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Commercial Encroachment

Residential homes in College Station are mostly located in General Suburban zoning. By definition, in this zoning the city is committed to "buffering and protecting" against "incompatible uses." However, historically, our City Council has not placed a priority on the right a resident has to not have a commercial business built next door.

The most common reason given for placing commercial developments adjacent to neighborhoods has been the need for increased sales tax revenue. Unfortunately, this need has largely been created by the same city leadership by allowing developers to build new projects without fully paying for the cost of new city services for those same projects. But even if additional tax is needed, the businesses that generate it do not need to be located in a neighborhood.

There appears to also be a philosophical belief that a property owner should be allowed to pursue "the highest and best value from their property."  On the surface, most College Station residents would agree – but not if the property simply isn't zoned for it. For example, we would all agree that a fast food restaurant in the middle of Pebble Creek would create more value from a property than a residential house. But we wouldn't approve this because the property simply isn't zoned for it. Texas State law only protects the right of a land owner to pursue uses the property was zoned for when they purchased it. The purpose of residential zoning is specifically to allow all of us to buy and live in an area where we can be confident our investment will be preserved and our families will be able to live the life we invested in.

The term encroachment suggests something is being done on the edge, and not the middle, and this is usually the case. But the impact is no different if you live in the house next door. And the pattern we all see is that the edge moves inward with time. If a business moves in next door to you, no one will buy your house and the value of the next 1-2 rows of houses will also drop dramatically. Would anyone deny this? And yet the city does not even attempt to quantify the financial damage to adjacent property owners when it considers approval of a commercial business next door. In city meetings you will hear a great deal about the new tax a business will raise, but you will never hear the word "damage" from city staff or many in our leadership.

In one example, land was zoned to allow multi-story apartments immediately across the fence from homes. In another, plans were approved that would draw commercial traffic directly through an adjacent neighborhood on streets that are unsafe for the load. In one case, zoning was approved to allow a General Commercial business to extend its property down a neighborhood street between two $650,000 homes. There was no discussion of the loss of value to those property owners. The same business was allowed to literally wrap around two sides of a house with three small children living in it. In one extraordinary session, a former mayor and one council member stated they believe all of the residential properties along George Bush between Texas and Wellborn should be torn down and replaced with commercial businesses, as if the city's oldest neighborhood and its residents have no right to be there.

Commercial growth is essential and as the saying goes, "retail follows roof tops". College Station's rapid growth means new businesses will also be needed to provide the goods and services new neighborhoods need, as well as the sales tax revenue required to pay for the new associated infrastructure improvements. But those businesses do not need to be in someone's back yard. The majority of the commercial growth should be in areas where most residential growth is occurring, and in these areas there is usually ample opportunity to separate commercial and residential properties in a manner that truly does "buffer and protect."

In the central area of the city there are still many undeveloped properties and even more failed businesses with properties that need to be revitalized. Continued rezoning of additional properties to General Commercial in mature neighborhoods is guaranteed to place a business next to a house. It should not be approved unless the city can show there is a truly compelling reason to do so. The ability to collect more tax in the middle of the city instead of having the same business collect that tax in a developing area is not compelling. Neither is the desire of an investor to rezone a property simply to make more money. There must be larger goals in mind that benefit the whole city.

Nevertheless, the City Council has the authority to change zoning in any manner it chooses, irrespective of the Land Use or Neighborhood Plans. And an investor has a right to request any change they desire. However, the city has absolutely no legal obligation to approve that change. There are no compelling legal reasons to say YES. City leadership has the discretion to say NO, and in most cases they should do so anytime a business will be placed across the fence from a house. The right of existing property owners to be "buffered and protected" from "incompatible uses" is a superior claim to that of an individual who seeks to increase profit through a new zoning. The homeowners were there first.

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