Work near Bullis resumes after feds leave

Web Posted: 06/19/2008 11:43 PM CDT

By Sig Christenson

Heating up the battle over encroachment at Camp Bullis, an attorney for a developer maintained Thursday his client is abiding by federal law, while a lawyer for Fort Sam Houston said the ongoing project was destroying habitat for a protected bird — a “blatant” violation of the law.

Also, although no work was taking place at the site during a meeting with Fish and Wildlife officials, it resumed later in the day.

Allen Glen said INTCO-Dominion Partnership is following the Endangered Species Act while developing the heavily wooded property that borders Bullis, a medical training facility crucial to the mission at Fort Sam.

But Fort Sam environmental lawyer Jim Cannizzo accused INTCO of illegally crushing trees and thick brush used by the endangered golden-cheeked warbler after a visit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The warbler flies from Mexico to Central Texas each spring, nests and mates there, and likely has been raising its young even as the developer tears up foliage to build a road, he said.

“We certainly wouldn't dream of the things they're doing,” Cannizzo said.

The destruction of habitat or even the noise of heavy machinery could displace the warblers, violating federal law and driving the birds to Camp Bullis, restricting the Army's use of its property, the camp's advocates say.

The exchange came after the Fish and Wildlife Service team toured the site, which lies below the 1,440-foot Bullis Hill.

The team, which included a Fish and Wildlife law enforcement officer, expressed concern about the project but did not say if INTCO had broken the law.

Glen told reporters that INTCO was building a single road that accounts for 12 acres of the company's tract, and that no homes had been built. He went on to say the work is taking place “extraordinarily late” in the warbler's nesting season and “there was really not a lot of sensitive activity going on even if the warblers were in proximity to the site.”

Work on the road has been under way at least the past week, but Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they saw no construction activities Thursday morning.

Yet hours later, Fish and Wildlife field supervisor Adam Zerrenner, biologist Allison Arnold and agent Eric Jumper stood near the base of Bullis Hill and observed heavy machinery at work on the site.

“That's pretty amazing,” a surprised and angry Cannizzo said to the federal team. “You're gone, so they crank it up.”

Fort Sam officials point to the project as a threat to the future of Camp Bullis, a craggy 27,994-acre range that has become surrounded by high-end subdivisions and businesses.

They say roads, homes and malls have replaced large swaths of cedar and oak thickets that once nurtured the warbler and served as part of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

The Army wants buffer zones to control development and light pollution, and it warns that if growth continues unchecked, Fort Sam's future will be in doubt — along with 37,250 military and civilian workers to be on the post by 2011.

Mayor Phil Hardberger and others have said they'll support Fort Sam's call for more regulation of development, not just to protect Bullis but also the aquifer — a chief source of water.

INTCO attorney Glen defended the project, saying his company had done a wildlife survey of the development. He declined to release information about it.

Fort Sam spokesman Phil Reidinger, however, said the company survey was done years ago and is neither valid nor accurate.

“We do surveys every year for the warbler and the endangered black-capped vireo during the mating season and we report the results of those surveys to the Fish and Wildlife Service. We just completed our 2008 survey,” he said, adding that the number of birds is up. “We are on record as saying we have seen and heard those birds in that property, and that property is contiguous to occupied habitat, so it should be considered an inclusive habitat area.”

Federal law and Defense Department policy don't allow the Army to take legal action against developers near its posts. But the post has asked local and state lawmakers from both parties to tighten controls over projects like INTCO's.

Hardberger and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have pledged to back Bullis. Wolff said local officials long have lobbied the Legislature for more control over development, but failed to win that fight in the face of opposition from property-rights advocates.

“This time, with the support of the military, if we restrict this to areas around bases I think we have a much better chance to get it,” said Wolff, who cautioned that property owners might have to be compensated. “I still think it's going to involve money. There's only so far you can go with controls.”

Congressional lawmakers Thursday joined the bipartisan chorus of area leaders demanding action to protect Bullis. U.S. Reps. Charlie Gonzalez and Ciro Rodriguez, both San Antonio Democrats, wrote a letter to Fish and Wildlife Director H. Dale Hall denouncing “inadvisable growth around the post.”

The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, meanwhile, said it expects to seek a temporary restraining order today in federal court to stop work on the INTCO site. The group's attorney, Omar Collin, said he'd been told to withhold action until the aquifer alliance's board has voted on the matter.

“I was hoping when (Fish and Wildlife) went out there, they would put a stop to it,” said the alliance's executive director, Annalisa Peace, adding that enough evidence of warbler activity exists to require a federal permit.

INTCO is developing a 340-acre tract adjacent to Bullis that could have as many as 700 homes in the coming years, but Reidinger said development could be limited if warblers are found on parts of the property.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's Zerrenner said the purpose of Thursday's visit was to meet INTCO representatives, see if there was warbler habitat on the site and outline how the agency could work with the developer to comply with the law. They didn't determine warblers were on the property.

“They listened to us and wanted to work with us and indicated they would be providing us with biological information such that we could review it and work with them,” Zerrenner said. “In terms of whether or not they were going to continue or discontinue construction, that was not discussed by the developer. However when we were on the road, construction was not occurring.”

Speaking at a news conference on Camp Bullis, INTCO attorney Glen said the company was likely to continue work, saying the land already had been “disturbed” and that it was “in the best interests of the environment actually to go ahead and stabilize that site rather than stop work and leave it as an unstabilized open site.”

But Reidinger, the post spokesman, took the podium after Glen stepped down and pointed to a photo of a large home on a hillside in the Dominion not far from Bullis. More houses like it, he warned, will be the death of Fort Sam.

“Camp Bullis is instrumental to the mission of Fort Sam Houston and training the Defense Department's medical force,” he said. “These are the soldiers, these are the doctors, these are the nurses that go out on the battlefield and save people's lives.”

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