Sprawl-busters: Anti-encroachment activism endeavors to take root near Leon Springs

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Note that this article is the first in a series designed to elucidate growth issues in NW Bexar County. The hope is that by thoughtfully describing the players and introducing readers to smart growth notions, citizens would be better prepared to discuss these matters openly.

By Pamela Price
Contributing writer, The Hill Country View

To anyone who followed the battle to keep a new Wal-Mart from the intersection of Bandera Road and Scenic Loop in Helotes, it’s no surprise that other area landowners are inspired anew to organize against unchecked development. Indeed, Boerne Stage Road area residents are beginning to speak out and coordinate efforts to stop what homeowner Crystal Brown calls “the fungus” that is San Antonio sprawl.

In the case of nascent Boerne Stage activism, however, there’s no specific big box retailer breathing down collective necks…yet. Instead, the threat takes the form of several proposed residential Bexar County developments and the clusters of architecturally uninspired commercial structures they inevitably attract. Many current residents fear the potential sprawl along the Boerne Stage/Scenic Loop corridors will generate increased traffic, raise taxes, destroy the environment, deplete water, place added pressure on overextended public services, and effectively obliterate the distinctive Hill Country vibe that attracted them in the first place.

“DeZavala (Road) used to be like Boerne Stage just a few years ago. There were cows at the IH-10 intersection. Now look at it,” says Brown, who purchased property off of Toutant Beauregard with her husband in 1992. “I got out here to get away from San Antonio. Now, with all the noise, traffic and light pollution, I’m wondering: what was the point?”

For her part, Brown is focusing much of her energy on eliminating the swarms of temporary signs that clutter the IH-10 and Boerne Stage intersection in Leon Springs each weekend. “It looks just awful,” she says. Brown also plans to stay in close contact with the neighborhood association as it gears up to address issues of interest to her.

As residents begin to rally around the notion of protecting Boerne Stage and its environs, neighborhood associations are proving invaluable forums through which information can be exchanged. For instance, Brown was one of several Serene Hills residents to attend a special March 20 meeting with Bexar County representatives, including commissioner Lyle Larson. Brown says the group was eager to hear more about plans for a plot of land adjacent to Serene Hills. She adds that current homeowners fear proposed construction on 400-plus homes will cause traffic problems and environmental damage in their own neighborhood and beyond.

“(Bexar County representatives) told us that they did a study in 2006 and Boerne Stage can handle up to five more large sub-divisions,” says Brown. “We always thought they’d widen the road to four lanes, but they told us at the meeting that they can’t do that because it’s a historic road. I think they figure they’ll overrun it with cars and let people get mad and then they can destroy it anyway.”

As more and more neighborhoods tackle sprawl issues, representatives of the Hill Country Planning Association, a newly formed cadre that includes several Scenic Loop, Grey Forest, and Boerne Stage residents, are making the rounds to homeowner’s meetings in hopes of channeling rising concerns into a viable movement. In summing up the organization’s objectives, member Marlene Richardson says, “We are a consortium of interested parties…who seek to see the last vestiges of green Hill Country within Bexar County, out in this quadrant, that some of it remain Hill Country…There are even some people from Leon Valley who’ve joined us, saying ‘we don’t want the Hill Country to become what we’ve become.’”

Richardson, a historian, appears optimistic about the future as she recounts an earlier fight against a proposed section of HWY 211 that would have run from IH-35 through Fair Oaks and ranch lands to the west. “It was planned to be an outer Loop 1604. I used to be a producer at KLRN, and we did a story related to it. (The landowners) were very successful, “ she says, adding that she thinks residents are poised and eager to take action again. “Most of the people who moved out here did so because of the peace and quiet…and now they are finding that they have traffic jams.”

Mind you, it’s not just long-timers who are concerned about the area’s future.

“I’m not against growth. Heck, we wouldn’t have our home without this new growth,” says Walnut Pass resident Nate Barber, who relocated to Leon Springs from sprawl-infested Orange County, California two years ago. Although he personally isn’t involved with any anti-sprawl efforts, he fears that Boerne Stage will become another congested Stone Oak Parkway if action isn’t taken soon. “I’m as guilty as any developer. I didn’t build a big development, but I bought a home in one!” says Barber. ”Now that we’re here, however, I’d like to try to keep some of the aesthetic that drew us here.”

“We had a man at our last meeting who lived in one of the newer subdivisions,” says local historian and HCPA member Charlotte Kahl. “He stood up and said that he felt that he was part of the problem, but he wanted to part of the solution. I thought that was great; it’s what we need. Everyone to get involved.”

Like Richardson, Kahl sees hope for the future rooted in the past. Through her work organizing the upcoming Old Spanish Trail (OST) Centennial Celebration, she’s delved deep into Boerne Stage Road history. In the early twentieth century, Boerne Stage was known as the “Headquarters Section” of the OST, an auto highway that extended from St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego. Kahl says that what worked along Boerne Stage, from citizen’s efforts to persuade local and national politicians to support it to the types of roadside signs selected, was duplicated nationwide. Today, Kahl says, “Beyond the retail stores and subdivisions, we have a short section of Boerne Stage that gives us a glimpse of meandering auto highways of the past.” For Kahl and others, that historical stretch is worth a fight to preserve its character and integrity today. More than that, the very grassroots manner in which OST founders created the road serves to inspire.

Of course, whether or not contemporary activists can pull together successfully to preserve Boerne Stage’s essence and aesthetics for future generations remains to be seen. After all, while no one ever claims to be openly “pro-sprawl,” stopping unchecked, unplanned growth is neither an inexpensive nor quick endeavor. Some property owners, more concerned with capitalizing on developers’ interests than leaving a legacy of intangibles, may be hesitant to see construction restrictions enacted. Even Richardson laments that “a lot of these new efforts should have taken place over two years ago. It may be too late in some instances.” And then there is the insidious nature of the beast, one that is fed by greedy speculators, misinformation, politics and knotted red tape.

Yet by articulating their concerns and building coalitions, area citizens are taking the first steps that might motivate more folks to get involved. They also have begun the difficult work of explaining why protecting the area’s ambiance is important to all residents, even newcomers. It’s enough to make one wonder if a crop of “Save Boerne Stage” signs and bumper stickers, reminiscent of the “Save Scenic Loop” signage of recent memory, might pop up soon.

That’s one sign Crystal Brown might be pleased to see.

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