Is paradise lost?
Brad Rollins | On 01, Jan 2013
Most San Marcos ‘environmentalists’ emerge when it is convenient. It is convenient when one’s self interest is in play.
ARTWORK by J. RENE PEREZ
by BRAD ROLLINS
Scott McGeehee is pretty typical of those fighting to save San Marcos from the blight of big box stores and countless sprawling square miles of track housing.
Like most San Martians, he has a hard-wired connection to the San Marcos River and its headwaters, the system of springs where the purest of water — more than 100 million gallons on an average day — gushes from the earth. McGeehee’s connection is stronger than most’s — it is part of his résumé as well as his biography.
In 1968, McGeehee started work as a merman in the Aquarena amusement park’s famous underwater show, the one starring Ralph the Swimming Pig and buxom college girls cast as mermaids. He stayed on for nearly 20 years eventually rising to general manager. Now semi-retired, he lives with his wife on a rugged and serene 14-acre patch of Hill Country off Ranch Road 12 west of San Marcos. His home is covered on all but one side by an energy-saving earthen berm. His household subsides entirely on a low-producing well. He plans to install a rainwater collection system soon.
Like all seasoned San Martians, he knows the first step in effectively opposing a development is to make clear that you’re not opposed to all development, just the one in question. Asked the other day if he considered himself an environmentalist, McGeehee recoiled a bit.
“I’d say I’m pretty middle of the road. The environment is definitely important but I’m not against growth. We know we can’t stop growth. The question is: Where do you draw the line?” he said.
McGeehee and some his neighbors have recently drawn the line where most people do: At their own neighborhood.
He is front and center in opposition to the proposed Lazy Oaks subdivision, which would be built on 1,400 acres of the Storey-Robinson Ranch. Now owned by a group of land-speculating Central Texas attorneys, the property is the subject of a development agreement expected to be considered by the San Marcos City Council in January. The propery owners, members of the Austin firm DuBois, Bryant & Campbell, L.L.P., don’t plan on developing the subdivision themselves, but rather seek to flip it to someone who will transform the ranchland into a neighborhood of homes starting in the quarter-million dollar range.
The most recent public version of the agreement would allow 1,750 homes on about 937 buildable acres, the balance remaining undeveloped as parkland and flood plain. The front 371 acres of the property would be built out at three homes per acre; another 566 acres of the property could be built at one home per acre. Both of those configurations allow for significantly smaller lots than the 10- to 40-acre tracts of the adjoining Fox Ridge and Settlement subdivisions. Many of us, had we invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a dream home with unspoiled countryside views, would be just as concerned about the prospect of 4,000 new neighbors of unknown origin and destination.
But any such argument is bound to be labeled as “elitism” and elitism is usually not a useful ally in San Marcos politics. The anti-Lazy Oaks folks have sensibly hung their arguments on the environment, instead. The resulting spectacle of newly minted tree huggers storming City Hall in tailored suits has been rich to behold:
Among the handful of Fox Ridge and Settlement homeowners who recently turned out at a San Marcos City Council meeting to oppose Lazy Oaks Ranch, their numbers included: a prominent attorney who frequently speaks on behalf of controversial developments; a recent transplant from New Jersey who is concerned about the scourge of newcomers ruining his newfound serenity; and — as if to make sure the man-bites-dog dynamic is unmistakable — a real estate developer whose specialities include manufactured housing communities.
Whatever their motivations, the Lazy Oaks neighbors are not wrong about the environmental sensitivity of the Lazy Oaks property. We know this with certainty because the property owners have spelled it out with rare clarity.
In 2009, the Lazy Oaks investors were trying to sell their property to Hays County, which was in the market to buy a large tract of environmentally sensitive land as the centerpiece of its habitat conservation plan. The federally sanctioned HCP essentially functions as a land bank, preserving endangered species habitat in one part of the county in exchange for regulatory clearance to develop habitat elsewhere.
Here’s what Lazy Oaks’ owners said about Lazy Oaks then: Nearly three-quarters of the property, 1,019 acres, is high- to medium-quality potential habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler and possibly the black-capped vireo, another endangered songbird. The property lies in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, where the vast underground reservoir is replenished by rainwater filtered through porous limestone karsts and caves. One such feature, Pulpit Cave, was described by an environmental consulting firm hired by the property owners as “fairly extensive and well-decorated and [with] excellent karst species habitat.” The application includes photos of the diverse terrain: A 200-foot-deep limestone gorge and a grand-daddy live oak from which the subdivision gets its name.
