San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

July 30th, 2012
Sessom developer deploys carrots, sticks in bid for neighbors’ support

This revised concept from one of Darren Casey's more recent development applications is No. 22 in a series of proposals from the San Antonio developer and Texas State alumnus. CLICK TO DOWNLOAD IN PDF


Developer Darren Casey has been meeting this summer with neighborhood opponents of his proposed luxury student apartments on Sessom Drive in an effort to negotiate a compromise to win some former foes’ blessings.

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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

Casey’s July 6 Sessom Drive proposal

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23 thoughts on “Sessom developer deploys carrots, sticks in bid for neighbors’ support

  1. It is time for Mr Casey to move on. One good solution would be to pull the Sessom Canyon properties into the possible ballot issue related to the aquisition of the Capes Camp properties, perhaps protecting both the Sessom Creek watershed that feeds the San MArcos River, and the river itself. This is truly the only outcome that will be acceptable,aside from private aquisition into a preserve, as I know of no one that has in reality ” believed the misinformation” that has been presented in an attempt to scare residents into compliance with a developer that has now clearly shown his true colors. Bullies are not very popular in San Marcos, especially when they attempt to threaten the way of life that so many truly cherish, and stand ready and able to protect. JLB 🙂

  2. I know of only two actual Sessom Creek area residents that attended these meeings, only two! They are certainly entitled to their personal opinions, related only to their personal ideas. It is rumored by the way,that DC has pulled all of his plans for this project/ projects, we shall see if these rumors are in fact correct, soon hopefully. jlb 🙂

  3. Whether the discussion is rezoning for this development, or revision of the entire master plan, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we do not have the expertise (or perhaps the process) to determine what a compatible development looks like, and to communicate that, authoritatively, to the citizens and developers in San Marcos.

    I would say that the city, citizens, developers, and businesses would all benefit from us gaining that expertise.

  4. Has anyone seen the 1908 plat? Was it approved by either the County or City? Was it ever vacated? If it is in fact a valid plat, have there been illegal subdivisions of the platted lots?

    Just wondering.

  5. Just in case it is not yet extremely clear from this article, the Sagewood threat is an empty one. And it was not truthful to make that threat unless Mr. Casey perhaps is just not familiar with Sagewood. (But I certainly think that Mr. Theriot would be since Sagewood was built while he was with the City Planning Dept.) That kind of development will not be built again here, since many lessons have been learned about building what is essentially apartments with six to eight people living in each duplex, without management on site. A new duplex zoning has been established since then that is similar to single family housing in that the “no more than two-unrelated” ordinance applies.

    And further, I strongly believe we do have the expertise to plan compatible housing for that area and the master plan committee is working on that. The master plan should be allowed to be completed before this sensitive tract of land is developed. That land has so much to do with whether our river will remain clear and swimmable in the future.

  6. Dianne, I respectfully disagree. Every conversation about the impact of a development on the surrounding neighborhoods, buffers to minimize impact, etc., seems to be purely speculative.

    Do you know what constitutes an adequate buffer, between an apartment complex and a residential neighborhood? If the city has that expertise, are they sharing it with Mr. Casey, so that he does not have to keep coming back with more and more revised plans?

    I’m sorry. I just don’t see the evidence of that expertise, and I dare say I am not the only one. Otherwise, far fewer people would be up in arms.

  7. No more apartments. Please.

    Why does San Marcos cater to the student population so severely? These students don’t stay in San Marcos after graduation. They get their degrees and then they move on. Rather than catering to the students, I would like to see the city start catering more to the post-graduation population – young professionals, first-time home buyers, new families, etc. Make San Marcos a place graduates can imagine building – or at least starting – their lives post-graduation. That would benefit the city, in the long run, much more than catering to students (temporary residents) will.

  8. LK,

    While I agree with your point about making SM attractive to post-graduate population, I disagree vehemently with the first part of your post.

    If not apartments, where do you expect the students to live in their time here? We have a growing – booming, even – student population here that *must* be accommodated. And while it’s true that the students often don’t stay after graduation, there’s a whole new class coming in that also needs a place to stay while they’re here.

    San Marcos “caters to the student population so severely” because they drive the local economy. It’s really that simple and it isn’t going to change.

    I also don’t believe that housing is the first step toward making SM attractive to a post-graduate population….the job market has to be here first, and that’s a whole different discussion.

  9. Actually, they contribute to the economy, but they don’t drive it. TXST released their own study, which shows that the university contributes about 20% of our economy. Half of that comes from the students, although without the students, there would be no university, and no other half.

    If I recall correctly, something like 60% of the money the university pumps into Texas, goes outside the city. Something like 50% goes outside of Hays County.

    As to why graduates don’t “stay” in San Marcos, I’ll play devil’s advocate, and say that most of them don’t live here to begin with, so they probably stay wherever they are, until a job takes them elsewhere.

    In that regard, more student housing *might* be part of the answer, but it is not that simple. Most of the graduates I talk to leave because there are few careers here, and few opportunities for personal or professional growth.

    As Dano points out, that’s a whole different discussion.

    IMO, there is ample need for student housing, and rental properties for non-students. There is no evidence that there is any corner of town where these properties won’t succeed, so it is difficult to make a case that they need to be right next to campus, particularly in residential neighborhoods. In fact, one could argue that placing them closer to businesses (bars, restaurants, retail, etc.) might do more for the economy, and also might get a lot more cars off the streets.

