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June 4th, 2012
Brad Rollins’ Blog: City should embrace eastside park vision

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.


For most of the last decade, residents with concerns about nearby development have inevitably seized on a fallback position. Why doesn’t the city just buy the land and make it a park?

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.

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26 thoughts on “Brad Rollins’ Blog: City should embrace eastside park vision

  1. It would be nice to consider each property on its own merits. Muddying the waters about what should be done with Cape’s Camp, with noise about Sessom, just adds to the chaos.

    Let’s focus on what will work here, if it is the issue of the day.

    On a side note, re: property taxes, it would be interesting to see a study on appreciation/depreciation of existing homes over the last 10 years, compared to those other cities. How much of their increased value is in appreciation of existing property? It looks to me, like homes in our neighborhood are selling for what they did a decade ago. Is my perception correct? Is that the case elsewhere? How does that compare to New Braunfels, or Kyle, or some of our “protected” neighborhoods? There’s more to taxable property values than just new development.

  2. I don’t see how it’s noise; the issues tie together as clearly as any two issues ever do. Development funds parkland acquisition and we have to pick and chose what is important to preserve.

    Some of the same people at the parks board meeting who were cheering the purchase of Cape’s Camp were cheering the parks board’s rejection of $300,000 that could have gone a long way toward buying Cape’s Camp. (The county was able to leverage seed money like that by something in the order of 1-to-10 for its 2007 parks and open space program. I don’t know how much Cape’s Camp is under contract for but $3 million isn’t pocket change.)

    So my question is: Which would they rather have? Cape’s Camp preserved or to really stick it to Darren Casey? Not the only set of options on the table but answering that question will go a long way to determining what peoples’ priorities are.

  3. Do they put apartments in single family neighborhoods in New Braunfels?

    Maybe a planning student at TXST would like to take on a comparison, as some sort of class project. The one thing I take away from all of these discussions, is that we’re all just kind of guessing at a lot of this stuff. In light of the looming master plan review, it would be good to build as much expertise as we can. New Braunfels might be a good place to look for some information.

    They’ve got us beat for population growth, income, and property values. They’re about 30 miles from San Antonio, and we’re about 30 miles from Austin. Our major employers match up surprisingly well. It could be a very interesting study.

  4. Is Casey’s $300,000 the only way to fund a park at Cape’s Camp? If so, then I guess the two go together. Otherwise, they only go together, because you want them to go together.

    If people believe that apartments at Sessom are bad for the neighborhood and bad for the river, doing something good for another neighborhood, and good for the river elsewhere, won’t change that. If they genuinely believe it is bad, no amount of money should change their views.

  5. Brad, I just shook your hand the other day at the river. Was nice getting to formally meet you. I appreciate your insight but you need to get a few technical items cleared up. I made a motion that passed unanimously for support of the capes camp vision and a motion that passed unanimously for the denial of parkland fee in lieu of for the casey project. When it comes to these fee in lieu of agenda items, well, our park board never votes unanimously. The $300,000 fee from the Casey development could not be used/applied to a purchase for the Cape’s Camp property by the simple fact that within our LDC parkland dedication fee in lieu of money has to be applied in the area/sector where the development is occurring. With that said the Casey Project and the Cape’s Camp vision are unrelated. Let me lend you an example of what happened with a prevous fee in lieu of denial. Karma Partners, LLC (Paso Robles) came to the parks board a couple years ago to present their staff supported parkland dedication and fee in lieu of combo. The combo was for parkland on “cliffsides”, complete 100 yr floodplain and a small chunk of change. Well much debate occurred and our board decided that having unusable parkland and giving credit for a country club golf course were not appropriate means of parkland dedication and fee in lieu of. The motion to approve the staff recommended combo failed. At this same time some hard working staff approached Karma and spoke to them about possibly paying the $300,000 required city payment to match Hays county and Tpwd money to receive a Trust for Public Land grant for the purchase of nearly 600 additional acres for upper purgatory. Karma came back to us and negotiations continued. It became rather heated at moments but what developed was the city getting the headwaters to cottonwood creek, headwaters to willow creek, public access to all of the hike and bike trails at Paso Robles, reduced green fees for San Marcos’ residents when using the golf course, a conservation easement for the entire property, additional parkland dedication, and the $300,000 payment of the city’s portion of the TPL grant match for the nearly 600 acre addition to upper purgatory. This city got a lot more than they were ever going to get if there parks board simply took the staff recomended combo that was first put before us. Instead we negotiated on their behalf and we ended up getting so much. This example hopefully sheds a little light on why the motion I made for the Casey Project was: to deny the staff recomended fee in lieu of and request that city staff and the developer negotiate through the PDD process a parkland dedication in excess of 3 acres on the development site. So to point at your “bottom line”, I think that that land at sessoms is truly irreplaceable and is environmentally important, and is needed for future generations. We should not have to buy that land when our weak LDC “asks” them to give it to us. And our weak LDC is…

  6. Chad,

    I appreciate the additional information on the restrictions on the use of parkland dedicate fees. I’d just say that it is a city rule and the city council could easily amend the LDC to facilitate a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like the purchase of Cape’s Camp. It makes sense to require parkland investment in the sector where the development is occurring but Cape’s Camp would truly be a project of citywide and regional significance. We shouldn’t be hidebound by our own policies when circumstances demand something else.

