Business behind the back yard | West Side residents discover limitations in Texas zoning laws

When a fireworks store went up just feet from their fences, Villages of Westcreek residents say they were surprised zoning laws don’t cover their neighborhood.

SAN ANTONIO — Dave Saenz cracked a wry smile as he opened the gate to his back yard.

“It’s a view,” he said, dryly. 

Trees on the property adjacent to Saenz’s used to shade his fence. Now, a metal frame looms over his patio. 

The building, soon to be a fireworks store, stands behind three homes in the Villages of Westcreek subdivision. The maroon siding is just a few feet from each property’s fence line. 

“It’s right behind their yard,” said Patricia Bennett, who lives across the street from Saenz. “Smack in the middle of our subdivision.”

Almost 800 people have signed a petition, aiming to stop crews from completing construction on the shop. West Side residents say the building will be an eyesore. 

Neighbors have also expressed concern about safety. Bennett and others admit recent brush fires across Texas have stoked their fears. 

“There’s always that ‘If,'” Bennett said. 

But the Bexar County Fire Marshall has deemed the building safe. In fact, a county spokesperson says the building’s exterior fire wall “goes well above and beyond” minimum safety requirements. 

Kelley Martinez, Mr. W Fireworks Vice President, says the facility will feature a high-tech sprinkler system, too. The company says it intends to use the structure for retail, not storage, though some leftover fireworks may stay in the building year-round.

The stand, operated by church groups and nonprofits, will only open for four weeks each year. It will feature “minimal signage” and Mr. W Fireworks will construct a “nice” rock wall next to the facility, the company says. 

“We want to be good neighbors,” Martinez said. 

Still, neighbors assumed zoning laws prevented construction behind their homes. 

But the Villages of Westcreek subdivision is in an unincorporated portion of western Bexar County. Texas law mostly prevents counties from enforcing zoning regulations in unincorporated areas. 

“I had no idea there was no zoning law,” Bennett said.

No other state limits counties’ authority in this way. 

U.S. Census data indicate the unincorporated portion of Bexar County grew between 2000 and 2010 by nearly 90 percent to over 260,000 people.

“The citizens of the unincorporated area of Bexar County receive limited services compared with incorporated areas of the county,” a 2014 report commissioned for Bexar County found. “Portions of the unincorporated area have developed urban-like conditions, and it is reasonable to assume that residents may expect city-type service.”

Texas allows municipalities to zone “for the purpose of promoting the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.” 

Home rule cities may regulate the height, number of stories and size of buildings, the size of open yards, population density, the location and use of buildings, among other things. 

But the report notes that Texas does not grant counties ‘home rule’ status, significantly limiting their regulatory ability. 

State lawmakers have tried to address zoning concerns, even considering bills that would ultimately allow counties to establish their own planning commissions. Few attempts have cleared first hearings. 

“There should be some limit to where a business can build,” Bennett said. 

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