Steubing litmus test

If you think there are just too many species on the planet the way it is (despite the Sixth Mass Extinction now under way), if “a little toxic contamination of the aquifer never hurt anyone” seems like a reasonable statement, or if you’d welcome the chance to share your daily commute up and down 281 North with a few hundred more extended-cab pickups, you can stop reading now.

To those still tethered, however loosely, to the realities of modern living, let me offer a couple words: Steubing Ranch.

Three-hundred-and-ninety acres of gateway Hill Country property, the ranch is crackling with money-earning potential, zoned and ready to fill up with single-family homes. Only, the Steubing family would like to do a little more than transform 30 percent of their territory into Northside suburbia.

So, they’ve come with a favor to ask of us. Could they maybe, at the risk of kicking more endangered karst invertebrates in Camp Bullis’s face, toss in some strip malls and apartments and lay down asphalt and cement on another 13 percent of their developable land?

Because this is one of the last significant land holdings within whistle-shot of nocturnal-war-gaming (and San Anto cash cow) Camp Bullis, this is one zoning-change request that has gotten its share of attention.

The U.S. Army — fed up with all the light and noise and incessant hammering of an overly prolific species, homo sapiens consumeristis — has declared its own clandestine war on sprawl. As clear-cutting development has buzzed on all around Bullis, the populations of endangered songbirds on the training ground has increased by 50 percent in recent years, according to Garrison Commander Mary Garr.

The running wager is that as more prime warbler habitat is axed for high-dollar suburban homes, the birds are fleeing to the still-wooded Bullis. That has begun to cramp their war-gaming and medic-training style, forcing the Army to begin cutting back on some activities and even putting the camp at risk of obsolescence, military officials insist.

Planning Director Rod Sanchez said he was initially concerned to see plans for C-1 zoning for the ranch, which would include structures with virtually no height restrictions. And the density of commercial development adjacent to single-family homes caused further fretting.

“Once you start putting that close to single-family, I start getting concerned,” Sanchez said.

So Steubing reduced its commercial footprint and threw in some greenspace buffers between residential and commercial areas, earning them a green light.

The Planning Department leaves environmental analysis to the San Antonio Water System, Sanchez said, which gave the proposal the thumbs up, even though the ranch is in the middle of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and pocked with numerous sinkholes.

Though Councilmember Elisa Chan pulled the request from the August 6 Council agenda, the Zoning Comission and SAWS are recommending approval to pave 168 acres of undeveloped ranch land in the northwest crook of 181 and 1604. What remains to be seen is if the full council, peppered with several newbies, will continue to leave such matters largely to the council member within whose district the request falls.

Chan hasn’t exactly rattled cages over drinking-water quality concerns — at least not publicly. In a letter to her constituents, she summarized the objections brought to her attention, including the risk of “potential new bars, nightclubs, auto-repair shops and adult-oriented businesses as well as maintaining the appearance and design characteristics of Stone Oak, building heights and traffic.”

If this is an accurate portrayal of her voting base’s priorities, it’s a clear call for an intervention. Sure, poor planning has already turned North San into one prolonged pileup, but bigger issues are afoot. Only briefly does Chan refer to “the military concern” in her letter, saying it is “the other key issue that we must address before I would recommend proceeding with this re-zoning.”

Calls to Chan’s office this week were not returned before press deadline. But if environmental concerns at Steubing truly aren’t at the top of her priorities, it’s safe to say she is out of step with the military and her mayor.

A letter from Garrison Commander Garr to Assistant City Manager T.C. Broadnax last year claimed the ranch “is the most significant parcel that we have evaluated to date in terms of the potential for endangered species and the potential adverse impact to the Edwards Aquifer.”

Groups like the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance and Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas have long held that impervious cover over the Edwards’ recharge zone should be limited to 15 percent and are angling for the Council’s outright denial of the request. But is anyone pushing the aquifer issue with the city?

“No,” Hannah Pobanz, technical research director for the environmental non-profit AGUA, says with a laugh. “That would be us.”

While the greens are outweighed by monied interests on their strict impervious-cover push, many environmentalists are giving Mayor Julián Castro props for rapidly pushing forward a slate of efforts to protect and preserve habitat around Bullis.

However, dangerous divisions are starting to show within that slate. A proposed ordinance that would require developers near Bullis to submit an affidavit to the city confirming they are complying with the Endangered Species Act is on track for a Council vote on Thursday. But efforts to establish rules protecting “environmentally sensitive lands,” such as steep slopes, creeks, and recharge features, have run into developer resistance at the Tree Ordinance Stakeholders Committee and run the risk of being voted down before they can reach the Council.

Certified slow-growther Richard Alles of the Citizen’s Tree Coalition says that while conservationists (and increasingly Bullis boosters) cherish steep slopes and creekways for their contributions to biodiversity and local water quality, developers are drawn to steep slopes for other reasons — elevated, “exclusive” Hill Country property they like to flatten, a la the Rim. And streambeds? “That’s where they like to put their sewer lines,” says Alles, who is, we should note, not joking.

"What is the
out of it but
a kick ass in
the ass?
- George Rice

So, yeah, there’s some contrasting values at play there.

Meanwhile, the proposed rewrite of the city’s tree ordinance is set for an October Council vote. The ordinance, which is intended to protect “heritage” (ie. nice, old, hospitable) trees warblers try to call home, maintains a loophole that would allow developers to scrape 90 percent of a parcel’s tree canopy if they pay off the city or plant a bucolic field of scrawny saplings elsewhere.

A federally funded regional habitat conservation plan is in the works, but the most promising effort to protect endangered species, our subterranean water supply, and Bullis is moving forward not at the city or county level, but through the Edwards Aquifer Authority. The EAA last week revived a formerly tried-and-failed measure to reduce impervious-cover limits across the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone to 20 percent. But even this effort is destined to fall short.

“Somewhere between 10 and 15 percent is where you begin seeing deterioration in surface-water quality,” cautions George Rice,” local hydrogeologist and board member at both EAA and AGUA. “I’d rather have it lower.”

In any event, the EAA effort will be no end-run around the builders’ lobby and in a best-case scenario will take deep into 2010 to achieve. Rice anticipates a lengthy public comment period to accompany what is sure to be a controversial regional debate.

And with the number of properties “grandfathered” out of the EAA’s jurisdiction, even new impervious-cover limits won’t save Bullis on their own.

For that reason, there is no time like now for city leaders to reject Steubing’s request outright, Rice said.

“If we grant `the rezoning`, it means millions of dollars to the developer. What is the city getting out of it but a kick in the ass, all the while jeopardizing Bullis?”

Repeated calls to Camp Bullis’s press staff were not returned, and an attorney for the Steubings could also not be reached for comment.

As of press time, it is not known when Stuebing will surface on the Council agenda. While District 9 constituents may feel more strongly about additional traffic pileup, the “military question,” the future of our endangered species, and the safety of our water supply are matters concerning all San Antonians. We’re sure whatever your district, your council member would love an unexpected
conscience-raising education on regional environmental stewardship. Or, we’re pretty sure they would, anyway.

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