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The Balcones Escarpment :

Land Use and Cultural Change along the Balcones Escarpment: 1718-1986, p.153-162

by E. Charles Palmer

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Since earliest European settlement, the Balcones Escarpment has stood as a cultural frontier, a dividing line between east and west, between the farming economy of the coastal plain and the ranching economy of the Texas Hill Country. The Escarpment has greatly influenced the cultural development in the land that it transects. The following narrative traces the evolving land use and the changing cultural landscape along both sides of the Escarpment from the 18th-Century Spanish/Mexican settlement of the San Antonio area and the 19th-Century German colonization of the Texas Hill Country, through the major trends of the current century, and finally, to the boom and decline of the 1980's.

Figure 1 : Central Texas and the Balcones Escarpment

Figure 2 : High-tech employers in Austin

Figure 3 : High-tech employers in San Antonio


The Spanish/Mexican Period: 1718-1836

As part of Spain's Internal Provinces, the area which is now Central Texas remained virtually unknown and unsettled by the "civilized" world until well into the Eighteenth Century. It was too remote from Mexico's population centers to justify efforts at colonization, and early expeditions in search of mineral wealth, although they inspired extraordinary feats of endurance, had generally failed.

Earliest permanent Spanish settlement in Texas began in 1718 at the site of present-day San Antonio with the founding of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, later known as the Alamo. Several additional missions were soon established, all downstream from San Pedro Springs, which supplied the mission compounds and agricultural fields with water through an extensive system of canals known as asequias. This seemingly endless and reliable source of water issuing as artesian springs from the base of the Balcones Escarpment was the principal reason for selecting the sites for the early missions. The artesian springs have been the life-blood of San Antonio from its very inception. Many of the original irrigation canals served the missions until they were abandoned in the early 19th Century, and then continued to provide water to local fields well into the 20th Century. Remnants of the original canal system can be seen to the present day along with a section of a still-functioning Spanish aqueduct. There is no better reminder of the historic importance of the springs for the development of San Antonio. The city was founded because of the springs, owed its development to the reliable artesian water supply and has the distinction today of being the largest city in the world whose water needs are supplied entirely by groundwater.

San Antonio was established primarily as a mission outpost in Spain's Internal Provinces and served as a link between the population centers to the south and the even more remote East Texas missions. Numerous roads, including the King's Highway or Camino Real either originated at San Pedro Springs or passed by the Springs, using them as a convenient stopping place.

Throughout the Spanish period and for the first several decades of Mexican sovereignty (beginning in 1810), the area along the Balcones Escarpment remained sparsely populated. The Camino Real, blazed in 1691, extended northward from San Antonio's San Pedro Springs along the base of the Escarpment, past the site of present-day New Braunfels where its travelers could replenish water supplies from Comal Springs before proceeding eastward to the Spanish missions at Nacogdoches. A mission named Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe was constructed in 1757 near Comal Springs and served as a stopover along the route. It was later abandoned, and by mid-Nineteenth Century all traces of it had disappeared. Fifteen miles farther north along the Camino Real, at the site of present-day San Marcos, another short-lived Spanish Mission, the San Xavier, was established in 1755 and also endured only one year.

The failure of Spain, and later of Mexico, to populate the Central Texas region and thereby safeguard it against outside incursions, is understandable considering the remoteness of the region and the long distances to supply centers. By the year 1821, when the granting of land for Moses Austin's colony opened the gate for immigration from the United States, there were still no settlements of note north of San Antonio.

The Early Anglo Period: 1830-1844

By 1830 the English-speaking whites residing in Texas outnumbered the Mexicans by three to one. The population was almost entirely rural, centered in the Brazos and Colorado River bottoms. Settlement along the eastern margin of the Balcones Escarpment did not begin in earnest until after the Texas Revolution of 1836.

The present site of Austin, originally called Waterloo, was settled gradually in the mid 1830's. The site was favorable for a permanent settlement because of the reliable water supply of the Colorado River, which descended from the higher country to the northwest. In addition, artesian springs provided an early source of power for milling operations and recreation. The site offered the further advantage of fine farmland immediately to the east and grazing land in the hills to the west. The town itself was located on a relatively firm limestone-and-chalk base offering an abundance of building material.

