Bexar County Commissioners Court approved a plan Tuesday to use County funds for critical roadway repairs in unincorporated areas, including Highland Oaks where road conditions had become so abysmal, it had become a quality of life issue.
Highland Oaks, a small community about 23 miles south of downtown San Antonio, has struggled with crime, health, safety and transportation issues since its development more than 20 years ago. About 30 members of Bexar Communities Organized-Area South (BOCAS), the newest institutional member of the umbrella advocacy organization COPS/Metro Alliance, attended the County meeting on Tuesday to advocate for approval of what could be $2.5 million in repairs.
But that figure, according to officials, is more of placeholder than an estimate. Once a more complete need assessment is made, more concrete numbers will surface.
The developer for Highland Oaks, who has since passed away, promised the County and area residents that the subdivision would receive roads and basic City services. To date, neither of those promises have been met. In 2010, County commissioners approved the Public Works Department’s authority to require warranty bonds from developers, to ensure that residents and the County saw a return on their investments.
“The rules exist for us to keep this from happening again,” said Renee Green, director of Bexar County Public Works. “Now we’re looking back at the subdivisions that were platted before those rules were established.”
Highland Oaks would be the first priority because it has the most “improved lots,” or land parcels that were previously vacant but have since experienced development, of any other unincorporated subdivisions in Bexar County.
At the beginning of every fiscal year, the County Commissioners would vote to approve funding to develop paved roads for another subdivision, Green said, adding that it would take between 10 and 15 years to complete all unpaved roads in qualifying subdivisions.
Construction for all roads in the Highland Oaks subdivision will take two years to complete, he said and the cost could be absorbed by the County’s existing budget. However, the diverted funds would mean less money for other capital improvement projects. County commissioners expect to be briefed on the program, which would use funds from the next fiscal year, as early as October 1.
Azeneth de la Fuente, who has lived in the Highland Oaks area for the last 15 years, told the court that the roads have been a problem since she was in high school.
“As a parent now, I understand why my mom worried about me every single day while walking to the bus stop and back home,” de la Fuente said, adding that most Highland residents were still waiting on basic services like water and trash pick up.
Last month, de la Fuente’s youngest daughter sustained second degree burns after spilling scalding hot water on herself during an attempt to make hot cocoa. As a medical assistant at University Health System, de la Fuente knew that emergency services should arrive within nine minutes of a 911 call. However, without lights, street signs or paved roads, it took the ambulance more than 25 minutes to arrive.
“What’s it going to take? Is it going to take a death to change things?” said Simon Martinez, a BOCAS supporter. “It just gets worse and worse.”
Subdivisions like Highland Oaks, which were considered “privately owned” and ineligible for County funds in the past, but several commissioners argued this was a County-related health and safety issue.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who had to leave early on Tuesday for a previously scheduled engagement, told the group in January that the County would work on behalf of Highland Oaks and similar neighborhoods that were struggling with quality-of-life issues.
Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez (Pct. 1) asked the other commissioners to pass the measure in favor of the residents, who have been suffering for years. Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said that the residents may not be living within Bexar County, but they pay taxes and deserve to reap the benefits of the County.
Commissioner Kevin Wolff was the only vote against the measure, but added that he was open to a special loan program to help residents.
“Public safety is very important,” Elizondo told the BOCAS crowd. The hard-nosed approach would be telling residents it was their fault for buying homes without streets already built, Elizondo said, but it was important to help families move forward.
“Nothing is free,” he added before asking Green to explore possible-cost benefits for the County’s investment in the roads.
Following the vote, the group members gathered outside the courtroom to discuss the progress that had been made that day.
“This is just the beginning,” said COPS/Metro Lead Organizer Jorge Montiel, who spoke to the group in both English and Spanish. He recognized organizations like Daughters of Charity, and the individual residents like Fernando Gutierrez, who have been fighting for years to get paved roads for the subdivision.
“It was because of you that we, our community, won today,” Montiel said.
Several members became visibly emotional, wiping away tears and embracing their neighbors.
“Now is the time,” Gutierrez said. “Now is the time that things are changing.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the relationship between COPS/Metro Alliance and Bexar Communities Organized-Area South. COPS/Metro Alliance, is the umbrella organization for advocacy groups like BCOAS, the one formed specifically for Highland Oaks residents. Jorge Montiel is a lead organizer for COPS/Metro.
Top Image: BOCAS member and Highland Oaks resident Maria Bernal holds her daughter during Commissioner’s Court. Photo by Lea Thompson.