The El Paso City Council on Tuesday approved 5-3 a controversial proposal to create a special taxing zone to spur development along the Northwest foothills of the Franklin Mountains, home to the popular Lost Dog hiking and biking trail.
According to city documents, the development plan calls for 9,455 homes and 829,400 square feet of commercial space to be built within roughly 1,000 acres of mountain land off of Loop 375-Transmountain Road.
City representatives Peter Svarzbein, Alexsandra Annello and Cissy Lizarraga voted against the development.
As KTSM has reported, many are worried about the impact the construction would have on the area’s open space, the Lost Dog Trail and, specifically, its trailhead near Northern Pass Dr.
Dozens descended on City Hall Tuesday morning to address the council ahead of its vote, some wearing cycling apparel, others carrying signs in support of preserving the mountain.
The council decided to move the matter to the forefront of the meeting but after some confusion and procedural misunderstandings, the council members retired into a closed-door executive session, leaving the crowd waiting.
The move prompted many in the audience to begin chanting, “Save Lost Dog,” and then, “Recall.” The latter was directed at Mayor Dee Margo who attempted to calm the crowd before calling on police to help keep the peace.
The council returned and resumed the meeting after about an hour of discussion.
Mayor Margo read comments, telling the audience that any development would be built compactly, within the guidelines of the city’s Smart Code and would preserve all trails and natural arroyos.
Members of the public laid out their concerns and raised questions about the amount of influence developers have over local elected officials in the form of campaign contributions.
Environmentalist Judy Ackerman asked the representatives, “Who do you serve? I’m asking you, who do you serve?”
“The developers!,” shouted a voice in the crowd.
Former Public Service Board member and one-time city council candidate Rick Bonart presented maps and raised concerns over flooding within the the proposed development.
“You’re cruising for a bruising,” Bonart said. “You’re building in floodplains again.”
El Paso Water CEO John Balliew told the council though that is technically correct based on current FEMA maps, it does not necessarily correlate to a flooding danger.
“When it comes to the actual development, whether you’re in or out of the floodplain depends on the design (of the development),” Balliew said.
City staff said the proposal calls for bridges to be built over the natural arroyos to allow water to flow through.
Following Tuesday’s vote, the city will now create what’s known as a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) around the land for 36 years.
A TIRZ is an economic development tool cities use to trap future property tax revenue within a specific area for a period of time. The funds are then used for infrastructure improvements within the zone such as utilities, streets, drainage and parks.
El Paso already has several TIRZ areas, including Downtown. Proponents find they are useful for development and growth; opponents believe they drain tax revenue from the city as a whole.
The city would only keep 33 percent of all newly-generated tax revenue within the Northwest TIRZ, with the rest going to the city’s general fund, according to city staff.
The council was also slated to discuss and vote whether to expand a nearby TIRZ, located at I-10 and Paseo Del Norte, around the new West Towne Marketplace. That proposal calls to increase the TIRZ coverage from the current 48 acres to approximately 3,900 acres spread along the freeway.
Margo said both zones are in need of drainage upgrades in order to expand the city’s tax base.
“We are in dire need of commercial investments,” the Mayor said. “The TIRZ can pay for improvements the city cannot afford to do on its own.”
This story will be updated as Tuesday’s meeting progresses. You can also follow @KTSMDanielMarin on twitter for developments.