Is Comal County at a “Point of Deciding?”
Ask Google which companies will benefit most from the construction of the border wall proposed by President Donald Trump, and Vulcan Construction Materials ranks high on the list.
MarketWatch, a subsidiary of Dow Jones and Company, reported earlier this year that even if steel slats or pipes are used in place of concrete, they still would be anchored in the ground using aggregate materials produced by companies like Vulcan, which has filed an application for a 2.4-square-mile limestone quarry in a non-industrial area of Comal County.
Vulcan won’t comment on these Google rankings, but they explain why the company is fighting so tenaciously to exercise what most Texans proudly refer to as its “property rights,” and why community activists face such an uphill struggle keeping a major quarry operation out of the largely residential area surrounding the old ranch site.
Comal County commissioners say there’s nothing they can do to stop Vulcan Quarry, which is unpopular with their constituents because by state law they lack comprehensive zoning authority to oversee development in rural Comal County.
Annalisa Peace, executive director of Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, said last year that in Texas, property owners generally have the right to develop and use their property in compliance with federal, state and local laws and regulations.
“But what happens when the federal, state or local laws and regulations lend themselves to land fragmentation and degradation? What are landowners to do when their neighbor’s business causes concerns about long-term health and safety?”
County Commissioners Ask Legislators for Relief
Comal County commissioners last year sought relief from State Rep. Kyle Biedermann, Texas House District 73, and Sen. Donna Campbell, Texas Senate District 25, urging them to craft legislation that would give them the authority to regulate development in rural portions of the county, where an increasing number of their constituents live.
“We do not have the ability to tell them (TCEQ) what they can and cannot do as far as regulations are concerned,” Canyon Lake County Commissioner Donna Eccleston, Pct. 1, said last March when the court passed a resolution asking TCEQ to use its expertise to protect the health, safety and welfare of Comal County residents before approving Vulcan’s air quality permit.
“It is very troubling that we don’t have any impact in a lot of areas … we have been asking for it for many years…so I implore you to look to the people who can make significant changes, which are your legislators and the state.”
Biedermann and Campbell Introduce Legislation
So far, legislation introduced by Republicans Rep. Biedermann and Sen. Campbell focuses on regulating quarry operations, not getting control back in the hands of local elected officials.
This week, Rep. Biedermann this week filed H.B. No. 2871 “relating to the regulation of certain aggregate production operations by the Railroad Commission of Texas; authorizing a fee; providing administrative penalties and other civil remedies; creating criminal offenses.”
If passed, it would take effect on Sept. 1.
It directs the Railroad Commission to provide an annual report about aggregate-production operations and gives it the power to adopt, amend and enforce rules pertaining to aggregate-production operations, issue permits, conduct hearings, issue compliance orders and revoke permits.
The bill also grants the commission the ability to require monitoring and reporting and inspect operations.
“SB 694 ensures that our air and water will be protected for future generations,” Sen. Campbell announced in a press release when she introduced the bill.
“For decades, Texans have invested in economic development and supported responsible growth while protecting our natural resources,” she said. “As more development comes to the Hill Country, it’s imperative we remain committed to this responsibility. SB 694 ensures that our air and water will be protected for future generations and all our families will prosper from this growth.”
Writing for the Express-News, Canyon Lake’s Susan Randolph said all the bill does is create loopholes for the aggregate industry.
Is Comal County at a Tipping Point?
Sen. Campbell in the past has indicated she does not support more county-level authority because it doesn’t make sense to grow government at the county level. Like Comal County Judge Sherman Krause, she believes TCEQ should have more authority to safeguard operations like Vulcan Quarry.
Rep. Biedermann supports some form of local control for certain parts of the Hill Country, which faces unique challenges in the state, and has asked county commissioners for a wish list of specifics he can present to the legislature.
But Democrat Stephanie Phillips, who lives north of Canyon Lake and ran against Biedermann last year but lost, said it’s time for residents and voters to finally decide what kind of a county they want to live in.
When she spoke to an environmental caucus of the Texas Democratic Party last June, Phillips said “you could hear a pin drop.”
Many in the room had no idea about the battle being waged over the development of the Texas Hill Country, she said. “I think we’re at a crossroads in this area. A lot of people see this as a retirement destination and as a tourism destination.
“That whole sense of the economy is at odds with the idea that this is an industrial site and that there’s a growing industry. I think the problem that I see is that people are looking at it quarry by quarry. They’re just saying, ‘oh God, this thing is coming into my backyard.’ There’s a need for the bigger picture, and I would love it if our representatives would see and make the connections to the bigger picture.
“We live in a market economy. Texans consistently vote for small government and less regulations … that means that there is a lot of freedom for these multi-national corporations that aren’t based in Texas, that aren’t going to be bringing in a lot of jobs, the profits aren’t going to be invested here, they have the freedom, it’s their right to buy up the land and take the very limestone that makes up the aquifer, that makes up our caves and rivers and canyons and creeks, it is completely their right to take it and crush it into gravel and sell it.
“We’re at a point of deciding,” she said.