San Marcos Planning & Zoning Denies Capes Dam Historic Designation

“We do not have an objection to the history being preserved,” Wassenich said. “We (SMRF) own the land next to Capes Dam; we see artifacts lying everywhere around Rio Vista and Capes Dam and on our property…”

By, Terra Rivers, Managing Editor

On Tuesday, November 27, the San Marcos Planning and Zoning Commission considered the designation of Thompson/Capes Dam and Ditch Engineering Structure as a local historic landmark.

The public hearing marked the second to last step in the designation process of the weir known as Capes Dam. The meeting opened with two public comments regarding the agenda item.

Dianne Wassenich, executive director of the San Marcos River Foundation (SMRF), was the first to speak; Wassenich has spoken at the Historic Preservation Commission meetings regarding Capes Dam.

Wassenich spoke on behalf of SMRF against the historical designation of the structure.

“We do not have an objection to the history being preserved,” Wassenich said. “We (SMRF) own the land next to Capes Dam; we see artifacts lying everywhere around Rio Vista and Capes Dam and on our property, and we want those preserved. The dam should not be preserved; the dam is harmful to the river.”

Kate Johnson, Chair of the Hays County Historical Commission, also spoke during the citizen comments. 

Fraye Stokes was the first of two to speak during the public hearing on the item.

Stokes said her husband donated Stokes Park to the city of San Marcos in 1992 with the verbal understanding that it would always be open to the public.

In 1985, she and her husband, John Stokes, had declined to have Capes Dam placed on the National Register of Historic Places because they didn’t know the ramifications of doing so at the time.

“We never thought the preservation of the dam and mill race would someday be in question,” Stokes said. “If the capes dam is not restored or rebuilt, it will ruin everything there. We won’t have a park. All that property that’s owned by the city should be open to the public. It would be a beautiful park for this town.”

Currently, a portion of the trail along the mill race is closed due to damage from flooding events in recent years.**

**This sentence has been revised to clarify; the previous sentence stated that a portion of Stokes Park was closed due to flooding. However, the trail along the mill race that runs toward Capes Dam from Capes Road is not part of the park. We apologize for the confusion.**

Stokes asked commissioners to research “carefully all sides of the issue.”

In September, the San Marcos Historic Preservation Commission filed a petition on behalf of the City of San Marcos, the owner, to designate the structure as a local historic landmark.

During their October 4, the commission voted 4-2 to recommend the designation of Capes Dam/Thompson’s Island as a local historic landmark.

The designation has the support of several local and state organizations including the Heritage Association of San Marcos, the Hays County Historical Commission and Preservation Texas.

Capes Dam and Stokes Park were donated by John Stokes and his wife, Fraye, in 1992 “with the verbal understanding it would always be open to the public.”

The structure has been eligible for the National Register of Historic Places since 1985 and is considered significant to the history of San Marcos; it was originally built by William Alexander Thompson over 150 years ago.

Following the public hearing, Commission Chair Jim Garber opened the item for discussion and reminded the commission that they were only “agendized to speak on whether or not [the dam] should be designated a historic landmark.”

Commissioner Kate McCarty asked if it was more difficult to rebuild, repair or remove the dam as a historic landmark.

Alison Brake, Planner, said the designation of a landmark would add an additional layer to the process and require any significant changes to go through the historic preservation commission. The designation on a local level would provide additional protections not available on the state and national level.  

City Attorney, Michael Cosentino, said the consequences of the decision to designate Capes Dam as a local historic landmark was a separate decision; the decision before the planning and zoning commission now was to decide if the structure met the criteria set by the city’s ordinance for local historic landmarks.

Commissioner Angie Ramirez made a motion to deny the zoning change for the historic designation of Capes Dam.

“Usually, when we’re talking about the historic significance of places, we’re talking about places within other parts of the city. And I’m uncomfortable putting this kind of designation on the river, and as much respect as I have for the Texas Historical Commission and the city’s, I’m uncomfortable with those two bodies having a governing decision over what is the healthiest for the river and whether what people have decided to do with the river is the most important factor. And although the river is extremely important to me…I’m not going to sit here and say that the most important job of that stretch of the river is to remind us of the things we have built as people. I think it has more important things to do. It has more important things to, frankly, entertain us in our recreation. There needs to be a healthy discourse about anything that’s done with the mill race, with the dam. And I again am uncomfortable that those decisions will be possibly based solely on the historical significance of man-made structures.”

Commissioner Ramirez’s full statement can be heard below; the statement starts with the initial motion at 0:35.

Commissioner 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 would be all over the issue looking at multiple factors including water flow.

The San Marcos City Council voted to remove the dam over two years ago. However, the city was unable to get the permits required to remove the dam, and the funding from U.S. Fish and Wildlife has since been withdrawn, according to city staff.

“To me, the logical thing to do is to designate this as a city landmark and let the process, which is in place and works all over the country, happen,” Garber said. “There’s a process for this. The city is obligated to do what is required by the state and the feds, and on this, they will weigh in.”

The motion to deny passed 5-4 with Commissioners Mark Gleason, Garber, McCarty and Mike Dillon voting against.

Shannon Mattingly, Director of Planning and Development Services, said the designation would move on to a public hearing at City Council with Planning and Zoning’s recommendation of denial.

In addition to planning and zoning’s recommendation of denial, city council will receive recommendations of approval from the San Marcos Historic Preservation Commission and staff.

According to staff, the public hearing at City Council is scheduled for December 12; a date of January 15, 2019 has also been set for the designation’s potential reconsideration by city council. 


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  1. Capes Dam was not donated by John and Fraye Stokes as this article implies. They only donated the Stokes Park section which is downstream of Cape Rd, which they gave to the State of Texas. Contrary to Mrs. Stoke’s statements, the land they donated has never been closed to the public nor will that change if the dam is removed or rebuilt. Their supposed verbal agreement is not threatened.

    Considering any action will have to undergo federal and state agency approvals, I think it was a wise decision to not give it a historical designation, thus keeping the decision making in the hands of the P&Z/Council rather than the Historical Commission/ZBA. The fate of Cape’s Dam is far too complex to be decided by historical merits alone.

    1. Mr. Ramirez,

      I apologize; I misunderstood some of the information I had received and believed the trail along the mill race was part of Stokes Park. Thank you for bringing it to my attention that this was incorrect. I have made changes to the article and added a note to clarify.

      Sincerely, Terra Rivers, Managing Editor.

  2. I was shocked by the insulting remarks made by Commissioner Ramirez about her fellow citizens who volunteer on the San Marcos Historic Preservation Commission (not to mention the professional staff of a state agency).

    She owes them a public apology.

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