Friday, May 16, 2014

Can developers still get their way? | Last Word

If I were writing a headline to entice your attention, the two words I would least likely include would be “impact fees.” Yet the current battle over impact fees in San Antonio signals an historic shift in the city’s political power structure.

To appreciate the shift, you have to understand the almost unfettered power real estate developers exercised at City Hall since at least the 1970s.

Nowhere was that power more pronounced than at the city’s water utility.

The chairman of the City Water Board in the mid-1970s was housing developer John Schaefer. At that time the water board was extending water mains into ranch land around the city, at no cost to developers converting the land to subdivisions.

Meanwhile, residents of the older parts of the city couldn’t flush their toilets while their mates were in the shower, for fear of scalding them. Maintaining the system in the older parts was not a priority.

Yet by using the rates paid by residents of older neighborhoods to subsidize suburban housing developments, the City was spending inner-city money to hasten inner-city demise.

The then-new Communities Organized for Public Service, or COPS, made these policies a centerpiece of their Saul Alinsky-inspired organizing campaigns. At one City Council meeting, where Schaefer was making a presentation, COPS showed up with two hats and asked him to choose which one he wanted to wear.

One said “Developer.” The other said “City Water Board Chairman.”

But the power of the developer lobby remained. In 1977 a city master plan that would have favored closer-in growth and redevelopment over sprawl was summarily canned – literally. Councilman Cliff Morton, a powerful developer, slammed it into a trashcan.

Developer power showed itself again in the 1990s on a number of issues. One example: When City Manager Alex Briseno asked City Council members to approve new subdivision design regulations. Developers fought fiercely, objecting even to such minor changes as increasing sidewalk minimum widths from 3 feet to 4 feet.

“It’s a family values issue,” Briseno said. “Have you ever tried holding hands with your wife while walking on a 3-foot sidewalk?’

Briseno lost.

A new century would bring some distance between City Hall and developers, largely because of voters. In 2003 I wrote a column noting which City Council members were being backed by politically generous developers and other power players.

Seven of those candidates lost, despite the fact that most had more money than their opponents. The only ones who won had only token opposition.

Strains between City Hall and developers grew under Mayor Ed Garza and more under Mayor Philip Hardberger.

Hardberger managed to pass an ordinance to require developers to save trees or pay for their replacement, although the requirements were watered down before passage.

Hardberger did something else: He engineered the appointment of Briseno – the 4-foot sidewalk advocate – as chairman of the San Antonio Water System, the expanded agency that replaced the Water Board and took over the city’s wastewater system.

A few years ago Briseno brought in an outside consultant to help lead a 4-hour board session designed to do something you might think was automatic. It was to adopt a policy of supporting the City’s growth policies. The pioneering proposal passed.

So now we have a SAWS board voting 6-1 to more than double some impact fees to developers after an advisory committee voted 11-1 for a much smaller increase.

The advisory board was heavily weighted with developer interests. The sole SAWS board member voting against the higher fees was Louis Rowe, whose engineering firm has developers as clients.

Now, with a vote coming up by City Council, we will see just how far we’ve come since the 1970s.

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