This is my attempt, as chair of the City’s Zoning Commission, to address some misconceptions and misinformation regarding two recent highly contested cases in the city, specifically the hair salon case in Mahncke Park in District 2 and the 36-arce “downzoning” case in District 8.
Observations made by Gilbert Garcia in his column in the San Antonio Express-News regarding the Zoning Commissions’ “mixed messages about preserving neighborhood integrity” were elementary and naïve, at best, especially since important facts discussed during the hearings were not mentioned. Since these cases were heard on the same day, they have been compared out of context and discussed within numerous communities yielding a variety of perspectives.
Considering their complexities and their respective mechanisms of impact on the city, both cases were challenging for the Commission. We try collectively to do the right thing in all of our cases and take all aspects into consideration, which often times does not please all parties. The role of the Zoning Commisson is to listen to communities, take staff recommendations into consideration, think about the future of the City and understand the history of the case, all while understanding land use patterns and successful precedents.
When the media publishes interpretations of these commission decisions and those of City Council without proper facts, this creates a dangerous forum and results in miscommunication of information for individuals and businesses looking to work with the City on their own properties.
The Zoning Commission voted unanimously on denial for the conditional, commercial use of an historic home as a hair salon at 143 Perry Ct. The main issue the Commission had with this case was the process as well as land use. The property owner purchased the property with the current zoning of residential, invested in the property, opened a business and then tried to change his zoning to fit his needs. If this case were to be approved by zoning, it would set a negative precedent for other small business owners to disregard their community’s input, respective neighborhood plans and citywide zoning requirements of purchased property.
A majority of the Commissioners applauded the efforts of the property owner restoring the old house within the city but stood in support of maintaining the current zoning. It is important to acknowledge that the house was on the market for 417 days before it was purchased and restored. Either no one wanted to invest in a residential property “sandwiched” between multifamily structures or take the risk purchasing the property, earning the community support and converting into a residential with a commercial use designation. The applicant took the risk, while not understanding the process and thus, failed.
The Zoning Commission voted 8-2 with the recommendation of denial with one commissioner abstaining from the District 8 “downzoning” case. The Commission had issues with the process and the proposed land use as well as potential legal considerations. Concerns that surfaced, questioned whether the case was considered a “taking” and whether notice of the rezoning was legitimate with sufficient notice.
In my opinion, the proper forum in which to answer these questions is a courtroom, not a zoning or council meeting. The current zoning designation on this property was properly negotiated with the community and strict covenants were placed on this property as an MF-33 prior to the current rezoning request. The prior applicant followed the proper zoning process and had the modified zoning designation approved by City Council. The city as the applicant did meet with residents in the surrounding communities, yet limited the amount of input, if any, with the property owner. Under the Unified Development Code, the city is able apply for a rezoning as an applicant and does not require consent or input from the property owner.
Majority of the arguments in favor of the rezoning addressed congestion and density in the area. This seems to be a transportation and infrastructure concern not land use. “Downzoning” this property would unfairly imply that this tract of land would result in solving the congestion and density issues through the respective corridor which is not the case. Following this logic would also suggest “down-zoning” is the answer to other parts of the city that suffers from the same congestion and density issues.
Approving this case would also similarly set another negative precedent by allowing the City to trump both the community negotiations and the process that the city established. If approved, this case would also send an extremely negative message to the business community throughout the city thus creating the potential for adverse effects on new land use investments; as a city, we are constantly looking for enthusiastic San Antonio investors. In other words, allowing the re-zoning could send a message that a property could be rezoned by the City without an owner’s input. While there are moments in which this practice may be appropriate for the betterment of the community, the majority of the Commission did not believe that the applicant was properly notified and/or a compelling interest was not shown justify the change. Approving this re-zoning would create hesitation for investors, banks and lenders due to the element of uncertainty when purchasing property as a commercial investment.
Despite the fact that the Commission’s decisions did not align with the City zoning staff’s recommendations on both cases, the staff was well prepared and provided insight to support their recommendations. City staff is responsible for facilitating the process and presenting a recommendation to the Commission and City Council, a recommendation that often times is not followed. In both cases, they were confronted with adversity but handled the situation with the utmost professionalism.
Top image: A full house at the Zoning Commission meeting on April 19 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.