HCPA Master Plan

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This is a 2007 story that appeared in the now-defunct Hill Country View. It was part of sprawl-themed series.

HCPA Master Plan is Purposely Vague

Story by Pamela Price 

Into the region’s rising encroachment debate comes a new local association hoping to take an active role in curbing uncontrolled growth along the Boerne Stage Road/Scenic Loop corridor.

The Hill Country Planning Association, an umbrella group for several Northwest Bexar County organizations, recently completed a two-page “Citizen’s Master Plan” articulating the membership’s concerns. The document itself is more of a broad call-to-action than a detailed, comprehensive master plan, however. And that’s no accident.

“Too detailed a document will get us bogged down,” observed HCPA secretary Susan Beavin at the association’s May meeting. Although brief, the plan contains a summary of the usual concerns: a desire to preserve the eco-system, protect vestiges of the area’s rich historical and cultural heritage, maintain water quality and supply, and keep the night sky clear and visible.

What marks the plan as especially noteworthy, however, is its demand for a immediate moratorium on further northwest Bexar County development pending a comprehensive environmental impact study and a thorough going-over of all relevant federal, state and local laws to ensure compliance.

“Laws exist to protect (the environment),” said HCPA member Bebe Fenstermaker at the May meeting. “The Endangered Species Act is absolutely being ignored in Bexar County. We’re losing the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s habitat. And anyone who drinks water in San Antonio should be concerned about the pressure further development on top of the Edwards Aquifer. I think (this plan) can spread across the Hill Country.”

First, of course, HCPA members have to build the case closer to home. This summer, leaders are taking the plan to various stakeholders, including neighborhood associations, inviting them to literally sign on the dotted line in show of support. And, of course, the group plans to take the document and supporting materials to any and all relevant area politicians.

Or, in the words of Fenstermaker, “We’re going to take it to anybody that ought to see it.”

“Almost a year ago, when the issue with the sewers came up, we decided to pull together all of the different groups concerned with these issues,” said HCPA president Jen Nottingham, referring to a brouhaha that broke out following San Antonio Water Systems’ decision to lay new water and sewer lines in the corridor. Organizers say that when one local landowner called SAWS to query why water and sewage were needed on roads along which most homeowners had wells and septic systems, the reported response was that “the developers need it.”

Now, if you are up on your local lore, then you know that the term “maverick” derives from nineteenth-century Boerne Stage Road landowner Samuel Maverick, who went against the mainstream grain by refusing to brand his cattle. That legacy of unorthodox, independent-mindedness is alive and well throughout the corridor, having manifested itself on a couple of occasions with pitched battles over eminent domain in the twentieth century.

This means, of course, that SAWS stirred up a proverbial hornet’s nest in putting the concerns of would-be developers over longstanding residents.

It’s also no secret that, in Texas, the only real control on growth in unincorporated areas is the absence of water and sewer lines. Once they’re in place, development can proceed largely unencumbered. Aware of this fact and realizing that the best offense against sprawl is a united front, HCPA founders decided to take action, pulling together a diverse cadre of historical and environmental groups rooted in the Boerne Stage/Scenic Loop corridor. Many of the folks whom SAWS angered were among the citizens who successfully and famously fought Wal-Mart’s recent endeavor to set up shop on Scenic Loop in Helotes. Several of HCPA’s founders are articulate, experienced activists.

“We’re under siege out here from out-ot-town, urban-sprawl developers. They’ve been given the signal [by legislators] that Texas is for sale to cheap builders who want to sell cheap, unsustainable houses to young, stressed out people. And the legislature has grandfathering laws or variances to water protection that make it more and more difficult for citizens to protect [the environment]. Citizens don’t have the power they used to have,” said HCPA member Myfe Moore. “Everybody out here wants new neighbors, but we also want thoughtful, controlled growth for maximum quality of life.”

“You have to remember that the significance of [the Boerne Stage/Scenic Loop corridor] goes back to the 1920s and ‘30s, when the road was a touring loop for San Antonians. It was a Sunday drive,” said Nottingham, a Grey Forest native and city councilwoman.

According to Nottingham, conflict over whether the area should remain authentic and largely undeveloped first broke out in the 1980s, when citizens came together to stop the roadway from being widened. Out of that battle came a master plan developed by long-time Grey Forest activists Ed and Irene Scharf. “I give [the Scharfs] all the credit in the world for starting the plan. There were many, many drafts over a good ten years. Then last year, we decided to [complete it],” said Nottingham. “Now we’re in the process of reaching out to more groups. We’re looking for endorsement. We want groups to join us. We want to create a block of voters.People emotionally and philosophically support the [plan’s] notion. But we need people who want to be active, not just sign a letter and go on.”

Nottingham appreciates the difficulties ahead, especially as HCPA encounters independent-minded landowners who don’t want anyone telling them what to do with their property. “People have huge tracts of land and see millions of dollars in their bank accounts. I personally know people who’ve sold to developers standing on their doorstep and moved further out. But how many people can move to Comfort or to Boerne before Boerne becomes like San Antonio?” she said.

“It’s not that we’re saying no more growth,” said member Charlotte Kahl. “It’s just that we want to keep it closer to the interstate, so we can keep the local character alive.”

“We need to understand that we have to preserve a percentage of open space,” said Nottingham. “So, when we do build a subdivision, we need green spaces included. We should have things like convenience stores, schools and such at the center of the subdivision. Make it all walkable. We need smaller, well-planned neighborhoods and VIA bus transit out here to control the traffic. We need to give some thought and do some planning, something similar to City South [a comprehensive community plan based on sustainable growth principles]. What we have here [in northwest Bexar County] is a precious ecosystem. The plains, the Hill Country, plateaus, they all come together here to form a precious ecosystem. We can’t continue to just clear tops of hills because someone wants to build a big house.”

Members are optimistic that the plan will gain traction. “I think the tide is turning, people seems to want to be more responsible. There’s a spurt of enthusiasm among those of us who’ve been working on this kind of thing for awhile,” said Moore. “We just need to stop building until the infrastructure can catch up. We need to stop long enough so that when we do build, on a stressed out area, we do it carefully, like you would if you were sunburned and had to shave. Right now, I think of this area as having serious sunburn.”

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