by BRAD ROLLINS
Despite heightened unease about the number of apartments being built, the San Marcos City Council on Tuesday was cool toward the idea of a temporary moratorium being pushed by a residents’ petition.
Instead, council members said they would look for ways to encourage redevelopment of older, deteriorating multi-family properties within walking or biking distance of Texas State University by forgiving property taxes. City staff identified 28 apartment complexes — some of them nearing 40 years old — within a mile of the university campus that potentially could be eligible for redevelopment under the program, a radius that includes dilapidated eyesores such as Sagewood and Bracewood circles.
“The incentives have to make sense and they have to not give more away than you’re eventually going to take in” in property tax revenue, council member Wayne Becak said. “But I like very much the idea of trying to get rid of some of the apartments that are just junk falling apart.”
They hope such a program will ease market pressure to rezone single-family neighborhoods for multi-family use, a practice that has infuriated homeowners who fear the decline of property values and disturbances associated with college-age neighbors. Nearly 2,200 people have signed a petition calling on the council to impose a moratorium on such rezonings until a long-anticipated update of the city’s masterplan is completed.
The masterplan was adopted in 1997 for a community that looks significantly different from the one that exists today — or the one envisioned by residents when they crafted the plan nearly 15 years ago. When the university completed its water supply master plan in 1998, it anticipated an enrollment of 23,000 in 2010; this year, that number was closer to 34,000 and is expected to jump to somewhere in range of 36,000 this fall.
“I want to be clear that we’re not talking about a moratorium on all development. It would be a moratorium on a specific type of development that requires zoning change,” said council member John Thomaides, who was alone among his colleague in arguing in support of the measure. “I always hear the term ‘certainty’ in business, that businesses need certainty about the rules are going to be. Well, I think property owners need certainty as well.”
Council member Ryan Thomason pointed out that the council has considered only three proposals in the last five years to rezone single-family tracts of land for apartment complexes and one of those failed to secure a council majority.
The one that failed was Darren Casey’s proposed luxury apartment and retail complex on Sessom Drive near Sessom Creek, a project that drew unprecedented opposition and ignited the public outcry for moratorium. In that case, Casey has proposed instead a single-family development of 52 lots on 14.2 acres which some opponents fear will be far worse for neighbors than the original project.
“While, politically, there would be nothing better than to never have to consider another apartment complex, what would we do in a scenario where somebody went with their Plan B and Plan B was ten times worse? That’s the scary part to me knowing how the system works,” Thomason said. “What do you do about that scenario where its, like, ‘Hey, do you want a stick in the eye? No? Well how ’bout two sticks in the eye?'”
Several council members said handing down a moratorium, no matter how narrowly tailored, would reinforce what real estate interests see as the city’s image to outsiders as unfriendly to investment and suggested it would endanger a decade of effort aimed at attracting high-quality development. That perception may well have been born in the 1980s when the council imposed a series of five temporary apartment moratoriums during a three-year period.
“The challenge is that it gives the impression of not welcoming development, whether its single family, multi family, commercial. So there’s some philosophical risks that you take with it, Mayor Daniel Guerrero said.
Although “multi-family” seems to have become code in many circles for “college students,” Thomason and others have pointed out that the rush to build apartments is not unique to San Marcos and other college towns. Still recovering from the housing market collapse of 2008, banks are loathe to loan money for single-famliy projects and even people who can afford to buy a home are increasingly inclined to rent instead.
“i know alot of qualified homebuyers selling their house and moving into multi-family because thats just their choice. For better or worse, it doesn’t matter, it’s just reality,” said Thomason, who is a homebuilder.
San Marcos had a 94 percent occupancy rate in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to the research firm Austin Investor Interests, and that number stood at 99 percent for student-oriented apartment complexes.
With a majority of council members saying they like the idea of redevelopment incentives, city staff is now cleared to start assembling the nuts and bolts of such a program.
CORRECTION: This story originally said there were eight moratoriums on multi-family housing during the 1980s. There were five between 1984 and 1986.