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Should Phil Hardberger use Government Canyon as his environmental calling card?

When talk turns to Government Canyon State Natural Area, people familiar with how the preserve in northwest Bexar County came to be will invariably mention San Antonio Ranch. Envisioned by its developers in the early 1970s as a futuristic community of residential and commercial development, San Antonio Ranch was to include subsidized housing, a skills-training center, and industrial manufacturing, generating 17,600 jobs.

Government Canyon lies adjacent to Highway 211 in northwest Bexar County. Now a protected state natural area, it was once slated for residential and commercial development. Until a lawsuit and a savings & loan collapse, the land was to have been home to an estimated 100,000 people. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

There was only one catch to this innovative partnership between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a handful of South Texas developers with strong political ties to President Lyndon Johnson, Senator John Tower, and Governor John Connally: The 9,000-acre new community would lie directly over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, near what is known today as the Government Canyon State Natural Area.

Then-attorney Phil Hardberger figured largely in the first significant legal battle that ensued between housing and water. As a mayoral candidate, Hardberger recently took credit "for stopping San Antonio Ranch," but upon further reflection says he merely jump-started the process. Although he lost the 1970s lawsuit against the HUD project, the case was the catalyst for the high level of community interest in the Edwards Aquifer over the past 30 years.

"That was a truly huge lawsuit," says Hardberger. "This was a planned city of nearly 100,000 people directly over the Recharge Zone, when very few people understood there was a recharge zone. It galvanized public opinion to the danger of polluting the aquifer."

San Antonio Ranch had attracted attention in Washington, D.C., write Roberta and Wayt Watterson in The Politics of New Community: A Case Study of San Antonio Ranch, because of its promise to serve "potential workers, primarily Mexican Americans from the inner City of San Antonio to live and work at SAR ... a model of an environmentally perfect new community; the ultimate in ecology."

But in San Antonio, citizens initially viewed San Antonio Ranch as just another large '70s subdivision. Hayden Head of Corpus Christi purchased more than 8,000 acres from William J. Lytle Jr. for about $165 per acre and sought financial backers to develop the property. Head and his partners, Robert G. Honts of Austin and former LBJ press secretary George Christian, among others, jumped on HUD's new communities program and applied for an $18 million federal loan guarantee. Two other projects, Flower Mound near Dallas and The Woodlands near Houston, were included on the list of federally funded new communities.

The development would have proceeded as planned but for City Planning Director Edward F. Davis, an ardent environmentalist. He was distressed by a developer-drafted environmental impact statement's "summary dismissal of potential ill effects of the SAR on the aquifer," according to Wattersons' book.

"You know how it is when volunteers are working to get something accomplished, a politician steps in and takes credit for Government Canyon. Why can't people recognize grassroots citizens, who do things for good purposes, not for political purposes?"
Irene Scharf

After nasty political infighting at the local, state, and national levels, the League of Women Voters, Citizens for a Better Environment, a local chapter of the Sierra Club, and the American Association of University Women sued HUD in federal court and hired attorney Hardberger to try their case. With the city, state, and federal governments aligned against their cause, HUD opponents later added Bexar County Commissioners Court and the Edwards Underground Water District as plaintiffs to the suit.

Hardberger argued that San Antonio Ranch "would not help the central city of San Antonio, would hurt the city's economic strength, would pollute and degrade the water supply, would fail to assist the poor, would unbalance urban growth, and would increase dependence on automobiles."

After three years of legal maneuvering, Chief Federal Judge Adrian Spears ruled on whether the decision to approve the project on the basis of then-HUD Secretary George Romney's draft environmental impact statement was "arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law," the Wattersons wrote. "The other question was whether the draft impact statement was in compliance with federal guidelines."

Spears ruled against Hardberger's clients and sought to retain jurisdiction over the project to oversee its development. In an unprecedented move, Spears ordered developers to pay Hardberger $20,000 in legal fees.

Although Hardberger lost the case, Spears noted that if the lawsuit had done nothing more than to alert the public about the water issues, "then it has served its purpose" and lauded the plaintiffs for raising awareness about protecting the aquifer.

Eventually, an appeals court struck down Spears' order for the defendants to pay Hardberger's attorney fees and upheld the original ruling to allow the development to proceed. The appellate court also removed the development from Spears' oversight and gave it back to HUD and the developers.

By 1991, through various foreclosures, a portion of the property fell into the hands of HUD and the Resolution Trust Corp. Approximately 45 groups joined to negotiate securing properties in and around San Antonio Ranch to preserve the Recharge Zone.

Although Hardberger has used the San Antonio Ranch case to bolster his environmental credibility in the mayoral race, his role ended with the federal case. "I didn't have anything to do with it subsequently. It ran into financial problems," says Hardberger. But the lawsuit helped delay the project and raise public outcry.

"Hardberger, like so many who seek public office, professes a long-time interest in aquifer protection," says Annalisa Peace, a water activist who supports mayoral candidate Julián Castro. "Subsequent to Hardberger's involvement in San Antonio Ranch until he was running for mayor, I have been unaware of any efforts, support, or public statements from Judge Hardberger regarding this important issue."

Irene Scharf, who worked on the grassroots effort to save the Hill Country property, says she doesn't know the extent of Hardberger's involvement in Government Canyon transactions, but laments a lack of recognition for citizens who worked to secure land for the important park preserve. The land is now owned by Texas Parks & Wildlife and maintained by the Government Canyon Natural History Association.

"I never heard his name mentioned," says Scharf. "You know how it is when volunteers are working to get something accomplished, a politician steps in and takes credit for Government Canyon. Why can't people recognize grassroots citizens, who do things for good purposes, not for political purposes?"

San Antonio Ranch today is a much smaller development than originally planned in the 1970s. Government Canyon stands adjacent to it as a reminder of what can happen when people band together to protect their drinking water. Further protection of the Edwards Recharge Zone requires more than the efforts of a single candidate for public office.

By Michael Cary

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