Some conservationists are calling for City Council to take a closer look at an agreement that would add 204 acres to San Antonio’s parkland inventory, citing concerns about subsidizing more development in the heart of Stone Oak.

“The City is getting the short end of the stick on this one” by paying too much per acre and opening up 400 acres of surrounding land to development, said Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance Executive Director Annalisa Peace in a phone interview with the Rivard Report Tuesday afternoon.

Other conservationists and officials said the land is already open for development and the City is lucky to have reached the deal with the private property owner.

Councilman Joe Krier (D9), whose district includes the proposed park, appeared on Texas Public Radio’s The Source Tuesday afternoon and offered a vigorous defense of the agreement, saying future generations would benefit from the green space that otherwise might have been developed by the landowners to become to thousands of new apartments and even worse traffic congestion. He also said the family agreed to accept an independent appraisal of the land that allowed the City to pay less than market value.

The two-part purchase would turn 160 acres of pristine wildscape into a park with hike and bike trails and 38.7 acres into sports fields. The advent of a new Northside park was hailed by Mayor Ivy Taylor at a City Council briefing last week and appears headed to easy passage this Thursday. Acquisition of the park will be financed  with $5.3 million in Edwards Aquifer Protection Program funds to purchase 165.3 acres located in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone near the intersection of U.S. Highway 281 and Loop 1604.

*$1 million from District 9’s Hardy Oak Extension will be used to acquire 5.3 acres for park development.

Krier is seeking $3.8 million from the City’s 2017 Municipal bond to purchase the remaining 38.7 acres of the former ranch land to build six sports fields.

“For nearly 20 years, land acquisitions with Prop 1 sales-tax revenue have helped protect the Edwards,” Krier told the Rivard Report. “But often the purchases are made outside of San Antonio, often in rural Medina and Uvalde counties. In this case, the funds will help preserve a green oasis in one of the most intensely developed parts of the City.”

The property owners, the Classen-Steubing family, has roots in the area dating to the 1800s and will still own about 400 more acres of land besides the 204 acres offered to the City.

Renderings of the proposed City of San Antonio land purchase.
Site map and outline of the proposed City of San Antonio land purchase. Graphic courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

“We could have stood on the sidelines and watched as a developer built as many as 3,500 residential units on Steubing Ranch,” Krier said Tuesday. “But we thought the better approach would be to talk with the Classen-Steubing family about an agreement that would have a far, far smaller impact on the recharge zone. And that’s what we got.”

This package – especially the road improvements – mean the property owners can better develop the surrounding land, Peace said, and therefore subsidizes the future development.

“The developers figured out how to use Prop. 1 funds to their own benefit,” Peace said, adding that the City’s claim that they saved the new park from dense residential development is misleading because much of the land is under an easement due to the Salado Creek diversion dam that can flood the area.

Peace doesn’t want to stop the deal in its tracks, but “if there was a postponement (of the vote), I have a feeling that the City could negotiate a better deal,” she said.

Residential and commercial development over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone is restricted because such activity increases impervious cover, which prevents rainwater from recharging into the vast underground aquifer that supplies San Antonio with most of its drinking water.

The large parcel of land is in the heart of Stone Oak, an affluent, master-planned community in San Antonio’s congested Northside. The approximately $33,125 that the City will pay per acre for the first 160 acres with money approved by voters in Proposition 1 for the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, Krier told TPR, is a “historic opportunity” the City couldn’t pass up.

“Fortunately for all of us the family agreed to accept the appraised value,” Krier said, explaining that the acreage price for the Prop. 1 funds was set by an appraisal commission set up by the City’s Conservation Advisory Board (CAB) and conducted by the Texas Nature Conservancy. “This is not a cooked-up number or a developer-friendly number.”

Krier said City staff, CAB, property owners, and other stakeholders went over this deal “from stem to stern.”

None of the money from the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program will be used for street improvements or other infrastructure improvements, said Francine Romero, associate dean at University of Texas at San Antonio’s school of public policy who leads the CAB. Romero made sure of that when the deal was first considered more than one year ago. The CAB is responsible for reviewing how Prop. 1 funds are spent.

“All the money we’re spending (from Prop. 1 fund) is on the land,” Romero said. It’s a complex land deal, but not one that misuses Prop. 1 funds, she said.

The existing easement in the dam floodplain, Romero said, is not a conservation easement. Technically, a developer could build a commercial amenity there that could withstand flooding.

“Whatever it is that makes some parks of this property unusable for (buildings), you can still do other things on the property that could be very damaging to the aquifer,” she said. That’s why a conservation easement through the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program is necessary.

The conservation easement will be held by the Edwards Aquifer Authority as a third party – so the City can’t change its mind in the future, Romero said. “That is very valuable land for development … at least this way the road doesn’t go through an area that’s developed to the hilt with homes. This (deal) is so much better.”

Peace doesn’t dispute that the land should be preserved, but argued that the way the deal was “sold” to the public last week “misrepresented it” by not mentioning the property owner’s plans to develop the rest of its land.

“Opportunities like Steubing Ranch are rare for the City of San Antonio,” Krier said. “With this two-part acquisition, we can further protect our largest source of drinking water, preserve the area’s natural beauty for all San Antonians, and add six, much-needed baseball and soccer fields.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated the total acreage as 202, it is 204. A clarification has been added to more accurately describe what the $1 million from District 9’s road project will be used for.

Top image: Chairman of the Stone Oak Neighborhood Association Art Downey points to a trail.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone. 

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...