A Centex sign advertising no city taxes in Alamo Ranch. Photo by Scott Ball.
A Centex sign advertising no City taxes in Alamo Ranch. Photo by Scott Ball.

The City of San Antonio is on track to make itself the fifth largest city in the nation by annexing five of the fastest-growing unincorporated areas of Bexar County, a plan first announced last year that will expand the city’s geographic footprint by 66 square miles and add an estimated 200,000 people to its population base.

The City’s annexation plans come after more than a decade without significant annexation, although San Antonio is the only major Texas city that isn’t largely corralled by incorporated suburbs. Significant parts of Bexar County remain unincorporated and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has urged the City to accelerate its annexation plans to help County government, which lacks the same resources to provide basic services.

Wolff, who served as San Antonio mayor from 1991-95, presided over pro-annexation City Councils, which acted with regularity anytime a community in fast-growing Bexar County reached a size where its service demands and potential tax base aligned with San Antonio’s growth and management objectives. That changed in 1999 when the Texas Legislature passed a new law requiring cities to provide basic services to communities as soon as they were annexed rather than over time. Cities manage to comply with the law and continue to extend their boundaries through limited purpose annexation, which signals the intent to annex without requiring immediate delivery of services.

Click here to better understand annexation, limited purpose annexation and extraterritorial jurisdiction.

A construction vehicle sits on a recently cleared lot in Alamo Ranch. Photo by Scott Ball.
A construction vehicle sits on a recently cleared lot in Alamo Ranch. Photo by Scott Ball.

Seventh Largest City Vs. 25th Largest MSA

If the City moves forward with its annexation plans, San Antonio will grow from 486 to to 552 square miles with a population of more than 1.6 million. By comparison, Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, is 627 square miles with 2.2 million people. Phoenix, the nation’s sixth largest city, is 517 square miles with 1.53 million people. Philadelphia, the fifth largest city today, is only 142 square miles with 1.53 million people, reflecting the density of Northeast cities compared to the sprawl of Sunbelt cities. Dallas, surrounded by incorporated suburbs, is only 386 square miles. Fast-growing Austin is 272 square miles.

No one will seriously consider San Antonio in the same breath as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston, the four largest cities. All four cities are at the core of large metropolitan areas. A more accurate measure of San Antonio’s size is comparing it to other MSAs, or metropolitan statistical areas, which reflect distinct urban areas and regional economies, that is, a city and surrounding communities that self-identify as forming a distinct physical and economic place.

By that measure, San Antonio, now the 25th largest MSA, would surpass Portland, Pittsburgh and Charlotte and become the 22nd largest MSA, still trailing by hundreds of thousands of people the Denver, Baltimore and St. Louis MSAs.

San Antonio would not really be passing Phoenix and Philadelphia. Philadelphia dwarfs San Antonio with six million people, making it the nation’s sixth largest MSA. Phoenix, with 4.5 million people, is the 12th largest MSA and still would be double the size of San Antonio, which counts 2.3 million people in its MSA today, even after the annexation of 200,000 more people.

Still, San Antonio’s determination to grow is placing it on a bigger stage, as evidenced by this Wall Street Journal story published last December.

Opposition and Support

At the same time, not everyone wants to become part of San Antonio, pitting the City against unincorporated communities from Alamo Ranch to Canyon Springs.  Richard Cash, chairman of the Committee to Incorporate Alamo Ranch, published this anti-annexation commentary on the Rivard Report in April. State Rep. Lyle Larsen (R-122) published this anti-annexation op-ed in the Express-News in June opposing annexation and lamenting the failed legislation to give unincorporated voters a say.

By state law, residents in unincorporated areas of Bexar County living within five miles of San Antonio’s city limits, known as the City’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, can only incorporate if they win approval from the City.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax revenues are at stake, and the City appears to have the legal authority to move forward and annex the unincorporated areas. Efforts by lawmakers to pass legislation giving residents in unincorporated areas the right to vote for or against annexation failed after a vigorous lobbying effort by the Texas Municipal League.

