by BRAD ROLLINS
In the six months since the San Marcos City Council rejected a rezoning request and other measures critical to Casey’s plans, the San Antonio developer’s agents have submitted to city planners at least five different major versions of his vision for a grand retail/residential destination on the northern edge of a thriving Texas State University. Each variation is generally smaller than the one before and attempts to bring development closer to the street and farther away from Sessom Creek, which drains into the San Marcos River just below its headwaters.
In a July 6 application for a planned development district, the most recent available, Casey asks for permission to build 335 multi-family units totaling 748 bedrooms — 25 percent fewer beds than the earlier plan that drew unprecedented grassroots opposition from neighborhood and environmental advocates.
Recent iterations also seek to move buildings onto flatter portions of the property away from the sloping terrain leading down to the creek. To accomplish that, Casey will need to buy an acre of city-owned property adjacent to a municipal well and water tower that adjoins the properties Casey has under contract to buy.
The sheer number of times staff comments have sent Casey’s team back to the drawing board suggests his plans are not being enthusiastically received by the planning and building officials who stand between Casey and the votes he needs from the Planning & Zoning Commission and the San Marcos City Council.
The total number of site plans floating around exceeds two dozen yet neither P&Z nor council are scheduled to consider action related to the Sessom Drive development in coming weeks or months. City officials say it appears highly unlikely the matter will be decided before this fall.
Casey did not return a call last week seeing comment for this article.
On the public outreach front, Casey may be making headway in convincing nearby property owners that they’d be better off working with him on the project he wants to build instead of forcing him to settle for the project he says he’s legally entitled to build. Planning commissioners have already approved a preliminary plat for 46 lots on 14.2 acres; Sessom Court is based on an 1908 plat unearthed by Casey’s representatives that affords him some grandfathered development rights that wouldn’t be permitted under current land use and development rules.
“The single most important thing to come out of the first meeting to my mind was the alternate plan Mr. Casey has for the same property, that of 46 single unit dwellings. He told us that he prefers not to build this project, but if he has no other option, he will, and has claimed publicly he can do it profitably,” homeowner Paul Murray wrote in an email that has been widely distributed among development opponents about a pair of meetings between neighbors and Casey.
In interviews with the Mercury, Casey has said he’s invested heavily in planning, engineering and legal fees related to the Sessom properties. If he fails to win approval for the upscale apartment/retail complex, he said, he will have to build the less profitable single-family Sessom Court project in order to recoup his investment.
“It is just our preference that we build the [multi-family] project over the one we legally have the right to develop. Both of them are viable projects but the new PDD has fewer overall units with the same stringent environmental protections as our previous one and more parkland dedication,” Casey told the Mercury in June.
Casey told the neighbors that a subdivision of two-bedroom rentals could devolve into a new Sagewood, Murray wrote. Sagewood is a dense development of townhouses popular among young people whose partying periodically puts them at odds with adjacent homeowners in the Sierra Circle neighborhood. Although awareness and education efforts by the university and city have eased tensions considerably in the last half-decade, Sagewood is still short-hand among locals for an untenable neighbor situation.
Casey “repeatedly referred to Sagewood Trail as an example of how the development would turn out. This is clearly a threat, and I told him so,” Murray wrote, adding later, “There is skepticism that the 46 single unit dwellings will be built, but even greater skepticism about allowing any rezoning. Perhaps the most often heard sentiment was that if allowed here, rezoning would then cascade to other locations in the neighborhood and around town.”
Other neighbors, however, are reconsidering a stance of inflexible opposition out of concern that nothing can prevent Casey from turning the Sessom property into a “clear-cut moonscape” of tightly spaced rent houses, said council member John Thomaides. Thomaides has opposed all of Casey’s Sessom designs but has stepped up criticism in recent weeks.
“I have citizens telling me they lay awake at three in the morning worried about what they’re going to have across the street. They’re trying to scare the hell out of people into believing that this beautiful canyon is going to be a Sagewood and it’s not,” Thomaides said.
Although Casey has an already-approved preliminary plat for 46 lots, various city rules are likely to cut into that total, Thomaides said, including the city’s tree preservation ordinance and restrictions on impervious cover near the environmentally protected river. But computing the maximum number of houses Casey can build is a complex engineering question and no one at City Hall has done the calculations, Thomaides said.
Some controversy-weary neighbors aren’t willing to risk the uncertainty.
“What I’ve heard from some neighbors is, ‘Well, we can’t take that chance.’ I’ve had people tell me nothing I could say would convince them that they had protection from their city government,” Thomaides said.
COVER: Developer Darren Casey addresses the San Marcos City Council in January. MERCURY PHOTO by SEAN BATURA