A Sinking Foundation?
When Wimberley's single grocery store expanded into a new building this year, Brookshire Brothers had to do more than just offer wider aisles and a deli counter to please area residents. The store landscaped its parking lot with trees, used native stone on the building's exterior, and agreed to build an adjacent retail strip well away from the site of a proposed town park. Residents in this village of roughly 5,000 don't have zoning ordinances to fight strip malls and parking lots, but they aren't shy about brandishing their political connections to ward off developments and roads that threaten their rural character and isolation. They recently got an encroaching four-lane highway erased from the Hays County transportation plan, but now they have a new intrusion to contend with -- a 76-unit affordable apartment complex approved and funded through the state's tax credit housing program.
Residents are divided over whether Wimberley is ready for its first high-density apartment complex, the Village at Hillcrest Apartments, which would be built right on the town's main thoroughfare, directly abutting the local Catholic church. Sally Caldwell, a Southwest Texas State professor who helped lead the fight against the new highway, says Wimberley has neither the infrastructure nor the demand to support large-scale development. "We cannot handle this. ... We don't need development of this magnitude until we can manage our growth" through incorporation, says Caldwell. The president of the Wimberley Builder's Association, Elizabeth Sumter, agrees. "People moving to Wimberley are not looking for high-density [apartments]. We move here to be in the country. ... What we have a shortage of is affordable houses for rent."
Other residents, however, wish Wimberley's affluent de facto civic leaders would give working people a break. Reba Smith, the local postmaster, says neither she nor her employees can afford to rent or buy a home in Wimberley. Two-bedroom duplexes can be had for less than $600 a month in the area, but the rent on some newer dwellings ranges above $1,000. Wimberley school officials report that a significant portion of the district's support personnel live in San Marcos, 20 minutes south, and that young teachers have trouble finding affordable apartments. "You get so frustrated at the attitude in this town that you just want to pull your hair out. ... No matter what the suggestion is, it's just 'no,' " says Smith.
Leaving aside the question of Wimberley's housing needs, one thing is certain: The developer of the apartment complex, Florida-based Triad Housing, has given opponents plenty of ammunition in their fight against the project.
First, the developer posted notice of the project not in the Wimberley View, but in the Austin American-Statesman, and Hays County officials never announced the requisite public input period. Next, the feasibility study submitted to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the agency which approved the project, mentions conversations with "city officials," who don't exist in the unincorporated village. Further, the study, submitted as part of the developer's application for a tax-credit subsidy, states that sewer service is available, even though the nearest wastewater service provider, Aquasource, owns no easement to build lines to the site. Finally, the contractor initially listed as the project's builder, Summit Contractors -- a company whose solid reputation earned the project extra support from TDHCA staff -- may not actually be the builder, according to recent filings. National home builders Kaufman and Broad, whose track record is spotted with lawsuits over substandard construction, owns 99% of the project (another fact not revealed in the application) and may build the complex themselves.
Was the developer's application fraudulent? The real estate appraiser who signed the feasibility report, James Underhill of Ameri-Tex Valuation Services, says that the report's mistakes were unfortunate but honest. The term "city official" is customarily used in reports, Underhill says, and in this case referred to local chamber of commerce members. And Aquasource Vice President David Beyer says a sewer hookup to the site isn't out of the question, if the developer can obtain the necessary easements and pump the complex's waste to the nearest Aquasource line. But these complications aren't noted in the application submitted to the TDHCA by Triad Housing. Nor does the study mention that Triad didn't know at the time whether the site was even within a quarter-mile of the nearest Aquasource line, a condition necessary for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to approve the hookup. Furthermore, the study doesn't note that Aquasource is forbidden by the TNRCC to add major customers to its service until it brings a new treatment plan online, perhaps by the fall of next year.
There's one other smelly detail: The project's application drew extra points from TDHCA staff because the developer stated he had an arrangement with the nonprofit organization Communities in Schools to provide tenants free referrals to social service agencies, day care, and employment assistance. But CIS already does that work in local schools, and CIS representatives say the nonprofit has made no arrangement to do any special programs on-site at the apartments.
Investigators with the IRS, the agency that makes tax credit subsidies available to state housing programs, are reportedly interested in reviewing the Village at Hillcrest application. In response to the outcry from Wimberley residents, who personally investigated the project's application, Hays County officials who wrote letters to support the project in April are now appealing to TDHCA to stop it. County Commissioner Bill Burnett, a first-term official whose precinct includes Wimberley, says he didn't know details of the project when he gave the developer his support. "I didn't know where [it would be built] or that it was low-income. ... I didn't know they would use my letter as evidence of need [for this]," says Burnett, who is now united with County Judge Jim Powers and state Sen. Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria) against the Village at Hillcrest.
TDHCA officials' response so far has not been encouraging to opponents of the complex. TDHCA director Daisy Stiner told the Wimberley View that she has found nothing illegal about the project, and that once tax credits are awarded the agency can do little to intervene. At its meeting on Monday, Nov. 15, the TDHCA board took no action to delay the Village at Hillcrest's construction or rescind the project's tax credits.