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The City of San Antonio has been on track to become the country’s fifth biggest city with plans to annex five of the fastest-growing unincorporated areas of Bexar County.
But Mayor Ivy Taylor this past week proposed the City move more slowly with annexation and focus energy and resources on service and infrastructure issues inside existing city limits. In an interview with the Rivard Report, she specifically suggested going more slowly on annexation of residential areas the City staff have identified.
Mayor Taylor was reached in Florida after flying there Friday to attend a dinner given in honor of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in St. Augustine, FL, which celebrated its 450th anniversary this month.The brief visit gave the mayor the opportunity to learn more about how the oldest U.S. city established by Europeans organized its celebrations. San Antonio will celebrate its 300th anniversary in May 2018 when Taylor will be preparing for a second full term in office if she seeks and wins re-election.
Taylor’s position on annexation was first outlined in a memo sent Thursday to the City Council and City Manager Sheryl Sculley. It was welcomed by some Council members and by residents in some of the residential areas where anti-annexation sentiment is high.
Local officials have been considering limited purpose annexation of five areas by the end of 2016: along Interstate 10 West and I-10 East, U.S. 281 North, around Alamo Ranch, and U.S. Highway 90/Loop 1604.
If full annexation were to proceed over the next three years, the City would expand its geographic footprint by 66 square miles, and add 200,000 people to the population base. Last month the City’s Department of Planning and Community Development asked the Council to consider six additional areas for limited annexation.
Mayor Taylor told The Rivard Report on Friday that she had been committed to the plan of limited annexing the original five priority areas.
“But with these six additional areas coming into being while older parts of the city are already struggling with service and infrastructure, I felt we should look at slowing things down,” Mayor Taylor said Friday.
Mayor Taylor noted that annexation does allow the City to limit negative growth by using its zoning and ordinance-making authority, which can help control traffic congestion, air quality and other environmental impacts. She also said annexation provides fair representation to area residents who currently pay city sales taxes and use municipally owned utilities.
Even so, San Antonio has more immediate concerns, such as ensuring adequate service levels and quality infrastructure, particularly in older portions of San Antonio, the mayor said.
There also is concern among inner city council members that annexation will dilute the effectiveness of a 2017 bond issue that could total $750 million. From their viewpoint, the larger the city’s geographic footprint, the higher the costs of providing basic services. Public investment in the urban core enhances its livability and attraction to residents and workers, and thus serves to limit sprawl.
The Mayor stated in her memo that annexation may not have the full desired effect on the outcome of targeted areas. Most property in high-growth areas, she noted, is developed, master-planned and/or covered by vested rights and protective covenants restrict land usage in most these residential developments.
That’s why the mayor supports annexing mainly non-residential commercial corridors included in the five priority areas while City staff re-examines costs and benefits of annexing the residential developments in the same areas.
“Annexation will have a limited impact on the form and function of development in these areas, while adding significant new obligations to the (City’s) annual budget and the 2017 bond project schedule,” Taylor stated.
“We really haven’t done the best job of addressing the needs of the inner city,” Taylor later told the Rivard Report.
Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) agreed with Taylor’s assessment. Gonzales has long urged making the inner city’s infrastructure needs a higher priority.
Before the Council adopted the fiscal year 2016 budget, Gonzales lamented the allocation of $1 million for a road project in the fast-growing far-Northside and the inability to fund improvements to the Commerce Street Bridge in her Westside district.
“I’m glad to see it,” Gonzales said of Taylor’s proposal. “My hope is that by not moving so fast on annexation, we can focus more on the existing inner city issues. We have never really done that completely as a city. We’ve always been more concerned about growing outward than on taking care of what’s inside.”
Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), whose district abuts an area along I-10 eyed for annexation and who serves as chairman of Mayor Taylor’s major planning initiative, SA Tomorrow, said the mayor’s proposal deserves consideration.
“Annexation should be measured and cautious,” he said. But what matters more, Nirenberg added, is that the City close loopholes in annexation policy. He recently wrote a memo to City Manager Sheryl Sculley and senior City staff to this effect.
“The action that the Mayor calls for is well advised. How we should proceed is something different. We must look at policies,” Nirenberg said. “For instance, policy for impervious cover in the extraterritorial jurisdiction appears stronger than inside city limits.”
Nirenberg agreed with Taylor that annexation is a useful tool for helping the City keep pace with urban sprawl, especially regarding management of natural resources such as water.
“In my (district), the thing that has been nearly unanimous among people is that we need to protect and advance long-term water supply for San Antonio,” Nirenberg said. “Doing so means paying attention to areas close to the Hill Country, such as the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, and how further development and annexation may affect it.”
Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10) released a press statement reaffirming his position as a “staunch supporter of annexation,” which he says can help the City better control its growth, increase its tax base, and plan for better public safety and quality of life issues. Gallagher supports Taylor’s suggestion to focus this round of annexation on commercial corridors.
“With a good annexation plan in San Antonio, we can adequately prepare, design and implement infrastructure projects and plan for economic development opportunities,” Gallagher stated. “We will also have the ability to guide the quality of growth through the extension of zoning and provide certainty of what can be developed. Through annexation, the City would have a stake in the development process and help prevent problematic growth.”
Taylor said completion of the SA Tomorrow process in 2016 will give San Antonio its first comprehensive growth plan. That, she said, can serve as a guide for future annexation.