Artesian springs rising from the base of the escarpment were influential in the siting not only of San Antonio and Austin but of other towns such as New Braunfels in 1844, San Marcos in 1847, Georgetown in 1848, Belton in 1850, and Bracketteville in 1852. Water power from the springs and from the rivers that flowed eastward from the Hill Country provided a necessary power source for the early settlements. By 1861, for example, the town of New Braunfels had a flour mill, four grist mills, and two saw mills, all of them water-powered (Benjamin, 1974, p. 70). Although there was never a clear-cut "break-in-bulk" point along most Texas rivers, as there was along the fall line of the eastern seaboard, the shoals and rapids beginning just below the escarpment interrupted river transport and offered an added incentive for locating settlements at those points. The site for Austin was chosen at the fall line of the Colorado, and although navigation downstream was finally abandoned, it was originally considered to be of great importance for the town's future development.

A number of early towns were founded on the Austin Chalk, a narrow exposure running about 500 miles generally northeast-southwest from near Sherman in north-central Texas to south of San Antonio, closely paralleling the Balcones Escarpment. The Austin Chalk provided good building material and a somewhat higher altitude than the black lands immediately to the east. It was well drained and close to good cultivable farmland. Furthermore, it provided a ready supply of serviceable building material. Towns originally settled on the Austin Chalk include Temple, Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and San Antonio.

The Balcones Escarpment has also influenced transportation patterns. The Camino Real skirted the Escarpment between San Antonio and the San Marcos area before veering eastward toward Nacogdoches. The slightly higher and better-drained terrain provided sound footing for oxcarts and wagons, even during rainy periods that made the Blackland Prairie soils virtually impassable. Transportation routes connecting the early towns evolved naturally -- first wagon roads and stagecoach routes, then railroads, and finally modern highways. The present-day Interstate Highway-35 follows part of the route of the original Camino Real. A portion of the Chisholm Trail was blazed along the same route.

German Settlement of the Hill Country: 1844-1900

As of the early 1840's the land west of the escarpment remained free of European influence. It was the undisputed realm of the Comanches, Apaches, and several lesser tribes. An early Spanish mission near the present-day town of San Saba was founded in 1757 and abandoned in 1758. Early Anglo settlers had little interest in the shallow Hill Country soils. When Ferdinand Roemer visited the Hill Country west of New Braunfels in the mid 1840's, he found no Anglo habitation from New Braunfels to Fredericksburg. Ten years later, Frederick Law Olmsted noted in his travel log that the area was dotted with farmsteads.

Settlement of the Texas Hill Country began in the early 1840's and moved from east to west. A number of ethnic groups were involved. For example, in 1843 a group of Alsatians founded the town of Castroville about twenty miles west of San Antonio. By far the most influential ethnic group, however, was the Germans. Their settlement patterns, house types, and language dominated the Hill Country during the latter half of the 19th Century and are important elements of the local culture to the present day.

Scattered German settlement had occurred in Central Texas in the early years of the century, but it was the founding of New Braunfels in 1844 that set the scene for large-scale German immigration. New Braunfels was founded by the German nobleman Prince Carl of Solms, who named the new settlement for his town of origin, Braunfels, on the Lahn River in Germany. He had been appointed by a German emigration society to establish a German colony in Texas and to be responsible for its prosperity. The original group of colonists arrived on the Texas coast in 1842 and made their way inland to the present location of New Braunfels. The site was expected to be temporary, to serve only until legal problems regarding the intended destination farther west could be settled. The New Braunfels site proved favorable, however, with unfailing artesian springs and abundant farmland; the colony thrived.

The plan of settlement for New Braunfels was for each family to have a lot of about one half acre in town and ten acres of cultivable land within easy walking distance. The yeoman farmers were to live in town and work their nearby lands. This nuclear village/farm concept broke down within a few years with the increasing population; cultivable land within easy walking distance of the town was spoken for, so new arrivals began looking farther afield for farmlands. The fertile alluvial valleys in the hills to the west were soon occupied.

The founding of Fredericksburg in 1846, about sixty miles west of New Braunfels, opened up a new trade route through the Hill Country and encouraged new settlements along the way. Most of the new settlement clusters never became towns; they typically consisted of a few houses, perhaps a store, and eventually a church. With succeeding generations, many of these communities developed into extended family clusters with each succeeding generation occupying a dwelling on the same property. This became a very characteristic pattern on the German Hill Country landscape of the mid-19th Century, and is in evidence even to the present day.

