San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Metro and State News Page 01B
Still some time for decisive action for controls near Camp Bullis
Publication Date : June 26, 2007
Faced with the specter of major cutbacks at -- or closure of -- Fort Sam Houston, isn't it time to bring development over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone under control?
Fort Sam's $1.2 billion annual payroll isn't chump change, nor will we quickly replace its 8,594 civilian jobs. But we may have to because much of Fort Sam's training is conducted at Camp Bullis, which is now threatened by encroaching development.

"We have a training area that we absolutely need to train our medics," says Maj. Gen. Russell Czerw, Fort Sam's commanding general. "It is vital to us during the day and during the night; and anything that inhibits our ability to train could be detrimental."

Former Councilman Robert Marbut Jr. recalls that after first hearing that warning from Army officials in 1995, "we turned down every (zoning change request) in that area."

County Commissioner Lyle Larson also remembers that a 1995 study concluded that some land uses near Camp Bullis could imperil Fort Sam.

"But the real estate people killed what we were trying to do, to disclose that there were some incompatible uses around (Bullis)," Larson says.

Those same issues have arisen again because Thomas Enterprises wants zoning changes for its 835-acre development, some of which abuts Camp Bullis.

Though 43 percent of their tract is recharge area, and the rest is in the contributing zone, SAWS has recommended allowing 65 percent impervious cover.

And though most existing homes in the area are on multiacre lots, Thomas wants to build 7.6 to 8.7 homes per acre on at least 110 acres, which Fort Sam Houston officials oppose, saying the cumulative impact of such development will compromise their training missions.

Clearing that much land will drive more golden-cheeked warblers -- a protected species -- onto Camp Bullis, which may force cutbacks in training. That much impervious cover will create water runoff problems for the camp. And the additional ambient light will compromise a lot of nighttime training.

"We need to prevent interference with limited visibility and low-light technology that we use for our air and ground maneuvers, our parachute drops and using our night-vision goggles," Czerw says. "Those are incredibly important, and if we don't have great light discipline, we won't be able to train."

A realistic training environment, he emphasizes, is critical.

Larson also notes that dense development won't just result in new neighbors complaining about noise from gunfire and midnight flights muffled less because there will be fewer trees.

"If a helicopter goes down in one of these neighborhoods," he says, "it will be a catastrophic incident, and the military will look at moving the missions because it's a life-safety issue."

"A 'compatibility use' buffer is very important for us to create a realistic environment for combat training," Czerw says.

Larson and City Councilwomen Diane Cibrian and Sheila McNeil met with Czerw and Thomas officials Monday. Development of The Rim can't begin for another year, Larson says, so there is still some time to take decisive action.

"But if we don't get these issues resolved, this is a real threat, and it isn't just these 100 acres, it's all the other parcels as well," Larson says. "We've got to get a handle on it from an aggregate standpoint. If any training missions are altered to accommodate the impacts -- be it neighborhoods or golden-cheeked warblers, water supply, whatever -- it will send a signal to decision makers to start looking for another place that doesn't have these barriers."

One way to establish a compatible use buffer, Larson says, may be to set up an "overlay district" to control development around Camp Bullis and other military bases where similar, development-related issues are beginning to arise.

But why stop there?

Why not create an overlay district to protect the entire Edwards Aquifer recharge zone?

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail His column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.