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City Council unanimously agreed Thursday that the City should begin a formal cost-benefit analysis of absorbing into the City nine new parcels of land generally located on the outskirts of San Antonio.
The decision was a formality allowing City staff to start its analysis and part of a larger initiative to monitor growth on its borders, but it also was an opportunity for Council members, old and new alike, to let their colleagues and the public know their philosophies on annexation and the process.
Most Council members agreed that annexation is a complicated process and committed themselves to weighing the pros and cons of annexing each parcel, but none were as critical of the process as new District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse.
“To the resident’s eyes, [it looks like] we’re beginning to annex them,” Brockhouse said, adding that it’s hard for residents to understand why some areas are annexed in different ways and over different time periods than others.
The nine parcels have a total of 154 residential units within their boundaries, and each has far fewer than the 100 required to trigger a three-year planning process. Each resident receives a notice that the annexation process has been started, but Brockhouse said that’s not good enough.
“I hope staff get to them [all],” Brockhouse said, calling for a better communications strategy for those affected by annexation. “The citizen has no idea what’s going on.”
He also noted that the “time crunch” of the proposal seemed to be in line with the City wanting to initiate the process before the Texas Legislature’s pending special session has a chance to consider a bill that would limit local municipalities’ ability to annex land without a vote.
“Pending is the keyword … There is no legislation on the table,” Jeff Coyle, the City’s director of Government and Public Affairs, told Council.
Another version of Senate Bill 715, which would have required a ballot measure for the City’s plans to annex land surrounding military bases and development on the fringe, has not yet surfaced on the special session’s agenda. The bill was killed last month via a filibuster by State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio).
“This wasn’t something that was just thought up in the last 30 days,” City Manager Sheryl Sculley said.
The City’s annexation initiatives are a result of three years of study by previous Councils and are part of the comprehensive SA Tomorrow plan for growth and development. “What we’re proposing today is the beginning of a process,” and there will be ample time for citizen and Council input, she added.
Now that it has received Council approval, City staff will prepare a cost-benefit analysis of service plans – for police, fire, trash, and other city services – for each parcel.
City Council will host public hearings in its chambers on Aug. 2 at 6 p.m and Aug. 3 at 9 a.m. before the discussion goes to the Planning Commission on Aug. 9 at 2 p.m. and the Zoning Commission on Aug. 15. at 1 p.m. City Council will vote on the measures on Aug. 31. All meetings are open to the public.
Brockhouse asked that each parcel be separated out as individual items. Council approved all nine one-by-one Thursday. Members will vote in a similar fashion in August.
“Not every annexation case is created equal,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who agreed that each parcel – and future parcels considered – should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. “We want to make not just decisions, but informed decisions on this Council.”
Nirenberg pointed out that some of the parcels are over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. Limits on impervious cover to protect water quantity and quality in the aquifer actually drop “dramatically” when property is annexed by the City, he said. “I would like to see that rectified.”
Impervious cover regulations limit building and parking infrastructure that prevents water from reaching the aquifer or allows for contamination of the water en route.
As District 8 Councilman, Nirenberg argued this point when the language regarding impervious cover in the SA Tomorrow plan was watered down, so to speak, to be more amenable to developers.
Advocates for annexation typically cite the benefits that cities can reap from collecting more property taxes from people and businesses that utilize City infrastructure and services. A subdivision just beyond the city limits, for instance, will likely benefit from the streets, schools, and other services cities provide without paying the taxes that make these amenities possible. Annexation or partial annexation allows cities to recoup these costs.
San Antonio’s military bases also are involved in the annexation conversation due to of encroaching development. Dark skies and quiet nights are required for training exercises that increased nearby development could disrupt. Without annexation, the areas surrounding military bases are more vulnerable to disruptive developments.
But it’s a balancing act with property rights, an issue especially important to Texas property owners. Some home and business owners locate outside the City limits specifically to avoid city life and City taxes and are content with the services that Bexar County provides. Some residents in Alamo Ranch, for instance, have suggested the area would be better off incorporating into its own separate municipality.
“We need to protect the [residents] we already have in our districts,” said Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4). He recognized the need for City staff’s economic analysis, but asked rhetorically: Why should those within the boundaries pay their “fair share” of taxes while people on the other side of a line do not?
Council members William “Cruz” Shaw (D2), Rebecca Viagran (D3), Manny Pelaez (D8), and John Courage (D9) acknowledged the balance between property rights and the City’s need to expand its tax base. They agreed that more information is needed before a decision can be made – and that’s the next step in the process.
Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) requested that more data be presented to Council on how City staff performs these analyses.
“I don’t believe that the model we present [for annexation] is actually [the same as] what we use to maintain our streets,” Gonzales said, wondering if the City looks into potential drainage and street repair costs.
Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni explained that the process initiated Thursday will look into those metrics and more.
“Some of these areas [City fire trucks] may not be able to reach within the required time,” Zanoni said. “We may come back to Council and say we can’t annex this area.”
When the area around Councilman Clayton Perry’s District 10 home was annexed, he said he was “very apprehensive … but at the end of the day I was happy with it.”
He joined his colleagues in support of the process, but urged Council to constantly be looking for ways to improve it.