The most distinctive remaining signs of the early German settlement period are the typical fences, many of which are still in use. But the original German fences were not of stone; instead they were of cedar or oak, usually laid out in a zig-zag pattern (Jordan, 1964, p. 163). By the late 1850's the Germans began building stone fences to enclose not only house and gardens, but pastures and entire land holdings as well. German families labored for months or even years to complete large fencing jobs. By contrast, early non-German settlers generally preferred the open range and were less likely to fence their holdings. This was undoubtedly one of the factors that helped establish the prosperity of the German farmer, particularly with the end of the open range. When barbed wire was introduced in the 1880's, stone fencing became obsolete, but the existing stone fences endured and many miles of them remain in use to the present day.

The original German dwellings were log huts, but these were soon replaced by more traditional German stonework, plastering, and half timbering (Jordan, 1964, p. 165-166). Many of these 19th Century buildings are still in daily use and are quite picturesque. Others have been veneered and remodeled to the point of being recognizable only on close inspection. The extremely wide hallway of an old one-story cottage may have been the dog trot of a 19th-Century German farmhouse.

The growth of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg encouraged further penetration into the Hill Country. The town of Bandera was originally settled by a group of shingle makers attracted to the area by the stands of virgin cypress along the Medina River. The settlement was expanded in 1855 by the arrival of a group of Polish immigrant families who worked in the saw mills and shingle factories (Coleman, 1963, p. 23). The shingles were hauled by ox cart to market in the city of San Antonio. Thus, many of the largest of the accessible cypress trees in the Hill Country were cut in the mid-19th Century. An occasional, slowly decaying stump from these early giants attests to their size.

In 1854 a group of 250 Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois, established the Village of Mountain Valley in the area currently inundated by Lake Medina. The Mormon colony prospered initially, but after a few years it disbanded, apparently owing to problems with the Indians. Most of the Mormons either continued south to Mexico or returned to the midwest. A few settled in or around Bandera.

The Civil War temporarily halted immigration and the lack of military protection on the frontier impeded settlement in the Hill Country, but by the 1870's the pace quickened. The introduction of windmills in the 1880's opened the fertile alluvial areas in the more remote regions (Schmid, 1969, p. 40). Cattle and sheep raising flourished both on the open range and within the fenced pastures. Sheep raising had become important even before the Civil War and, by the 1870's, there were an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 head in the vicinity of Boerne alone (Krueger, 1929, p. 186). During the last decades of the century, sheep raising surpassed cattle raising in importance, and individual herds numbering in the thousands were common.

Goat raising began in the Hill Country in the mid 1850's, and the Angora goat was introduced in 1858 (Jordan, 1964, p. 158). Goat raising remained a relatively small-scale occupation, however, until well into the 20th Century. By that time, the effects of overgrazing, mainly by sheep, had become obvious and goat raising was a logical alternative. It has remained so to the present day.

By the last years of the 19th Century, both the Blackland Prairie and the Hill Country showed the effects of misuse of the land. The Blackland Prairie soils, once considered among the best in the nation for cotton, had long since declined and required heavy applications of chemical fertilizers to produce acceptable crops. In the hills to the west, overgrazing had contributed to erosion and decline in fertility, in some areas transforming grasslands into barren lands. Overgrazing and browsing had so impoverished the habitat of the whitetailed deer that, by the turn of the century, they were rarely seen.


Agricultural Land Use

The early years of the current century witnessed continued overgrazing, particularly by sheep, and intensive browsing by the ever-increasing goat herds. The "goat line" or browse line, characterized by the removal of green vegetation up to a height of about six feet, became a familiar sight. The declining grass cover and its replacement by woody plants was generally attributed to this overstocking.

After the Second World War, the federal government began to take an active role in encouraging more informed land-management practices. Soil conservation districts were organized under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since that time, conservation officers have worked with farmers and ranchers to reintroduce favorable grass species, avoid overgrazing, promote brush clearing, and prevent soil erosion. Among the recommended conservation practices is the clearing of cedar trees to encourage the growth of grasses and to allow unrestricted growth of live oaks. Unfortunately, many Hill Country ranches that have been carefully cleared of cedar, are now losing their live oaks to a fungal disease known as live oak wilt, which has affected live oak trees in a large area of Central Texas.

By the 1980's livestock raising was still the dominant agricultural land use in the Hill Country, accounting for over 90% of all agricultural income. Commercial agricultural crops were primarily sorghum, wheat, oats, and hay.

