COMMENTARY by BRAD ROLLINS
|Cape’s Camp owner Bob Thornton says about 23 acres (shown in red) would be developed as apartments and the remaining 15-16 acres would be either dedicated to the city as parkland (dark green) or deed-restricted as open space (light green). A group of citizens wants the city to buy the property from the Thorntons outright.|
It is tempting to dismiss this sentiment as the fruits of runaway NIMBYism that has gripped our city lately. But it also makes sense from other perspectives. The same qualities of natural beauty and location that make a property appealing to developers also make it appealing to the public as a park.
We can be dead certain of one thing. The city’s voters would approve borrowing money to buy these properties just as fast as you could bring them to the ballot — so let’s not go there. Such a cycle is the very definition of “unsustainable.” Even if the public can “afford” to buy these properties at first, they will rapidly undermine their ability to do so by buying up — and taking off the tax rolls — all the prime properties the city has to offer.
With a little under $2.7 billion in taxable property value last year, San Marcos already lags well behind New Braunfels, which collected taxes on $3.5 billion in property during the same period. Even Kyle — for so long saddled with rooftops but no lucrative commercial development — hit $1.4 billion in appraised value in 2011 and will make gains on San Marcos again this year.
Compounding this effect, when the city starts snatching property out of developers’ hands, you are also losing the tax revenue on what they would have built. If Darren Casey is allowed to build his Sessom Drive property on the scale he says he will, the city will collect $238,500 a year and the school district $607,000 a year on the $40-50 million project — in property tax alone. You can buy a lot of parkland and hire a lot of teachers with money like that.
So the bottom line, to me, is that the city should consider buying new park or natural areas only when the property in question is truly irreplaceable and warrants protection for future generations — and also, ideally, when a portion of the property can be developed in a way to help fund its purchase.
I think the Thornton family’s Capes Camp property alongside the San Marcos River east of Interstate 35 meets that definition and the city council should be actively exploring the possibility of buying it up.
Two weeks ago, a group of residents crowded into a San Marcos Parks & Recreation Board meeting to urge the panel to recommend that the city council purchase Cape’s Camp for use as a park. Its acquisition would extend the city’s river parks system, in earnest, to the under-served areas east of Interstate 35 and complete a grand vision of public greenbelt on one or both sides of the river its entire length from the headwaters to Stokes Park at Thompson’s Islands.
“Ask the people who call San Marcos home and the majority will tell you that the river factors in their decision to come here and stay here,” said Angie Ramirez, who represents nearby neighborhoods in the Council of Neighborhood Associations. “… Do we really all believe that the very best use of the very last piece of undeveloped riverside land within the San Marcos city limits is 300 units of three-story student housing?”
That last question is rhetorical, if you’re not from around here. Just about every San Martian I know would say most certainly that turning Cape’s Camp into another apartment complex, no matter how nice, is literally selling short the promise that San Marcos has.
Which brings us to one assumption I think we call take to the bank. The Planning & Zoning Commission and the San Marcos City Council will never grant the applicant his current rezoning application. Even the council’s most staunch pro-development elements agree that the Cape’s Camp development, as it is currently conceived, just isn’t going to happen.
That land is too special — environmentally, culturally, historically — to let it go toward anything less than something equally special. The rezoning approval the developer needs gives the council the leverage to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’d bet money that a council majority intends to use that leverage to hold out for something suitable.
What should happen there is just as important as what shouldn’t. The Thorntons own 98 acres more or less along the river between Interstate 35 and land the city already owns around the wastewater treatment plant. This ranges from the beloved Thompson’s Islands — with some of the largest, most breathtaking trees in the city towering over a lazy river — to portions of the property that are more or less cow pasture. Not all of it is suitable as parkland; not all of it is suitable for development.
I’d personally like to see a plan for the property that includes city-owned parkland and public space along the entire length of the river. Other portions, held either privately or publicly, would sit there until someone wants to build a showcase-quality single-family or mixed-use project or a corporate campus for a major employer.
Equally important to me, is that re-envisioning of the Cape’s Camp property not become one more episode in an orgy of anti-development hysteria. On that count, I guess I can keep dreaming. The parks board, in the same meeting where they voted to recommend the Cape’s Camp park property, also rejected an offer from Casey to pay $300,000 cash to the city in lieu of dedicating parkland for his proposed Sessom Creek project.
That was more than three times what city codes require and easily could have been seed money for buying the Thornton property or anything else. It’s acceptance by the parks board would have meant nothing in terms of whether Casey gets planning and zoning and city council approval. Some of the parks board members, however, looked like they were having a fantastic time making sweeping, applause-grabbing orations while people in the audience snarled at the developers’ representative, “We don’t want your money!”
I beg to differ. I do want his money. I want the city to grab up as much developers’ money as it can — and put that money to work for the people who otherwise pay the bills.
Such pandering on the part of the parks board is not the mark of mature, sober decision making. Our city leaders have to find a reasonable balance between our love of parks and public spaces and the private development that pays for all that. With the Cape’s Camp deal, they have that chance.