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

ARCHIVE

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.

Open Book

By Pamela Price
Contributing writer, The Hill Country View

For some of us, it may be difficult to imagine folks developing a strong sense of community around such a humble thing as building a schoolhouse.

Yet in the 1880s, led by three ranchers named Max Aue, Arthur Blinker and H.W. Toepperwein, early Leon Springs residents did precisely that. Motivated by a desire to provide their children with a proper education, several families pulled together to raise funds for the new building, which opened in 1881. Over the next century, the original school would be replaced several times due to fires and changing needs. In the meantime, the school served as a catalyst for social interaction (weekend Bunco parties were popular at one point) and spurred the creation of other entities, including Leon Springs Presbyterian Church and Northside Independent School District.

One might argue that the history of the school and the community are one and the same. Now, thanks to the efforts of administrators, local historians and long-time residents, current Leon Springs Elementary (LSE) students have the opportunity to learn and celebrate their educational heritage.

The LSE History Project came about two years ago, when principal Kathy Dodge-Clay attended an NISD meeting regarding the district’s new museum, now situated on Bandera Road in Leon Valley.

“We were asked to select one or two individuals that we felt would be able to write our school’s history, as well as put together a collection of artifacts (for the district’s museum),” said Dodge-Clay. “I knew that Lou Ann Horne was a walking, talking encyclopedia regarding the history of the Leon Springs community.”

At the time, Horne, a recently retired educator, served as a volunteer tutor. She vividly recalls Dodge-Clay flagging her down in the LSE hallway and presenting her with the idea.

“NISD wanted to set up a museum that would hold a lot of memorabilia and be a top-notch field trip destination for the district, especially for fifth grade social studies classes,” said Horne, who leapt at the opportunity to become the Leon Springs school’s official, albeit voluntary, historian and curator. She soon initiated contact with alumni and other long-time residents who could provide first-hand accounts of the school’s history.

From mundane to charming, the stories Horne collected reveal a great deal about Leon Springs before HEB and Starbucks arrived, and they offer much more than a glimpse into school life. There are descriptions of myriad, everyday activities, including playing marbles, bathing in the area’s springs with Life Buoy soap, surviving hard times and interacting with soldiers at Camp Stanley.

“We have former students from as far back as the 1920s,” said Horne. “We collected stories and photographs and placed them in large scrapbooks that are housed in the school’s library. We also have a complete history on the web site that runs up until 1990.”

In addition to the on-campus archive and Web presence, there is a project CD, too. Anyone may access the Web site, and all of the materials are available for on-site classroom use.

“I think the relevance of this project is that it gives our students a great deal of pride to know the history of their school,” said Dodge-Clay. “It allows them to develop a sense of community pride and greater appreciation of the history of the school. We have a deep rooted history of family and education on this piece of land.”

Currently, Horne is drafting a history of the 1990s. The era is particularly rich with information not only because memories are fresh, but because of a particular crafting craze. “We have so much to work with, thanks to school secretaries and PTA members who kept scrapbooks during that time,” said Horne.

According to Dodge-Clay, a former school secretary named Marcia Merrit created the original, comprehensive archival scrapbooks to which Horne added what she collected. For now, the books will remain in the school’s library.

However, as the NISD school museum was the impetus for the expanded history project, it is plausible they may be moved off-site.

“The scrapbooks will remain in our library for the time being but may eventually be archived with the museum association (in Leon Valley), “ said Dodge-Clay. “This is only the second year of this project and therefore we are still in the process of writing policies and procedures.” Patricia Blattman, NISD school museum association president, concurred with Dodge-Clay, saying that it is premature to state definitively where archival materials will end up.

“We just got our building,” said Blattman, “and we have begun the process of sorting through material that we have already received, distributing copies of pictures and other materials back to specific campuses. It is my hope that all (archival) information will be equally found at the campus and museum levels. Because the museum is dedicated to the bigger picture of the entire district, I suspect individual schools will likely have their own historical displays.”

“It is our intention that all (LSE history project) materials be made available to interested parties,” said Dodge-Clay, who welcomes the opportunity to share information with the new Julia Newton Aue Elementary when it opens this fall.

“We will be happy to share our knowledge of the area as well as our historical keepsakes with (Aue). We certainly do share a common heritage in this area. I’m sure that Mrs. Horne will be happy to share her knowledge of the area with Aue staff, once they are in place.”

One suspects that Max Aue and his 1880s cohort, together with their generations of successors, would be eager to see that happen, too.

The Call of the Ride

By Pamela Price
Contributing writer, The Hill Country View

On a pretty morning, they pop up like wildflowers. Some appear en masse, others take the road alone, yet each rider is compelled to ditch Saturday chores and errands in favor of the spoke and the wheel. One might dub it the “call of the ride,” that strange force that urges busy professionals to hit the road on a bike or motorcycle. Whatever you call it, for true believers, the drive to traverse the Hill Country on two wheels is visceral.

