Like Water for Golf
A coalition whose diversity of membership is unparalleled in San Antonio’s history has banded together to fight off a marriage of sports and suburban sprawl that threatens to contaminate the city’s main source of drinking water. Misleadingly called “PGA Village,” the 2,861-acre golf complex planned by the Professional Golf Association of America and its developer designee, the Austin-based Lumbermen’s Investment Corp., will sit atop the last remaining open acreage in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
Low- and moderate-income residents from all racial backgrounds working alongside environmentalists are circulating petitions and mobilizing the citizenry to protect the community’s lifeblood, but the game is rigged. The city council and the Legislature have quietly tilted the field in favor of the PGA and Lumbermen’s Investment, allowing the developer to make the rules, assure victory, and sidestep little sandtraps like an estimated $60 million in taxes and environmental impact statements.
The PGA golf resort will be located outside the 1604 Beltway, just beyond the city limits, but within the extraterritorial jurisdiction of San Antonio. This part of the metropolitan area endures as Hill Country terrain, marked by gently rolling hills, small canyons, and dry creekbeds. The soil is rocky and covered with oak, cedar, and cactus, which might soon be sculpted into a world-class set of golf courses surrounded by shops, condominiums, and hotels. Plenty of fresh water, recycled wastewater, fertilizers, and toxic chemicals will help keep the golf course grass green and lush. The runoff could likely find its way through the karst rock beneath the soil and into the aquifer, according to three out of five hydrologists surveyed by the San Antonio Express-News.
The Edwards Aquifer supplies the majority of San Antonio’s drinking water. As the city has grown, shortages and rationing have become commonplace in the hot, dry summers. Already 80 percent of the land over the aquifer has been developed. Community activists fear that secondary growth sparked by PGA Village will further gobble up the few remaining fragments of the recharge zone.
Since past efforts to halt or curtail development have failed, Mayor Ed Garza, who has made inner-city growth a priority, tried to find another site for the PGA Village away from the aquifer. Garza traveled to PGA headquarters in Port St. Lucie, Florida to negotiate, but was sent home without a hint of compromise from PGA. The 86-year-old golf association hid behind Lumbermen’s Investment’s refusal to consider an alternative site. Instead, on February 5, the developer gave the city a deadline of 90 days to make a final decision.
San Antonio’s city council, long suspected of being under the control of developer patrons, is largely staying quiet, hedging with further hydrological studies and closed-door negotiations. Until recently, Bonnie Conner, representing District 8, was the only member of the city council to even publicly raise questions about the project. Another likely opponent on the council, Julian Castro, a young lawyer who represents westside District 7, had been mute because his law firm has a contract with Lumbermen’s Investment. Although Castro never handled Lumbermen’s case, he had been barred from speaking or voting on the development. In early February, in a rare act of sacrifice by a politician, Castro quit the firm and has come out in opposition to what he dubs “the golfopolis.”
In a cautious open letter on February 21, Councilwoman Conner questioned if the developer would monitor water quality once it assumed control of the area. Lumbermen’s Investment has said that it will only develop such a plan after it receives final approval for the project from the city. Conner also wanted to know about protected and endangered species on the property and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency requirements that Lumbermen’s must provide land to mitigate environmental effects. There is a good chance the endangered golden-cheeked warbler nests on the property. Lumbermen’s Investment conducted a six-year study of warblers, but refuses to make the report public. Instead, once again the developer promises to present its study on the bird after a development plan is approved by the city.
As a further sop to critics, Lum-bermen’s Investment has offered to “give” the city 1,100 acres from the parcel to protect the warblers and other threatened species (which San Antonio will actually buy out of tax revenue retained by PGA and the developer). “The City Council should steadfastly maintain that if Lumbermen’s uses the 1,100 acres given to the city for mitigation, they must not be allowed to pay themselves, at a price they determine, for the property,” implored Conner in her letter.
Arguably the largest giveaways for PGA Village came from San Antonio’s state legislators. During the last legislative session, state representative Robert Puente (D-San Antonio) and state senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) sponsored a bill creating the euphemistically named Cibolo Canyon Conservation and Improvement District (Senate Bill 1629). Largely written by Lumbermen’s Investment lobbyists, the Texas law allows PGA Village to be a separate governmental entity with full taxing authority if the city council gives approval.
