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Code amendments could kill trees

One of the worst "tree massacres" in the city's history recently occurred where a new Home Depot is under construction at Loop 1604 and Culebra Road. "You might be wondering why our City's tree preservation ordinace didn't prevent this tragedy," the reader who requested anonymity wrote in an e-mail to the Current. "It's because the project is exempt (or 'grandfathered') from both our 1997 and 2003 ordinances."

The latest bulldozing project illustrates how grandfathering, also known as vested rights, allows developers to "reach back decades with their grandfathering claims," the reader continued. "These new laws greatly increase grandfathering and make it exceedingly difficult for cities to enforce tree preservation and aquifer protection standards."

The Home Depot "tree massacre" occurred on 37 acres that was estimated to have between 3,000 and 5,000 trees. Since the land was grandfathered, the City could not require a tree survey to determine if larger trees should be preserved.

To make matters worse, the City's planning department is collecting suggested amendments to the City's Unified Development Code, which includes the tree preservation ordinance that was watered down and adopted in 2003 by the City Council.

"We have a number of amendments submitted, but I'm not sure where they all came from," says Rod Sanchez, assistant director of the planning department. "We will look at them after the deadline (July 1), and the process is going to take a number of months. There will be ample time to discuss them through public hearings."

The UDC's general purpose, explains Sanchez, is "to consolidate all land laws into one document, from zoning to land development standards." Currently, the tree ordinance requires preservation of 25 percent of trees that are under heritage size, and 100 percent of heritage trees. Critics contend that the ordinance could be changed to allow developers to save only 25 percent of heritage trees.

"People need to look at the sites that were built under the new tree ordinance, and tell me it's too strong," the reader wrote. "I defy anybody to visit a site and say there are too many trees."

- Michael Cary

Could Cornyn be on court short list?

After Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor resigned last week, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus immediately called on President Bush to nominate a candidate dedicated to equal justice and fairness toward the Latino community.

"Any nominee, whether Hispanic or not, should be committed to the core constitutional principles of equal protection and due process, and be sensitive to the laws that have opened doors for Hispanics and all minorities in education, voting, and employment," said San Antonio Congressman Charlie Gonzalez, chairman of the CHC Civil Rights Task Force.

Gonzalez stated that the courts are often the last resort for minorities seeking redress from inadequate or unfair laws. Past Supreme Court rulings on the rights of immigrant workers, voting, affirmative-action policies, and bilingual education have had long-lasting effects on the nation's Hispanic community.

"It's not for me to say," whether racial, ethnic, or gender diversity on the Court should be a goal, said O'Connor in a 2003 Associated Press interview. "But I think it's been desirable from the standpoint of public perceptions of fairness to see a court that includes women and minorities."

Although U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) has been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee, a spokesman reported that Cornyn has not heard from the White House about a nomination. Though Cornyn, a former Texas Supreme Court Justice and Attorney General, is flattered by the speculation, the spokesman said he believes it's just that, speculation.

- Nicole Chavez

Southeast Baptist eyes Brooks City Base

For decades, Brooks Air Force Base was that mysterious, fenced-off property lining Southeast Military Drive. Access was limited to military personnel, and its missions and research projects were confidential.

There was the School of Aerospace Medicine, which worked with NASA to study the effects of space travel on the human body. Space suits were designed and tested, and Air Force crews spent many hours in pressurized cabins to gauge the effects of weightlessness and other phenomenon that astronauts would likely encounter on trips to the moon or other, less benevolent, Cold War missions.

In an odd historical twist, Brooks Air Force Base was where President John F. Kennedy visited on November 21, 1963, to deliver a speech. The next day he was assassinated in Dallas.

Brooks is on the hit list again for Base Realignment and Closure; it nearly closed in the '90s, prompting City officials to focus on commercial development on the 1,310-acre property. In addition to a possible charter school slated for the site, Brooks City Base will soon be home to Southeast Baptist Hospital, which will move from East Southcross to a new, 175-bed facility at the base. The move will make the Southeast Side facility more accessible to Military Drive and IH-37. The current facility will continue to "provide ancillary services," according to a BHS press release.

BHS predicts the new hospital will add about 800 jobs to the South Side and signifies a "significant investment in the community."

The plans include a five-story hospital with options to add on floors and space, ultimately growing to a 400-bed facility. Hospital system officials expect to break ground in mid-2006, and expect to be open no later than 2008.

- Michael Cary

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