“It’s just a great way, after spending a week indoors at work, to be outside…in the fresh air” says Carolyn Pickard, a bank professional and an active member of the Texas Hill Country Harley Owner’s Group. “You can appreciate the beautiful area around San Antonio, where you can ride year ‘round.” There’s the companionship, too, of the group rides. “That combination of the wind and the sun on your face and being with your friends,” Pickard sighs, ”Well, it’s just wonderful.”

Cyclist Patrick Moore agrees, to a point. He sees a distinct advantage in pedaling versus revving an engine.

“It’s definitely a body, mind and soul experience. You are improving yourself, getting in touch with nature, and you get a better appreciation for what we have around us,” says Moore, an orthodontist who rides with Valero Energy Corporation’s Velo Valero cycling team. “To me, we’ve all driven through the Hill Country in a car, but you miss a lot that way. On a bicycle, you go at a slower pace and are more involved with nature than when you are going 60 mph…It’s more spiritual, riding in the open air. It’s meditative. You experience a response to nature and you focus on concentrating on the open road. It’s exercise, but you aren’t working so hard that you are laboring.”

Curiously, as one chats with area cyclists and bikers, the similarities become more striking than the differences. First, there’s the wide-eyed enthusiasm both groups share for their sport. Next, there’s the language. Ask a biker or cyclist what compels them to devote their spare time to the open road and the conversation revs up with words like “freedom,” “fresh air” and “exhilaration”. Poke around the Internet and you’ll even see both groups lay claim to the word “cycletherapy”, a term meant to convey the cathartic effects of a good ride.

“If you’ve never ridden, you can’t really explain it,” says Catherine Chastaine, a nurse practitioner and Harley-Davidson enthusiast. “When I ride, we’re in groups. You’re connected with other people but in your own little world at the same time…free to think about, or not think about, whatever you want. You can go fast, go slow…whatever you want to do. It helps you de-stress, I guess, like maybe someone who practices yoga.”

And then there’s the desire to connect to with others and contribute to the greater good. From diabetes research to veteran’s groups, a number of local and national charities rely on bikers and cyclists to generate funds through group rides and races.

“Being a member of Velo Valero team is a great way to not only meet good people and enjoy the outdoors, but to give back to the community,” says Valero’s chairman and CEO Bill Klesse. He personally made the switch from mountain to road biking last year in preparation for the two-day, 150-mile Valero MS 150 Bike to the Beach. Klesse appreciates the fact that his company’s team includes not only employees but also family, friends and business associates. “The team is very organized,” Klesse says, “[and it] has great training rides and offers support to new and experienced riders.”

For cyclists and bikers, dealers and private riding clubs provide basic and advanced training classes and workshops. The makeup of these courses increasingly reflects a new demographic. “Women are definitely more out there on the road,” observes Nikki Lynch, owner of Nikki’s Bicycleworks in Boerne. “Men tend to be more competitive, more hardcore. Women ride because they like it.” The media buzz around Austinite Lance Armstrong’s multiple Tour de France wins has attracted new cyclists of both sexes.
“When I moved here from Golden, Colorado in ’85, I had intentions to open up a bicycle shop,” says Lynch. “But it just wasn’t as cycle friendly here then, so I got cold feet.” Then came Lance, cycling took off, and last year Lynch launched her own business in Boerne with a lease from Britton’s Bicycle Shop. “I think Lance has made a big, big difference,” says Lynch.

Hype has helped the motorcycle business, too. “When the chopper shows came out on Discovery and other channels,” says Javelina Harley-Davidson’s Tony Fernandez, “everyone wanted one. Females are really attracted to the sport, with the hot demographic being the 22 to 54-year olds. But my nieces knew the Harley bar and shield [logo] when they were 3. It’s like McDonald’s; it’s easy to recognize. And a bike is just part of the lifestyle, one of freedom and pride. And that appeals to everyone.”

With interest surging in both sports, one cannot help but wonder if the riders ever wonder what the view is like over the other set of handlebars.

“I’ve ridden a bicycle before, about five miles or so at a time,” says Chastaine. “I enjoyed it, but it’s not the same. It’s more stressful on my body. I enjoy having the machine move me along.”

“I’m a Harley wannabe,” Lynch confesses with a chuckle. “I don’t know that I’ll ever own one, but I want one. It’s like riding a bike, I think, the sense of freedom, enjoying a gorgeous day. You do have to watch out for the bugs in the teeth though, I suppose.”

“You know, it’s funny, but we seem to operate in different worlds,” observes Javelina’s Fernandez. “We see ‘em riding past us all the time, and occasionally [a cyclist] will come in and look around. We’re always looking for groups to partner with on charity events and blood drives. If a bicycle group were interested in doing something together, we might try it sometime. You never know.”

