A charging Tesla Model S. Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors.
A charging Tesla Model S. Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors.

Tesla Motors‘ request for a zoning change that would allow the company to construct facilities for vehicle, tire, and battery sales and installation failed to earn the Zoning Commission’s approval Tuesday. The three commissioners opposed to the project said they were concerned that the chemicals contained in the batteries might find its way into nearby Leon Creek and/or seep into the Edwards Aquifer.

Telsa’s request, now that it has had two public hearings, can still proceed to City Council consideration on Sept. 3 if the Silicon Valley-based electric car company so chooses. It’s difficult to get a zoning change approved without the approval of the Zoning Commission, but not impossible.

“This is just too risky,” said Commissioner Orlando Salazar (D4) before voting against the zoning change. “There are too many other places in San Antonio (to build this facility) that wouldn’t have such an impact on our drinking water. This is just not wise, you don’t do this.”

Z2015211 S ERZD Tesla Site Plan for zoning commission aug 4 2015
Tesla’s site plan. Click here to download full size PDF.

The new facility would be located just south of La Cantera shopping center.

In January, Tesla announced plans to open a separate showroom facility in the city’s far Northside just beyond Loop 1604. City Council approved a zoning request soon after.

Texas law requires all new motor vehicles to be sold through franchised dealerships, which Tesla is not. Consumers can visit showrooms to check out cars, but actual sales are handled online.

Five commissioners voted in favor of the zoning change as long as it complied with the stipulation, among others, from San Antonio Water System (SAWS) that no more than 10 batteries be on site at a time. Official approval from the commission requires six votes – a majority of the total 11 commissioners. Three commissioners were not present during Tuesday’s meeting.

During its meeting in July, the Zoning Commission delayed its decision on the matter for SAWS staff to further investigate how many batteries the facilities could contain at a time. Initially, SAWS recommended only three – each with a mandatory shelf-life of no more than 10 days. Telsa’s showroom approved earlier this year, carried that recommendation.

“We’re asking that you reconsider the number that can be stored on site … to a higher calculation of 20,” said Tesla representative Karen Quinto of the zoning request made Tuesday. She had no other objections to SAWS’ list of recommendations.

According to engineers hired by Tesla, Quinto said, they recalculated how much hazardous liquid is in the batteries and made the recommendation of 20 based on the capacity of other facilities across the nation.

But it’s unlikely that any of those are located over such a physically and socially sensitive aquifer recharge zone, Romero said. “You don’t seem to be addressing our underground water. … It’s practically our sole water source – this could be a huge disaster for our community if there is a problem.”

“Two weeks ago, SAWS recommended three and Telsa said they needed seven to 10 or they couldn’t do this,” Commissioner Francine Romero said “So SAWS investigated and looked into it and came back and said, ‘okay, you can do 10.’ And (today) Tesla came back and said ‘we want 20.’”

Michael Barr, an aquifer protection supervisor, said he and his team at SAWS re-evaluated its requirements based on a battery engineering report performed by a third-party hired by Tesla, other Tesla facilities, the location’s geology, and hydrology.

Ultimately, Romero deferred to SAWS’ watershed managers and voted in favor of the zoning change.

“They’re not battery experts, but they’re recharge experts,” she said. “I feel really comfortable with (SAWS recommendation of) 10 batteries, but I do not feel comfortable going beyond that.”

Along with the battery limit, SAWS recommends a host of precautions to prevent chemicals from infiltrating the aquifer including the creation of an onsite water quality basin that would catch and purify any excess runoff that might be contaminated.

Click here to download SAWS’ recommendations.

Romero noted that limiting the quantity of chemicals stored in the recharge zone to prevent aquifer contamination is not unusual for SAWS to do.

But, Salazar said, if there was a fire and the batteries began to leak those chemicals would be washed out by firefighters’ hoses and into the basin. He asked how effective these basins are.

“These aren’t chemicals you want going into the creek,” Barr said. “The Basin will definitely help, but will it catch all of the water … I couldn’t say.”

Leon Creek is about 500 feet away from the site in question, which causes the most concern, Salazar said.

Commission Zac Harris (D1) voted in favor of the plan.

“I love your project, but I am concerned about the water quality as well,” Harris said to Quinto before the vote.

He asked SAWS about other vehicle dealerships and similar facilities that have been built over the recharge zone. While auto maintenance shops are no longer allowed to be built in aquifer-sensitive areas, some have been grandfathered in. A few dealerships that comply with impervious surface requirements have been approved on sites within the recharge zone, SAWS staff explained, but they also have a long list of requirements that include the creation of basins.

If the basin is what SAWS sees as a solution for other facilities, which may have even more batteries on site, “why not this facility?” Harris said.

“I really wish our engineer was here,” Quinto said, who was sent from California in place of a Tesla engineer that could not make it on Tuesday. She couldn’t comment as to whether a battery restriction would prevent Tesla from moving forward with the project.

*Featured/top image: A charging Tesla Model S. Photo courtesy of Tesla Motors.

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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