In contrast to the Hill Country, agriculture along the downthrown side of the escarpment has seen a sharp evolution over the years. Cotton, once the mainstay of Blackland Prairie agriculture, has given way to more diversified cropping including corn, sorghum, wheat and hay. In recent years the strong trend has been away from row crops altogether and toward improved pasture and cattle raising.

Non-Agricultural Land Use

Much of the Hill Country landscape could be classified as recreation land. The whitetailed deer population has increased dramatically thanks to conservation measures, the near eradication of the screworm, and to the increase in brush cover. Deer hunting has become an important factor in the economy, with many ranchers depending more on revenue from deer leases than from any other source. Yearly harvesting is necessary to prevent winter die-offs owing to insufficient forage.

A recent addition to the Hill Country landscape is the eight-foot-high wire fencing designed to contain exotic game animals imported by local ranchers. Importation of exotica, principally ungulates, began on the King Ranch in the 1930's. At the present time it is estimated that over 55,000 exotica roam the state, a large percentage of them in the Hill Country (Doughty, 1976). Axis deer and mouflon-barbados sheep are probably the most numerous, but others including black buck, nilgai antelope, and aoudad sheep are also found in large numbers (Doughty, 1976; Ramsey, 1976). Russian boars have become dangerous pests in parts of the Hill Country. Many landowners raise exotic deer and antelope in large pastures surrounded by high fences and receive handsome fees from hunters in return for guaranteed trophies. The ecological effects of the thousands of exotica that have gone wild is the subject of considerable controversy among ecologists. A few of the exotica adapt so well to their new environment that some ecologists predict that they may actually become dominant species during the coming century. A hunter on a Hill Country "non-exotic" deer lease reported his 1986 kill as one axis deer, one Russian boar, and one whitetailed deer.

There are a number of well-established state and private parks in the Hill Country, and others are planned. Several extensive caverns have been opened to the public. Dude ranches have become especially popular for vacationers from the cities. Bandera's claim to being the "Cowboy Capitol of the World" may be doubtful, but its distinction as the dude ranch capitol of Texas is unquestioned.

The trend in land ownership is toward disaggregating the larger holdings into 10- to 20-acre tracts for sale as weekend retreats. High land prices are making it noneconomical for many farmers and ranchers to continue in agriculture.

The trend toward recreational land use has quickened with the increasing popularity of canoeing and tubing in the local rivers. The Guadalupe has been noticeably effected both above and below Canyon Lake. Land parcels as narrow as thirty feet have been sold along the Guadalupe for cabin sites, tube rental establishments, and concessions (Palmer and others, 1984). The increasingly heavy use of the area is putting a strain on transportation and other facilities, and taxing the patience of longtime residents who are faced with ever higher taxes and the residue of beer cans and broken glass left by weekend revelers. The challenge to planners is to make the attractions of the area available to the public while maintaining the integrity of the environment. Effects on the Edwards Aquifer have not been determined but also are cause for concern.


Silicon Prairie

The economic life of Austin, the state capital, has traditionally been centered on state government and the University of Texas. For decades, Austinites have taken pride in the city's clean air, lack of heavy industry, manageable traffic, and Barton Springs swimming pool, a 1000-foot-long oasis fed by artesian springs from the Edwards Aquifer. The economy of San Antonio, on the other hand, has been based on federal government employment; the city's five military bases employ over 43,000 persons. Like Austin, San Antonio has relatively little heavy industry. It has customarily been regarded as a picturesque, slow-paced, tourist center featuring historic Spanish missions and lush parklands. The seventy-five-mile corridor connecting the two cities was little developed with only two significant population centers, San Marcos and New Braunfels. The only major industries along the corridor until recent years were several limestone quarries. Such was the Austin-San Antonio corridor prior to the 1970's.

Development of the corridor can be attributed, first to the booming Texas economy during the late 1970's and early 1980's at a time when most of the nation was experiencing an economic recession. High crude-oil prices favored all aspects of the state's economy. Low-yield areas that had never before been seriously explored or exploited, such as parts of the Austin Chalk, became the sites of frantic activity, and sleepy Black Prairie towns such as Lockhart and Seguin became centers of a mini oil rush. State budget surpluses were counted in the billions of dollars. The result was an influx of people as well as new and relocated industry. Texas experienced a 1970-1980 population increase of twenty-seven percent, one of the highest in the nation. John Naisbitt predicted in his 1982 bestseller, Megatrends, that Austin and San Antonio would be among the top ten growth areas in the nation at least to the end of the century.

