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Newsmonger: The loophole that keeps on giving, Exoneration Commission

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Last Friday about 20 activists with Southwest Workers Union protested outside downtown's One Alamo Center, which houses the Canadian consulate offices in San Antonio. The protest was part of a nationwide action led by the Idle No More movement, which is fighting against damage to land and water in indigenous communities. The group continues to oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline, which, if approved by the Obama Administration, would carry Canadian tar sands to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The loophole that keeps on giving

Last week the city's Planning Commission green-lighted more dense development over the Edwards Aquifer's environmentally sensitive recharge zone, a porous slice of geology where our main source of drinking water gets replenished with each rainfall. The landowner did so with the help of a loophole developers wrote into the city's aquifer protection ordinance nearly two decades ago.

Morgan's Wonderland and San Antonio Scorpions founder Gordon Hartman plans to build Wortham Oaks, a 527-acre, 1,493-home subdivision, over the recharge zone on the far North Side. The site, currently an expanse of grassland, mesquite and oak trees, is also home to five natural caves that environmentalists say feed directly into the aquifer. Neighbors worry the land may contain habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, and caves, home to other endangered species.

Once completed, Hartman's development will have 20 sections with as many as three homes per acre, along with two Judson ISD schools.

Cheered by environmental groups, the city passed its aquifer protection plan in 1995, which sought to stem dense development over the recharge zone by capping how much land could be covered in buildings and paved roadway. The ordinance set the cap at 15 percent.

"The studies show a relationship between impervious cover and water quality," said Edwards Aquifer Authority board member Enrique Valdivia. Over 15 percent, he said, you start to see water quality problems – either from tainted roadway runoff, spilled motor oils, lawn fertilizers, or San Antonio's woefully common sewage spills. "15 percent seems to be the tipping point that's been identified."

Hartman's subdivision, however, plans for impervious cover of over 40 percent. At the Planning Commission meeting last week, Hartman attorney and prominent local lobbyist Ken Brown argued the subdivision is exempt from the strict limits, having inherited vested rights from the Century Oaks development, plans for which were filed with the San Antonio Water System, which is tasked with enforcing the city's impervious cover cap, before the aquifer protection plan passed.

Dial back to 1995 to see why Hartman's property, and many more like it, has been exempted. Pape-Dawson Engineers, which coincidentally have done much of the environmental work for Hartman's subdivision, filed preliminary plans for the land right before the 1995 ordinance went into effect, thus grandfathering the site (those opposed to the development argue the current project strays too far from the original plans and shouldn't be grandfathered). Gene Dawson Jr., the firm's president, co-chaired the city committee tasked with drafting the ordinance. Then-VP Stephen Kacmar also sat on the committee. And while council imposed a moratorium that banned filing development plans in the months before the new aquifer protection rules passed, Pape-Dawson exploited a loophole the firm itself helped create – the moratorium didn't explicitly ban filing so-called preliminary master plans.

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