After scolding activists for spreading "misinformation" about the PGA development, City Council unanimously approved a timetable for an annexation plan of the golfopolis over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. The plan, penned by Mayor Ed Garza in a letter of intent to the PGA and its developer, Lumbermen's Inc., is not a replica, but remarkably similar to the previous PGA proposal: That one that died in June after 77,000 petitioners forced the Council's hand. Rather than put it to a public vote on the November ballot, the Council rescinded the ordinance that would have allowed the PGA to levy taxes on its property.
The primary difference between the two proposals is that instead of allowing Lumbermen's to form its own taxing fiefdom, the City is delaying annexation for 15 years — a value of $44 million in public subsidies to the developer. And since the City used a maneuver — albeit a legal one — befitting a game of three-card monte, the plan is not subject to a referendum because state law requires public hearings on annexations. (Considering how City Council patronizes the public by talking on the phone when citizens are addressing them (see "Party Lines," page 7) — these hearings are charades for public input.)
Prompted by what SOA calls the "switcheroo" — the new proposal is functionally the same, the group charges — activists are suing the City in federal court, claiming it violated the Voting Rights Act, 14th Amendment, and Texas Open Meetings Act.
"This is a transparent circumvention," said Amy Kasteli, SOA's lawyer, one of the same attorneys who represented the Esperanza Center in its winning suit against the City. "They want to reintroduce it and claim a different ruling."
"It was a slap in the face to the people and the voters in San Antonio," added SOA's Joleen García. "Now there is no accountability on the next action. It looks like they're evading the people's voice and their wishes. We're asking Council to honor the process."
The current development proposal also provides fewer protections for the Edwards Aquifer. In addition to the two golf courses and hotel, the new proposal calls for about 4,000 housing units — only about 2,000 fewer than if Lumbermen's opted to make the development solely residential. Hydrologist George Rice, who is running for a seat on the Edwards Aqufier Authority board, said the effect on water quality will be the same "whatever Lumbermen's puts there."
An Austin study done in the mid-'90s showed the effects of golf courses and low-density housing on water quality are about the same; there are no studies, Rice said, comparing golf courses and high-density housing.
Although Lumbermen's pledges to monitor its groundwater and surface water, Rice called that promise "a loose use of the term," because the developer can implement as few as three monitoring wells on four square miles. Nor is the developer required to monitor water runoff outside the property boundaries. "The chances of detecting groundwater contamination isn't that great," Rice noted.
"When they've said this is a different proposal, they're missing the picture," noted Joleen García, who is not related to Councilman David Garcia. "It's a public subsidy of a project that is dangerous to our water. For all intents and purposes it's the same and factual in that respect."
The Council's spin on the PGA is dizzying. District 8's Bonnie Conner blamed Save Our Aquifer for supporting a petition drive — not elected officials' refusal to represent their constituents' wishes — for this subpar plan. "Save Our Aquifer is an oxymoron," Conner stated at the meeting. "We have lost open space and not saved more of the aquifer."
Bobby Perez of District 1 chimed in: "Unfortunately we couldn't utilize that `previous` agreement in order to respect 75,000 opposing signatures."
Yet Perez and the rest of Council fails to acknowledge that pushing through a substantively similar plan — even though they have the power to kill it — is not respecting the 77, 000 registered voters who want to decide the future of PGA in San Antonio.
It is also ironic that several Council members berated the media and activists for what District 5's David Garcia described as "innuendo."
"Make sure you get educated on the facts," advised Garcia, who, coincidentally, is being investigated by the District Attorney's office for allegedly confusing the facts on the number of hours he worked as a court-appointed attorney.
How soon Council forgets about the misinformation campaign that Lumbermen's used earlier this year: Threatening to build 9,000 homes on the 2,800 acres was nothing more than a public relations ruse, one that hoodwinked most Council members until April 5, the night of the original vote on the project. Only then did Lumbermen's — prompted by pointed cross-examination from District 7's Julian Castro — reveal that such a number was pure fantasy.
Castro opposed the original plan, but now says it's "essential" that the PGA land in San Antonio. Yet, he was the lone voice of concern that the Council was ignoring citizens' wishes by using the referendum-immune annexation as a way to lure back the golf mecca. He mentioned other forms of corporate welfare — tax abatements and tax increment financing districts — that could have been used as incentives, and still have been subject to a public vote. "I'm concerned that citizens don't have a chance to redress their government," Castro said.
A greater concern is that when citizens are able to redress City government, it finds a way to shirk its responsibility to the voters — even if it means shifting the blame to them.