by SEAN BATURA
A skirmish in the ongoing conflict over an apartment and retail complex proposed in San Marcos was resolved Tuesday night in favor of San Antonio developer Darren Casey, who wanted to build a $63 million high-end mixed use project across Sessom Drive from Texas State University.
The Planning and Zoning Commission, which deadlocked on the issue in December, voted 5-2 to recommend the rezoning from single-family homes after about two hours of impassioned arguments from supporters and opponents of the project. The city’s planning department has also recommended the rezoning.
The revised planned development district includes what amounts to, according to the developer’s representative, concessions to neighborhood and environmental concerns including moving the building closer to the street and farther away from the bank of Sessom Creek; building rainwater detention under the parking garage instead of next to dedicated parkland; and reducing the project footprint to 50.2 percent of the land, the same as would be permitted if the land remained zoned single-family residential. About 4.5 acres of the 14.3 acre project would be given to the city for use as parkland.
Seeking to capitalize on concerns that the university is not subject to city environmental and land use oversight — authority the university has utilized with little restraint in past decades — backers of the Casey project have argued that Texas State could buy up the land and build a high-rise dormitory instead of the four- and five-floor plan that Casey is proposing.
“I struggle with the fact that it is right across the street from the university and I do not believe it’s going to develop out as single-family dwellings. I think it’s probably going to be some sort of dense housing,” said Bill Taylor, the commission chair.
Taylor was joined in voting for the planned development district by Bucky Couch, Kenneth Ehlers, Chris Wood and Randy Bryan, the last of whom previously voted against the project. Commissioners Travis Kelsey and Curtis Seebeck opposed the re-zoning.
A third ‘no’ vote, that of Sherwood Bishop was lost when Bishop’s commission term ended Dec. 31; his replacement, Corey Carothers, was unexpectedly absent from Tuesday’s meeting because his child was in the hospital.
Opponents of the project say it will create a dangerous traffic situation on Sessom Drive, needlessly destroy wildlife habitat, pollute the San Marcos River and lower the standard of living of nearby single family households, among other concerns.
“There’s no way that during construction and even after construction that it can’t have a negative impact on the headwaters of the San Marcos River,” Kelsey said. “I think it’s a great project. It’s just in the wrong location.”
Part of the discussion on Tuesday centered around dueling engineers’ reports. One, commissioned by the San Marcos River Foundation and drafted by Austin-based engineer Lauren Ross, concluded construction would send sediment down Sessom Creek to the San Marcos River and probably introduce pollutants such as nitrogen, lead and petroleum products from asphalt runoff. A rebuttal by San Marcos-based engineer, Steve Ramsey, who works for Casey, said Ross “claims … that Sessom Creek will experience severe impacts as a result of this specific project appear to be unfounded and exaggerated.”
To make sense of the conflicting conclusions, commissioners turned to the city’s engineer, Linda Huff, who answered yes when asked if the project could be built without damaging the river.
When the project comes before the San Marcos City Council next week, it presumably will need six of seven votes to pass. Opponents of the project gathered signatures from owners of slightly more than 20 percent of property that falls within 200 feet of the Casey project perimeter. This invokes an element of city law that requires a supermajority on council for approval.
Whatever the eventual fate of the Casey project, Couch said the caliber of the proposal is a good sign for San Marcos’ aspiration for high-quality development.
“I believe whether this project is approved or not, I think that we’re on the cusp of raising the bar of what a quality development should look like and what we would expect from someone who wants to come in and do a development of this size,” Couch said.
The conflict over Casey’s proposed development is itself just one skirmish in San Marcos’ ongoing residential identity crisis. Almost 4,000 multi-family residential bedrooms are under construction in San Marcos, according to a document city staff provided to the planning commission on Tuesday. An estimated 22,458 multi-family bedrooms already exist.
The strife in the past year between proponents of apartment construction near single family neighborhoods and some residents of those neighborhoods led San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero last spring to suggest the council consider the pros and cons of a moratorium on multi-family development in the city. Guerrero had just cast one of the losing votes against rezoning for the Retreat at San Marcos, a 780-bed student housing project under construction just west of Casey’s proposed project.
San Marcos resident Dianne Wassenich said she has hundreds of signatures on a petition to request such a moratorium on multi-family development in the city. She hopes to have thousands by the time Casey’s project is up for a vote at the Jan. 17 city council meeting.