Council moving ahead on land

But a Dallas investor has first right to 311-acre Voelcker property; city condemnation an option. The City Council gave staffers the go-ahead Thursday to start bargaining for the 311-acre Voelcker property in Northwest San Antonio for a new park, but purchasing the land could involve a dust-up.

A Dallas investor holds the "right of first refusal" on the land, which means he can counter an offer by the city or any other bidder, Mayor Phil Hardberger confirmed Thursday.

That means the investor would have a chance to buy the Voelcker tracts at whatever price a would-be purchaser offers.

However, the city has an ace in reserve: its power to condemn properties for projects with public benefits. In those cases, the city pays owners the fair market value, as defined by the courts.

"There is a right of first refusal, but it can be defeated by condemnation," Hardberger said. "We can get this property."

City officials estimate it could cost up to $45 million to buy the land - described by several council members as another Brackenridge Park in the making - based on recent property sales in the area.

The land is sandwiched between Northwest Military Drive and Blanco Road, in the midst of a 35-square-mile territory that has no parks - except for a small county park and playgrounds built inside gated communities.

"It is the largest unserved area in (San Antonio)," Parks Director Malcolm Matthews said.

If city officials land a deal, the property, once developed, would fall just behind the 317-acre Eisenhower Park and 344-acre Brackenridge Park, which businessman George Brackenridge donated to the city in 1899.

The property is owned by the philanthropic Voelcker Fund and went on the market in November. Banks Smith, one of the fund's four trustees, said the property must be sold at fair market value to meet its charitable obligations, with most of the funding going into medical research.

Smith said the trustees want to see the land preserved for the benefit of San Antonians. But he also noted that the land is hotly sought by developers.

"The demand for the land is phenomenal - the land is unique," Smith said. "The city is stepping in at the last possible moment."

Joe Krier of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, which backs the acquisition, said real estate experts he's heard from don't expect to ever again see such a large undeveloped tract for sale so close to the city's center.

Minnie Voelcker, a native San Antonian, and her husband, Max, operated a successful dairy fann on the land until their deaths in 1980 and 2000 respectively.

An appraisal of the property, which would be the starting point for negotiations, is due May 12.

Councilman Kevin Wolff, whose district encompasses the property, thanked the trustees for the shot at buying the land, adding: "I assure you, we will make the most of it."

The council voted 10-0 to open negotiations with the Voelcker trust.

If the city doesn't get control of the property, developers almost certainly would snap it up for housing units, which Wolff said would only exacerbate the traffic tie-ups that choke parts of his district.

"This, by not being developed, relieves me of some of that," he said.

The 311 acres are cut into two parcels by Wurzbach Parkway. Under plans outlined Thursday, the city would purchase 107 acres for an estimated $15 million within the next 90 days, using certificates of obligation already in hand. The $30 million or so for the second parcel would be included in a proposed $550 million bond package that's expected to go to voters in May 2007.