    It was nice meeting you at Sewell, as well.

  7. We should all work together to get our LDC whipped into shape. We will get Cape’s too. I want a San Marcos where all sides work together. Concerned citizens, and developers all have something at stake here. Somehow we can all benefit from each and the other. Development is inevitable and so is growth. Though an informed citizenry is a powerful force who’s needs will be met. Negotiating is a powerful process when your convictions are right and your voice is strong…

  8. Thank you Chad for your motions, and thanks to the board for making it unanimous. Negotiating IS a powerful process for those with convictions, strong will and the willingness to stop at nothing until right is done.

    And yes we should all work together, and a lot of us have been. It’s going to be a very interesting year here in San Marcos, so far some very positive things have happened due to working with all sides and trying to see each other as people with different visions and goals and attempting to work on the greater good for ALL sides of the issue. I agree 100% with the importance of preserving the canyon at all costs though, I don’t see how any negotiating is going to work for good of all on that one.

    Our neighborhoods need to stay strong, and not let the negotiating process pit us against each other. We need to be a united front even if our visions, at times, are slightly different….we have done it so far, and I hope we will continue to do so.

    A lot of neighborhood bonding was had by all at the first Benefit for San Marcos Voice and our family is growing quickly. We all need to be there for each other in our time of need, we all need to be THE VOICE that the city and the developers hear. Don’t show up only when it’s your neighborhood or your sacred environmental spot that is being threatened stand up for all of San Marcos or we may loose her. ~Is that hysterical enough for you Brad 😉 ?

  9. Oh btw, Cori will be very relieved that you finally covered this 🙂 The San Marcos Daily Record has been falling down on the job. They never even reported SMV’s lawsuit even thought the Austin American Statesman did?? You are poised to be the only place to get actual news in San Marcos, albiet sometimes a bit slanted.

  10. Mr Rollins, you seem to feel that those of us who see the Sessoms property as an important landscape to the San Marcos citizens do not honestly believe that this beautiful green space is worth saving nor meets YOUR requirements that “the property in question is truly irreplaceable and warrants protection for future generations…” I love this green space where I have had a home for over 28 years. There is NOT another one like it anywhere in San Marcos, or in the area around the university. It has its own merits for being saved and IS truly irreplaceable and warrants protection for future generations and should NOT be sacrificed to save another piece of property or make money for another developer.

    The notion that this is another, “not in my back yard”, campaign is ridiculous, since our neighborhood is surrounded by apartments, other retail and the university. So, we feel this beautiful green space is worth fighting for and is the first time we have stood as a neighborhood to do so.

    Maybe Darren Casey should stop trying to “stick it to” the Sessoms neighborhood by insisting on putting his development in this beautiful home for wildlife and the Sessoms creek. Maybe he should put his project in a suitable place somewhere else in San Marcos and bring in all that tax money that you want. Other land is available in this city, so what’s the problem?

  11. I agree with Brad and appreciate the relationship. We cannot afford to buy every open space, so we must hold our fire for properties that can serve the greatest number. Cape’s Camp is a special gem, and we need more public riverfront. I have zero interest in tax dollars going to Sessom’s Runoff Ditch. I encourage the neighbors to buy it or work with the developer to find a solution. That doesn’t mean he abandons any plans and crawls away, and it doesn’t mean he gets to do whatever he wants. It means you work together — imagine that.

  12. Melissa — yup, finally! At least the discussion is out there now. Thanks to those who took time to actually “report the news” in their commentary about this opinion piece.

    Pity the meeting wasn’t video taped so interested folks could watch it and decide for themselves.

  13. If Casey put’s his huge project on Sessoms Drive then the canyon and the creek becomes Casey’s runoff ditch! If you perceive it as a runoff ditch now, what do you think will happen when the trees are removed and the area is covered in concrete? And, where do you think the runoff is going–can you say San Marcos River? Even his engineers can’t guarantee how much.

    Let him build single-family if he must build there, which we were told he would do after the initial project was rejected. The neighborhood did not object as we felt it was a better alternative for the land. No city tax dollars involved and tax dollars going to the city–imagine THAT!

  14. I apologize. I’m not trying to get in a pissing match with anyone on Sessoms. I feel that Cape’s Camp is a very worthy project and was one of those cheering it on at the Parks and Recreation meeting. But, I also feel Sessoms Creek and the canyon has some value.

  15. No apology necessary, Linda, as far as I’m concerned. While we disagree on Sessom, we can find agreement on Cape’s Camp.

  16. Interesting article, and I have mixed reactions, but I am all for the city acquiring the Thorton parcel for exactly the reasons described by Brad. One thing, Brad….are we San Martians or San Marcians? Just curious.

  17. Brad, have you watched The Unforeseen? It’s about SOS and how Bush Jr. ruined all the progress they made to save Barton Springs. I actually felt really bad for the featured developer of Circle C. Robert Redford grew up in Austin and LA and has a lot of very interesting insight as well.

