Carlos Guerra: Hill Country sisters determined to keep sanctuary undisturbed

Web Posted: 02/11/2008 11:14 PM CST

San Antonio Express-News

Getting to the Fenstermaker sisters' spread is depressing. Roads are choked with construction trucks and littered with signs pitching "Hill Country Living." And nearby, developers have scraped thousands of acres to the limestone, which they are terracing before paving them with McMansions and asphalt.

But nestled off Boerne Stage Road is the Fenstermaker sisters' Maverick Ranch-Fromme Farm, where time stopped when the Hill Country was still thick with brush and dotted with pastures marked with short, hand-hewn limestone walls.

It has been a working cattle ranch for 150 years, says Martha Fenstermaker, who took off Monday from teaching at Laredo Community College to join sisters Mary and Bebe Fenstermaker in a show of resolve — and admirable family unity.

Bebe, the "head cow woman," notes that aside from longhorns, "We have endangered birds all over (the ranch), too," and the sisters will do what is necessary to keep them there.

"We have all wanted it to be a nature preserve," Martha says, recalling dinner-table conversations in the 1950s when her parents and grandmother turned down oil-exploration offers and decided to turn their spread into a natural habitat and sanctuary.

"That has always been our intention," Martha agreed.

And it hasn't been easy, Bebe says, as they face the family's fifth battle to keep their property from governmental entities intent on taking it from them.

"It started in 1989 when CPS wanted to build a substation on our fence line with tremendous transmission lines," Bebe says.

After stopping them once, CPS officials "got smart and returned with six options" that pitted neighborhoods against each other. The substation was eventually built, but near Fair Oaks Ranch, which it serves.

The next battle came after a CPS power-line pole fell. The utility decided to replace it and all the other poles on their land — with metal poles.

"We told them you can't do that" because the ranch is "a federally registered historic district, like the King William neighborhood," but CPS officials wouldn't budge, at one point even threatening to show up the next day with "the sheriff and guns" to break their lock and go on the easement CPS mistakenly claimed as its own.

The sisters won that one, too.

"But this is the worst one ever," Bebe says. "We got a letter from an engineering firm asking for a 'right of entry agreement.'

"They want access to all of our property that doesn't have impervious cover;" she says. "Wherever it isn't covered, they want to do shovel tests, drilling, and who knows what else."

The sisters sought more information about this request, which, experience has taught them, often precedes eminent domain proceedings. But the city of San Antonio, Bexar County and the San Antonio River Authority have not been particularly forthcoming.

"We're just asking for answers to questions you ask about eminent domain," Bebe says, such as meeting notes and minutes, engineering studies and plans for dams or any other projects in the area around their ranch, along with any plans for seizing their property.

Bebe says about all they have received are maps showing plans for a dam that "will take the heart of the ranch" by submerging it.

Appearances indicate that plans are in the works to control runoff, thereby making flood-prone land downstream more easily developable.

"They can only be doing this for one of two purposes," says Neil Hernández, a Helotes farmer who is supporting the Fenstermakers. "One is to offset the damage that has already been done to this watershed with impervious cover; or two, to allow more (building) over our water supply."

"I can tell you one thing," Bebe emphasizes. "They aren't coming here with chain saws and back-hoes and tractors. We just don't do that to the ranch."

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail

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