Councilman Nirenberg and Russell Yeager of Big Red Dog discuss annexation as at a November brainstorming session at Overland Partners. Photo by Nicolas Rivard.
Councilman Nirenberg and Russell Yeager of Big Red Dog discuss annexation as at a November brainstorming session at Overland Partners. Photo by Nicolas Rivard.

With another round of annexations in limbo, the 2017 San Antonio municipal bond on the horizon, and the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan well underway, the next 18 months offer a unique window of opportunity to shape San Antonio’s future. How and where we spend the anticipated $700 million bond will speak volumes about our growth as a city over the next 5-10 years.

Both camps in the annexation debate have smart advocates with strong voices. Should we, as City Planning Director John Dugan opines, reign in uncontrolled growth outside our city limits by annexing new development? Or, as Tech Bloc contends, are we spreading ourselves too thin by growing ever outward? In truth, annexation is not the root problem, but a symptom of our larger development pattern. And when it comes to growth, we know that San Antonio has two clear options: infill and sprawl. We also know by now that we cannot afford more sprawl. So what does this mean for City’s newest proposed annexation plan?

Image by Nicolas Rivard.
Image by Nicolas Rivard.

It is important to remember that newly annexed areas will compete for the resources in the municipal bond. Right now, citizens across the city are lobbying council member in the chamber around the clock for their project to be included in the bond. Of course, any decision about where to invest yields winners and losers. Some projects will make the list, others will not, and the neighborhoods where bond projects do get built will naturally be the winners. That private development follows public infrastructure investment is no secret.

The big question: what portion of the bond will we invest downtown, or even within loop 410? Every dollar spent on a newly annexed area is a dollar that does not go to an existing neighborhood.

To understand the issue more fully, I sat down with Councilman Ron Nirenberg for an annexation conversation. As chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee and the elected representative of District 8, Ron brings a nuanced perspective informed by first hand experience to this complex subject.

Nicolas Rivard: Mayor Ivy Taylor recently called for an independent assessment of the latest annexation proposal. This seems like a prudent step given San Antonio’s enormous footprint. Can you explain why City Council is taking additional time to deliberate so carefully on this particular round of annexations?

Councilman Ron Nirenberg: We want to be a better city, not just a bigger one. I think the caution you see being taken with annexation has to do with the results of  unsustainable growth that has typified the last 50 years in San Antonio. We are a City on the Rise, but we are also a city that has experienced the painful life cycle of urban decay, rising infrastructure costs, and strain on public health, green spaces, and natural resources. If annexation is to be used as a tool to help us reverse those trends, then more of the same is just not good enough. We have to do it right, and that begins with, first, articulating what we are trying to accomplish, and then, analyzing the assumptions and policies that are built into the traditional approach for annexation. If annexation does not help us achieve what we are trying to achieve, we should not pursue it.

NR: You have stated that annexation can be an effective tool, but you also think it is not being used that way currently. Can you expand on that thought? Many mature neighborhoods within Loop 410 were once isolated suburbs, and even some quite historic places like Dignowity Hill started off as streetcar suburbs.

RN: Annexation extends the limits of the city’s authority in order to manage development density, building codes, transportation infrastructure, etc. If our goal, for the benefit of the City of San Antonio and others outside of the city, is to manage growth and protect quality of life, annexation can be a powerful tool if done well. It can help manage – even limit – the urban sprawl that stretches resources unsustainably, chews up green space, and results in communities that are on the fast-track to decline. However, we have seen that kind of evolution in our city regardless, despite a relatively aggressive annexation pace over the last several decades. I believe that it is due to gaps in policy and misaligned priorities, which is why I advocated for the annexation plans to be pulled within the SA Tomorrow comprehensive planning process. This will provide additional perspective and analysis on what will likely be one of the critical decisions for council in the future.

Overland Partners principal Madison Smith leads a November brainstorming session on annexation. Photo by Nicolas Rivard.
Overland Partners principal Madison Smith leads a November brainstorming session on annexation. Photo by Nicolas Rivard.

NR: Agreed. I do wonder what the difference is between the suburbs that eventually integrate into the city and those that remain isolated. Perhaps it is a matter of where the city prioritizes growth? What in your mind is an example of annexation “done well?”

RN: That’s a tough one.  There are many examples of positive growth through annexation here in San Antonio. At one time the city limits extended less than five miles in any direction, and many areas that lie beyond are some of the most vibrant and attractive places to live and work.  But now, the service area is roughly 10 times the size that it used to be, and we need to question the longer term impact of continuing sprawl. The immediate results are known, but it is what happens to those communities 20-30-40 years from annexation that  is a concern. It’s a different scenario when those annexed areas are five miles from the core. When they  are 15-20 miles, the infrastructure needs and service requirements increase by factors.

NR: There is mounting research that sprawl is far more costly to service than inner city development. In your experience, what are the long and short-term economics of annexation?  

RN: The data that planning staff presented show that, on the whole, the annexation areas would be revenue neutral to the city. That should be the goal – annexation should not be simply a revenue generator, we must be committed to long-term sustainability. Those data, however, should be scrutinized, as I and others have questioned the assumptions used in the financial analysis, from costs for public safety to the tax revenue implications for reduced sprawl. At least two independent studies are being conducted on those numbers.

