The San Antonio Planning Commission approved changes to the Brackenridge Park 2017 Bond Project on Wednesday that will allow for the removal of 104 trees — including nine heritage trees — threatening protected historic structures within the iconic park.

Despite opposition voiced in person by four citizens Wednesday and via 16 recorded voicemails, the Planning Commission authorized the removal of 104 trees to protect historic Brackenridge structures such as the Lambert Beach River walls, beach steps, Brackenridge Pump House, Upper Labor Acequia and Upper Labor Dam. To help mitigate the environmental impacts, such as loss of wildlife habitat and tree canopy, city staff plans to plant more than 219 new trees within the park.

Prior to the commission’s vote Wednesday, Jamaal Moreno, an employee with the city’s Public Works department and a project manager on the bond project, addressed the nine commissioners. Moreno said in order for the project to meet Texas Historical Commission and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requirements, tagged trees threatening the historic structures would need to be removed.

“If we continue to allow those trees to remain there, eventually they’re going to disintegrate the cultural resources that we have within the park,” Moreno said.
That would be a huge loss.”

Because the more than 100-year-old structures have to be rehabilitated in place, removing specific trees and replacing them around the park with new trees is the only way to have any sort of long-term solution, Moreno said. He added that if the trees are left as is, many will likely fall after pushing through the historic retention walls, meaning they would still be lost and would take out historic structures as well.

“What we don’t want to do is to kind of put a Band-Aid on the issue and have to deal with the issue with public capital in another five years or another 10 years, or even another 15 or 20 years,” Moreno said. “We wanted to come up with a solution that made sure that we were being good stewards of public money in addressing these cultural resources.”

Several members of the public voiced concerns about the project variance, arguing it could disturb endangered species that are already threatened by climate change.

Among the speakers was Kelly McCoy, executive director of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation. McCoy spoke during the public comment portion of the agenda to ask the commission to delay making a decision Wednesday to allow for more time to perform studies on how bird species such as egrets could be affected.

A great egret flies to it's nest at Brackenridge Park along the San Antonio River.
A great egret flies to its nest at Brackenridge Park along the San Antonio River in March 2018. The Planning Commission was asked to consider delaying a decision on removing trees at the park to allow time for studies on how species such as egrets could be affected. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Moreno argued, however, if the project didn’t gain approval to start clearing the marked trees right away, work would not be able to start until this fall when the migratory birds have left for the winter. Migratory birds are currently more south right now, but will return in early March, he said. Once they have returned, any trees they nest in cannot be touched until they leave again, he explained. Waiting would give the trees more time to cause more damage to the structures, he said.

Following a period of questions clarifying how the trees were selected and marked, the commissioners approved the project changes with one vote against and one abstention.

Correction: an earlier version of this story overstated the number of trees that will be removed from Brackenridge Park to protect existing historic structures.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.