The Austin-San Antonio corridor offers several attractions for prospective businesses and industry. Climate and environment are considered favorable. Spring-fed streams and swimming pools, clear Hill Country rivers, and the scenic Hill Country itself are important drawing cards. Compared to many other states, wages are low; the area is not heavily unionized, and it has an adequate labor force. The cost of living has been relatively low (this has changed dramatically in Austin since the early 1980's). And very importantly, major universities, particularly The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Texas at San Antonio, with established graduate programs in the sciences and engineering, are attractive to high-tech industry.

Along with its advantages, however, the corridor has certain drawbacks that may prevent it from attaining the high goals that its promoters hold for it. Clearly, it is not in a central location relative to the nation's major industrial and population centers. Distance from raw materials and lack of a seaport could be deterrents to some types of industry. But the corridor's greatest disadvantage is the fact that it exists in a state that is so tied to the petroleum industry that a downturn in that sector affects the entire economy. All support facilities on which a new industry would depend are affected: university research budgets, opportunities for spouse employment, and many of the other factors that make the area so attractive. This consideration, however, seemed remote when the price of crude oil was $40 per barrel.

Efforts to attract high-tech industry to the Austin-San Antonio Corridor have been well-planned and coordinated. California's Silicon Valley and, less frequently, North Carolina's Research Triangle, are mentioned as models. The Texas Business Review recently noted that "Austin and San Antonio are regarded as being at opposite ends of a 75-mile corridor along I-35 that will become a sort of silicon prairie" (Texas Business Review, July 1984). City officials of both San Antonio and Austin have worked closely with state government as well as with the University of Texas System to promote the area and provide inducements to high-tech industry.

Several high-tech companies, including Tracor, IBM, and Texas Instruments, were established in the Austin area prior to the 1970's, and a number of similar industries were attracted during the decade of the 70's. But it was the selection of an Austin site by Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) in 1983 that marked the height of achievement by the corridor promoters. MCC selected Austin over dozens of other potential sites only after coordinated inducements from the City of Austin, the Governor of Texas, H. Ross Perot, and the University of Texas. The expectation was that the relocation of MCC to Austin would begin a mass influx of similar high-tech firms to the area.

To promote and direct the expected growth, San Antonio's Mayor Henry Cisneros and others formed the Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council. Alternative scenarios for future growth, blueprints for expanded airports, proposals for a fast-rail system along the corridor, and talk of future super highways became daily fare in the local newspapers.

As of February 1985, 40% of Austin's non-government work force was employed in the high-tech area, twice the percentage so employed in Dallas and seven times that in Houston. Some of the high-tech firms that had located in Austin by the summer of 1986 are listed in Table 1.

San Antonio has been somewhat slower than Austin in attracting high-tech industry. With less university influence and a generally lower wage scale, San Antonio is more oriented toward traditional assembly-type industry. The goal of Mayor Cisneros and other city leaders, therefore, is to make San Antonio a center, not of high-tech research but of high-tech manufacturing. The intent is to build on existing strengths, particularly in the field of biotechnology. The extensive medical facilities of South Texas Medical Center, the medical orientation of several of the military bases including Brook Army Medical Center, and several biomedical research firms create a favorable climate for this type of development. Among the installations currently on the drawing boards is the 1500-acre "Texas Research Park," a biomedical research park that will house the Southwestern Foundation for Biomedical Research and The University of Texas Institute of Biotechnology.

Land Rush

With the influx of high-tech industry and general growth of the economy, there has been a land rush of unprecedented proportions. Rural as well as urban land in the entire Austin-San Antonio Corridor began increasing rapidly in the mid 1970's and, by the early '80's, the rate of increase was truly surprising. After relocation of MCC in the hills northwest of Austin in 1983, land prices in that immediate area doubled and tripled overnight.

The price of prairie land east of the escarpment increased less rapidly. One stark exception, however, was land east of Austin near the proposed site for a new airport. Speculation land was purchased and "flipped" within days for 100% profit or more. Tracts that sold for $1300 to $1500 per acre in the late 1970's were suddenly selling for $6000 and more in 1984.