“Lazy Oaks is a near perfect fit for the aquifer preservation, endangered wildlife habitat conservation and low-impact and open space goals,” of Hays County’s open space program, the proposal concludes.
Their application both makes a best possible case for the property’s preservation — and warns that its owners will develop it for residential and commercial uses if the county didn’t bite. The county did not bite, opting instead to buy a different ranch out west. Consequently, here we are marching steadily toward another bloody confrontation in the city council chambers where a “yes” or “no” will be demanded in answer to an essay question.
Lazy Oaks is not the only front in these development wars expected to heat up in 2013.
On the other side of San Marcos, below a lazy bend in the city’s beloved river, Cape’s Camp stands as a leafy symbol of San Marcos’ identity crisis. For more than 100 years, the Thornton family has owned nearly 100 acres along the river, including a particularly scenic section called Thompson’s Islands where an early Anglo settler diverted part of the river in the 1850s to power a sawmill. Here the main channel of San Marcos wends around the island under a canopy of towering cypress and pecans. Last summer, someone strung a hammock in a treetop overhanging the water and a bikini-clad siren would sometimes serenade tubers and kayakers as they bobbed down the river 50 feet below. Downstream, local kids perform back flips into the churning confluence where the mill race rejoins the main channel.
In March, a Georgia developer who specializes in upscale student housing, turned up at the San Marcos Planning & Zoning Commission bearing plans for student apartments on about 40 acres on the river’s north bank. In the months that followed, while Dovetail Development principals negotiated details with City Hall staff, a movement took root to have the city step in and buy the land: the 40 acres optioned by the developer for purchase plus about 35 acres the Thorntons own on the other side of the river.
The city council put the matter to a nonbinding citywide vote, divvying the question into three parts: Should the city buy the property? Should the city use eminent domain to buy the property if necessary? Should the city raise property taxes to pay for the venture?
The results were mixed. Fully 75 percent of 10,901 voters said the city should buy the river acreage for park use; fully 65 percent of the same voters said not to raise property taxes to do so. A modest majority, 51 percent, said the city should not entertain eminent domain to buy the property by force.
Meanwhile, before the matter ever made it to voters, Dovetail had sweetened its proposal to the city considerably. Under the planned development district now on the table, Dovetail would be entitled to build 1,000 bedrooms between 306 apartment units. In exchange, the company would donate 20 riverfront acres including what would instantly be jewels of the city’s parks systems: Cape’s Camp on the north bank and Thompson’s Islands themselves.
Lacking a popular mandate to grab the property by any necessary means, Cape’s Camp opponents were short on arguments when they urged the P&Z to reject the offer at a November hearing, weeks after the election.
One of those who spoke against it, recent city council write-in hopeful Melissa Derrick, scoffed at Dovetail’s offer of 20 donated acres, saying the land is of little of value because it lies in the flood plain. She did not offer suggestions for making the riverfront paradise less flood prone.
The P&Z approved the developer’s plans, 8-1, with Taproom owner Travis Kelsey casting the only vote against the apartments.
The consensus that appears to be emerging among the city’s decision makers — at least those planning and zoning commissioners who have so far been put on the record — is that the city, through the Dovetail agreement, is acquiring for free what would otherwise cost millions to purchase.
Said planning and zoning commission chair Bill Taylor after the November vote: “It is one of the most spectacular pieces of parkland that San Marcos will ever acquire. And we didn’t have to buy it.”
Yet the clamor is still audible for the city to hold out for the full loaf. The position assumes that the property is even for sale under any terms other than those on the table.
Dovetail’s Austin attorney, Steve Drenner, told P&Z in November that the city would be illegally “taking” his client’s property if its decision makers rejected a planned development district while scheming to buy the property for use as a park. If the city wants Cape’s Camp, he said, they would have to use eminent domain, which, he suggested, would precipitate a legal battle royale.
“This is not a willing seller,” Drenner said. Then, repurposing the no-compromise battle cry of San Marcos development opponents, he added: “Not now. Not ever.”