San Antonio City Council approved three interconnected “blueprints” for managing the city’s population and development growth over the next two decades on Thursday.
“I really think it’s a great step forward for us, for us to be forward thinking in a long range, long time frame,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor after the vote. “This is not about this being a City of San Antonio organization plan. This is a communities plan.”
Despite some citizens’ and Council members’ concerns about the weakening and removal of language throughout the SA Tomorrow plans that took a tougher stance on regulating development, two key measures regarding the City’s Dark Sky Ordinance and impervious cover limitations ultimately survived the more than 18-month process. Other amendments were approved that further preserved existing neighborhood plans and solidified neighborhood group participation as City staff develops implementation plans.
The three-pronged plan is intended to inform future budget, bond, and ordinance/code decisions across City bureaucracies. The crux of the plan is to focus development in hubs around the city to prevent suburban sprawl, encourage investment in historically underserved neighborhoods, and further environmental sustainability goals.
City officials expect a final copy and executive summary of the draft, which has gone through several rounds of revisions and amendments, to be available by the end of August. In the meantime, the draft plans and proposed revisions are available to download on the City’s website.
Although the litany of revisions and additions to the plans proposed by Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) were ultimately rejected by his colleagues, he stood by Mayor Ivy Taylor and City department heads after the vote to call for a coordinated effort to ensure that SA Tomorrow doesn’t collect dust on the shelf with other community and master plans in San Antonio and across the country.
“Today we took an important step toward creating the San Antonio that we deserve. One that is economically resilient, environmentally sustainable, community-centered and better connected,” he said. “We have been working for over two years to listen closely to thousands of neighbors who have their own vision for our city.”
The plan isn’t perfect, he said later, but “this plan is better than no plan.”
Download an overview of the amendments proposed during Thursday’s meeting here.
Several Council members on the dais pointed out that it will be up to this and future Councils to actually move forward with implementation and policymaking that aligns with the Comprehensive, Sustainability, and Multimodal Transportation plans.
Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Rey Saldaña (D4), and Shirley Gonzales (D5) voted twice in favor of Nirenberg’s proposed amendments to the Comprehensive and Multimodal Transportation plans that would have reinstated the word “regulations” in several development guiding policies. The implication is that word could imply the future use of development fees and fines. Nirenberg also wanted to add several policies that would strengthen language regarding the protection of the Edwards Aquifer and the Tree Preservation Ordinance.
Saldaña agreed that removing the words also removes the teeth from a framework that is supposed to encourage all tools and avenues toward developing smart, sustainable policy.
“When there has been an absence of regulation … we’ve gotten to the point where we have overdeveloped oversensitive areas (over the Edwards Aquifer),” said Saldaña. “We didn’t get to the point of an imbalanced city by accident. It was a question of who was calling the shots.”
Voting against Nirenberg’s “last-minute changes” as some called the amendments, was Rebecca Viagran (D3), Alan Warrick (D2), Ray Lopez (D6), Cris Medina (D7), Mike Gallagher (D10), and Joe Krier (D9).
“I regret having to see my esteemed colleague’s amendments only 30 minutes ago,” Krier said. “I’m not in a position to study them, much less be able to thoughtfully vote for them at this time.”
Nirenberg argued that most of the amendments were reinstatements of the original, widely distributed drafts of the plans months ago and that he brought them up during the protracted review and revision process over the past few months.
Throughout the public feedback and Planning Commission processes, instances of “regulate,” “require,” and “establish” have been replaced with “incentivize,” “promote,” and “consider” for a more positive, some would say more “developer-friendly” tone.
It was the Planning Commission’s 5-4 vote last month that removed the considerations for light pollution and impervious cover entirely. Several representatives from local real estate and development interests have been advocating for their removal throughout the planning process and did so again on Thursday.
“There’s been a draft plan, that I’ve been trying to restore, since May 2,” Nirenberg said. “I think we had plenty of time. … What I saw today was an attempt to remove teeth by special interests, and that’s not okay with me.”
Ultimately, a compromise was reached by an amendment brought to the table by Treviño. Originally, the text called for the City to “evaluate and update” the Dark Skies Ordinance, which restricts the amount of light pollution surrounding military bases, to include the rest of San Antonio. Now an update would be necessary only “if deemed necessary through a broad stakeholder process.”
Impervious cover is anything that prevents water from being absorbed into the ground. The less pervious cover an area has, the more prone it is to flooding and poor water quality. Today, there are limits to how much impervious cover a development can have per acre over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge zone. Several citizens, agencies, and organizations, including the San Antonio River Authority and the local chapters of the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund, have been working toward getting the policy back into the Sustainability Plan.
Originally, the sustainable strategy read: “Develop and implement effective impervious surface standards for new development and redevelopment projects.”
Now the strategy is to, “through a representative stakeholder process, conduct a science-based assessment of the impact of increased impervious cover and determine if development standards are needed to address flooding, water quality, and urban heat islands.”
Other Changes Made to ADA Items and Vista Ridge Language
Viagran made a separate motion to include just two of Nirenberg’s original nine amendments to the Transporation Plan as they related to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Technically, the federal government already has standards for ADA buildings and infrastructure.
“How redundant are we going to get?” Gallagher asked rhetorically.
But Viagran and others felt it important to further strengthen such policies in SA Tomorrow.
Treviño said the language in the plan takes the federal mandates a step further so that San Antonio’s ADA infrastructure is not just “technically correct, but that it meets the spirit” of accessibility.
Gallagher introduced an amendment that was approved by City Council to change how the Vista Ridge water pipeline project is described in the Comprehensive Plan.
Instead of stating that the project has “raised controversial questions regarding the reliability of the water, proposed SAWS rate hikes and rate restructuring and concerns that an equal amount of water could be gained through better conservation and landscape irrigation controls,” it now uses less divisive, controversial language: “consideration of and unanimous SAWS and City Council commitment to the project allowed for significant community debate regarding water reliability, SAWS rate restructuring, and conservation and landscape irrigation controls.”
At the end of the day – or even at the end of the year 2040 – SA Tomorrow is not policy.
“This is just a framework of guidelines,” Saldaña said. “Nothing here is prescriptive.”
Krier said later that he would be, and the Council should be, open to reconsidering the policies suggested by Nirenberg or others in the future. The SA Tomorrow plan is meant to be a living document updated every five years and there are still other avenues – ordinance and City code – to meet the same objectives.
“Rejecting anybody’s amendments today is not to say we’re never ever going to do that,” Krier said. “It’s just to say we’re not going to do that right now in terms of incorporating it into this plan.”
Mayor Taylor initiated the planning process in 2014 and public engagement, which officially launched in April 2015, but there was still a strong sense from the citizens that spoke before the vote that the process was not as engaging and inclusive as it could have been.
“I believe we fell short there,” Taylor said during her closing remarks on the dais. “It’s an imperfect document (but) I think it certainly puts us on the right path. This is just the first step. Implementation is really where all the action will occur and we’ll have the opportunity to revisit these concepts.”
Top image: An aerial view of the South Texas Medical Center in San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.