New Braunfels Planning Commission members on Wednesday voted to recommend city council deny a rezoning request to general business district and a special use permit request to allow unscreened outdoor storage at the site of the proposed New Braunfels Utilities headquarters building and campus.
The 70-acre tract, owned by NBU and located at the southwestern terminus of Westpointe Drive, is adjacent to the Estates at Stone Crossing residential development to the southeast.
The property is also adjacent to the NBU Trinity Well Field and water treatment plant.
According to city officials, the proposed zone change with a special use permit for unscreened outdoor storage would allow for the intended development of the property as the NBU headquarters building, maintenance building and a materials yard that includes pipes, electrical poles and transformers.
City staff has recommended that all outdoor storage be setback a minimum of 50 feet from any property boundary. NBU officials said any storage would sit much further back from the minimum recommendation.
According to officials, the new NBU headquarters would consolidate operations of the Main Plaza and Service Center sites and include the utility’s fleet.
The applicant, New Braunfels-based HMT Engineering and Surveying, has indicated the special use permit request would provide relief from the requirement to construct a fence or wall along the portion of the property boundary where the utility plans to locate outdoor storage.
Plans include large storage areas separated from future and proposed roadways as much as possible, where native vegetation will be maintained for screening to the extent possible.
A large contingent of residents attended the meeting to have their say opposing NBU’s request.
Jim Poage, who resides in the area and stated he organized speakers to oppose the proposal, told the Herald-Zeitung on Thursday that residents wanted to bring up some topics that had not previously been presented to the planning commission.
“The main message that the citizens wanted to get across was that they’re, number one, trying to put a heavy commercial organization in the middle of a residential area,” Poage said. “Secondly, there are a number of things that have not been properly researched and documented for everybody to understand the facts. One is the presence of endangered species on that property, and another is that they are storing hazardous materials such as creosote poles and transformers right in the immediate vicinity of a direct feed into the Edward Aquifer. I’m fully in favor of the NBU facility getting moved to a common place. I think that’s a much-needed move. I’m not in favor of the location that they’re trying to move to now.”
Chris Van Heerde with HMT told commission members that a study conducted in spring 2020, which used federal government wildlife protocols, indicated that the golden-cheeked warbler — an endangered species of bird that breeds in Central Texas — was not found on the site.
Additionally, Van Heerde said state environmental regulations require impervious cover over the aquifer and that NBU was going beyond Texas Commission on Environmental Quality rules to protect the water supply’s quality.
While residents speaking in opposition to the proposal expressed concern about the environmental impacts the campus and materials yard might pose, the nearly two-hour conversation also centered around the potential for increased traffic, especially truck traffic, as well as the lack of multiple entrances and exits to the property and residential privacy.
According to NBU, Westpoint Drive from Oak Run Parkway would provide primary access to the property with an emergency gated access point through Stone Crossing at Limestone Way available to emergency vehicles if Westpoint Drive was inaccessible.
The design, construction and land acquisition for improvements required at the Westpointe Drive/Oak Run Parkway intersection and the Oak Run Parkway/Independence Drive intersection, as well as utility, landscaping and sidewalk improvements, are estimated at $1.5 million.
Van Heerde told commission members that alternate routes to the property were explored, each with its own set of physical and financial challenges.
A route to Stone Crossing would include a steep grade of 8% or more, intersection modifications and significant rock excavation, as well as impacts to the Trinity Well Field and Water Treatment Facility and an Electric Transmission Line at an estimated cost of $9.5 million.
Van Heerde said there is a “gigantic and very deep canyon” the route would need to traverse.
“Crossing that canyon was exorbitantly expensive, and we were frankly concerned about what would be found in that area,” Van Heerde said. “Quite frequently, you have sensitive features at the bottom of those canyons and that’s where NBU had a large level of concern.”
A route to Loop 337 with similar issues and traversing a second canyon would come at an estimated cost of $11.5 million.
A third alternative route to Farm-to-Market Road 1863 would require land condemnation, quarry berm modifications and intersection improvements at an estimated cost of $13 million.
Ian Taylor, the utility company’s CEO, told commissioners NBU does not have the power of eminent domain. The utility would need to make a city council request to condemn needed land.
Responding to a question about increased traffic, Van Heerde said NBU’s fleet includes 27 vehicles that are larger than an F250 pickup truck and in addition, trucks delivering materials would traverse in and out of the property.
Around 300 employees would be based at the site, according to NBU.
“I appreciate the Planning Commission and our customers who participated in (Wednesday’s) meeting,” Taylor told the Herald-Zeitung on Thursday. “We have outgrown our facilities, and they are simply not adequate for the complexity and security of our community’s critical utility infrastructure. This site was selected for many reasons, particularly because it was the most economic use of public funds while meeting all development requirements of the city of New Braunfels. We are able to co-locate the facility on property we already had to purchase for our Trinity Well Field expansion, while protecting our water supply by carefully incorporating a sensitive cave located on the property. Compared to a residential development, we will have less impervious cover and less traffic over the course of a week.”
The property is currently zoned “APD,” a zoning district intended for newly annexed areas, agricultural, farm and ranch uses, and for areas where development is premature because of lack of utilities, capacity or service, or where ultimate use has not been determined.
The APD zoning already allows NBU, as a municipally-owned entity, to build its headquarters on the property with no outside storage, according to NBU and city documents.
Despite the commission’s recommendation to deny the request, the New Braunfels City Council still gets final say on the measure at a future date.
Late Thursday, Taylor said NBU officials would postpone the item that had been tentatively scheduled for the Oct. 25 city council agenda.
“Throughout the last few months, we have refined our design and completed additional analyses based on customer feedback,” Taylor said. “We appreciate that additional items came up in (Wednesday’s) meeting and we have requested to temporarily postpone the Oct. 25 city council agenda item, to allow us additional time to ensure we adequately address customer comments.”