San Antonio Express-News (TX)
A Section Page 01A
SAWS rebuffs developer
Publication Date : December 5, 2007
Taking a rare stand against a developer to protect a pristine watershed that drains into the Edwards Aquifer, trustees of the San Antonio Water System unanimously rejected an agreement Tuesday to provide water to a planned subdivision in the remote hills northwest of the city.
Baruch Properties wanted water for the Hills of Castle Rock, a 1,766-acre property near Texas 16 and Park Road 37 in Medina County. The nearest SAWS water main is 7.5 miles away.

Environmentalists and neighbors argued that SAWS water service would allow high-density development that otherwise is not likely to occur because of a lack of available water supplies.

High-density development, they said, would bring polluted runoff and downstream flooding to San Geronimo Creek and an on-site wastewater treatment plant whose effluent would be added to the creek that drains into the aquifer a few miles downstream.

"Density development in a sensitive zone simply is not a good thing for the citizens of San Antonio, for our city, for our neighbors or for our water," said Mayor Phil Hardberger in explaining his motion to deny the request.

"When the mayor said that, my heart almost stopped," said Randy Johnson, president of the San Geronimo Valley Alliance. "It's just so wonderful that the mayor is looking out for the water of San Antonio."

Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, said: "The mayor was a big hero. The decision was very gratifying because they were taking into account what's best for SAWS customers and people who rely on the Edwards Aquifer."

The utility routinely approves about a dozen agreements with developers each month to provide water or sewer service. This one was to amend an agreement made with Baruch a year ago that was strictly for water and sewer services using resources on the site.

Hardberger said he recognized that to get a SAWS water main to the site, the developer made concessions such as scaling back from 3,500 homes to 2,700, but he said the city's policy should not be to diminish the harm but to do good.

He said the city's "irreversible mistakes" in planning over the aquifer's sensitive areas are on display by driving out Loop 1604 North and U.S. 281.

"I would like to keep this last watershed as pure as we can," he said.

Trustee Willie Mitchell and a couple of other trustees initially wanted to table the matter for more information, saying the utility is in the business of providing water service although it also has to listen to residents' concerns and protect water quality.

Under the proposed agreement, SAWS would have required the developer to pay almost $10 million for connecting to the system as well as all costs of extending the main to the property. And SAWS committed to not oversize the line to accommodate any future developers along the route, although Baruch could have contracted with others to oversize the line before construction.

Trustees knew that sending city water out to the area that now relies on sometimes-sparse supplies from the Trinity Aquifer would forever finish off its bucolic nature.

"Once you have a large main out there, that's not the only thing that's going to grow out there," said Trustee Salvadore Hernández. "You're going to have outcroppings (of development) all the way to Bandera."

Most of the proposed development lies in San Antonio's 5-mile extraterritorial jurisdiction, and SAWS applied last year to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to provide the area with both water and sewer services.

But Board Chairman Alex Briseño said those applications may need to be rethought. He acknowledged that SAWS doesn't want other utilities popping up with possibly substandard construction or operating methods that SAWS later may be called on to take over, but maybe the city could discourage growth in certain areas by not providing services.

Bill Kaufman, an attorney representing Baruch Properties, said after the meeting that the owners would have to assess their next step.

"The property owners can either come back to SAWS and ask for another opportunity to address the USA (utility service agreement) or go to the TCEQ and leave SAWS out of it," he said, adding that the development could "form its own water district."

The developer sought to amend its agreement with SAWS -- which officials revealed Tuesday was void because it never had been signed by the developer -- because of the difficulty of getting adequate supplies from the Trinity Aquifer for the number of homes it wants.

Without a central water supply or an independent water district, homes in the development might have to have individual wells and be subject to spacing requirements that vastly limit density.