Annexation is now an issue in the mayor’s race following Thursday’s City Council meeting when Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) unsuccessfully challenged Mayor Ivy Taylor over a non-annexation agreement around U.S. Highway 281 North near Camp Bullis and a more modest annexation of a commercial swath near Bulverde.

Nirenberg is in a three-way race with Taylor and Bexar County Democratic Chairman Manuel Medina on a ballot weighed down by 14 mayoral candidates. Eleven largely unknown individuals are running for mayor, although they lack the resources and, in some cases, the interest to mount legitimate campaigns. The requirements for being placed on the City ballot are minimal, so some City Council races have as many as 10 people on the ballot, making it more difficult for less-engaged voters to sort through the candidates.

To see the ballot for all 10 Council districts and the Mayor’s office, click here.

In the end, City Council passed the agreements with an  8-1 vote, with only Nirenberg dissenting Thursday.

Annexation at its best is a complex issue with many shades of grey. It’s hardly a topic that attracts the attention of the public, except those residents and businesses in the unincorporated areas targeted for annexation that can’t vote in City elections. More and more, however, wealthy communities located in Bexar County’s affluent suburban reaches are organizing to protest and resist annexation. They are hiring influential lobbyists to represent them at City Hall and they are taking their case to the media.

They also are rallying sympathetic members of the Texas Legislature. Intense resistance to annexation by Alamo Ranch residents, a key area targeted by the City for eventual annexation, is helping drive efforts by various legislators, including State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-25) and State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-122), who have introduced bills prohibiting annexation without prior approval from targeted residents and businesses.

Doc Browns which is normally closed on Monday's opened up to host Place Changing: Annexation. Photo by Scott Ball.
Doc Brown’s, a popular bar near Alamo Ranch, was the scene of a Place Changing panel discussion on annexation in 2016.

Since 2012, when Julián Castro was mayor, City staff and City Council have been talking about annexing unincorporated areas of Bexar County bordering the fast-growing city. The talks came after a decade of no annexations by the City. More than 30 areas were examined, and in December 2014 City Council directed staff to explore five key areas for annexation in 2015 and 2016: I-10 West, U.S. 281 North, I-10 East, U.S. Highway 151, and U.S. Highway. 90/Loop 1604.

The areas totaled 66.47 square miles with a population of 117,500. The proposed annexation, City officials said, would protect the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone and the “quality of development through the extension of zoning and city codes, expand the city’s economic vitality by providing certainty and predictability, preserve the U.S. military missions through land use controls, facilitate long-range planning in environmentally sensitive areas and growth centers, and enhance the City’s overall regional economic position in bringing new jobs, population, and investment to the region.”

That recommendation was refined in a presentation to City Council in June 2016 in which the U.S. 281 North annexation would occur in two phases, the I-10 West would go forward, and the I-10 East area would be dropped from annexation plans because of its low real estate values and projected tax payments versus its high demand for City services, particularly public safety and garbage collection.

A September 2016 presentation to City Council by Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni detailed the still-evolving proposed annexations and the rejected area.

Unlike the wealthier areas in far north and northwest Bexar County that are coveted by San Antonio, the Camelot II neighborhood along I-10 East is blighted and crime-infested. Modest, rundown houses are neglected by absentee landlords. Home values hover around $85,000, while they exceed $315,000 in the areas being annexed. 

2015 City of San Antonio Proposed Annexation IH10 East. Courtesy of City of San Antonio.
This map shows the 2015 City of San Antonio Proposed Annexation I-10 East before it was rejected.

For City staff, the decision was simple: adding Camelot II promised few benefits and high costs, so the inner city, minority-dominant neighborhood was bypassed by a majority of City Council, which agreed with City staff. No consideration was given to the needs of people living in the area. There was no discussion of the City’s obligation to try to improve such communities via annexation and code enforcement.

Nirenberg argues there should be a moral component to annexation. Does the City have an obligation to turn a blind eye to real estate values and treat unincorporated areas around the inner city the same as it treats the wealthier enclaves? Race and ethnicity come into play, without ever being mentioned, since the growth areas outside the city limits are predominantly white while inner city populations are minority-dominant.

“The primary – if not the only – reason expressed for non-annexation of I-10 East was that it would cost the City too much and tax revenue projections were too low,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report Saturday. “This, especially in light of the different treatment of 281 and I-10 West last week, flies in the face of Council’s adopted annexation policy, which accounts for much more than just projected dollar impact, such as health and human safety. Such different treatment has terrible overtones of discrimination. Equity is not a soundbite, it is a core value to be acted upon.”

Nirenberg has raised the question more than once, both last year before the September vote, when he voted against the annexation program that left out I-10 East, and again last week. It’s not a topic, however, that others on the council chose to take up, and it has not become a matter of public conversation.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who represents the city’s Westside, has consistently argued that annexing new suburbs, however wealthy, means diverting City staff and capital resources to the new areas that otherwise could be spent within the existing city limits, where unmet infrastructure needs are estimated to total several billion dollars.

For San Antonio, city growth via annexation remains a bottom-line proposition. City officials are still studying annexation of larger areas of the unincorporated county, including U.S. 151 and Loop 1604 that includes the master-planned community of Alamo Ranch, and another area near Loop 1604 and U.S. 90, around Lackland AFB.

Nirenberg also questioned the consideration given to residents along U.S. 281 North near Stone Oak and the JW Marriott Resort Hotel & Spa in order to win acceptance of annexation of a commercial swath along U.S. 281. The non-annexation agreement for those residents extends for 17 years to Dec. 30, 2033. An estimated 25,000 people reside in the fast-growing area that now includes about 8,600 homes, according to City officials. The deal will cost the City an estimated $40 million in uncollected taxes over that period.

No such exemptions were offered to the residents living along the swath of I-10 West between San Antonio and Boerne. And the forgotten residents of Camelot II along I-10 East are now left to hope for completion of a proposed deal that would place them in the city of Converse, which would annex them in return for the City of San Antonio ceding some taxable commercial properties in the area.

It’s now an accepted assumption that San Antonio will grow by 1 million people over the next 25 years, with most of that growth expected to occur north and northwest of the city. Efforts to revitalize San Antonio’s urban core will accelerate with passage of the $850 million bond on May 6 if voters agree on the six proposals. At its best, residential growth in the central city will be dwarfed by suburban sprawl and population growth.

Whether the City is equipped to manage that growth and provide its growing population with adequate services, including infrastructure maintenance, should be at the heart of the debate among the mayoral candidates.

Finding room in the city for small pockets of economically disadvantaged people ought to be part of the plan if elected officials want to stake a claim that San Antonio cares about all its citizens equally, regardless of income, race, or where they live.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.