“Until that time, it is entirely appropriate for the City of San Antonio to focus our maintenance, programming and capital improvements on the many needs already identified by today’s residents,” she stated in her memo.
Taylor did acknowledge strong opposition in certain targeted areas, such as Alamo Ranch where some residents hope to incorporate as a city.
Richard Cash, chairman of the Committee to Incorporate Alamo Ranch, said San Antonio officials such as Sculley and John Dugan, Planning and Community Development Director, should not characterize residents in the extra-territorial jurisdictions as freeloaders.
Cash said residents in unincorporated areas pay to use City roads through Advanced Transportation District taxes, and City parks through sales taxes. He said many of the same residents enjoy restaurants, entertainment and other recreational elements in San Antonio, and contribute to the City’s coffers.
“I applaud Mayor Taylor’s positive move to shift some of the City’s attention toward the needs of current San Antonio residents. I believe in her memo that she recognizes to a degree that Texans living in unincorporated areas do contribute to San Antonio’s income/budget via sales tax that we pay when we spend money inside San Antonio,” Cash said.
Cash is critical of annexation efforts that aim to grow the City’s tax base.
“I would respect them more if they simply came out and spoke the truth that they want our tax dollars,” Cash said.
He also realizes that and City annexation of commercial corridors will mean an incorporated Alamo Ranch would not be include those corridors or collect taxes.
Shanda Evans shares Cash’s viewpoint. She’s among the residents in the unincorporated area of Leon Springs opposed to annexation.
“I was happy to hear that the Mayor is listening to our concerns about the forced annexation of our charming community of Leon Springs. However, we disagree with her proposal of annexing the business corridors as this prevents us from being able to control what types of businesses are developed here,” Evans said.
Evans said she and her family moved to Leon Springs four years ago, drawn to its small-town atmosphere and the ability to buy a first home without the burden of San Antonio property taxes.
“We chose to live outside the city limits and in this residential community because we felt it was a better fit for our family’s needs and we love the strong sense of community here,” she said.
Evans noted San Antonio’s decision to sell nearby land to apartment developers, as well as land to Wal-Mart to build a 150,000 sq. ft. store just yards from a residential neighborhood.
“Traffic problems have plagued our area for the past few years, and with the recent completion of Boerne Stage Road not adding enough lanes to handle the increased traffic, residents feel like the City of San Antonio has not adequately considered the needs of our community,” Evans added.
Evans said if San Antonio annexes Leon Springs’s commercial corridors, the City would simply “put the dollar before the people” and prevent the community from incorporating in the future if so inclined. So, now Evans and her neighbors are working to petition for formal incorporation.
“The government is meant to be ‘of the people, for the people, by the people.’ We would like to see our community continue to be the charming, safe, family-friendly community that it is and have more control over how this historic part of town is developed,” she added.
Cash looks forward to learning whether he and his neighbors can officially form the City of Alamo Ranch.
“We are anxiously awaiting on a decision from San Antonio’s city leaders on our incorporation and I have been told we should receive an answer this fall,” he said.
“Overall, it is my opinion that Mayor Taylor’s proposal on scaling back on annexation is a positive step in the right direction, and I thank her for her wisdom on this annexation issue and recognizing that there are things that must be done inside (San Antonio) first before the City can take on more responsibility,” he said.
In her memo, Mayor Taylor also said she felt City staff introducing the six additional areas was a response to a possibility that the Texas Legislature could impose limits on annexation. State legislators in the most recent session in Austin introduced several bills designed to slow down annexation by larger cities. None of the bills passed. Texas Tea Party activists and some lawmakers have pledged to renew those efforts in the 2017 session.
Bexar County leaders, including Judge Nelson Wolff, have asked the City to speed up its annexation schedule to properly care for areas where the County lacks the necessary resources to provide basic service.
Taylor said the City has more to worry about than whether new annexation laws pass in a future legislative session.
“It’s all a balancing act. We do have an obligation to be careful and thoughtful. We can’t jump the gun,” Taylor told the Rivard Report. “If we take a reasonable approach, maybe legislators will learn from that because they have to answer to their own constituents.”
Councilmember Nirenberg said he understands the City wanting an accelerated annexation schedule, hoping to stay ahead of growth patterns and the potential for new annexation laws. Still, ensuring proper policies support annexation is more important.
“I agree with the mayor that we need to operate on our timetable, irrespective of what happens in Austin,” Nirenberg said. “Let’s not get caught up in speculation about future legislation.”
Councilmember Gallagher, however, said the City must remain vigilant when the Legislature reconvenes in 2017.
“Removing annexation as a tool for cities is bad public policy. While these (2015) bills did not pass this legislative session, they will certainly be refiled in 2017, he stated. “This action by the state, essentially intended to remove local control from our city government, led to a situation where we believed we needed to move quickly on our annexation plan.”
Mayor Taylor’s memo now brings a greater public focus on the issue. City staff and what appears to be a Council majority will have to reconcile their differences on the costs and benefits of both residential and commercial annexation. Moving from seventh to fifth largest city in the U.S. appeals to some, but the San Antonio metropolitan statistical area will not enjoy the same ascent in the ranks of U.S. MSAs even with the addition of 200,000 more people and 66 square miles of added geography.
*Top image: Signs advertising newly constructed neighborhoods off of Alamo Ranch Parkway. Photo by Scott Ball.