan of the club) said the building needs major electrical work. But the DSDB noted that the proof of financial means the Garcias will need to provide can include pledges of community support and in-kind donations. The Westside Development Corporation has already promised to serve as a business advisor to the Garcias, and the office of District 1 Councilwoman Mary Alice Cisneros presented a letter to the board that said her office is working with the WDC to “help identify the resources necessary to bring this property up to code.”

City gets demo bill
U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez ruled against the City last week in a lawsuit over its 2008 demolition of Chance Kinnison’s Tobin Hill fixer-upper. The City razed the historic bungalow that April, a little more than a week after Kinnison bought it from Richard Brownlee, who has also sued the City over its condemnation of another Tobin Hill home. Kinnison learned of the demolition the day the bulldozers arrived from the foundation-repair crew he had hired to level the house.

In its defense the City argued that the house was in such a state of disrepair that it was impractical to give notice to Kinnison — an argument the Judge noted was undercut by the City’s own dillydallying: approximately nine days passed between the day a dangerous-premises officer first inspected the property and the day it was torn down. (And the house, of course, did not get that way overnight; read on.)

The City was within its rights to declare the house a nuisance and demolish it as part of its police powers, the Judge said, but, “If no emergency situation existed … then the City’s actions failed to provide Kinnison with procedural due process.” It was a case for the Dangerous Structure Determination Board, in other words, not emergency demolition. Because the City acted without affording Kinnison due process, Rodriguez concluded, its actions constituted an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

“Imminent danger just was not present in this case,” said attorney Tyler Rutherford, who represents Kinnison.

“I think I’m still in shock,” Kinnison said. “It makes me sort of feel like a citizen finally, that there is a reason for the Constitution to exist.”

A public outcry following the demolition of Kinnison’s house (and a rash of other “emergency” demos) prompted the City to update the code that governs those actions in October 2008. The code now distinguishes between emergency conditions caused by catastrophic events, such as fire or flooding, and long-term deterioration. In the case of the latter, it requires City officials to take more meaningful steps to notify the property owner, who then has up to 72 hours to produce a plan of action to stabilize the structure.

City Attorney Michael Bernard says those changes were prompted by former Mayor Phil Hardberger  — “If I recall correctly, `the Mayor` just said we ought to do more,” Bernard said — not by a realization that the City was legally out of bounds. (It is perhaps worth noting here that Hardberger is a former chief justice of Texas’ Fourth Court of Appeals.)

As the Current reported earlier this year, a number of problems with the system remain, including questions about the qualifications of the Dangerous Premises Officers and building inspectors who initiate and second demolition orders, and substantive conflicts of interest on the Dangerous Structure Determination Board, which consists entirely of City staff. `See “Training days,” June 2.`

A former Peace Corps volunteer, Kinnison was 31 when the City demolished his dream rehab project, and he refers to the ensuing lawsuit as “a really dark part of my life.” Now, with some legal vindication, he might be ready for another renovation project. “I’m always thinking of finding great old houses that need some attention,” he said. “That’s just what I want to do with my life.”

The City may have become an unintentional investor in his next project. The lawsuit now proceeds to the painful part, and Kinnison will be seeking punitive as well as actual damages. “This little blunder by the City could get pricy for them,” Rutherford said.

When CPS Energy and their nuke partners at NRG Energy and Toshiba settled their differences in February, they also shut down, in large part, the city’s broader debate about nuclear power. NRG/Toshiba took full control over pumping the federal government for needed loan guarantees for the would-be Matagorda County reactors STP 3&4. San Antonio was able to sit back with its 7-percent share secured with the hundreds of millions it had already paid in. While SA Mayor Julián Castro has played project booster, as per the terms of the settlement agreement, the city has since been able to shift its energy attentions to less controversial efforts, including home weatherization, programmable thermostats, and solar power.
However, CPS’s decision to hire Exelon Power President Doyle Beneby after a super-secret process does little to assuage the fears of the City-owned utility’s many critics. On the surface, tapping an Exelon exec seems to signal that CPS remains a solidly nuclear utility.