Over the years there has evolved a definite change in perception toward prairie land on the one hand and Hill Country land on the other. From earliest agricultural settlement, rich Blackland Prairie land was preferred over the rocky Hill Country. Although there had long been scattered ranches in the Hill Country, it was generally considered most suitable for "cedar choppers," most of whom squatted on the land and made their living by cutting cedar for fence posts. The demand in recent years, however, has been for non-agricultural land, for a weekend retreat, or for a suburban lot with a view. Hill Country land, unproductive from an agricultural perspective, has replaced the fertile blacklands as the high-dollar location in Texas real estate.

The following scenario has been repeated innumerable times in recent years. In the early 1950's a family bought 300 acres of Hill Country land about fifteen miles northwest of downtown Austin. It was cheap, unfit for agriculture, suitable only for a few goats, secluded weekends, and church retreats. The few neighbors were squatters who looked after the place during the week with the unspoken understanding that they could harvest an occasional goat. By the early 1970's urban sprawl was approaching the property and the squatters were being bought out or forced to leave. With the rapid urban expansion of the late '70's, the property suddenly became a wooded island in an upper middle-class neighborhood. After MCC selected its nearby location in 1983, the property was sold -- by the square foot! The land is still barren and practically devoid of topsoil. The principal vegetation is cactus, cedar, Texas persimmon, and stunted live oaks. It makes no sense to the Midwestern cornbelt immigrant who judges land by the depth and blackness of soil, but to the Central Texan looking for a homesite, the Hill Country is definitely the prestige address.

Cities located along the escarpment are faced with the choice between encouraging urban development into the hills to the west or onto the prairie to the east. Ecological considerations, conservation of wildlife habitat, and protection of the Edwards Aquifer argue against development in the hills. On the other hand, preservation of prime farmland is a strong argument against urban sprawl farther into the coastal plain.

Attempts by both San Antonio and Austin to discourage urban sprawl into the hills by withholding water services have met with limited success. In the Austin area, for example, developers have found that the same services can be purchased from the regional river authority. The controversy may become academic if the proposed scenic parkway linking San Antonio and Austin via the Hill Country becomes a reality. The new parkway is being planned to relieve traffic congestion on Interstate Highway-35, but it is also expected to open a vast new area of prime Hill Country to suburban residential development.

Rapid population growth has put a strain on city infrastructures and the ability to deliver expected services. Traffic congestion has become a problem. Austin residents can expect water rationing every year by mid summer, not because of a water shortage but because water-treatment capacity has lagged behind population growth. Long-time residents perceive a threat to their quality of life.

Despite the frequently heard contention in San Antonio that the costs of unchecked growth fall unfairly on long-term residents, city government under Mayor Cisneros has continued to encourage growth. The general optimism among the business community is evident in the booming tourist economy and large-scale downtown construction projects. The most serious opposition to pro-development city government took shape in the summer of 1986 when a San Antonio citizens' group collected the required number of signatures to put the issue of deficit spending and tax increases on the ballot. With overwhelming support from the business and development communities on the one hand, and the large Mexican-American population on the other, Mayor Cisneros was never seriously threatened. The measure was defeated by a 50 % margin. San Antonio is known in the construction and development communities as a good place to do business.

Austin has moved in quite a different direction. After a number of years of business-oriented city government, a new city council and mayor were elected in 1984 with promises to control and direct growth and to protect the quality of life that old-time residents have seen as fast disappearing. "Don't Houstonize Austin" was a frequent admonition of the new regime. Ordinances to limit building height and density, to preserve views, and to maintain water quality have been implemented. A Hill Country Road Ordinance sets limits on building height and density along scenic roadways west of Austin.

Growth-control measures inevitably cause economic hardships in some areas. The Hill Country Road Ordinance, for example, has had considerable economic impact on the investors who purchased the land at inflated prices based on highest possible building density and height. The banks that lent money for purchase of the land are also hurt, as are the architects, contractors and others affected by loss of jobs. The developers accuse city government of being inconsistent and unprogressive, while city government consoles the developers on their poor business decisions. Despite efforts at compromise and talk of working toward common goals, the lines between proponents of rapid growth and the advocates of slower, more controlled growth seem to be more clearly drawn in Austin than in San Antonio.

By the mid 1980's, however, it was becoming difficult to blame all economic problems on Austin's "no growth" city government. Texas was beginning to feel the economic downturn experienced in other states in the '70's.

