Thursday, December 29, 2005

If you can build on it, he will come.

This is a really long entry, y’all. You may want to take a potty break and grab a sandwich before you start readin’.

At the risk of sounding like a commie pinko, let’s talk about aquifer restrictions and water rights for a sec.

(And before you say anything, being a Democratic doesn’t automatically make you a commie pinko. Hell, in this day and age, it represents fiscal responsibility and pragmatic decision making which used to be the Republican battle cry.)

It’s important to note this isn’t an anti-development anti-business battle cry. However, as Little Larry is wont to say, it IS an anti-stupidity battle cry.

Do y’all understand how the whole aquifer things works? Yeah, me neither. I read a lot of stuff on this great website; most of which confused my li’l ole brain and ended with me giving up and toddling off to go watch Project Runway. But the gist of it all is…the aquifer is as important as it is unique and we need to stop doing things that will run the whole system dry.

And you know what? San Antonians stepped up to the plate and voted to do more to protect the aquifer. A 1995 City Council Ordinance intended to protect the aquifer was met with thunderous applause at the time it was passed and even more recently San Antonians voted to spend 135 million dollars in two sales tax propositions to buy vacant land over the aquifer's recharge zone with the goal of stemming development and pollution.

Yet in the name of vested rights, developers avoided the ordinance in four out of five cases in the past decade. Urban sprawl continues unabated, bringing dense development over the fragile watershed that the city intended to protect.

With so many developers ignoring the local ordinance, aquifer protection is left largely to state regulators, who can enforce some pollution controls but can't limit the size of housing and commercial projects. Their budget in San Antonio has been slashed by more than half since 2002, from $324,000 to $141,000.

But a year long study by the good ole E-N found the following:

The Texas law also hit local taxpayers in the pocketbook.
In October 1997, San Antonio was poised to charge developers new fees to control storm water runoff and prevent flooding.

But the day before the drainage fees kicked in, developers flooded City Hall with nearly 200 planning documents known as plats — the most ever filed in a single day in San Antonio.

In the span of a few hours, the developers successfully exempted themselves from at least $2.3 million in drainage fees, according to an Express-News analysis of a city database.


And the 135 million dollar buy out I just mentioned?

Texas law hinders the buyout program because vested, or grandfathered, sites can turn more profit. Some owners of the exempted tracts are demanding top dollar for their properties, reducing the amount of land the city can buy.

While there are many factors that go into each land purchase, records reviewed by the Express-News suggest the city has paid an extra $2 million for grandfathered properties.

Susan Spegar, the city official responsible for the property purchases, agreed with the Express-News analysis.

"There's no doubt that vested rights contributed to an increase in land values," Spegar said.


Why is all of this happening and why is it costing us so much? Well, in a nutshell because state law trumps city council law.

A venture is considered "vested" when developers start work on a shopping center, a neighborhood or some other project. From that point on, a city can't change land-use controls on them.

For decades, courts held a high standard of vesting, usually ruling that projects weren't truly grandfathered until construction started.

But a Texas twist on vesting lowered that threshold.

The 1987 statute was written for developers who were unhappy with strict land-use rules in Austin, said Richard Suttle, a lawyer who helped lobby then-House Speaker Gib Lewis, the law's founding father.

The law had a far-reaching impact across Texas. It said a project is born when early permits such as plats or master plans are filed with a city. Construction can begin years, even decades later, but the project will fall under the codes in effect at the time of the original filing.

In San Antonio, the law encourages the development industry to blur the line between legitimate projects and outright land speculation, records show.


This can date back to the flat-out ridiculous.

The oldest permit ever used to trigger vested rights in San Antonio dates to the horse and buggy.

In December 2001, when H.E. Butt Grocery Co. wanted to expand a store on Hildebrand Avenue, the company found a hand-drawn plan for the site dating nearly a century before to 1908.

Texas law allows vesting to transfer between landowners. New owners can dig up plans filed decades ago by past owners to claim exemptions from current rules.

By relying on the old plan, H-E-B was required to follow only city codes in effect as of 1908. The company says it voluntarily followed current ordinances.

"We didn't even have stores in San Antonio in 1908," a surprised Kate Rogers, a spokeswoman for H-E-B, said when asked about the vesting case.


So it doesn’t even have to be plans submitted by the current landowner. This goes beyond blurring the line to flat out land speculation. This draws a whole new line.

And all of this affects District 122 more than any other district in the San Antonio Aquifer area.