  10. Whether Mr. Casey can build another Sagewood housing unit or not, he has certainly stated that he will do so, and will lease these units to students who are non-related, if the neighborhood does not cease opposition to his grand retail/residential project. This type of housing project is envisioned to clear the trees and destroy the canyon, and add additional traffic to neighborhood streets as alternative routes to get to campus, rather than the crowded Sessom and Comanche. People are afraid that he has the authority to do this, and that our city government will do/can do nothing to hinder him or enforce single-family codes.

    Yes, the university drives the local economy, but it does not mean that student housing should have priority over established neighborhoods. There are adequate and more appropriate sites for this kind of housing. We, the other citizen population of this city, who do LIVE here, and pay our taxes, should have some say as to how our neighborhoods will look and function.

    But, we have definitely been threatened to play (retail/residential) or pay (shabby two bedroom student filled housing with no buffer zones). And, the divide and conquer strategy is making its rounds. So much for the Casey who has such respect and concern for this community. Money, honey, is what is driving him.

  11. I wonder how many of the existing complexes are filled to capacity. I would assume it’s a pretty slim percentage – which is really my point. I don’t believe there is a true need for more student housing.

    Aquarena Springs Drive is lined with complexes, there are multiple complexes on Old Ranch Road 12 – plus the new development near the intersection of Old RR 12 and Craddock – multiple complexes near campus, the new complex on Hunter Road, areas with duplexes like Sagewood, and on and on.

    While I understand that students do contribute to the local economy – and am glad for that – students aren’t the only people who live in San Marcos. Yes, keeping graduates here entails a whole lot more than is relevant here, but San Marcos isn’t just a “college town” and I’d like to see some development beyond that.

  12. Either the Chamber or the economic development board did a survey a couple years ago and found that apartments in San Marcos were at something like 95% capacity. The survey also said that industry averages put “full capacity” at around 80%. Comparatively speaking, our apartment complexes are stuffed.

    So yeah, with an ever growing student population, we do need more student housing….apartments being about the only choice with this town’s un-student-friendly rules on cohabitation.

  13. Let’s don’t engage in cheap shotting the expertise of the city planning staff. My involvement with them on the master planning process among other things give me great respect for their expertise and patience with catcalls from citizens. I know people are frustrated, but it seems to me the system is working, perhaps not perfectly. But after all, there are elections coming. Put people on the council you’d trust more than those who are there if you’re unhappy. I do like the idea of putting the Sessom land on the parkland acquisition list. Lots of problems solved. Again, the Casey development seems great, just not in sensitive areas.

  14. It is time for Mr. Casey to admit defeat and move on. It would be a real mistake for area residents to allow this type of development even if it is smaller. That is how it would start, then the request would come for “phase 2” since it would now be adjacent to a similar type of development, then “phase 3” and so on until the run-off destroys the river and the neighborhood is entirely rentals. I live in the Franklin area and I have been thrilled – three houses have sold recently all to families. It is up to the citizens of San Marcos to hold the line and time for Mr. Casey to move on from this development.

  15. It’s no cheap shot. If you can show me where anyone has made specific recommendations re: how to make this development compatible with and complimentary to the surrounding neighborhood, I’d love to see it. Maybe I just missed it.

    What I see, is the developer and the neighbors each doing their best to educate and convince the city that their side is right. It sure *looks* like the city is getting most of its information from those two sides, as opposed to drawing on, and offering up, its expertise.

    I’d also like to see post mortems on developments that don’t go so well, so that we can build on whatever expertise we have, and make better decisions the next time. For that matter, post mortems on the ones that do go well, would provide valuable information as well. Again, if that has been happening, I’d be very interested to see that data.

  16. Also, to be clear, I am talking about the expertise amongst those making these decisions. I was, not all that long ago, told that our P&Z members were chosen for such expertise, but have since been told, here, that this is not accurate, and that the expertise is not there.

    I’m saying that it should be. That doesn’t mean replacing anyone. It means identifying the four or five issues that keep coming back, and developing more expertise at P&Z and Council.

  17. Dano: the multifamily industry likes it at 98%. below that, they do not keep up
    Improvements. Just see the state of most appartments complexes and the plethora of multiplexes held by slum lords. It is heard many times that this town is not kept up…
    The planning staff tried to make us believe that the pdd from casey matched the trend in th. Read the staff comments: very arbitrary. The planner that was responsible for the pdd analysis has since been dismissed while alegations of inapropriate communications with the consulting agency , namely ed theriot, former planner,

  18. Sorry, published before finishing. So this one planner was dismissed with no further comments.
    Her comments were simply that the sessoms neighborhood was ripe for high density rezoning, with existing commercial lots, etc..,
    I agree with ted’s comment on expertise. It is not there or the direction to the staff is not sppropriate. The master plan speaks at length against what the casey rezoning is.
    A fact remains however, txstate is growing faster than predicted. Since downtown and the lower san marcos is filled with empty or abandoned spaces, it seems a no brainer to use those and not an asset like an established single family neighborhood with a drainage going to the headwaters ! Pz and council: in my view, casey ‘s pdd and his threats are simply out of line.
    take his name off our tx state building.

  19. Agreed as to downtown (and the area south of it). The former justice center is perfect for high rise. There’s a lot of under-utilized property down there within easy walking distance of campus. Students would have to walk through downtown (and hopefully spend a little money) to get to class.

  20. He donated 1.3 million dollars to your TX State building you want his name off of. Have a little respect for the generosity of others.

  21. Onad,

    You can have his name removed – all you have to do is give more than $1.3 million to the university.

    See how easy it is?

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