Microsoft received approval to remove 2,642 trees from a 33-acre tract of land on the far West Side of San Antonio where the company plans to build a large data center. The technology giant will pay $1.47 million into the city’s tree mitigation fund aimed at offsetting the impact.
City Council voted 8-3 on Thursday to reaffirm a 6-1 vote that the Planning Commission took in December that granted Microsoft an exception to the city’s Tree Preservation Ordinance for the facility at 3545 Wiseman Blvd.
Several residents of the Stonegate Hill subdivision celebrated the decision because an alternative plan of Microsoft’s was to build a two-story facility if the variance was not approved.
“Property values of the 19 homeowners immediately adjacent to the 60-foot tall monstrosity would likely plummet,” said Jim Eckburg, vice president of the Stonegate Hill homeowners association.
“In the end, this is not a trees-versus-business-interest story,” said Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), whose district includes the neighborhood. “In seven to 10 years, we will all have moved on from this issue. But the good people of Stonegate Hill will still be there. I want to be clear: The people who know best about their neighborhood needs are the people living in that neighborhood.”
Neighbors have known for years that something industrial would be built there, said Joan Lopez, the HOA’s secretary. “Since my retirement, I have worked very long and hard with the board of directors of Stonegate Hill to ensure … that we keep our country-feel in the neighborhood.”
Microsoft will plant 833 trees to provide a buffer around the facility, according to plans filed with the city, but they are removing more trees than the city’s minimum preservation requirements allow.
The city’s code allows developers to take down trees and pay into the mitigation fund, but it stipulates that at least 20% of heritage trees, which measure more than 24 inches in diameter, and 20% of significant trees, more than 6 inches, must be kept on-site.
Microsoft’s plan will leave nearly 4.5% of heritage trees and 3% of significant trees.
Beyond the technical variances, Development Services Director Mike Shannon said the proposal did not meet the intent of the ordinance.
The goal is to balance preservation, development and canopy “not only now but in the future,” Shannon said. “It was just slightly off-balance for us at the administrative level.”
But once the planted trees mature, their shade canopy will exceed the code requirement, said Bill Kaufman, a local attorney representing Microsoft in this case.
“New trees grow and prosper,” Kaufman said, adding that many trees currently on the property are “not really healthy.”
Several council members said they had mixed feelings about whether to approve the variance.
Usually, if a company works with the neighborhood on a solution they all agree with, Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said, “I would say automatically: Yep, no problem. Checks both my boxes.”
But the degree of variance from the tree ordinance gave him pause.
“This is pretty dramatic for that piece of land,” Perry said. “What really sticks to me is [that it] does not meet the intent and spirit of the ordinance.”
He questioned why Microsoft chose that particular plot of land.
In addition to other factors, big data centers have to be located close to other centers “to provide redundancy in the event of calamity,” Kaufman said, and the property is just southeast of the Valero Energy Corp. data center.
Ultimately, Perry voted in favor of the variance.
Council members Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2), Teri Castillo (D5) and Ana Sandoval (D7) commended Havrda for advocating for her neighborhood, but they opposed the variance.
“This vote is very difficult for me,” Sandoval said, citing concerns that the carbon captured in the trees will contribute to climate change. “Having trees to absorb that carbon is really urgent.
“If I had some assurance that the … carbon reduction ability of the trees can be replaced in the short term, I think I would feel differently about this,” she said. “But I don’t have those assurances right now.”