Drive along U.S. 281 North to Stone Oak Parkway and a project appears that fits [engineer Gene] Dawson's description:

A gaping, 50-acre scar at the gateway to the Hill Country.

Earthmovers scrubbed a hillside covered with live oak and mountain cedar trees to bare limestone — wiping out a forest the size of North Star Mall.

Tract homes now are sprouting from the dusty landscape.


[…]

The trees were bulldozed to make room for Encino Ridge, a dense neighborhood by national chain Pulte Homes, one of San Antonio's largest builders. The Michigan-based company took in a record $11.7 billion in gross revenue last year.

"They worked day and night out here," nearby resident Donna Biggs said. She stretched her arms to form a wide circle. "There were oaks this big cut down."

Pulte's local president, Bart Swider, said the company wanted to grade the hill to cut down on the cost of each home.

But he admits the clearing was an environmental blunder — one that city tree preservation ordinances might have prevented.

"We did not develop in a manner that was environmentally sensitive," Swider said.

Neither did the vested developers of Bulverde Village, where 270 acres of habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler were leveled for new housing.

With no safeguards, the green hills of the North Side have been pockmarked over the years with barren clear-cuts, thanks in large part to the vested rights law.


[…]

Since 1985, San Antonio has lost 45,000 acres of dense tree cover to development, according to a November 2002 study by the nonprofit group American Forests.

The lost trees had more than aesthetic value. If preserved, the trees could have soaked up more than 3 million pounds of air pollutants a year, and saved the city $146 million in drainage costs to control floodwaters, the study found.

City Arborist Debbie Reid is certain that exemptions to the tree ordinance are responsible for much of that loss.

Yet even Reid can't say for sure how many trees are being cut down in grandfathered projects. While city rules mandate tree surveys, developers aren't required to conduct them if they're exempt.


For those of us who live or visit that area on a regular basis and have lived here long enough to remember what it used to look like, the visuals may not be necessary. But for anyone having a hard time really picturing what this grandfathering law did to our little section of the county, check out the before and after arial images photographed by E-N staff.

· Bulverde Village
· Encino Ridge
· The Rim

Now, Mr. Corte is a business man and big in to property management. He’s all about buildin’ up his district. Of course, like we mentioned before, there is a big difference between being pro-development and just plain stupid. And the folks in San Antonio understand the difference and have been trying to protect our water rights a little bit better.

How about Mr. Corte? How has his voting record stood up on this issue?

Well, the Aquifer Guardians rate him at a 0%.


Specifically, he voted for SB 848 (which, yes, later became law) which expanded the grandfathering of development plans by setting the date for grandfathering at the time of the mailing of an incomplete application rather than the receipt of a completed one. If you read the whole E-N article you can see how many applications were already being filed and passing through when they had to be complete and processed.

Now the terms are so undefined that a developer could grandfather a development plan with nothing more than a note scribbled on a napkin.

It also allows developers to freeze regulations merely by getting a utility to agree to provide water or wastewater services which is regularly done without any consideration of what kind or size of project can be built under current regulations, or even a development application being filed,

Well, a couple of house Dems piped up with an amendment to this-here SB 848 asking for the prevention of grandfathering for the protection of drinking water in the Edwards Aquifer, which would protect our drinking water from pollution that is allowed under these grandfathered antiquated regulations.

Corte voted against that one, nor did it become law.

Yeah, I don’t get it either. Mr. Corte is voting against the wishes of his constituency and against the interests and protection of himself and his family.

I’m a mom myself, and I can’t figure how one can claim to be a family man and sleep at night knowing he is contributing to making the water his wife and children drink, cook with, and bathe in more polluted.

I guess the money helps easy his conscience.

Yeah, folks. It’s all about money in the end.

E-N also had a nifty little chart delineating which builders and development interests gave money (and we are talking millions, natch) to state lawmakers between 2000 and 2004. These are all groups and individuals lobbied for vested rights legislation or signed up in support of amendments and you can see the complete list here.

Now, y’all know where I’m headed right about now, so ain't none of us surprised.

Here are Corte’s top contributers from just his 2004 campaign.


Texas Apartment Association for 1500.00 bucks?

Check.

Texas Association Of Builders And Contractors for 1000.00 bucks?

Check.

And if you look at the complete list of his top contributers you will see a lot of other interest groups with a hand in the development game and a reason to keep the grandfathering loophole.

I don’t know if all that money will buy him a lifetime supply of purified drinking water delivered to his door when the pollutants push us the aquifer to the undrinkable; but if Mr. Corte has his way, we may be finding out sooner rather than later.

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