About 40 residents and environmentalists gathered on the edge of the 768-acre Cibolo Canyons Conservation Easement on Wednesday to protest a move proposed by a developer that they say will impact the golden-cheeked warbler — a federally protected songbird that breeds solely in Central Texas.
The easement, first put in place in 2005 to help protect the endangered songbird, is located on the north side of San Antonio and is overlooked by the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa. In December, Florida-based developer Starwood Land — under the name TF Cibolo Canyons LP — submitted an application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to amend the conservation easement by swapping out 63 acres of protected land for 144 acres of unprotected land.
Environmentalists and neighbors of the easement argue the 63 acres of currently protected land is prime habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler, whereas the 144 acres of unprotected land is subpar land the tiny songbird would not prefer.
According to the federal register’s summary of the request, the developer hopes to build a new residential and multifamily development on the 63 acres.
“This boundary modification will result in an overall reduction of the development area from 846 to 765 acres, an increase of the conservation easement from 768 acres to 849 acres, and reduce the amount of habitat loss [for the golden-cheeked warbler],” the register reads.
John Brian, the east region president for Starwood Land, told the San Antonio Report on Wednesday that the development company has been talking with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for roughly three years about the swap. Brian said it’s been a very detailed process that started with environmental surveys of the existing and proposed conservation areas.
“We then had to submit our findings and request to the Nature Conservancy for their support prior to submittal to U.S. Fish and Wildlife,” Brian said. “I believe the duration is mostly related to all parties wanting to make sure that this was the best long-term solution for the warbler habitat and Conservation Area.”
Environmentalists aren’t buying that this is a benefit to the golden-cheeked warbler, however.
“On this side over here, this 63 acres is prime golden-cheeked warbler habitat,” said Britt Coleman, president of the Bexar Audubon Society. “The golden-cheeked warbler has very, very specific habitat needs. It requires old growth of ash and juniper forests and it also requires oak. The other 144 acres is not the same as this habitat here.”
Golden-cheeked warblers require roughly 70% to 90% canopy cover, dense woodlands and lots of insects to thrive, Coleman told the San Antonio Report following the protest. The 144 acres is “scrub oak” with very little canopy coverage, he said — likely only about 20%. The conservation easement was also supposed to be “in perpetuity” — which nearby homebuyers and environmentalists took to mean “forever,” Coleman said.
“The idea behind that conservation easement in perpetuity is that the developer — at that time that was [Lumbermen’s Investment Corp.] — made a deal with the county that said, ‘We will set aside this property here for a couple of reasons. Primarily to save the golden-cheeked warbler, but also because this is all recharge zone to the Edwards Aquifer.'”
The Edwards Aquifer is the vast limestone rock layer that holds the largest source of drinking water in the San Antonio region. It is an underground layer of porous, honeycombed, water-bearing rock that is filled primarily through precipitation that falls within the recharge zone — a 1,250 square mile area where highly faulted and fractured limestone allows large quantities of water to flow into the aquifer.
Development in this area would mean more impervious cover over the recharge zone, said Annalisa Peace, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance’s executive director who was also present at the protest. Peace added that she and other local environmental advocates feel many of the city’s protections of land over the aquifer are being whittled away and said GEAA would hate to see this easement be affected by development.
Doris Brown, the leading neighborhood opponent who first alerted many of her neighbors to the land swap proposal after learning about it from the federal register in December, agreed with Peace — noting she and many of the other nearby residents bought their homes believing they would be next to a conservation easement forever.
“We feel like this is a bait-and-switch by the developer,” resident Jim Selby said. Selby lives in Monte Verde, a neighborhood next door to the easement, and said he and his family frequent the trails along its edge where they like to go bird-watching.
Brown said she was shocked to learn she and her neighbors only had 30 days to submit their comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That comment period closes Thursday. Anyone who wishes to submit a comment on the proposed land swap can do so here or by emailing FW2_AUES_Consult@fws.gov.
Brown said she and her neighbor Gina Smith put together a small grassroots effort door-knocking, handing out fliers, and making phone calls that quickly grew into a movement.
“We had two weeks where we were scrambling and the neighborhood came together just like that,” she said.
Brian told the San Antonio Express-News that the company didn’t know that the information about the swap would be made public on the federal register and added that the company’s plan now is to meet with the residents in the next couple of weeks to address the concerns or questions they might have. However, based on their study’s findings, Brian told the San Antonio Report that the company sees the swap as a benefit for the community.
“We are improving warbler habitat, increasing conservation area and decreasing land entitled for development,” he said. “We did not believe this would be opposed by anyone with environmental concerns.”
He added that the company’s environmental scientist, as well as the Nature Conservancy, “believes the swap we are proposing is the best solution for the long-term viability of the conservation area and the warbler habitat.”
Brian said this is evidenced by the surveys their team conducted to determine the primary location of the warbler activity. The majority of this activity is located in and around the 144 acres they are proposing to add to the conservation area, he said.
After the comment period closes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will “evaluate the permit application, proposed amendment to the habitat conservation plan, draft [National Environmental Policy Act] screening form, and comments” to determine if all federal requirements are met. If they are, it will “approve the proposed amendment to the habitat conservation plan and issue the permit to the applicant.”
“We will not make our final decision until after the 30-day comment period ends, and until we have fully considered all comments received during the public comment period,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states in the register.