David vs. Goliath

(Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Citizens band together to fight Wal-Martization of Scenic Loop Road

Local folklore says a Polish mercenary named Juan Menchaca married an Azteca woman and settled on a Spanish land grant in 1821. He earned a living robbing stagecoaches that rattled through the little valley that follows Helotes Creek en route to points south and west.

His descendants continued to ply that trade, burying their gold loot in the Robber's Cave and other hiding places along the Scenic Loop Road that allowed travelers to go from the railroad depot in Leon Springs to the Helotes area in northwestern Bexar County.

Wealthy San Antonians bought lots and built cottages on the Helotes Creek in what today is known as Grey Forest, incorporated as a city in 1964. The Grey Moss Inn, established in 1929 by Mary Howell, stands today as the city's only business. Howell is said to lovingly haunt the restaurant.

Walls of one 1840s-era stagecoach depot remain standing along the creek, and many of the homes along this rural route could easily achieve historical designations. But the Scenic Loop Road, one of the last eco-tourism roads in Central Texas, is under attack by one of the biggest corporate big box developers in the nation: Wal-Mart. And a feisty band of residents who live in the area swear they'll fight it to the finish, whatever it takes, and they already have launched the first skirmish by getting organized.

The bomb was first dropped at a September 23 Helotes City Council Meeting. Balous Miller of the local barbecue family fame was selling a 30- to 40-acre tract of property at the northeast corner of Bandera and Scenic Loop roads, an area that has seen urban sprawl creep as far north as Helotes.

The situation worsened when Grey Forest Mayor Ann Mabry said the Wal-Mart would be good for the city's 418 mostly retired residents. "We would much rather have a Wal-Mart than a gasoline station. There will be no entryway on Scenic Loop Road."

Grey Forest is a sequestered community of homes that rely on water wells in the Cow Creek/Glen Rose/Trinity Aquifer formation, which lies under the Edwards Aquifer. The homes are connected to septic systems, although one Scenic Loop Road resident says San Antonio Water System could have plans to build a sewer line from Helotes along the creek to points east, where new homes are steadily popping up. SAWS could not be reached by press time.

"We would much rather have a Wal-Mart than a gasoline station."

- Grey Forest Mayor Ann Mabry
Residents who already can shop at a Wal-Mart within five to seven miles of the proposed new location point to Mayor Mabry's apparent acceptance of the project, and to Helotes Mayor Steven Hodges' feigned resignation to the inevitability of a Scenic Loop Wal-Mart as good reason to band together to fight.

And they have allies.

About 80 Grey Forest, Helotes area, and Scenic Loop Road residents attended an organizational meeting of the Helotes Area Heritage Association last Thursday. It is comprised of "citizens dedicated to the preservation of the cultural, environmental, and historic heritage of the Helotes/Grey Forest area."

"Definitely we want to stop Wal-Mart, but we have a long-term goal to preserve green space," says Sharon Shelton-Colangelo, a Northwest Vista College professor and resident of Scenic Loop Road.

Stuart Birnbaum served as a temporary chairman of the meeting held at the Helotes Lions Club last week.

He also was present the week prior at a Helotes Council meeting, where he demanded answers and urged the elected officials to fight the project, although the City would have little power to legally stop Wal-Mart.

"If we can show up at council meetings with this number, they will notice us," he says. "They (the City Council) commiserated, but they were not persuaded to do anything. One of the things we will look at is a recall election. People are hot under the collar about this. We cannot accept the excuse that the project is in the ETJ and they cannot help us."

At that point during the meeting, someone made the motion, and another seconded it, that the 80 attendees get into their autos and crash a council meeting that was under way down the highway.

The group has already called San Antonio environmental attorney Darby Riley, who recommended contacting Richard Alles of Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas; Alles was instrumental in fighting, albeit unsuccessfully, another Wal-Mart project, which resulted in the demolition of dozens of trees along Vance Jackson Road. The developer, Mark Granados, sued Alles, albeit unsuccessfully, over comments Alles allegedly made about him.

Annalisa Peace of AGUA and George Rice, Edwards Aquifer Authority board member, were on hand at the meeting to lend moral support and to help uncover any current regulations that could stop the Scenic Loop Road Wal-Mart.

Joleen García of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center also offered to help with her agency's email lists and other support. "I want to offer any assistance we can. The spirit here is amazing. I'm happy to see it."

Birnbaum acknowledged that Wal-Mart will battle back, but the small band of citizens are determined to leave a bloody battleground in Bexar County's next war - Corporate America versus the people who live in or near the fragile ecosystem along Scenic Loop Road.

By Michael Cary

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