San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

September 23rd, 2009
U.S. Foods fight boils over in Buda

by BRAD ROLLINS
Managing Editor

Opponents of U.S. Foodservice’s plans to build a warehouse and distribution facility on Buda’s eastern edge couch the debate in terms of residents’ rights to determine their city’s future.

Volunteers gathered nearly 800 signatures calling for a referendum on a land use amendment the company needs to build the $50 million, 50,000 square foot building on 40 acres at the corner of Turnersville Road and County Road 118.

The opposition has sought to strike a populist tone built ultimately on U.S. Foodservices’ incompatibility with the city of Buda’s citizen-drafted land use master plan.

“This is power and money versus the people,” said David Patterson, a defacto spokesperson for the political action committee BudaFirst.org, which has spearheaded opposition to U.S. Foodservice building in that location.

Whether that is so, it is also certainly power and money versus power and money.

To be sure, neither U.S. Foodservice, a national company with annual revenues of more than $20 billion, nor landowner Sunfield Municipal Utility District are bit players.

The Sunfield MUD, under several layers of ownership, is owned by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest public pension fund in America, which holds nearly $200 billion in assets.

On the other hand, BudaFirst.org is funded entirely by two of three daughters of the late Herman Heep, the storied rancher and oil wildcatter who amassed about 10,000 acres on both sides of what would be IHOf the $2,208.25 contributed to BudaFirst.org in June, the period covered by its most recent finance disclosure, stepdaughter Kathleen Adkins’ Heep Properties LLC contributed $1,105.50, of which $605.50 was in-kind, and stepdaughter Betsy Urban and husband Carl contributed $1,105.50, all of it in-kind.

Those expenses are paltry compared to the cost of a lawsuit challenging the city’s refusal to call a referendum which BudaFirst organizers have promised is forthcoming. The next round of financial disclosure forms will not be due until May.

The Urbans in particular have played a leading role in the opposition, motivated partly by their plans for a high-end retail development called The Bend at Onion Creek on 73 acres fronting Main Street in Buda.

Inspired by a farmer’s market, the development would include an outdoor amphitheatre with a floating stage on a manmade lake, niche-market retail including art galleries, restaurants, bars and hotels.

The project is designed by Austin-based Urban Design Group, whose portfolio includes the Rivercenter Mall on the San Antonio Riverwalk and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

“We had big plans,” said Carl Urban in a recent interview. “Do we have a personal interest in this? Absolutely. Do we have an interest in the town’s future? Absolutely.”

Urban contends that truck traffic generated by U.S. Foodservice will tie up the Main Street and FM 2001 overpasses, making the area undesirable to future retail development. He also concedes that he’s likely to lose financing for The Bend at Onion Creek if U.S. Foodservice builds at the Sunfield MUD site.

“I don’t think we can get the bank to move forward if that happens,” he said.

But with 1.6 million square feet of new retail and commercial space at Southpark Meadows just up the interstate in South Austin and a million more emerging around Seton Medical Center Hays in Kyle, real estate observers say Buda’s appeal as a major retail center is, for the time being, stymied.

“Buda caught a previous wave when Cabela’s and Wal-Mart and all the associated small stores opened up a few years ago,” said Buda real estate agent John Sanford of JBS Real Estate. “The wave that’s happening right now is going north and south. There is going to be some more retail in Buda but it’s probably three years away.”

Sanford is currently marketing some smaller tracts of commercial property in Buda but has no commercial interest in the U.S. Foodservice deal.

With the lawsuit expected to be filed in the upcoming days, the U.S. Foodservice project continues to polarize a divided community.

Said Urban, “I’ve heard people say this is the Heep clan getting together just trying to protect their property. If it is just a fight between two developers, you’ve got one that’s been here more than 100 years and is going to try to be here for a long time after this is over.”

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