City Council approved approximately 200 minor revisions and edits to the City’s Unified Development Code on Thursday, a seemingly routine process that takes place once every five years to clean up outdated or unclear language in the code. At least five code amendments, however, were not seen as minor to the Zoning Commission. Amendment 13-1/21-1, one of the five, brought dozens of anti-abortion protesters down to City Council chambers. Some left with a feeling of accomplishment, others felt not enough was done.
After a failed attempt earlier this year by residents Dr. Thomas Barker and Robert Barry to have ambulatory surgical centers, including abortion clinics, classified as “inappropriate” in neighborhood commercial zones, the Planning Commission submitted an amendment that would have the opposite effect: define ambulatory surgical centers as a “clinic” in the code as allowable in light commercial zones, C-1.
“Clinic,” includes a dentist’s or other physician’s office, laboratory, and abortion clinic. Protesters argued that the new Planned Parenthood on Babcock Road, the inspiration behind the zone change, “tainted” the surrounding neighborhood. Planned Parenthood provides numerous health care services for women and men out of this location as well as abortions and it is, by a law, an ambulatory surgical center.
Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) amended the measure, however, to include language that would require a special use designation for ambulatory surgical centers seeking to locate in C-1 zones – which are typically near or in neighborhoods. This would mean notices would go out to neighbors if a center was coming to the area and public hearings would be held via the Zoning and Planning commissions and ultimately approved by City Council – adding another “hoop” for medical clinics to jump through and about 6-8 weeks to the permitting/construction process.
The so-called “Gallagher Amendment” was approved by a 7-4 vote.
“This all comes down to protecting the neighborhoods and allowing residents to have an opportunity to learn about what development is being proposed and have a say in what kind of business sets up shop nearby,” Gallagher stated. “This process allows for neighborhood associations to be notified of a potential new clinic, or medical or dental operation requesting to operate in their area, and indicate their opinion to the Zoning Commission and their council member before a vote.”
Attorney Dennis Drouillard sees it as an agreeable compromise.
“What the Gallagher amendment does is it puts it through an extra process that will ultimately allow for council review,” said Drouillard, who works for the San Antonio Family Association, but spoke after the meeting about his personal opinion. “Most importantly it will allow for notices to citizens.”
Neighborhood dynamics should be respected, he added. “I’m in favor of nuclear power, I don’t want a nuclear plant next to my house.”
Family Association Chairman Patrick Von Dohlem said the code is now starting to “point in the right direction” to restrict abortion clinics, but that the real victory would be to abolish them entirely.
“It’s a definite improvement,” Von Dohlem said. “It shows a sign that Gallahger was listening to citizens as well as all the other people who voted for it.”
Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Rey Saldaña (D4), Ron Nirenberg (D8), and Shirley Gonzales (D6) voted against the amendment.
Nirenberg, who represents the district in where the new Planned Parenthood center was built, said the underlying intent of the Gallagher Amendment is to target abortion clinics, but it will affect dentists, optometrists, physical therapists, and chiropractors as well.
Classifying these offices and clinics as anything higher than C-1, for instance C-2 includes gas stations, restaurants, and other higher-impact businesses, would be inaccurate, Nirenberg said.
“There’s no objective (zoning or land use) reason that an ambulatory surgical center shouldn’t be allowed (in C-1),” Saldana said. “Their objection is a philosophical one … making judgement on abortion and Planned Parenthood is not really our (City Council’s) realm.”
Drouillard disagreed, recalling that some residents who live in the Dreamhill Estates neighborhood where the new Planned Parenthood facility is located had complained about increased truck traffic. Those residents, however, also expressed anti-abortion sentiments.
*Top image: (From left) San Antonio Family Association member Norma Reyes, Dolores Ferrell of the Pro-life Association of St. Paul’s Church, and Robert Cornwell hold signs in protest of abortion and of the proposed zoning change. Photo by Iris Dimmick.