Such new governmental units are called Special Taxing Districts, the latest fad for greedy developers to circumvent regulations and taxation. According to the law, Lumbermen’s Investment will be allowed to in effect create a new city with PGA’s Special Taxing District, whose developer-selected governing board can “impose ad valorem taxes, sales and use taxes, hotel occupancy taxes, assessments, and impact fees and apply the proceeds of the taxes, assessments or fees to the payment of debt, to contract payments, or to maintenance and operating expenses.”
The Cibolo Canyon district is one of 18 such “designer districts” in Texas. Under the special districts, developers not only levy taxes, they can secure loans against future taxes–essentially giving them a license to print money. Unbeknownst to many outside the negotiating room, Lumbermen’s Investment can also add additional property to expand their taxing zone, notes Councilwoman Conner.
For 15 years, under the current plan, the massive PGA resort, including its three golf courses, two luxury hotels, a 35-acre golf instruction center and an array of houses, apartments, and condominiums will pay taxes to itself–a deal estimated to be worth at least $60 million. The developer and its political allies promise all of these incentives will help create jobs, the vast majority of which, critics assert, will be low-wage.
When community activists try to defend the aquifer, Lumbermen’s Investment counters with the possibility of something much worse. Thanks to a loophole created by the city council, the developer has a project that is grandfathered from current stringent environmental standards, which it claims would allow a subdivision of 9,060 water-guzzling homes to be built on the same location.
This possibility was apparently real enough to convince the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which voted on February 19 in favor of PGA Village. Susan Hughes, one of the Aquifer Board members, told the San Antonio Express-News earlier that it was “a devil’s choice.” Reasoning that the impact of 9,000 homes would be greater, the Aquifer Authority gave in quickly to the developer’s golf resort offer. Although they now say they were merely commenting on the water quality provisions in the contract, a letter accompanying their recommendations states that they are “pleased with the environmental and monitoring plans provided by the [Lumbermen’s].”
But the political momentum might be starting to shift as politicians get nervous before the groundswell of PGA critics.
“They tell us we have to choose between two options,” commented Mario Salas, who is running for Bexar County commissioner. “That was a shrewd trick. I say, ‘Get your golf bags and get out of town.'” His opponent, incumbent Tommy Adkisson, called the tax incentive “obnoxious” and vowed to send letters to his fellow elected officials urging them to shut down the project.
The extraordinary coalition that has formed to oppose the project will try to do just that in what many see as a crossroads in the city’s growth. San Antonio’s sister interfaith organizations–the primarily Hispanic Citizens Organized for Public Service (COPS) and the northside Metro Alliance–along with environmental and civic groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the League of Women Voters, under the banner of the Coalition for Smart Growth, are trying a variety of tactics to stop the PGA and Lumbermen’s Investment. Now that there is plenty of political heat, they want to go back to the Legislature to move the debate away from the secluded negotiating tables at City Hall.
And indeed, the support of many local legislators who had voted for the special taxing district is starting to waver. The citizen groups also plan a petition drive the moment the city council greenlights the project to become a Special Taxing District. Signatures are already being collected to force a referendum. COPS led a successful petition drive in 1975 over a similar aquifer issue. This time forcing a referendum will require that 68,000 registered voters sign a petition within 40 days of the city council vote, tentatively scheduled for March 28. With characteristic arrogance, when Lum-bermen’s Investment heard of the possible referendum, it declared itself immune to such action because of its status as an independent governmental entity. The city’s attorney, who reviewed the legality of a referendum, declared on February 28 that it would be binding.
Opponents of the project even have San Antonio Archbishop Patrick Flores on their side. He added his support on February 27 by issuing a statement urging San Antonians, and especially priests and lay workers, to protect their water and sign petitions against the development. But this is Texas—will that be enough? Thanks to the Legislature and the city council, those who want to protect the aquifer and keep tax revenue public are behind the developers by several strokes. It will take more than a few holes-in-one to pull out a victory.
Belle Zars is a writer living in San Antonio.