Marfa City Council talks water security, zoning changes, new license plate reader

MARFA — Marfa City Council members met last week to discuss a number of items including a  proposal regarding water security, a new zoning ordinance and to approve the purchase of a license plate reader.

Trey Gerfers, general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District (PCUWCD), brought forth a proposal for the city to obtain a production permit in order to protect the municipal water supply from future development. The district issues production permits to large, commercial users for an annual fee of $100 per well. Permit holders are required to report water usage on an annual basis.

PCUWCD — which was formed in 1999 and became a taxing entity this year — has three main tools for protecting groundwater resources, Gerfers explained: monitoring, permitting and rule making. 

Since the formation of the district in the ‘90s, Marfa’s water utility has been operating under the Midland exemption, a Texas Water Code policy that exempts cities with populations of 130,000 or less from groundwater district regulations; it is conversely unable to levy the district’s protections, said Gerfers. 

While there are no immediate threats to the area’s groundwater resources and the water supply is reliable, Gerfers argued the production permit would allow the city to take advantage of the “limited tools available under the law” if a situation were to arise. 

He asked council members to imagine a scenario where a company buys land adjacent to Village Farms and intends to bottle and sell the water. Because Village Farms holds a production permit, the district is able to offer certain protections, he said. It could require the water bottling enterprise to perform pump tests, install a monitoring well and even curtail pumping to ensure Village Farm’s wells do not experience significant draw down. 

As it stands, the city is subject to Texas’ rule of capture, a groundwater law that allows landowners to pump however much water they want regardless of how it may impact a neighbor. 

If the city decides to go the permitting route for added protections against future growth, it will have to give up the Midland exemption and agree to only pump a certain amount. But the city and district would work together, analyzing water usage data, in order to determine how much groundwater is needed per year, explained Gerfers.

“If you all have appropriate data that shows hey, look, we’re expanding out into East Heights, we’re going to need some more water,” said Gerfers. “Each year, when that permit renews, we would just look at the data, and we could raise your amount.” 

Mayor Manny Baeza asked what the penalties would be if the city exceeded its predetermined water allotment. Gerfers said he wasn’t sure and he would look into it, but that scenario was unlikely due to the fact that it would be a data-driven decision. 

“I don’t want you all to view this as penalties or punishment or that we’re taking control,” said Gerfers. “We’re really trying to get the cities protected because we don’t know what the future is going to bring.” 

The city would still be able to sell water, like it did for the Trans-Pecos pipeline, if needed, said Gerfers. The groundwater district will have no influence on the city’s water rates or how it chooses to operate its water utility — one of its main revenue streams. 

Baeza said the city was open to the idea and will have their lawyer look into the production permit option. The City of Presidio is also considering the proposal

Council members also heard from attorney Sylvia Firth regarding a number of pending changes to the city’s existing zoning ordinance. In early November council members heard a presentation from Chairman of the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission Stephen Rabourn regarding six changes to the zoning ordinance, a document adopted over 20 years ago in sore need of an update. 

The proposed changes intend to “allow for more flexibility of use,” as well as “improve the city’s ability to deal more efficiently with building applications and actively with certain zoning infractions,” according to the P&Z report on the matter. 

According to the report, the six changes include restricting the construction of more than one kitchen in houses within the R-1 single family residential district, making allowable home occupations less restrictive, reducing setbacks for corner lots, clarifying buildable lot sizes to match the existing plats within the city, allowing residential use of properties zoned industrial and allowing co-use of commercial properties as both businesses and residences. 

Firth explained that she is in the process of updating the ordinance with the six changes as instructed by council before it will be presented to the public in two public hearings, which were set to take place in mid-December and January but have since been delayed. 

“This is a significant amendment to your zoning ordinance, and this gives us an opportunity to go through it a little bit and talk about it,” said Firth. 

Council member Travis Acreman took issue with some of the wording on the proposed changes, and he, Firth and Rabourn had some back and forth regarding language and interpretation of the ordinance. 

One of the changes Acreman proposed relates to the co-use of commercial buildings amendment — ensuring multi-family, apartment complex-style building regulations were not automatically applied to existing single family dwellings that are technically located in commercial districts.

It boils down to changing the ordinance to read “regulations of the district in which the lot is located” rather than “regulations of the more restricted district.” 

The change is meant to accommodate the character of the neighborhoods where people live in commercially zoned buildings, he explained in a call with The Big Bend Sentinel. The existing ordinance is around 80 pages long, explained Acreman and, amidst edits, attention needs to be paid to avoid contradictions. 

Firth said she plans to take Acreman’s suggestions into consideration and bring another round of edits back to council for review in the new year. 

The two public hearings — for which dates have yet to be announced — will be the public’s opportunity to address council members with any concerns they have about the zoning ordinance changes. At that point, the city can take feedback into consideration and continue to edit the document or proceed with adopting the ordinance as-is. 

In the council meeting Acreman said it was important to get the wording right in notices to the public and on the document because zoning issues have a “direct impact” on the lives of Marfa citizens. 

“It’s the welcome mat in so many cases for that first interaction between a member of the public and the city,” said Acreman. “The rules need to be fair, they need to be equally applicable across the board, and the document needs to be legible.”

Lastly, council members voted to approve the purchase of a new $60,000 license plate reader for the Marfa Police Department. The money for the purchase is coming from Operation Stonegarden, a federal border security grant. 

The data from the license plate reader will be accessible to Border Patrol as well as other law enforcement agencies nationwide, explained Chief Gilberto Carrillo and Rene Gonzales, who works as the administrative assistant for the Stonegarden grant.

The device is outfitted with two internal cameras that capture images of vehicle’s license plates and is intended to catch stolen vehicles on their way to Mexico, said Gonzales and Carrillo. The license plate reader will be on a two-wheel trailer and will be moved as needed.

The license plate reader will appear as if reading the driver’s speed and has a customizable message board to help communicate traffic delays and more.

In other news, council members voted to make department heads salaried, versus hourly, employees and to hire a new engineering firm to get to work on city street projects, for which the city budgeted $2.1 million for this fiscal year.