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One vote counts in Helotes

Someone stayed up late last Saturday night to post the following message onto the main page of the Helotes Heritage Association's website, which went up after Wal-Mart unveiled its plans to build a store at the corner of Bandera and Scenic Loop roads in northwest Bexar County:

"Voters yesterday rejected (Helotes Mayor) Steve Hodges and his allies, Jim Collier and Pat Wootton, to elect a slate of candidates who oppose the Wal-Mart and pro-developer policies."

Initial tallies showed Jon Allan won the mayor's race 640 to 639, in a record voter turnout. Wal-Mart opponent Linda Boyer-Owens, beat Jim Collier 673 to 565. Stuart Birnbaum, another Wal-Mart protest leader, outpaced Pat Wootton 640 to 636.

"Voters all over Bexar County showed that they're tired of out-of-control development and concerned about the environment, voting on candidates who advocate smart growth and supporting measures to purchase aquifer protection land and park land," the web posting read.

The vote culminates a long campaign conducted by "regular people," as Allan described himself, to get the attention of the Helotes City Council, and to make that governing body adhere to its master plan, which, according to several knowledgeable sources, doesn't include a Wal-Mart.

This doesn't mean that Wal-Mart is going away, but Helotes residents could have at least three new elected officials who are leery of big development plans in and around this town of 5,000 people. Helotes might not be on the radar of some San Antonio residents, but it is noteworthy that some of the players in the Wal-Mart debate include attorneys who are registered lobbyists in San Antonio. Ken Brown, the opposition candidates have charged, represents Wal-Mart. And David Earl, known to champion developer causes, also serves as the City Attorney to Helotes. And at least one developer, Norm Dugas, who has been hammering on the San Antonio's Uniform Development Code and the Tree Ordinance, resides in Helotes. During a recent debate at O'Connor High School, Jim Collier and Pat Wootton, who served as one of the inaugural council members when Helotes incorporated in the 1980s, squared off against Allan, Birnbaum, and Boyer-Owens; Hodges sent regrets that he had other business to attend to. Three primary issues were on the table, including growth and development, infrastructure, and financing. Wootton took the podium first, saying the suburb's growth spurt will not be impeded, with no local control over Highway 16 and F.M. 1560 expansions by the state. He said Earl has advised the Helotes City Council that Wal-Mart is not in Helotes, but in its extra-territorial jurisdiction, and that growth could be controlled rather than stopped.

Birnbaum, who opposed Wootton, said he didn't believe Council "did as much as it could to protect Helotes," as too many variances have been granted to developers.

Collier said he was appointed to the City Council after he became involved in an advisory board. "I'm on the fence with Wal-Mart ... I want to see how it affects Helotes."

Boyer-Owens countered that the residents haven't had the leadership "in Helotes to stand up for our citizens ... saying nothing can be done worries me ... we can't lay down in the first round and take our licks and let developers roll over us."

By Monday morning, there was no definitive word whether Hodges will contest the election he lost by only one vote, or if Wootton will challenge Birnbaum's four-vote victory.

But the election in this suburb illustrates three important points. One is that the situation in Helotes reflects the shark-feed mentality of local developers when it comes to building in the San Antonio area.

Second, any who doubt the power of a vote should take a look at the tally in Helotes, or just ask Jon Allan if he voted for himself.

Third, Helotes citizens have made it clear they do not want Wal-Mart where Wal-Mart wants to be. And this huge corporation, which made its first $1 billion by 1979, should step back, give Helotes citizens a wide berth, and find another community to trample under its big-box hoof print.

One that won't fight back.

By Michael Cary

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