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Commission deflects latest assault on San Antonio's main source of drinking water

Brown, an attorney with registered City Hall lobbyists Earl and Brown, sniveled that his (unnamed) client had waited patiently for the past two years while Brown weaseled his way onto a zoning commission advisory committee - the same committee that recommended a change to allow development of franchise-level auto dealerships to move in over the recharge zone.

The lobbyist appeared at last week's Zoning Commission meeting and said opposition (by environmentalists) to the development code change was merely a "political chain of events," and that there was no scientific evidence that chemicals, oil, gasoline, and other runoff would harm the city's main source of drinking water. He said an auto dealer still would have to submit its plans to the San Antonio Water System, the Zoning Commission and the City Council before it bulldozed trees and covered the ecologically sensitive zone with acres and acres of impervious cover, aka asphalt. He argued that if his client could prove no harmful effects on the environment, it should be allowed to proceed with the plans.

"Let's work out a compromise, if there is one," Brown said.

Scott Halty of SAWS' resource protection office encouraged the commission to deny the policy change, and pointed out that an auto repair and body shop would have on-site storage of used oil, solvents, used brake pads, batteries and more that could potentially escape the shops and run down the asphalt and into the aquifer.

When Zoning Commission Chairman Christopher Martinez declared an open microphone for opposition to the change in the UDC, a cattle call of environmental watchdogs rushed to the podium.

"The San Antonio Conservation Society strongly opposes the proposed amendment to the Unified Development Code," society president Jill Harrison Souter said. "The reason for excluding auto repair and paint shops from being built on land over the ERZD is painfully obvious. Accidental spills or leaking of contaminants from these facilities could easily pollute our precious water source."

Souter also said changing the UDC is "bending the rules to accommodate a special category of big businesses ... there is plenty of land in our community (that is) not over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone with high visibility and commercial development potential, which can easily accommodate these categories of businesses."

Local attorney Michelle Petty, who also serves on the board of directors of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, said the Zoning Commission's February 18 rejection of the environmentally disastrous UDC change "sends a signal (to money-hungry developers) that the city is protecting our water source."

But she pointed out that auto dealers merely have to shift their focus outside the city limit, farther north along U.S. 281, where they can poison the environment without having to worry about pesky government interference.

"The county doesn't have the kind of authority in terms of zoning and planning that the city does," Petty explained. "The city has some extraterritorial jurisdiction, but what we really need is a constitutional amendment to give counties the authority to have zoning jurisdiction."

She said the reason urban sprawl has blemished the landscape throughout Texas is that businesses would leave the city to do what they wanted to do with no entity in place to control the march of progress.

Currently, the only thing standing in the way of an auto dealership setting up shop over the recharge zone outside the city's jurisdiction is the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

"The EAA has some rulemaking abilities to regulate areas over the recharge zone, which would be right outside city limits within the county, so they could take some action," Petty said. "We will be pursuing that and will ask the EAA to step up to the plate and come up with regulations to protect the recharge zone. You can see how urban sprawl happened in Houston. Nobody could stop it and it's a mess there."

Brown will have another opportunity to show that his client is justified in lining his pockets with money as reward for trying to peddle influence at City Hall. The Zoning Commission makes only recommendations on local zoning issues; City Council eventually will consider the change in the UDC to allow invasion of the aquifer by big bucks auto dealerships. Mayor Ed Garza has spoken against the proposal, which gives reason for hope, but he has only one out of 11 votes on the City Council.

Souter said when the issue or similar topics appear on various agendas at City Hall, the Conservation Society will be there to intervene on behalf of the environment. "We monitor more than 41 boards and commissions in the city. We have always been concerned about protection of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. Water is a precious commodity. The Edwards is Mother Nature at her best, and we need to be good stewards so it will be there for future generations."

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