This month, the San Antonio City Council approved an amendment to its Northside land use plan that makes way for denser development over environmentally sensitive land.

With no discussion — the amendment was on the council’s consent agenda — just over 10 acres of land went from being labeled “rural estate” to “suburban” under the city’s North Sector Plan, which was approved in 2010 to guide Northside and Hill Country development.

The amendment was recommended for approval by the Planning Commission and city staff, along with approval to annex a portion of the property that wasn’t already inside city limits.

Even though it wasn’t a big change, environmentalists say these types of plan amendments are adding up to an increase in development density, impervious cover and increased stormwater runoff over the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones, risking contamination of the region’s largest single source of drinking water.

At least 85 amendments have been approved from 2013 to 2021, roughly half of all requests, according to a study by the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (GEAA). Of those, changes from suburban to urban and rural state to suburban were the most common. Twenty-six changes were approved over the recharge zone and another 28 over the contributing zone.

“These amendments,” the authors wrote, “are consequently altering the land use plans that were originally approved,” and “are significant in that higher-density development can result in an increase in pollution” over those sensitive zones.

A letter GEAA sent to the mayor and City Council in January, about another possible amendment to the North Sector Plan, used language from the plan to make its case: “The amendment must constitute an overall improvement to the Sector Plan and will not solely benefit a particular landowner or owners at a particular point in time.”

In that case, GEAA and representatives from other environmental organizations who signed the letter were urging the council not to amend the plan for the Guajolote tract, an 1,160-acre parcel on which developer Lennar Homes plans to build 2,900 homes, by far the densest development in the area planned to date.

GEAA recently learned that because the land is in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, the developer is no longer bound by the North Sector Plan, because of changes in state law since the plan was written making it more difficult to annex land.

But the core problem of frequent amendments to the plan remains, said Annalisa Peace, GEAA’s executive director. She and others who worked to help craft the original document feel like their work was largely for naught.

“[T]hey throw a bunch of stakeholders together and say, ‘Y’all have it out,’ but since we did that, and we came up with a plan that was acceptable to everybody, I think the city should adhere to it,” Peace said. “It was a lot of work by a lot of parties.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the North Sector Plan “one of the more important planning documents” the city has, given that it covers the area most sensitive to the aquifer, and he said he believes it has helped protect those natural resources while managing sustainable growth.

But city authority is limited, he pointed out, given that much of the most sensitive land over the aquifer isn’t inside the city limits — or even its ETJ — and so the city has no authority to regulate or even guide development. Counties in Texas currently have no zoning authority, so the fix would need to come from the state Legislature, he said — something he does not expect to happen any time soon.

Updating the 1997 master plan

The city sought to update its 1997 master plan in the 2000s, as city leaders learned that more than 1 million new residents would make the region home by 2040. To do so, the city chose to create several smaller “sector” plans. The fully updated master plan was adopted in 2016 and is known as SA Tomorrow.

The North Sector Plan was the first to be drafted. Adopted a dozen years ago, it was meant to be a “strategic instrument” and “one of [the city’s] several key planning tools.”

The city's north sector land use plan covers a large swath of the Edwards Aquifer.
The city’s Northside land use plan covers a swath of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Stakeholders involved in crafting the plan included representatives from GEAA, Bexar County, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the Scenic Loop-Boerne Stage Alliance, San Antonio Water System and others. The process included sending emails and postcards to residents in the area and holding four public meetings and eight team meetings over seven months as stakeholders hashed out differences and compromises.

The resulting plan is a 277-page document that outlines goals, strategies and actions for responsible development. A strong theme throughout the document is a desire to protect the area’s parks, the Edwards Aquifer and its recharge and contributing zones. It details what responsible land use would look, breaking the area into “tiers” and labeling them according to best use.

Much of the northern half of the area covered by the plan was labeled as country, natural and ‘rural estate,’ meaning that land should either stay undeveloped or host low-density development. Land closer to arteries such as Loop 1604 and US-281 was labeled suburban and urban.

How the amendment process works

When landowners within the city’s limits want to use their land in a way that does not align with the North Sector Plan, they must seek an amendment. Because of changes to state law, land in the city’s ETJ, such as the Guajolote tract, is no longer bound by the plan, said Rudy Niño, assistant director of the city’s Planning Department.

“The city had a lot more authority when the plan was adopted to plan ahead for annexation,” Niño said. “We can apply our subdivision regulations, but essentially, that’s about the authority that the City Council has in the ETJ.”

Proposed plan amendments are shepherded through the process by the city’s Development Services Department, which takes them to the Planning Commission for approval before making a recommendation to the City Council.

It is there that the public can most influence the process, officials said, whether to halt the amendment or extract concessions from developers, such as designating some land as open space or expanding setbacks.

Once any deals are hammered out, the commission and city staff make their recommendation to the city council, which has final approval, said city spokeswoman Ximena Copa-Wiggins. The council routinely accepts those recommendations, she said, often placing them on the consent agenda, meaning it is approved without discussion.

Developing newer land use plans

Perhaps because of its age, and because more recent “sub-area” plans are being developed, neither Northside council member appeared particularly familiar with the North Sector Plan.

Councilman Manny Palaez (D8), whose district includes the land that won the amendment last week, was unavailable to comment on the plan or the amendment process, his spokeswoman Erin Nichols said via text, because he was “on a trade mission in Colombia.” According to Nichols, neither the councilman nor she is familiar with the plan.

“We honestly don’t know what the North Sector Plan is, lol” she texted to a reporter.

Councilman John Courage (D9) said he wasn’t sure what the boundaries of the North Sector Plan are but said two sub-area plans are currently being developed in his district now that could help bring more awareness and clarity to development in the area. One plan is for the airport region, the other around Stone Oak, he said.

Courage said is very concerned about development over the aquifer and in general doesn’t support it on undeveloped tracts of land. But each case must be considered individually, he said. In another case, he said a developer proposed turning an existing parking lot into apartments, which would reduce the amount of existing impervious cover, a change he considers a win.

Courage echoed the mayor’s comments about the bigger challenge of trying to protect sensitive land outside city limits. “Texas is a property-rights state,” he said, so “it’s challenging for a city to have a lot of development requirements that may not agree with what the state lays out. And so we’ve got to work within those confines.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...