The City has held numerous public meetings since it presented details of its annexation plans in November. Since then, residents in some unincorporated areas have made efforts to organize opposition, and some in San Antonio question whether growth of the City’s tax base will cover the costs of basic services, including police, fire, libraries, etc. Some worry the City’s efforts to pursue policies supporting infill development of the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods will suffer as  resources are diverted from the urban core to continued suburban growth and sprawl of the city.

A house being constructed in Alamo Ranch. Photo by Scott Ball.
A house under construction in Alamo Ranch. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Last year City staff identified five areas for top priority. The City is planning to provide limited purpose annexation of three of those areas along I-10 West and I-10 East, and U.S. 281 North. The City is considering limited purpose annexation of two other areas, around Alamo Ranch/Texas Highway 151 and U.S. Highway 90/Loop 1604 by the end of 2016. Council must decide within three years whether these areas should be fully annexed, by which time city planners expect the population to grow to nearly 200,000.

John Dugan, director of the Planning and Community Development Department, briefed the council on Tuesday on his department’s proposed fiscal year 2016 budget. He said six additional areas should be studied in 2016 for possible limited annexation:

  • Scenic Loop Road area between 1604 and the Kendall County line, where low-density development has arisen over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone;
  • Culebra/Shaenfield roads, where the number of subdivisions has increased;
  • Potranco/Talley roads, where a high growth rate exists;
  • 281/Evans Road, where residential and commercial development has been steady;
  • I-10 East corridor/Crestway, a mostly industrial area;
  • Old Corpus Christi Road/U.S. Highway 181, a primarily industrial area that features a railroad switching yard.

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Dugan said it would take $356,000 to undertake a comprehensive study of these six areas for potential limited annexation by 2017, which account for a total of 87 square miles and a current population of nearly 40,000. That figure is projected to rise to 116,773 in those six areas in 20 years.

If it were to fully annex all 11 areas, San Antonio would expand from its current 486 square miles to 637 square miles. The city’s total population would increase from 1.4 million to more than 1.6 million.

The proposed annexation drew questions from one inner city council member and one suburban council member.

Councilmember Mike Gallagher (D10) said he understand the need to stay atop growth patterns surrounding San Antonio, but expressed concern the planned 2017 bond, which could total $750 million, would be spread too thinly if the City proceeds with its plans.

Proposed priority annexation areas based on the City of San Antonio's 2014 study.
Proposed priority annexation areas based on the City of San Antonio’s 2014 study. Click here to download full size PDF.

Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5), who represents the Westside, said the City’s primary focus should be on the city’s established neighborhoods, especially older neighborhoods that are in need of significant infrastructure improvements. Gonzales said in an interview that at present does not support the full annexation of 11 targeted areas in the proposed time frame.

“We don’t have an aggressive policy to help keep the inner city up to par,” Gonzales said Thursday, adding that she fears new annexation will reduce the quality of basic services in the inner city. “One of the things that keeps coming up in my district, and really in the inner city, is response time by police and fire.”

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) elaborated Thursday on comments he offered Tuesday. He said the City is right to anticipate near and long-term growth challenges so it can better manage demand for water and other resources.

“Part of what is happening now is to unwind the lack of planning we’ve had as a city in the past,” Nirenberg said.

Christine Drennon, an urban studies professor at Trinity University, said new tax revenue are gained when a city expands its boundaries. But she posed a rhetorical question: It’s one thing if infrastructure already exists in the newly annexed land. What if it doesn’t? Is it worth it for a city’s established taxpayers to pick up the tab?

“That new area may need a fire station, but the needs of the inner city may already be greater. That’s what a city must consider,” Drennon said. “I get it: If San Antonio grabs land now, it won’t be a free-for-all later. But if that annexed land is not fully developed yet, it becomes part of the city and we become responsible for infrastructure and other services there. The inner part of the city continues to pay.”

San Antonio faces some risk that legislation that failed this past session could pass in the 2017 session. Texas Tea Party activists and lawmakers have pledged to renew those efforts. Dugan noted that if more stringent annexation laws had been in effect decades ago, San Antonio’s expansion would have stopped inside Loop 410.

Nirenberg said he “is less concerned about the Legislature’s ticking clock than about getting things right.”