Sounds like an unusual match, but one certainly made for the open road.

Putting Their Best Faith Forward

By Pamela Price
Contributing writer, The Hill Country View

Two years ago, hoping to revive a dwindling congregation, new pastor Dan Allen encouraged his Leon Springs Baptist Church flock to think of innovative ways to reach out to the community. In response, Rebecca Muegge, a longtime cyclist, and her husband, Frank, pitched a novel idea to Allen: a twice-monthly breakfast for weekend riders.

“We’d always parked at the church to ride Boerne Stage Road, and it just seemed like a good notion—to offer cyclists a place to park, some coffee and a little bit of food,” says Rebecca. “Frank thought of the name, ‘Bike and Brunch.’ We typed up an outline [for Allen], and he approved it. We started out with a more elaborate sit-down meal but found it was better to have something simple near the road, so we bought a tent and gave out hummus, orange juice, water and muffins.”

“People come and go, in small groups, and we just talk with them,” says Frank. “It’s a nice way to meet new people.”

This type of no- or low-pressure outreach is increasingly typical of local churches seeking to capitalize on the area’s rapid growth by serving the community first, proselytizing second. Especially visible of late have been the activities of Leon Springs Baptist and Cross Mountain Church, both situated on Boerne Stage Road—the Main Street of Leon Springs, if you will.

Even strictly secular activities are regarded as an opportunity to connect with the community. Allen reports that when local officials approached him about setting up election polls inside his facility, he eagerly agreed, hoping that voters would take closer notice of the church’s activities once on the grounds. Borrowing from the Book of Matthew, he says pointedly—and repeatedly–of his church’s outreach approach, “I like to say, ‘Let them see our good works before they hear our good words.”

Allen’s tactics have paid off, with weekly attendance having almost tripled within the last two years. The church continues to explore new outreach initiatives. In fact, the church’s innovative “Bags of Blessings” program—for which members offered prayers for homeowners along with cookies, pasta, bread and other goodies just prior to Thanksgiving—was so well received that other San Antonio churches reportedly plan to copy it.

“We learned a lot from the Bags of Blessings program,” says Erik Kuykendall, Allen’s associate pastor. “Every house has its issues—cancer, divorce, loneliness—everyone needs prayer. It was a reaffirmation that we all face challenges, no matter how wealthy we are.”

Jerry McNeil, reaching and missions pastor of Cross Mountain Church, regards the area’s affluence as both an obstacle and an opportunity when it comes to outreach.

“How do I help those people in the Dominion know that there’s a God that can help them, and the experience is something that they just can’t buy?” says McNeil. To answer his own question, he pulls out a small card bearing the phrase “This is a simple way of saying that God loves you.” “We distribute these to our people and encourage them to just do something simple, like pay for the next person behind them in line at Starbucks or to buy them lunch. You don’t really even have to say anything, just hand the card over. I’ve done it so much that the Starbucks counter staff knows to just go ahead and take the next person’s order because I’m paying for it.”

In keeping with the spirit of random kindness, McNeil oversees the delivery of buckets filled with cleaning supplies to homeowners in the newest subdivisions. And while MapQuest may lag behind in cataloguing new streets, McNeil has a firm grasp on the changing landscape. “I work with the developers’ offices and have maps of each subdivision,” he says. “I know when a house is finished and about to be moved into. Then, at the start of the month, we send people out to leave the buckets on doorsteps as people move in.”

In assuming the traditional role of community welcome wagon, McNeil ensures that his organization is top-of-mind as a resource for newcomers. Moreover, he is ever ready to discuss the many events and services that his church makes available for the community-at-large, including an annual Easter egg hunt, faith-based counseling, and monthly Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) meetings. Cross Mountain also makes its facility available to nascent civic organizations such as the Walnut Pass Homeowners Association. Yet the community initiative for which the church is most well known, however, is the annual harvest festival, held on October 31.

“We had over a thousand people here last year,” says McNeil. “It’s a safe, free alternative to Halloween, and lots of children come in costume. We have people dressed as cartoon characters and really go out of our way to make sure everyone in the community knows that they are welcome.”

It may be argued that in a suburban area with no civic center, no discernible annual community events, and a dearth of social service organizations, local churches are making the most of the opportunity to be social hubs. As a famous sociologist once noted, it’s no accident that the root of “communion” and “community” are one and the same.

Yet the local pastors demure from those high-falutin’, secular notions, redirecting the conversation ultimately to their true mission: saving souls. And in the end, faith—not hot coffee or free housekeeping supplies—is the biggest draw for true believers.

