By, David LeDoux
On Tuesday, January 29, the San Marcos City Council considered the designation of “Thompson/Cape Dam and Ditch Engineering Structure” as a local historic landmark.
The discussion opened with a public hearing on the designation where several members of the community spoke for and against the preservation of Cape’s Dam.
However, several speakers, including San Marcos Historic Preservation Commission Chair, Griffin Spell, noted that the designation did not necessarily protect the dam from being removed.
Speakers also mentioned the San Marcos Civil Air Patrol building that had been located at the San Marcos Regional Airport. At one point, the building had been officially designated by the city as a local historical landmark, however it has since been demolished after receiving its designation due to it being deemed unsafe.
Rodney Van Oudekerke, who served several years as chair of the historic preservation commission, said the commission received backlash from the community when they decided to designate the Dunbar neighborhood as a historic district.
“What we realized as a commission then, and the reason I bring up the Dunbar Neighborhood, is what we realized is it’s a whole lot like this dam,” Van Oudekerke said, “We need to change our way of thinking, ‘what is a historic structure.’ Now people knew that the big homes, Belvin St and San Antonio St, those were historic structures because they were beautiful and they were old. And then downtown and the courthouses, undoubtedly historic structures, but what we had to convince people was that just because a house didn’t have two stories and the big white pillars out in front, it was still a part of the history of San Marcos. It played a vital role…As far as repairing stuff, [the city] already own[s] several historic landmarks in San Marcos…which constantly get repaired. So just because something has the designation as a historic landmark doesn’t mean it doesn’t get repaired. One of the things I just realized, aren’t we lucky that we live in a town that has different sides, and we can come together and work these differences out.”
During the discussion, City Attorney Michael Cosentino and City Manager Bert Lumbreras wanted to ensure Council was aware that it was their belief the designation would change the process in which any project regarding Cape’s Dam could move forward.
According to Todd Ahlman, Director of Archaeological Studies at Texas State University, Cape’s Dam is already listed as a Texas Antiquity Landmark.
Ahlman said because the dam is considered an antiquity landmark, with or without the local landmark designation, the City of San Marcos would be required to negotiate and consult with the Texas Historical Commission to repair or remove the dam.
Additionally, Cosentino told council, “Under our land development code, after our designation of the historic landmark is made, there is a process for approval of any project that involves a substantial change to a historic landmark. If you’re changing the design, the materials or the outward appearance of the landmark, then that process goes through a certificate of appropriateness, and the body that considers those applications for certificates of appropriateness is the historic preservation commission.”
Cosentino continued, “So, the city council at that point isn’t the final body to decide whether or not a permit is going to be issued for that project even though the council may have made decisions along the way about what that project was going to be. So, it sort of puts the ultimate approval authority for that certificate in a board that reports to [council].”
During the discussion in Planning and Zoning on Nov. 27, Commissioner Jim Garber noted that the process to remove or rebuild the dam would be extensive with or without the designation and involve multiple agencies outside of the San Marcos Historic Preservation and Texas Historic Preservation.
Garber said state and federal agencies, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would be all over the issue looking at multiple factors including water flow.
City Manager Bert Lumbreras recommended Council postpone the item until staff could gather additional information and get a full picture of the issue and potential consequences of any decision the council could ultimately make.
“I believe the timing of this designation is not the best because making that decision may preclude you from entertaining the right proposal that would do the right thing for this dam and the area,” Lumbreras said.
Council reached a general consensus to postpone the designation for a later date. However, Council member Ed Mihalkanin proposed an amendment to the motion to suspend.
“Every single day that goes on because of the previous damage to the dam, it’s in all likelihood getting into worse shape,” said Mihalkanin. “I would like us to instead of doing things sequentially to do things concurrently. A San Marcos City Council has not had a comprehensive conversation on Cape’s Dam since the vote of the city council where a majority said to remove it.”
Mihalkanin continued to say he would support a postponement of the designation if and only if the council had a special meeting, not a workshop, only on the topic of Cape’s Dam where “all the questions cannot only be asked, but it can be answered” about procedures, engineering, budget estimates, agencies involve and previous work.
“Nobody has talked about what in god’s name would be done with the mill race,” Mihalkanin said. “It’s obvious that the mill race exists because there was a natural, partial channel already dug when the river was higher than normal. That’s why they built that. We’re whistling pass the graver to think everything would be unicorns and rainbows if we just remove the dam. And then what are you going to do with that concrete canal that used to take overflow from the river.”
Lumbrerars said he agreed whole heartedly with Council member Mihalkanin’s summary of the information council needed in order to make an informed decision.
“The only thing that I have a bit of pause about,” Lumbreras said, “Is y’all know from the last city council meeting, there was a discussion in executive session about some possible steps moving forward. We’re working to vet that out, and that entertains a route that we don’t have everything finalized.”
According to council’s January 15 agenda, during their executive session, council was to “receive legal advice from the city attorney regarding disposition of Park property at Cape’s Camp”.
Several sources have confirmed that the City of San Marcos is in discussions with Hays County about a potential trade of park land property.
An official with the county has confirmed that talks are ongoing and Hays County’s sole “interest in Capes Camp is strictly from a historical standpoint.“
As stated by Lumbreras, no agreement or deal has been reached and the city is still “working to vet that out.”
Council members shared a general consensus of the Cape’s Dam historical significance. Mayor Jane Hughson made a motion to postpone the item for six months with the understanding that the item will be priority for staff.
The motion passed 6-1 with council member Mihalkanin voting against.
Council member Mihalkanin said he believed it should not take six months to gather all the information and hoped to have all requested information return to city council in two months.