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The Helotes City Council voted unanimously on December 14 to deny a Planned Unit Development application from MNO Partners. The New Braunfels-based multifamily real estate investment firm sought a variance to Helotes’ zoning codes to build a mixed-use commercial and residential rental development, Trailhead at Helotes, on 21.7 acres of three tracts of land that is zoned for commercial development.
The city council’s unanimous “nay” vote followed a recommendation from the Helotes Planning and Zoning Commission to deny MNO Partners’ PUD application. The developer’s project included 15 acres for 220 one-, two-, and three-bedroom residential units for rent and six acres for commercial business use on Bandera Road, located across from the entrance to Old Town Helotes.
Before the city council’s unanimous vote, Mayor Rich Whitehead and the councilmembers heard from 13 Helotes residents, including nine who spoke against the developer’s zoning variance request. Several of these residents also stated their preference for the properties’ current zoning. “I’m perfectly happy with the original zoning,” said Charles Roberts, who lives within 200 feet of the proposed PUD. “When we bought our property, we understood that zoning,” Roberts added. Other residents who spoke against the proposed mixed-use commercial and residential rental development cited concerns that high-density rental units could bring increases in traffic, pedestrian accidents, crime, noise, and strain Helotes’ first responders and schools.
Residents against the proposed PUD project stressed the need for the properties to remain zoned for commercial business use to help ensure the city’s ability to attract new commercial and retail businesses. “There is less undeveloped commercial property left in Helotes,” said Helotes Park Estates resident Patrick McGowan. “Additional sit-down dining restaurants, specialty shops, entertainment venues, and a variety of professional services are becoming more necessary to fulfill the growing needs of our residents,” McGowan added.
Four residents spoke in favor of the proposed mixed-use commercial and residential rental development, including Karl Wanke, president of Franklin Construction Limited, a longtime Helotes resident and business owner. “Helotes needs more housing development opportunities. While these are high income units, they are still more affordable than a home purchase,” said Wanke. His company is the contractor for Gateway to Gruene, a 227-unit apartment complex developed by MNO Partners in New Braunfels.
Following public comments to the city council, David Morin, a partner at MNO Partners, shared a presentation on the proposed PUD that incorporated feedback from the city and some residents. The developer reduced the number of rental units from 366 to 220 and building height went down from three stories to two stories. The commercial space increased to 39,880 square feet, and the apartments became townhomes, duplexes, and single-family homes for rent.
“There was expressed interest in having higher end units, having units that might be more suitable for families, for nurses, police officers, college students trying to get their first jobs,” explained Morin. “This is a great spot for them to land on their feet and be part of the community,” he added. Morin also described the Trailhead at Helotes as an option for people who want to be in Helotes but can’t afford a $600,000 house with an eight percent interest rate. The monthly rent for a unit at Trailhead at Helotes would range from $1,700 to $2,875, according to Morin.
The developer also described his concept of a mixed-use commercial and residential rental development as a better alternative to the type of businesses that would be allowed under the current zoning code, such as a “big box” retail store.
“Could a big box [store] go on this property? Sure. Would one? I doubt it because it’s not on an intersection,” said Mayor Rich Whitehead. “We don’t operate in fear, and I don’t suggest we consider fear of what might go there,” Mayor Whitehead added.
While some councilmembers were pleased with the overall concept of the proposed PUD, they all expressed reservations about the project.
Place 1 Councilmember Craig Sanders said his biggest concern about the proposed mixed-use commercial and residential rental development was the balance between property taxes and sales taxes. The overall project site plan showed approximately six acres along the front of the three properties dedicated to commercial business use and 15 acres toward the back of the properties for rental townhomes, duplexes, and single-family homes. “I’m still not convinced about the business model at the very front end. I really wish you could work the numbers to flip it and be 70% commercial and 30% residential,” said Councilmember Craig Sanders. “I agree the front end is a fun, hang out kind of concept. I just don’t know if that works in Helotes,” he added.
Place 3 Councilmember Dave Cato echoed Councilmember Sanders’ concerns about sales taxes. “I would have to agree with Councilman Sanders that one of our big concerns should be the viability of our sales tax,” said Councilmember Cato. “I don’t really see that this project is going to help bridge that gap, especially if we lose our number one sales tax revenue [generating business],” he added. According to Councilmember Sanders, the city receives approximately 70% of its sales tax revenue from three businesses.
“The density is still nearly 50% more dense than the PUD that we did approve which is already the most dense project we have in all of Helotes,” said Mayor Whitehead. On October 13, 2022, Helotes City Council approved a PUD request which established Bandera Ranch, a 31.4 acre mixed-use commercial and residential rental project on property originally zoned B-3 for commercial development. The project is located at 15030 Bandera Road at the intersection of Bandera Road and Scenic Loop Road, across from QuikTrip. Bandera Ranch will consist of retail buildings fronting Bandera Road and 230 rental units behind the retail spaces along Scenic Loop Road. Land use law firm Killen, Griffin, Farrimond, PLLC served as the property owners’ agent in the PUD applications for Bandera Ranch, as well as Trailhead at Helotes.
“We have to listen to what the citizens want,” said Place 4 Councilmember Cynthia Massey, who also said she considers what is best for the community and what is legal in her evaluation of PUD applications. “This particular development that you’re proposing is not good for the citizens or for the city,” said Councilmember Massey. The proposed project’s location was another issue for her. “To give up a good retail spot that we could help direct and bring the kinds of businesses we want, to me, would be a dereliction of our duty to the city and to the citizens,” she added. In her remarks, Councilmember Massey described why the city council nixed a PUD application in 2018 for a high-density rental development in Iron Horse Canyon. The city council unanimously voted against the proposed PUD in Iron Horse Canyon after hearing from several residents who spoke in opposition to it.
The city council’s unanimous vote to deny MNO Partners’ PUD application is an end to a process that generated significant response from many of Helotes’ residents. “Since I’ve been on council I’ve gotten more citizen email and feedback against this project than any other thing than I’ve had on my agenda,” said Place 2 Councilmember Jen Sones.
During the city council’s public hearings on July 27 and December 14, there were 29 Helotes residents who spoke before the mayor and councilmembers – 24 in opposition to and five in support of the proposed PUD. Planning and Zoning Commission members heard from 19 Helotes residents – 17 in opposition to and two in support of the proposed PUD – during public hearings on July 11 and November 14. Helotes City Council and the Planning and Zoning Commission also received the names of 257 Helotes residents who signed an online petition against the proposed PUD.
“We have seen an increase in citizen involvement, and we hope to see this much attendance at all of our meetings so that everybody would be aware of everything that’s going on in our community,” said Mayor Whitehead.