by BRAD ROLLINS
The owner of Cape’s Camp, one of the largest San Marcos River-front properties in the city limits remaining in private owners’ hands, is seeking to rezone part of his land from commercial to medium-density multi-family residential and give part of it to the city as a park.
Bob Thornton, whose family has owned the land for more than a century, wants to build apartments on 23 acres of his property nearest the Interstate 35 access road and River Road. Most of the buildable part of the tracts — about 18.6 of 23 acres — is already planned for medium-density multi-family use in the city’s master plan, but 4.5 acres nearest the access road is designated for commercial use.
In addition to the land use changes, Thornton Family Investments wants the whole property zoned for apartments from its current placeholder zoning as Future Development.
The San Marcos Planning & Zoning Commission, absorbing the first public airing of the plan, voted to postpone action at its regular meeting Tuesday night.
“I know this commission has considered a number of multi-family rezoning cases in the last few months but I think this is a very different situation in fundamental ways,” said Steve Drenner, a prominent property attorney in the Austin firm Winstead PC.
For one, Drenner said, most of the property is already included in the masterplan for development as apartments and the part that isn’t is designated as commercial, not single-family — the particular type of rezoning that riled many residents this winter and sparked a petition drive.
In addition, he said, “It is an extraordinary opportunity to secure parkland that is a jewel along the San Marcos River.”
Thornton’s proposal would dedicate 11 to 12 acres of his property for public parkland — including the historic Thompson’s Islands between the river and a manmade channel built in the 1850s as part of a cotton gin. Adjoining the city’s existing Stokes Park, Thompson’s Islands are a popular take-out point for tubers, canoeists and kayakers who don’t want to brave a four- to five-foot drop over Thompson’s Dam. Another three or four acres, including the site of the property’s namesake Cape’s Camp on a lazy bend in the river just above the dam, would remain privately owned open space guaranteed to remain undeveloped through a deed covenant, Drenner said.
A handful of residents who live in the area and Council of Neighborhood Associations representative Lorraine Burleson told planning commissioners they had little notice and even less information about Thornton’s plans for the property.
Former planning commissioner Saul Gonzales said he would like to see the site handled as a Planned Development District, which functions as sort of a contract granting the developer certain entitlements in exchange for guarantees of specific standards or features. Under more traditional zoning law, city decision makers are restricted from negotiating conditions in exchange for zoning or land use changes— either the property qualifies or it doesn’t.
Drenner said the property is appropriate for development as apartments because the neighborhoods along River Road are already a mishmash of single-family homes and apartment complexes. The property is not viable as a commercial site because of a narrow window of I-35 access road frontage and the environmentally sensitive nature of the site.
It is not clear how big an apartment complex could be legally built on the property. Using 39 gross acres — the proposed development site plus the private open space plus the city parkland dedication — Thornton or a buyer could theoretically build 468 apartment units.
That number does not account for the city’s restrictive building standards for property in the San Marcos River corridor which limit impervious rooftops and parking lots to no more than 30 percent of the total project area. The total unit count is likely to be significantly less than 468 although an engineer working for the developer said his firm is still figuring how many apartments city rules would allow.