Meanwhile, Alamo Ranch homeowners are trying to incorporate as a city. Organized property owners in the area received notice from their attorney, Art Martinez de Vara, that the City will respond to their incorporation petition in the next few month.

Proposed boundaries of the City of Alamo Ranch by Richard Cash.
Proposed boundaries of the City of Alamo Ranch by Richard Cash.

Cash told the Rivard Report that San Antonio already has plenty of issues to address.

“What (the city is) doing is completely wrong and everyone in the unincorporated areas that will be effected by these annexation sees a big greedy city that has a difficult time addressing their own inner city problems,” Cash said. “(The city has) logged thousands of 3-1-1 requests for maintenance and repairs. They have deteriorating areas throughout the city and can’t even negotiate a police contract. They need to fix what they have instead of adding more land, people and issues.”

A majority of City Council members clearly see things differently, believing the growing number of people living close to San Antonio and relying on its utilities and other services and amenities, ought to pay city taxes. Councilmember Ray Lopez (D6) said the City must take the initiative.

“Everybody recognizes the old saying, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ but that has really morphed into, ‘You better build it because they’re coming,’” Lopez said Tuesday. “There’s no question people are coming here, whether it’s in San Antonio’s boundaries or not.”

City Manager Sheryl Sculley told City Council that the City has to anticipate and manage growth at the same time it continues to focus on redevelopment efforts in the inner city.

“We have developers, homebuilders, realtors suggesting that people come and live outside of the city, pay lower taxes and enjoy the benefits of San Antonio,” she said. “These are folks who use our (South Texas) Medical Center, universities, museums and cultural activities.”

Cash took issue with Sculley’s suggestion.

“The city’s position is to portray the folks in unincorporated areas as freeloaders who come in and use city services and do not pay for it,” he said. “I would argue that we pay for it each and every time we go inside the city and spend money on fuel, food, entertainment, medical and any other time we spend money inside San Antonio. We pay for it in the way of sales tax.”

Councilmember Joe Krier (D9) said smart growth is vital, but want to be assured essential services are adequately balanced citywide.

“These big new neighborhoods make sense until there’s a really big fire or a big crime wave,” Krier said Tuesday.

Gonzales said better streets, drainage and sidewalks, and policies to accelerate infill development, would attract more people to move into the urban core at less long-term expense to the City.

Signs advertising newly constructed neighborhoods off of Alamo Ranch Parkway. Photo by Scott Ball.
Signs advertising newly constructed neighborhoods off of Alamo Ranch Parkway. Photo by Scott Ball.

“We could have even more desirable neighborhoods,” Gonzales said. “But if we can’t bring the inner city up to par, we’ll never have balanced growth.”

Cash sees the situation mostly as a fiscal issue.

“We did not help to incur the debt San Antonio has, so why are we being forced to pay for it? We also want a voice and the ability to vote on whether become part of San Antonio. After all, we choose not to live in the city for a reason.”

Drennon said small communities that try to stave off being swallowed by nearby larger cities use incorporation as an “exclusionary device” so they can dictate their own development pattern, such as not having any multi-family housing.

“It’s so a community can say ‘We’re better off as just a rough and tumble city,’ something like that. There’s nothing wrong with it,” she added.

Sculley acknowledged that growth through annexation typically draws opposition.

“Planning for these areas doesn’t come without controversy,” Sculley told City Council.

Nirenberg asked City staff to alert residents currently living near the areas targeted for annexation, including Camelot II neighborhood in the I-10 East corridor in an unincorporated area near Windcrest, within San Antonio’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. It lacks basic services such as garbage collection. Nirenberg said the City and County have been working to address the problem of uncollected trash and dumping there.

Starting in mid-September, City Council and the City’s Planning and Zoning Commissions will hold separate public hearings on the limited annexation of the priority areas along I-10 West and I-10 East, and U.S. 281 North.

*Featured/top image: A Centex sign advertising “no city taxes” in Alamo Ranch.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Commentary: Alamo Ranch Should Fight San Antonio Annexation

San Antonio Focuses on Annexation Strategy

City Emphasizes ‘Back to Basics’ Budget

Bexar County Sixth on U.S. Census List for Population Growth

City Planning for San Antonio Growth Bomb

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.