Economic Downturn (Bust)

Texas went from a budget surplus of 2.5 billion dollars in 1982 to a projected deficit of about 3 billion in fiscal 1987, and from one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation (5.3%) in 1980 to the highest unemployment rate (about 11%) by mid 1986. It is said that for every decrease of one dollar per barrel in the price of crude oil, 25,000 Texans lose their jobs. Every sector of the state's economy is affected.

Although the Austin-San Antonio area has been spared the depth of economic depression experienced in Houston, Midland/Odessa, and other petroleum centers, by the summer of 1986 there was a noticeable economic slow-down throughout the area. A number of major high-tech firms that had only recently opened Austin facilities were announcing sizeable layoffs. Lockheed, which began Austin operations in 1982 and had built its work force to 2650, began layoffs in the spring of 1986. Data General Corporation announced the closing of its Austin facility with the loss of 375 jobs. Tracor, Burroughs, Texas Instruments, Motorola, and others also announced cutbacks.

The turnaround in the economy has been dramatic. In the early 1980's, the Austin-San Antonio area was a Mecca for the unemployed, especially from the economically depressed Midwest and Northeast. By the summer of 1986, high unemployment was causing a definite out-migration among certain key groups. The job market for new architects, a good indicator for future construction starts, vanished; architects with no job prospects in Austin could take their pick in Boston. A young Austin architect faced with unemployment went to Boston for two days, had five interviews, received five job offers, came back to Austin and packed her trunk. In the late 1970's it cost at least double to drive a U-Haul truck into Texas; the company had to hire drivers to take them out. By mid 1986 the U-Haul Corporation was charging double or triple to drive a rental truck out of state. Time Magazine reported that in May 1986, the U-Haul Company paid $114,000 for people to fly to Florida to drive U-Haul trucks back to Texas (Time, July 14, 1986).

Real estate has suffered along with the rest of the economy. The land rush is over. Homes in Austin that had increased in price an average of 10% to20% annually for several years, suddenly leveled off or began losing value. Tax notices mailed to Austin residents in June 1986, based on seven-month-old appraisals, caused such an outrage that the city agreed to a special reappraisal the next year, one year ahead of schedule. In three wealthy subdivisions to the west of Austin, out of 307 homes in the $400,000+ range that had been on the market in the first half of 1986, only nine had sold by June (Austin American-Statesman, July 3, 1986).

Many speculators who purchased land at the height of the boom have suffered extreme losses. An Austin newspaper announced on June 17 that 41 Austin area properties with loans of one million dollars or more had been posted for possible foreclosure. Among the properties was one owned by the Barnes-Connally Company (former Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes and former Texas Governor and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury John Connally), which had a loan against it for ten million dollars. It was sold for a fraction of that amount. Barnes-Connally is only one of many companies facing foreclosures and enormous losses from ill-timed land speculation.

As of mid-1986, the Austin and San Antonio skylines belied even a hint of a slow-down in the building industry. The crane was still said to be the "city bird" of Austin. More high-rises were under construction than in any time within memory. But these construction projects had been planned several years before. The question uppermost in the minds of developers and city officials alike was, "who will occupy them?" Overbuilding and low occupancy are likely to be long-lasting legacy of the recent growth binge. As of autumn 1986, there are very few new high-rises on the drawing boards.


American Statesman, July 31, 1986.

Benjamin, G.G., 1974, The Germans in Texas, a study in immigration (originally published in 1910): Austin, Jenkins Publishing Company.

Doughty, Robin, 1976, Geographical Record, v. 66, pp. 351-353.

Jordan, Terry G., 1964, German seed in Texas soil: immigrant farmers in nineteenth century Texas: Austin, University of Texas Press.

Krueger, Max, 1928 (approximate date), Pioneer life in Texas: an autobiography: No publisher given.

Palmer, E.C., Neck, R., and Caran, C., 1984, Remote sensing and the Texas Hill Country environment: San Antonio and vicinity: American Society of Photogrammetry Fall Convention.

Ramsey, Charles, 1976, Texotics, Bulletin No. 49, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Schmidt, J.A., 1969, The wild landscape of the Edwards Plateau of south-central Texas: a study of developing livelihood patterns and ecological change: The University of Chicago, unpublished Master's thesis.

Texas Business Review, July 1984.

Time Magazine, July 14, 1986.

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in Abbot, Patrick L. and Woodruff, C. M., Jr., eds., 1986, The Balcones Escarpment, Central Texas: Geological Society of America, p.153-162


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Austin, TX. 78713

Phone: (512) 495-4250

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