NR: If annexation is in fact revenue neutral, is that reason enough to continue pursuing it as a policy? The additional responsibility the city bears to provide and maintain services at its outskirts should factor into the overall financial calculus. Many indirect costs are difficult to quantify in a financial analysis – the cost of future transportation infrastructure needs, for example. So, how we determine the real costs?

RN: It’s not, and that’s why the Council in 2012 and 2013 considered an annexation policy that was independent of any areas to annex (and certainly those under consideration right now). Financial impact is only one of several factors that also includes long-range planning, intergovernmental cooperation, etc.

NR: One fundamental issue underlying annexation is the imbalance between city and county relative authority to regulate development. I would like to see increased authority for the county to control growth so the city is not constantly chasing development that already happened, but that would require legislative action. Do you have other ideas about how to counteract this mismatch?

RN: In the current paradigm of state/local property law, the county will have little authority to manage development. If it did, we could accomplish much of the managed growth vision simply through coordination of our efforts.  I believe, if there is legislation in 2017 – as expected – that would limit city’s authority to annex areas, we should also support legislation that provides for more county authority in managing growth in the extraterritorial jurisdiction.

NR: Would something like a regional planning authority be a useful mechanism for avoiding annexation? That model seems effective elsewhere in the country. I know we have issue-specific regional entities in Central Texas – groups like the Alamo Area MPO for transportation or the South Central Texas Regional Water Planning Group for water. Do we have any entities that plan holistically for regional development?

RN: Extending planning and development authority – so that we can encourage more coherent, sustainable growth patterns – is the goal. If that occurs through a regional entity or through a municipal annexation is not the concern, so long as resulting community has the means to support itself in the future. In reality, the AAMPO does much more than plan regional transportation, SAWS does more than plan for water access and delivery, and CPS Energy is not just about the energy grid. Each of these organizations plans impact directly (and are directly impacted by) the population and geographic growth of the San Antonio region. That’s why it is so critical that all of these entities are playing from the same sheet of music in achieving the vision of SA2020 and our comprehensive plan.

NR: How do you describe the relationship between annexation and sprawl? I sometimes think of annexation as a symptom of a larger development pattern – sprawl. Do you agree with that?

RN: Annexation can limit sprawl if done well, as described above. However, some policies, like impervious cover limitations, are stronger outside of the city than they are inside. Annexation, in this case, can accelerate sprawl by encouraging increased density in the very areas we are trying to avoid it.

NR: Working in District 8, you must see first hand the connection between annexation and voting outcomes in city elections. The politics of suburban communities and inner city ones are quite different. What does that mean for elected officials setting policy?

RN: Clearly, annexing suburban areas will increase the proportion of suburban voices/concerns at the polls. Is that a concern for San Antonio, where we are playing significant catch-up on maintaining and building the central city? Yes.  Should that be considered as part of the final analysis when determining how to proceed (or not) with annexation?  No. To build a better San Antonio, we need to ignore the political calculus and just get the policy right by current and future resident on either side of our borders.

NR: How big is too big for San Antonio? We are currently approaching 500 square miles, and CoSA’s newest proposed annexation plan would add an additional 66 square miles. Every annexation stretches our dollars over a larger area. So at what point are we too large to reasonably provide municipal services?

RN: One could argue that we are too big already. We have to question some old logic, such as “we don’t want to be landlocked,” as justification for growing our boundaries. The reality is, we compete locally, regionally, and globally, and city limits are all but irrelevant in many cases. And increasing our service area does not mean that there are new, proportionate resources to accommodate them. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite over time. That’s a big concern and impetus for independent consideration of the financial projections.

NR: I agree that we may already be too big, and we need to take steps to curb the physical expansion of San Antonio. Annexation is one approach, a reactive one. We also need proactive, solution-oriented approaches – the kind we brainstormed at our session in November. As a reminder,those included:

  • Introduce grid-based development pattern into suburbs.
  • Reward developers for providing life cycle neighborhoods with a fine-grained mixture of housing types for all ages.
  • Use municipally owned utilities to control development through entitlements in the absence of our ability to intervene at a state or federal level.
  • Include a framework for suburbs that specifies a grid, nodes, and open spaces as a basis for future growth within the comprehensive plan.
  • Allow neighboring municipalities grow up under our mentorship instead of trying to out compete them or incorporate them.
  • Use the “transfer of development rights” approach utilized in land readjustment processes to concentrate density and protect outlying areas?

What other opportunities do you see?

RN: That covers it. I do think we need to be more realistic and critical about the roles that SAWS and CPS Energy play in where and how our city develops. Growth will occur with or without a plan, but count me among those who would rather push policy that helps create momentum in sustainable areas. We need to better coordinate with these agencies (and VIA), and I see SA2020 – and now SA Tomorrow – as a huge part of that approach. Finally, our goals for infill will never be realized  unless we support any and all efforts to improve public education, particularly in the urban core.

*Top image: Councilman Nirenberg and Russell Yeager of Big Red Dog discuss annexation as at a November brainstorming session at Overland Partners. Photo by Nicolas Rivard.

Related Stories:

Public Safety Worries Drive Annexation Opposition

Planning Commission Backs I-10 West Annexation

City Staff Makes the Case for Annexation Plan

Mayor Comments On Her Drive to Slow Annexation

San Antonio’s Annexation Debat

Nicolas Rivard is a participatory designer at Overland Partners. He graduated from the University of Texas and Harvard University and has worked with communities in Argentina, Kenya, Mexico, Rwanda, and...