Exelon is the largest nuclear utility in the country, deriving 92 percent of its power from atom-splitting, and it somewhat inconveniently sent millions of gallons of tritium-contaminated wastewater into Illinois groundwater over a decade at three plants.
Some readers may remember Exelon as the utility that filed construction permits for two new nukes outside Victoria while CPS execs were treating them to Spurs games. After that, Exelon launched an ultimately unsuccessful hostile takeover of NRG Energy. And yet, Exelon Power is also the force behind sun- and earth-friendly developments like Exelon City Solar in Chicago where a rehabbed 41-acre brownfield has been outfitted with enough solar to power 1,500 average-size homes.

Considered alongside TXU’s recent free-installation solar-leasing program, the Exelon endeavor shows for-profit utilities may have a few things to teach municipally owned CPS. It’s possible we have something to learn from Beneby’s recent experience — or at least from mining his Rolodex. We’re hoping the phone numbers for the two authors of a pipin’ hot Duke University study showing that the cost of PV solar (the “pricey” kind) has dropped beneath the price of nuclear power and keeps falling are in his contact list.

In the past year, CPS has launched a business solar-rebate program and seen nearly 100 new residential rooftop arrays go up, putting us at about 125 total. And yet the $1 million set aside for residential solar rebates this fiscal year will likely only cover another 60 installations.

Water panning
If the Texas Water Development Board accepts the recommendations of regional water planners, area groundwater supplies from Bee Cave to western Bandera County will be expected to decline by 30 feet in the next 50 years. Only one member of the Groundwater Management Area 9 — Bandera County — objected to the quota. Water managers there had been hoping to hold the line at 10 feet of drawdown in the Trinity and Edwards aquifers, but were undone in an 8-1 vote held in Boerne on Monday. GMA-9 covers the counties of Kerr, Medina, Travis, Comal, Hays, Kendall, Blanco, Bexar, and Bandera. (The vote does not cover the portion of the Edwards Aquifer managed by the Edwards Aquifer Authority.)

“You’ve got to balance what you think sustainability is with growth,” Dave Mauk, assistant general manager of the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District, told the QueQue. “At the same time, you have to manage your resources, and water is the most important one we have.”

A lone protester heckled the GMA-9 board, calling for zero drawdown and challenging them with cries of, “What about the springs?”

Micah Voulgaris, general manager of the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District, said he would love to rein in water use by setting the drawdown at a lesser figure, but many water-intensive businesses in Kendall County haven’t bothered to get permitted through the 10-year-old Cow Creek. Factored in, these existing users required him to vote along with the 30-foot drawdown number; a 20-foot drawdown wouldn’t have covered them, he said.

The vote will likely reduce the Edwards Aquifer in Kendall County by 2-and-a-half feet, Voulgaris said. Springs supplied by the Edwards west of Boerne form the headwaters of Cibolo Creek, which in turn contributes to the recharge of the Edwards Aquifer beneath Bexar County, which supplies the vast amount of San Antonio’s drinking water. All it would take is a few years of monster drought to shut down business. “If we get seven years without rain most of the wells in `Kendall` county will probably be dry,” he said.

For lack of a Ouija Board, Jorge Gonzalez, veep of the Trinity Glen Rose Groundwater Conservation District, said he would go along with the vote. “I feel butterflies in my stomach to make some decisions, because who knows what’s going to happen,” he said.

If Gonzalez or any of the GAM-9 members had been paying attention, they’d know that those figurative seven years are right around the metaphorical corner. Natural climate patterns are already returning the American West to a drier state, and global climate change is expected to add as many as 7 degrees to average temps this century (cooking off several inches of our reduced rainfall each year).
Yet despite the wealth of climate forecasts that have been coming out of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and the like, the TWDB and regional water districts are only now beginning to factor them into their plans, Voulgaris said.

Mauk had his finger on another pulse: energy. “How much is gasoline going to be? Are we still going to be on oil? And if we are on petroleum products, is gas going to be $6 a gallon? In which case, nobody is going to be commuting anywhere of any distance,” he said.

While the convergence of a coming energy crunch with climate change may make many of the water votes irrelevant before their time, a caveat: 30-feet of drawdown is not zero-to-30 feet of drawdown. Ron Feisler of the Blanco-Pedernales Groundwater Conservation District, who led the meeting, said “to the extent possible” districts are supposed to permit the full amount approved. While the numbers may be adjusted in five years, it appears those 30 feet could be accounted for quickly. •

Scroll to read more The QueQue articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.