Though it’s just a dozen miles from downtown San Antonio, Von Ormy is a community that fosters a rural lifestyle. Just beyond the local cemetery, which holds more than 150 years of Von Ormy residents, cattle graze near the meandering Medina River. A handful of bumpy roads stitch together farms and ranches like an old patchwork quilt. The land there has been worked for hundreds of years and has been passed down from generation to generation.
|Art Martinez de Vara and Charlie Brown stand in the heart of the Von Ormy community they hope will become a bona fide city.|
Mary Castro, Von Ormy’s self-appointed historian, lives near the Catholic church. Her brother, Ray Reyes, lives next door. “All these houses here are my brothers’ and sisters’,” she said. “They are in groupings, for the most part.” Around the corner from Castro’s land is what’s known locally as “Floresville,” a row of houses filled with members of the Flores family. “And this is the Ramos clan to the left.”
Legends and folklore abound in the area, and it’s not uncommon to unearth anything from an arrowhead to a cannonball, whether you’re down by the river or in the backyard. Locals still argue at the café about battles with Comanche Indians as if they’d happened last week. According to the old stories, for several nights before he attacked the Alamo, Santa Anna camped under a big oak tree near the river. There are also tall tales of buried treasures — wagonloads, perhaps under that same oak — though Charlie Brown, on whose property the tree stands, hasn’t found any (and not for lack of trying, he said).
Brown, a member of the Committee to Incorporate Von Ormy, and other like-minded residents, want to preserve their history and heritage. The committee believes incorporation will stave off urban sprawl from the north and give residents more power to negotiate with other governmental bodies and developers alike. Von Ormians’ concerns include issues associated with the Union Pacific Railroad, which cuts through the middle of the community, and the possibility of a new super(toll)highway that would run more or less parallel to I-35.
Formed several months ago, the committee has held public meetings and petition drives and has some backing from county and state politicians. Art Martinez de Vara, a third-year law student at St. Mary’s University, is spearheading the effort to incorporate Von Ormy. He said that if residents had their druthers, nothing would change, but they’re going with the lesser of two evils.
“It’s either become our own city or get eaten up by San Antonio,” he said. “`The encroachment` is rubbing people the wrong way.”
San Antonio doesn’t have any plans to annex the Von Ormy area, but San Antonio Planning Director Emil Moncivais said studies would have to be conducted before the City Council could give its blessing to the rural community’s incorporation. “We still have control of that property,” Moncivais said. “If they were to apply, we would evaluate it to determine what would be the appropriate thing for the City of San Antonio to do based on what’s best for the City.”
San Antonio has limited control over the area that lies just beyond its limits. Through extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, SA imposes some limited restrictions on construction and can annex contiguous property.
This irks some Von Ormy residents, many of whom lived their entire lives in the potential city. Today, Von Ormy is a quaint, serene place with sun-kissed fields and mammoth shady oaks, but folks haven’t forgotten their community’s troubled past.
In the late 1950s, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church was torn down to make way for I-35, which physically split the town in two. The church was rebuilt about 100 yards east of its old location, and it’s still the center of the community, where annual festivals turn into spontaneous family reunions, and where community business is discussed. But even today, locals take offense at its demolition.
Roughly five miles southeast of what the Committee to Incorporate Von Ormy hopes will be the city proper are the Harris Sand Pits, used from 1965 to 1975 as a dump-site for sulfuric-acid tar sludge, a byproduct of petroleum refining. (During the past several years, the site has undergone remediation and is now properly capped, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.)
“I like the idea of not having bureaucrats telling you what you can and can’t do with your property. I like the laissez-faire attitude out here.”
- Charlie Brown,
Member of the committee to incorporate Von Ormy
Though San Antonio isn’t responsible for Von Ormy’s wounds, residents want to keep their community from any more pain and suffering. The City has placed “limited-annexation” on an area that abuts the northeastern corner of the community, and Von Ormy residents are getting antsy. They fear that urban sprawl could continue southward along I-35 and engulf their little community, and they don’t want San Antonio’s additional taxes, its litany of laws, or its bulging bureaucracy.
“I like the idea of not having the bureaucrats telling you what you can and can’t do with your property,” Brown said. “I like the laissez-faire attitude out here.”
As a community in unincorporated Bexar County, Von Ormy has little regulation: Unincorporated areas lack zoning ordinances, and building permits aren’t required. That would change if San Antonio were to include the area in even its limited-annexation plans. Residents in the limited-annexed area just northeast of Von Ormy don’t have to pay City taxes and can vote in most City elections. Their land is also subject to zoning regulations, and building permits are required. Though San Antonio hasn’t said as much, some Von Ormy residents are concerned that they could also be limited-annexed. But if the Von Ormy committee can convince the San Antonio City Council to release the community from its ETJ, Bexar County would hold an election to determine whether residents in the area want Von Ormy to become a city. Moncivais makes it clear, though, that San Antonio would only release the area if it isn’t detrimental to the City.
“It’s going to be an evaluation,” he said. “We’ll look at the facts and determine it based on what our projections of growth are going to be for the area, and then figure out: Is this the appropriate thing to do, or not.”
Von Ormy’s would-be city limits propose enclosing about five square miles between Loop 410 and Loop 1604, between Old Pearsall Road and Somerset Road, minus the area above the Medina River, and east of I-35.
Martinez de Vara and others pushing for incorporation say that because property values are so low in their area, San Antonio would spend far more providing required services to Von Ormy than it could earn in tax revenue. The average home in the area is valued at roughly $62,000, and residental farm and ranch properties have an average value of about $66,000, according to the Bexar Appraisal District. The median home value in San Antonio is $68,800.
Von Ormy has flirted with incorporation before. The idea has been bandied about in the past when the Von Ormy way of life was threatened, said John Ortega Sr., chief of Jarret Fire and Rescue, the volunteer fire department that serves the area. But the movement to incorporate has always withered over time, he said.
But Ortega, Brown, and others say they think Martinez de Vara has the initiative to see the project through.
“The idea has been kicked around for 30 years, but it never really took shape until we had Art,” Brown said.
Martinez de Vara didn’t grow up in Von Ormy. His parents left to find work, he said, but he returned a few years ago when he enrolled at St. Mary’s University. Soon after, he joined the volunteer fire department. As time went by, the firefighters discussed the possibility of cityhood for Von Ormy, and Martinez de Vara took the idea and ran with it. He and other volunteer firefighters hashed out the most recent incarnation of the plan over countless meals at the El Parador Café. Known locally as the “Greasy Spoon,” the diner is a favorite hangout of the firefighters, who get only a few calls a day.
The committee hopes to hold the incorporation election in November, but knows that’s probably a long shot. “It’s always been our dream, but we realize there are only two election dates a year, in May and November,” Martinez de Vara said. “So, we may have to go to May.”
The Committee to Incorporate Von Ormy has won support from both elected officials and their November opponents (in case any of the incumbents are ousted on Election Day). And very few Von Ormy residents are against the plan, Martinez de Vara said, since it could be the only way to preserve their way of life.
In the meantime, they’re working on a backup plan, in case the San Antonio City Council decides not to grant their request. In such an event, the Committee to Incorporate Von Ormy would have to hop on I-35 and head up to Austin, where it would ask the Texas Legislature to pass a bill allowing Von Ormy to incorporate, or at least hold the election.
“But we hope that it won’t come to that,” Martinez de Vara said.