By Lisa Sorg
During the litany of 17 zoning cases presented to City Council on June 9, District 5's Patti Radle rejected several North Side proposals, stating emphatically and repeatedly: "I am asking for the stop of development over the recharge zone."
Julián Castro, who as a two-term councilman from District 7 has heard hundreds of zoning cases including the infamous PGA Village, still appeared uncertain about what could be built over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
"It would benefit Council and staff to get an explanation of how these decisions are made," Castro said. "We continue to make case-by-case decisions. There is no consistency in our policy. We don't have a straight answer."
Although the City presumably regulates development over the recharge zone, there is a lack of consistency by the zoning commission, planning commission, and City Council on the application of the laws. Texas' private property laws and grandfathering, which occurs when a developer files a site plan before more stringent regulations are passed, have allowed rampant development to occur over the recharge zone. About 84 percent of the recharge zone had been developed or was planned for development as of 2003.
With subdivisions and shopping centers comes run-off and pollutants - pesticides from yards and golf courses, anti-freeze and oil from gas stations, and other chemicals from industry.
In 2000, to protect the environmentally sensitive area, San Antonio voters approved a referendum for a 1/8-cent sales tax to purchase land over the recharge zone, thus saving it from development. Four years, $38 million, and 6,000 acres later, the sales tax collection expires July 1, and grassroots groups including Smart Growth and Friends of the Parks are asking Council to place a second referendum on the November ballot to continue the 1/8-cent tax.
There are several differences between the 2000 and 2004 scenarios. First, little undeveloped land remains in Bexar County, requiring the City to buy land from Medina County and westward, where a large portion of the aquifer lies. Secondly, to save money - and to sweeten the pot for landowners and the City - grassroots groups are proposing using conservation easements, not full buy-outs, to protect the land.
"I don't think a lot of people quite understand the critical nature of our water issues," said Bonnie Conner, who served on Council in 2000 when the first sales tax referendum passed. "We can only pump a limited amount out of the aquifer. If you pour water on concrete, it runs off. If you pour it on dirt, it soaks in."
In May 2000, Proposition 3, as it was known then, was the only measure that voters passed. Three groups, whose members were appointed by the City, worked on acquiring land. The scientific evaluation group determined the most vulnerable parts of the recharge zone; the conservation advisory board identified which properties should be purchased and recommended them to the planning commission and city council; the land acquisition team - Trust for Public Lands, Nature Conservancy, and Bexar County Land Trust - brokered the deals.
"The City set up a very transparent system," said Anjali Kaul, associate state director of Trust for Public Lands. "Landowners understood the value of the program. Some landowners decided not to sell."
Proposition 3 also required the sales tax to expire when a certain amount of money had been collected. With $45 million in sales tax collections, Proposition 3 expires July 1. `See box, this page.`
If voters renew Proposition 3, the challenge for the City will be finding undeveloped land that it can afford. In the past four years, values have appreciated on the City's North Side, putting some properties out of financial reach. "Our goal is always to get the best price possible for the City," said Kaul. "We don't ever pay above fair-market price."
Marianne Kestenbaum of the citizens' group Smart Growth said the escalating prices are "an example of how important it is not to delay."
Faced with a shortage of land and high prices, grassroots groups are championing conservation easements as a way to more cheaply protect the recharge zone.
Under conservation easement agreements, landowners retain their property for hunting, grazing, farming or other uses that won't harm the recharge zone. The City buys the "development rights," meaning it has the right - and under the referendum, the responsibility - to enforce the landowners' promise not to develop the property. The land stays on the property tax rolls, usually with an agricultural exemption that lowers the tax. Most easements "run with the land," meaning the agreement is binding on the landowners' heirs.
The incentive is that landowners can earn some money for their property, but don't have to relinquish ownership. "A lot of people are land rich but cash poor," said Conner. "They can't afford to keep the property. This enables them to do so."
Conservation easements have become a common method of preserving land in the U.S. The 2000 National Land Trust Census found that local and regional land trusts have protected more than 6.2 million acres of open space; of this, 2.6 million acres were protected using conservation easements.
At the June 9 Council meeting, landowner Chris Hill told Council that under Proposition 3 he had sold development rights to 710 acres through a conservation easement. "It's a wonderful way for the City to extend the use of their funds, he said."
Proposition 3 also called for the City to build linear parks along Salado and Leon Creeks. Those projects have just started, said Assistant City Manger Chris Brady, because the number of parcels to be negotiated - 204 - is so large; the City also prioritized purchases over the recharge zone. Thus, with several million dollars unspent on the linear parks, it is uncertain whether that component would be part of the new Prop 3.
"You need to look for ways to bring excitement to the creekways," Garza cautioned Brady. "It would be helpful as part of the Southside Initiative."
If the measure doesn't pass, Conner said, development - some of it harmful - will continue over the recharge zone. "`As Councilwoman` I would sit up there and have a zoning case go through," she explained. "There were recommendations, not requirements. The rules `protecting the aquifer` are not strong." •
By Lisa Sorg