“We appreciate that [Allen] is following God’s lead in opening up the church and letting the fresh air in,” says Rebecca Muegge. “He wants us to bounce new ideas off of him, and, say, if we wanted to do outreach with go-go dancers, well, he’s definitely not going to allow that to happen! It all comes back to doing what is in keeping with God’s word.”

Stitched Together Suburban quilt store crafts a sense of community

By Pamela Price
Contributing writer, The Hill Country View

Surrounded by a Quizno’s, a package store and a saddlery, the Sew Special Quilts storefront suggests it’s just one more small business, one of several that comprise The Market at Boerne Stage. Yet walk through the front door, past the colorful fabric and sewing machines, and you will discover at the back of the shop a bright, cheerful classroom that buzzes with folks seeking something more than batting and bobbins. You see, in an expanding sea of subdivisions, traffic lights and fast food joints, a lot of people come to this hidden room to create and connect with others through various classes and activities.

“I think women in general have a need to be creative. Quilting gives us that outlet through choices in color and texture,” said shopkeeper Laurie Mangold. “We also have a need to commune and share. The classes help fulfill that need.”

According to Mangold, there are two independent groups, or bees, that use the classroom regularly. The shop also sponsors embroidery and sewing clubs as well as regular quilting classes. And beginners are welcome.

“In our $5 Quilt Class, everyone is a stranger at the start,” said Mangold. “But by the fourth class, I can’t get people to stop talking. Before you know it, they’re going to Starbucks before or after class. One of the women in a recent class just found out she’s having twins and that got everyone talking and offering advice. It’s more than just a place to learn, it’s a place to have fun.”

Long-time customer Algine Perry got hooked on the $5 Quilt Class a few years back.

“Every month you get a package and can put together a block,” Perry said. “At the end of the series, you can put together a whole quilt. The monthly class is a wonderful time for people who don’t know how to quilt to learn…and the store and its classes offer a nice sense of fellowship.”

“My husband calls the store “Cheers for women”,” said Mangold. “We don’t drink, but we come together with common interests and come to appreciate one another.”

Mangold sees a rise in the number of quilters in lock step with Leon Springs’ rapid growth.

“We see little community groups forming all the time in the area,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many women who, when they first move somewhere new, look for a quilt shop to visit, maybe even before they pick a church. Every church can be so different, but most quilt shops are pretty similar and it’s easy to get acquainted with people. I know one woman who moved here recently whose own daughter threatened to drive her to our shop personally if she didn’t get here on her own before last Christmas.”

While Mangold concedes that most of her customers are women, she is quick to add that there is no “typical” quilter.

“I’ve taught people—of both sexes—from ages seven to over seventy,” she said. “And, yes, we occasionally have a man in the classes.”

“I have a twenty-year-old son,” said Lenora Daly, another store regular, “and he started quilting about eight years ago. He’s made four of those fringe-y quilts for girlfriends. I joke that before he gets married half of the girls in Boerne will have a quilt from him.”

“My perception when I was younger was that quilting was only for older women,” said Perry, whose adult son recently took up sewing. “I think there are a lot of young people [quilting] today who never would have tried [it] before.”

Mangold credits quilting’s initial appeal to most of her customers with a desire to leave a legacy to family and friends.

“I made my first quilt when I was pregnant with my first son, over forty years ago,” said Daly. “I finally put it together and finished it just a few years ago, to give to my grandchild. I guess you could say that I came full circle with that one!”

In addition to helping her customers create family heirlooms, Mangold helps quilters find simple but useful ways of volunteering their skills in service to the community.

“We try to undertake some sort of project at the end of each year. Once, we made lap quilts for chemotherapy patients,” said Mangold. “We open up the project to anyone who is willing to come work.”

Last December, twenty quilters made 150 pairs of colorful pajama bottoms for St. Joseph’s Children’s Home in just a few days. During the project, the classroom was filled with laughter and activity as each participant dedicated herself to one or more tasks, including cutting, piecing, sewing, ironing, and folding. For all of the labor, the room took on a festive air as the quilters shared their work, caught up with old friends, made a few new ones, and enjoyed a bounty of cold cuts and other snacks.

“I think it’s awfully nice of Laurie to arrange [this service project],” said Perry, who was one of the volunteers. “And she donates, too, the machines, the thread and a lot of the fabric, too.”

“Almost all of the sewing guilds are making things for others in the community,” said Mangold. “There are women making quilts for our returning servicemen. We make quilts at my church for Meadowland [Residential Treatment] in Boerne. People ask me all the time ‘When do you stop? When do you run out of quilts to make?’ And I say there are always people who need to be comforted.”

There seems to be no shortage of women willing to help comfort, especially when the rewards are so immediate.

“Women who like to sew like to be around fabrics…and we enjoy the fellowship of a special project, too” said Perry, with a chuckle. “So pretty much anything that goes to a good cause, we’ll do.”