    If you haven’t seen it, I wish you would….just to gain some persepective regarding what can happen to the environment and to developers in situations such as we find ourselves in San Marcos today. It’s on Amazon on demand and you can order it from Netflicks. Take me up on the challenge and tell me what how you feel afterwards?

  18. Melissa, I have seen it more than once and I thought it was artful propaganda. I love the cancer metaphor of suburban sprawl creeping across the countryside. I’m not being sarcastic. It was very well done.

    But it fell short where I think we all fall short sometimes and that is connecting the belief system to facts. The film never details with any sort of specificity what the Barton Creek subdivision did to Barton Springs.

    The whole message hinges on that sequence where you’re traveling, by underwater camera, through a crystal clear Barton Springs pool in the 1970s and then it cuts to the present and the water is all foggy and opaque. I’ve been in Barton Springs enough to see it both crystal clear and foggy. Water turbidity fluctuates from day to day based on a variety of factors. So the film kind of relies on misleading imagery for its main emotional crescendo. It is effective, and maybe “truthy,” but not true.

    Anyway, that’s what I thought. What did you think about it?

  19. I thought it was a really good movie, part documentary, part artistic and poetic and to be honest it showed the reason I fled Austin in 1996 during the silicone valley boom. My college boyfriend lived in Austin, so I was there every other weekend from 86-89 until I moved there and stayed until 1996 at the height of the silicone valley invasion.

    We had no traffic on 1-35 unless there was a wreck until the invasion came, and because GW sided with land owners over the SOS ordinance, it was a hay day for developers. I LOVED Ann Richards, she, in my mind, was a true Texas leader that can never be replaced. I loved the part of the movie where she says “we wanted to put a fence around Austin”. Well you can’t do that, but if she had beaten GW we would have had smarter, slower and healthier growth.

    Bottom line ~ been there done that, don’t want to see it happen to San Marcos….I came here to get away from that in 1996.

    And yes the water gets cloudy in any body of water after a rain event, I won’t let me kids or dogs go in the San Marcos River for three days after a rain event b/c it’s full of run off and unhealthy. That’s exactly what happens to Barton Springs as well and in very large part due to developments in the wrong place. I can’t say for sure whether it was a camera trick (filming after a rain) that made the difference in the underwater footage, but I can say with confidence that rapid development near the springs and on the recharge zone has had a very negative impact on the water quality at the springs.

    Some very interesting reading here, and I’ve read most of the studies (dye tests, Mr. Slade’s studies) before. I don’t know if it would change your mind, or if you even care to read it, but here’s a link: there are some really cool historical photos at the bottom too

  20. First, I absolutely think the city should buy the Capes Camp property. Second, I’m a bit concerned that Mr. Rollins, the person who attends the city meetings and reports the news, is the same person who wrote this commentary. I was overjoyed when we finaly had a news alternative in SM. But now I’m not so sure… We all now know Mr. Rollins’ stance on the Sessom project. How will we know he is being fair when reporting news on that project in the future?

  21. Thanks for reading, Hippie. Because you know my opinion on Sessom or any number of other subjects, you know to be mindful of that as a smart news consumer. Objectivity only exists for people who haven’t lived long enough, or asked questions long enough, to develop opinions informed by their experience and/or education. Writing about my opinions gives readers a check and balance on my biases. I think it works better than the current industy standard which is to conceal opinions and pretend they don’t exist — even though everyone knows better.

  22. Your last comment is interesting Brad, because I was thinking about this very topic on my commute today.

    It *is* good to know where your biases as a reporter lie, BUT….it would also be helpful if you could perhaps simply report the news, impartially, BEFORE you write your opinion pieces. The news resources in this town are dismal, and you are a good writer. Can you not do both, openly, and thus give people who cannot attend these events some basic facts to work with while they are trying to form their own opinions?

    Just a thought that I hope you’ll consider….

  23. Way to put it Cori. I was thinking the same thing. I was kinda tickled by the lack of understanding for developmental procedures provided by this opinion piece. It doesn’t tickle me when there is a lot of hard work that goes into these processes and a reporter is not reporting on the actual “what happened” (so we may form our opinions) but rather provides banter on what he/she thinks should have occurred. I’d much rather have a Jounalist helping out with spreading the news than a Blogger any day. News is not entertainment, even though people seem to have quite the good ‘ole time wthin the comments section of this site’s “news”

  24. I like to see all sides of the coin, that’s why I like this site. Someone may change my mind with information I wasn’t aware of, and I know the logic (or lack thereof) of those who are opposed to things I am for and visa versa. The Mercury has it’s place, and when you have the Almost Daily Record falling down on the job at LEAST you can discuss what’s going on here if they aren’t reporting it there.

    We all know Brad’s biases by now and usually his slanted articles bring out the most information and opinions ~ even though I rarely ever agree with him (exception alcohol ban and Capes Camp…sort of..), I think it’s a good thing. I’m sure MANY were not aware of the information you posted Chad, and now MANY more are.

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