• How developers skirt city codes

    Skinner Nurseries property, 2005
    Skinner Nurseries property, 2005
    Skinner Nurseries property, 2009
    Skinner Nurseries property, 2009

    Whenever a real estate developer bulldozes majestic oaks or paves over environmentally sensitive land on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, it’s usually because he has “vested rights.” He’s grandfathered from city codes, and he can do whatever he wants on a property.

    But sometimes trees are cut down not because of vested rights, but because of flaws in the actual ordinance that was intended to protect trees from urban sprawl.

    Here’s my latest story about a flaw I learned about recently in the city’s tree-preservation ordinance. We’ve also published stories here and here about other ways to get around city ordinances.

    The latest method of avoiding the tree ordinance involves a “homeowners exemption.” Lobbyist Ken Brown advised his client, Skinner Nurseries, that it didn’t have to follow city codes that required the company to preserve trees on its 19-acre property. That’s because the rural land had a house on it. The city’s tree ordinance sets no limits on the size of residential properties, so Skinner Nurseries could bulldoze all the trees it wanted — and it did.

    Skinner Nurseries bulldozed the property for — of all things — a tree-nursery business. But a sour economy killed the project after the trees were cut down. No tree-nursery was ever built, and the old house was eventually torn down.

  • Local officials try closing loophole in San Antonio’s tree ordinance

    Last week, state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, and Mayor Phil Hardberger announced an effort to fix a city ordinance that was meant to protect San Antonio’s diminishing tree canopy from urban sprawl. A loophole in the ordinance allows real estate developers to bulldoze trees for ranching and farming.

    Press conference about loophole in San Antonio s tree rules   YouTubeFor those who want to learn more, here’s a YouTube video of the April 3, 2009, press conference, and a collection of news stories that followed the twists and turns of this issue:

  • The original news story illustrated how the owner of the Village at West Pointe leased his land to a rancher, who bulldozed thousands of trees. Then a company tied to the owner filed plans to develop the property. The story examined ties between the property owner, Hugo Gutierrez Jr., and mayoral candidate Diane Cibrian.
  • There were several follow up stories:

  • Mayor Hardberger and Cibrian pledged to fix the tree ordinance.
  • Columnist Jaime Castillo followed up on rumors that Cibrian had spent a weekend in Cancun at a condo owned by Gutierrez, and had appointed a man with business ties to Gutierrez to the San Antonio Zoning Commission.
  • After days of questioning, Cibrian acknowledged going to Cancun at the invitation of Gutierrez’s daughter, who she described as a longtime friend. Reporter Guillermo Garcia wrote a story about Cibrian amending her financial disclosure form to reflect the trip.
  • This year, Villarreal filed House Bill 2016 in an attempt to give San Antonio the legislative authority to close the loophole. Here’s a story about the bill, a story about the news conference and Cibrian’s absence, and news video from KENS 5. Political Editor Scott Stroud blogged about the press conference, and Jaime Castillo wrote a column today about the power of the mayor’s bully pulpit.
  • Villarreal and Hardberger don’t think the bill has a very good chance of becoming law at the Texas Legislature, where the real estate industry has a strong lobby. You might ask them, why bother? And you might ask the journalists covering this issue, why bother writing about it if nothing is going to change?

    As the reporter who learned about the loophole, I still think it’s a public service to figure out what’s going on at West Pointe, and share that information with a few hundred thousand of my closest friends who read the newspaper.

    Really, that’s all journalism is about, despite what you may have heard from Rush Limbaugh. It’s about digging up facts, putting the pieces together, learning something new about how the world works, and telling people about it.

    That, in itself, is a worthy cause.