Showdown at Maverick Ranch

Henry Cisneros and the state’s highway boosters were determined to bull-doze a loop through the pristine Hill Country near san Antonio. Now, all that stands in the way is three sisters and five generations of Texas history.

ON THE ROAD TO BEBE FENSTERMAKER’S HOUSE, wild turkeys run unperturbed before a visitor’s car. The dirt trail dips through a clear, shallow creek with no name, though downstream, a spring rising from a cave commemorates a small tragedy. In Bebe’s mother’s time, a woman visited the place and brought her dog along. A rabbit dashed into the cave’s catacombs, and the pooch unwisely followed, never to emerge. The women could hear its cries of doom through the stony ground under their feet: Lost Dog Spring.

Bebe occupies a metal-roofed limestone house on the Maverick Ranch, the historic Bexar County spread named for her famous family, which has owned it for four generations. When she isn’t teaching art at San Antonio College, Bebe tears around the nine-hundred-acre property in her gray pickup. She has been on the ranch since 1970, when she decided she no longer wanted to live in the city. Around the same time, her sister Mary, who is now a travel agent, reached a similar conclusion. She makes her home in a cottage across the creek. Another sister, Martha, a painter and an art professor at Laredo Junior College, occasionally lives here during the summer. Each of the three is in her forties and unmarried. It’s quiet on the Maverick Ranch. It used to be peaceful.

For the past three years, the approach of survey crews, bulldozers, earthmovers, and asphalt trucks has shattered the Fenstermakers’ equanimity. The Texas highway department—officially known as the Texas Department of Transportation—is building a partial loop around west San Antonio. To finish that project, highway workers can scarcely avoid destroying the family’s retreat.

From the air, the piecemeal construction of Texas Highway 211 looks bizarre. Due west of downtown, past Sea World and Kelly Air Force Base, a two-lane road with a disproportionate swath of cleared right-of-way starts at U.S. 90 and curls 3.5 miles north through ranchland before dead-ending in front of what appears to be a landscaped college campus or office park. Amid small farms and scattered homesites, the route vanishes northward for more than 7 miles. Then, in a raw white caliche scrape, it reappears, for nearly 7.5 miles, with long bridges, elaborate runoff culverts, and curves blasted deep through wooded hills. Beyond the burg of Helotes, it dead-ends again at Texas Highway 16. A proposed fourth segment of 211, once more unseen, arcs northeast for 14 miles through ranches and small subdivisions to Interstate 10 and an intersecting farm-to-market road. As outer loops go, this one is way out. Its terminus could be 25 miles from downtown San Antonio. The Maverick Ranch lies almost at its northern end.

Highway 211 has the sanction of San Antonio’s most dominant forces—corporate, government, military, and academic. While he was mayor, the city’s political giant, Henry Cisneros, made an ardent plea for the roadway to the Texas Highway and Public Transportation Commission, which has since authorized all but the last segment. (On the subject of Maverick Ranch and 211, Cisneros refused to be interviewed.) The campuslike tract west of downtown is the site of the Texas Research Park—San Antonio’s dream of a high-tech future. The park, it is hoped, will cure diseases, spawn new corporations, and employ thousands of doctors, scientists, and technicians—many of whom live northwest of the city and would benefit greatly from a direct route connecting home and work.

In most cases, the outcome of such a story would be preordained. The highway department is one of Texas’ most esteemed institutions. Once the department has approved a state roadway, it is almost impossible to move or stop it. Anyway, if individual rights were not made to yield, roads would never get built. Many landowners surrender without much struggle, quickly understanding the government’s ability to absorb legal costs and to enforce its wishes through the power of eminent domain. In fact, many see a new highway route through their property as a godsend. This real estate alchemy turns raw land into shopping centers and residential cul-de-sacs. Everybody gets a bright, shining office tower.

But this battle of ranch and road, of history and modernity, isn’t over—not just yet. A number of factors make it different from most. The Fenstermakers are not part of just any Texas clan. The Maverick Ranch is no ordinary Hill Country retreat. And 211 is not just another freeway of the future. Its pending completion casts light on the policy that governs how roads get built in Texas. Depending on your perspective, the conflict over 211 is one in which a privileged few are pushing their interests over those of a needy many—or it’s an outrageous taxpayer-funded scam that will benefit only a few real estate speculators.

Either way, the power struggle being played out in San Antonio has crucial implications. It pits old wealth and influence against new and ascendant forces entranced by the word “visionary.” It pits rural serenity against urban hustle, environmental protection against economic stimulation, aging firebrand liberals against neoconservative technocrats. It’s a classic confrontation: An immovable object meets an irresistible force.



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