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2nd Article - Day 3
Tuesday, 18 October 2005
Avoiding rules they wrote
In 1994, engineer Gene Dawson Jr. served as the articulate chairman of a committee that wrote new rules intended to protect the Edwards Aquifer...Since then, Dawson's engineering firm has been prolific in helping developers avoid the very ordinance he authored...Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc. has sought exemptions from the water quality rules for clients 477 times — a third of all cases and more than any other firm.

Avoiding rules they wrote

John Tedesco
Express-News Staff Writer

In 1994, engineer Gene Dawson Jr. served as the articulate chairman of a committee that wrote new rules intended to protect the Edwards Aquifer.

"I did everything I could to make that a successful ordinance," he said.

Since then, Dawson's engineering firm has been prolific in helping developers avoid the very ordinance he authored.

As "stakeholders," engineers, lobbyists and developers sat on committees that crafted San Antonio's quality of life rules, writing the policies that govern their business.

Pape-Dawson Engineers Inc. has sought exemptions from the water quality rules for clients 477 times — a third of all cases and more than any other firm.

Pape-Dawson succeeded nine out of 10 times.

The aquifer ordinance, which caps development over sensitive land, requires a grandfathering decision for each phase of a project. That makes it difficult to add up specific projects.

Dawson estimated the grandfathering decisions apply to about 50 separate developments, the largest of which is 2,300 acres.

"If you want to say that property owners are taking advantage of an administrative process, then yes, they are," Dawson said.

But he added that many grandfathered projects don't threaten the aquifer by blanketing the land in dense housing.

Environmentalists and residents were represented on the city's rule-making committees. But some readily admit they were outgunned by the expertise of the industry's lobbyists.

Meanwhile, campaign cash flowed to key politicians.

For every dollar spent on City Council candidates between 1996 and 2002, a quarter came from the real estate community, to the tune of $800,000, campaign finance records show.

A little-known example of lobbyist influence occurred in 1997, when the Legislature accidentally repealed the vested-rights statute.

Developers pressured the City Council to enact its own version of the law, arguing economic growth would suffer if officials didn't protect vested rights locally.

A committee of residents and developers quickly convened and wrote a local grandfathering ordinance, which was approved by the City Council on Sept. 24, 1997.

One sentence was added to the ordinance that saved the industry millions of dollars.

Someone on the vested-rights committee had written a rule that said developers could not be grandfathered from the city's drainage regulations — unless they filed a plat before the new drainage code kicked in.

It was an important point, since the City Council had just approved new drainage rules to control rampant flooding. Those rules were to become effective on Monday, Oct. 20, 1997.

That gave developers nearly a monthlong grace period to file plats to duck the drainage rules — and they used it.

Plat filings in October 1997 skyrocketed. More than 250 plats were filed between Oct. 1 and Oct. 17 — a Friday.

On the last business day before the Oct. 20 deadline, more plats were filed than any other day since 1990, according to an Express-News analysis of a city plat database.

Those filings exempted landowners from $2.3 million in drainage fees, according to the Express-News analysis.

Dawson sat on the 1997 vested-rights committee. His firm filed 21 plats on Oct. 17 that year, saving his clients $287,000 in potential drainage fees.

Dawson said he couldn't remember who specifically made the suggestion in 1997 that a plat filing should trigger exemptions to the drainage fees.

He said the vested-rights committee was aware of the looming drainage rules, and wanted to figure out how to protect landowners.

"The consensus was, if you have a plat filed prior to the drainage ordinance, then you don't have to comply with the drainage ordinance," Dawson said.

Two others who sat on the vesting committee, Susan Hughes and Charles Conner, couldn't recall where the drainage-fee language came from.

A third member of the committee, environmentalist Danielle Milam, wrote in an e-mail to the Express-News: "It was Gene Dawson and (Lobbyist) David Earl. As I understand it from Gene, there was a huge team of lawyers and developers meeting to work on the language behind the scenes."

Hughes, an environmentalist and a board member of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, said she has no doubt Dawson strongly advocated for his clients.

But Hughes also commended Dawson and Earl for their suggestions that shaped other parts of the 1997 vesting ordinance. They said landowners should demonstrate they are making progress on a project. Otherwise they lose their exemptions.

"To tell you the truth, the package that Gene and David brought to the table was really enlightened — surprisingly so," Hughes said.

Dawson said it is crucial for committees that craft city codes to have a variety of interests on board — including experienced developers.

"I think the reason why the city continually asks me to chair these committees is because I've shown over and over again that I will support the consensus," Dawson said.

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