Mayor Ron Nirenberg (right) speaks with Mike Stewart, who opposes annexation. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Fewer than 60,000 residents who live around Joint Base San Antonio’s Camp Bullis, Camp Stanley, and Lackland Air Force Base will face a choice on their ballots this November: be annexed by the City of San Antonio or have the City apply its land-use regulations to those areas. Both options attempt to protect those military bases from encroaching developments.

City Council on Thursday voted 10-1 in favor of asking voters to decide the matter in an election. Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) cast the lone vote against putting the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot. Brockhouse’s comments before the vote led Mayor Ron Nirenberg to interrupt the councilman, who consulted the city attorney afterwards about proper recourse and appeal.

Annexation in San Antonio has always been a complex issue; but regardless of how the vote falls, the City after the election will be able to enforce some form of restriction on development that military officials say put their missions at risk.

“It’s never too late to do the right thing, especially as it relates to the protection of the military,” Nirenberg said in response to a citizen’s comment earlier that the City could have done more long ago to protect the bases. “We call ourselves Military City USA – it’s not a slogan.”

If voters leave blank both options on the ballot, it defaults to a vote for land use regulations, Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni told the Rivard Report.

“It’s a win-win-win,” said Bridgett White, director of the City’s Planning Department, but if voters choose annexation of about 43 square miles, it would cost the City an estimated $188 million over 20 years in city services. Most of that cost is attributable to having to expand emergency fire department coverage. The land-use regulation option, which would use recommendations from land-use studies, would be carried out administratively, so the cost would be minimal. The ballot measure itself will cost more than $500,000.

Military bases need relatively quiet and dark outdoor environments to perform training exercises. That would be hard to maintain if a suburb close by brought activity and light pollution. So the City and Bexar County are taking steps to protect bases’ borders from development.

“Protecting the viability of JBSA Camp Bullis for medical field training through thoughtful land use planning and zoning in the cities and towns that surround JBSA Camp Bullis is paramount,” wrote Brig. Gen. Laura Lenderman, the new commander of the 502 Air Base wing at Joint Base San Antonio, in a letter to the mayor and City Council members.

“Today, approximately 600 Airmen, 50 weeks out of the year, graduate from JBSA Lackland. This is only possible because of the tremendous support from the community and San Antonio leaders who have ensured compatible development at JBSA Lackland for the last 75 years.”

San Antonio’s active military bases generate more than $49 billion per year in economic impact for the State of Texas, according to the Texas Comptroller – a fact highlighted by Nirenberg and others on the dais.

Because of Senate Bill 6, which passed last year, cities in Texas counties with populations larger than 500,000 can no long annex land without approval from voters who live in the territory the city wishes to acquire. However, the bill allows voters to choose between annexation or the enforcement of land-use requirements if the land is within five miles of military bases.

If voters choose annexation, the City would start with a three-year limited annexation period during which residents neither pay taxes nor receive city services. They would be eligible to vote in all City elections, save for bond elections. City Council would vote again within three years to fully implement annexation.

If voters choose the land-use options, City staff would get to work on crafting zoning and land-use ordinances according to the areas’ most recent Joint Land Use Study, which calls for rules regarding light, noise, building height, and proximity to the base, and natural habit – including the tree ordinance.

It’s very unlikely that people will choose annexation, Brockhouse said. “It’s going to be like 99 to 1” in favor of the land-use option.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) arrives at City Council chambers. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Brockhouse asked White a few questions about public perception of the process and began to talk about his concerns regarding the cost of the election and awareness programs. That’s when Nirenberg jumped in.

“Do you have a question, councilman?” Nirenberg asked.

“Unless you’re attempting to cut me off, sir,” Brockhouse responded, seemingly taken aback by the interruption. Brockhouse and Nirenberg have been political rivals for years, and the councilman plans to run for mayor in a future election.

Typically, Council members are allowed to speak generally about a topic for some time without asking a question. Several other Council members did just that on Thursday.

Brockhouse said Nirenberg was “stifling conversation with those he disagrees with …”

“Councilman, there is a motion on the floor,” Nirenberg said, directing him to ask a question related to annexation or cede the floor.

“That is exactly what I’m talking about,” Brockhouse said and asked City Attorney Andy Segovia to weigh in.

Before Segovia could answer, Nirenberg again asked for a question to keep the meeting moving forward.

“This is unprecedented behavior of a mayor of the city of San Antonio,” Brockhouse said, “but true to form nonetheless.”

Brockhouse then asked White to speculate on whether residents would know what they are voting on.

White, who typically does not speculate, described the ballot language and education efforts.

Brockhouse concluded his time on the floor by calling the military’s inclusion in the annexation conversation a “red herring,” a distraction from the taxation and cost issues.

“I don’t consider a request directly from the Department of Defense to be a red herring,” Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said, adding that Camp Bullis is a top employer in his district.

While some Council members felt Nirenberg was attempting to keep the meeting in order, others said they didn’t feel Brockhouse was out of line. Brockhouse said he was being “singled out.”

“I think Ron is just trying to keep the meeting moving along,” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said.

“[White’s] presentation was technical in nature. Mr. Brockhouse’s questions turned political when he started asking her to speculate on how voters feel and how they will react,” Pelaez told the Rivard Report via text message after the meeting. “Politics aren’t the province of City staff. Seems to me that the Mayor believed the questions [weren’t] germane.

“What’s not up for debate is that the mayor is charged with running the meeting and keeping us on track.”

Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2) said he was more concerned with the facts of the annexation issue at hand.

“I think it’s more important that we remember the job we have been elected to do,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org More by Iris Dimmick

Read more