A lawsuit filed against the City of San Antonio over the zoning of a new Planned Parenthood South Texas facility near the Medical Center has been dropped, but the fight is not over. Since abortion is still legal in the U.S. and Texas, despite Republican lawmakers’ efforts to make abortion access increasingly difficult, local anti-abortion groups are hoping that an administrative technicality can further restrict where abortion clinics can be located.
The San Antonio Family Association (SAFA) has taken its almost 10-month appeal to stop the nonprofit reproductive health care provider from performing abortions in its new facility to the City’s Zoning Commission, Building-Related Board, and now to the formal process of altering the City’s Unified Development Code (UDC).
Planned Parenthood’s $6.5 million facility opened its doors to provide numerous women’s health services last month. Construction is now complete and fully functional.
SAFA’s goal is to get the Planning and Zoning Commissions – and ultimately City Council – to categorize ambulatory surgical centers (ASC) that provide abortions into denser commercial districts, C-2 or C-3 rather than in light commercial, C-1.
In San Antonio, hospitals are built in C-3 zoning districts, some small clinics are typically zoned C-2, but these new ASCs aren’t mentioned in the UDC because it’s a relatively new use, somewhere between standard hospitals and clinics.
“Yes, we are adamantly opposed to abortion, but the issue here is a land use issue,” said SAFA Chairman Patrick Von Dohlem. “One that is effecting family life and human life.”
SAFA members and supporters have consistently protested pro-choice establishments, LGBTQ rights, and marriage equality.
During a meeting of the Planning Commission’s Technical Advisory Committee Monday night, Von Dohlem said he spoke on behalf of SAFA and several neighbors that live in the Dreamhill Estates neighborhood in which the new facility is located. Resident and family physician Dr. Thomas Barker filed a proposed change to the UDC in tandem with another resident, Robert Barry, that would allow ASCs only in C-2 and C-3 zoning districts.
“(This is an) ambulatory surgical center that opened near single family homes,” Barker told the committee, noting that no notice of the building’s new use was given to neighbors. “It degrades the quality of this neighborhood.”
Barker said it was a possibility that he or one of his neighbors would pick up where the now-dropped lawsuit left off. Resident Thelma Franco, the woman who filed the suit, has said concerns for her and her children’s privacy were the main reasons for dropping the suit.
Von Dohlem cites numerous procedural errors throughout the zoning and permitting process that, he said, the City and its staff overlooked because they support Planned Parenthood’s efforts to provide abortions to the community.
“If it wasn’t a Planned Parenthood, they would have been rejected,” he said.
John Jacks, the City’s assistant director of Development Services Department (DSD), explained that Von Dohlem and SAFA are misunderstanding what the code applies to.
“The code, up until 2001, did not have a size limit for buildings in C-1 and the building was built before that … so it was grandfathered in,” Jacks said. “Which doesn’t mean you can’t use it, it just means you can’t expand it. All (Planned Parenthood) did was an interior renovation.”
According to the UDC, new construction in C-1 zones can not be more than 5,000 sq. ft.
The building was built in 1983 as a medical office building, a Planned Parenthood spokesperson stated in an email. “We have made no changes to increase the building’s external footprint. This is the same 22,000 sq. ft. medical office building where people have been seeking health care for 32 years.” Abortions account for about 10% of the services Planned Parenthood provides.
As for the lack of neighborhood notification; those don’t go out unless someone applies for a use variance or zoning change. So nothing about the process triggered a notification, Jacks said. Adding that previous attempts to appeal decisions made by the Zoning Commission and Building-Related Board by SAFA were rejected because they had missed the 30-day window to do so.
Von Dohlem said he plans on appealing to the board once more this week.
Monday afternoon’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting was the first of many that will review and organize approximately 260 proposals for minor edits, clarifications, or interpretations of the UDC. A majority of these changes are proposed by internal City departments that are clarifying language and making straight-forward, formatting edits to the code.
Other proposals are modifications of code, and those require discussion. Some are suggestions made from public entities, like the San Antonio River Authority, groups like the Real Estate Council of San Antonio, private companies like H-E-B, and private individuals like Barker. All of which submitted proposals that were reviewed on Monday.
It’s a tedious, bureaucratic process that even the TAC members joke about, but the City wants to handle all decisions throughout this process in an open, transparent way before they go before City Council for a vote. That means giving people – especially ones that submitted a proposal – the opportunity to see and participate in the process, Jacks said.
Technically, the Planning and Zoning commissions have the authority to deem proposals appropriate for consideration and it will do so by taking into account advice from the TAC, explained TAC and District 8 Planning Commissioner Francine Romero after the meeting. Planned Parenthood’s new facility is located in District 8.
This first round was just a preliminary review of which publicly-submitted proposals are simple edits or modifications to the code. Barker’s proposal was marked as a measure seeking substantive change. The ball will eventually be in the Planning Commission’s court to pursue it through to a council vote.
For Romero, it was obvious that it was a modification to the code. Other TAC members found the change minor at first until it was made clear that there is no existing definition of ambulatory surgical center in the local code. That’s something the TAC will likely have to do in collaboration with the Planning and Zoning commissions.
“It’s a serious question for the Planning and Zoning commissions,” Jacks said, adding that they’ll likely draw from state and/or federal definitions.
Whatever the definition, it’s not one that would effect the new facility, only future abortion clinics looking to set up shop in a less-dense commercial zone. Whatever it’s changed to, it’ll be grandfathered in again.
“Code changes all the time,” Jacks said.
House Bill 2 Snagged by Supreme Court
Planned Parenthood’s new facility complies with a 2013 state law, known as House Bill 2, that requires abortion clinics to adhere to stricter surgical standards. The implementation of parts of HB 2 caused more than 20 abortion clinics to close in October. Now there are only 19 open in Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court has since put a hold on parts of the law that concern “ambulatory surgical center” requirements including buildings, equipment and staffing.
The provision that calls for doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital has also been temporarily blocked, pending review by the high court.
“We are grateful for the Supreme Court’s recent order, which protects women’s access to safe, legal abortion, for now,” stated Mara Posada, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood in an email. “All people, regardless of where they live or their gender, ethnicity or economic background, have the human right to determine whether or not to become parents, and when to do so, and what size family we believe we can care for.”
Some state officials and lawmakers claim the provisions keep women safe while some health experts and abortion advocates say the new rules are medically unnecessary and are an attempt to simply close down clinics. Whether that’s the intent has been thoroughly argued by anti-abortionists – either way, the effect has been mass clinic closures. If the Supreme Court sides with the language in HB 2, 10 more clinics will close, dropping the number of clinics in Texas to nine. Three will stay open in San Antonio, including the new Babcock Road facility.
The high court is expected to take up the case next year.
*Featured/top image: Danny Petri kneels on the sidewalk and prays in front of Planned Parenthood. Photo by Scott Ball.