By Art Martinez de Vara
VON ORMY—This summer marks the fifth anniversary of the establishment of the City of Von Ormy. The Von Ormy Star will take a look back on how we got here and what has happened over the past years. The following article appeared in the very first edition of the Star—November 2008.
This is the story of how Von Ormy became a city. There have been several previous attempts to incorporate Von Ormy, I learned about them during our recent successful effort to become a city. We learned much from these previous attempts and are indebted to those who led these efforts.
This account is told from my perspective. I reconstructed it from memory and how I recorded it in my emails, the minutes of our meetings and the news clippings I saved. If I left something or someone out it was unintended.
For me it all began when I moved back to Von Ormy in 2004 to attend St. Mary's Law School. I grew up in Houston and had spent most of my summers at my grandparent’s house on Benton City Road in Von Ormy. For me Von Ormy always felt like home and it did so immediately when I moved here. Shortly after arriving, I joined the Jarret Volunteer Fire Department and became a Firefighter/Medic.
One night in the summer of 2006 we were expecting a large thunderstorm and possible flooding. Chief Ortega called on the volunteers to stage at the Exxon at 1604 and I35. We often did this when a big storm was coming through town to cut down on our response time to accidents and water rescues along I-35. That night we had both Engines and a Rescue Truck at the Exxon. I remember it was a busy night. We had several high water rescues at the low spot where Elm Creek crosses the I-35 access road. This storm was coming in two cells and once the activity of the first cell quieted down, we regrouped at the Exxon to refuel and get one of the free fountain drinks they give us when we are on emergency calls. We started discussing the need to fix the low water crossing where we had just rescued two motorists. Like many firehouse conversations it grew in scope and soon we were discussing many ways to improve our community. It is not surprising to me that an effort to create a city was born among a group of Volunteer Firefighters. Anyone who would risk their life and health to help their neighbors and expect no financial reward are the definition of community servants. I remember the very moment it came into the conversation. I was sitting in the back of Engine One with FF Andrew Flores III, Lt. Stephen Flores, Chief Ortega and a driver who I cannot remember. It just came out. "Why don't we make Von Ormy a city?" Stephen Flores said "Let's do it", then like many firefighter conversations, it abruptly ended when Fire Alarm rang our tones and we were off to another call.
The idea kept coming up at the Fire Station on various nights, until one day I decided to see what other people thought about the idea. I had just completed my class in Constitutional law and perhaps I was emboldened by my recent reading of writings by the founding fathers. I asked a handful of neighbors and family members who all said they thought it was good idea and one long overdue. So I decided to get a broader input.
On June 1, 2006 my mom, Sally Martinez, and I distributed flyers announcing a public meeting about the future of Von Ormy and possible incorporation. We placed the flyers on the gates of residents in Von Ormy Heights, down Benton City Road, I-35 and old Von Ormy along Quintana Road. The meeting was held on June 11 at the Sacred Heart Church Parish Hall. Nearly 50 people arrived and discussed the community. Individuals address concerns ranging from the lack of public transportation and sewer to a sentiment that being annexed by San Antonio lose our identity as a community. A show of hands at the end of the meeting showed near unanimous support for the creation a city. It was then decided to hold a second meeting to allow more residents to give their input and to contact our local elected officials to ask for their support.
My mom and I called and faxed every elected official we could think of. Almost immediately we received the support of State Rep. David Leibowitz who on June 20th sent letters to all of Von Ormy stating his support of Von Ormy incorporation. On June 29th, we officially created the Committee to Incorporate Von Ormy (CIVO). The following officers were elected and served for the entire incorporation effort: Chair, Art Martinez de Vara; Asst. Chair, Charlie Brown; Asst. Chair, Mike Suarez; Secretary, Mary Louise Castro; Treasurer, Raymond Vara, Jr.; and Asst. Treas., Sally Martinez.
After some research we learned that Von Ormy was within the Extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ) of San Antonio. This is a five mile extension of the city limits of San Antonio where they have the right to enforce their ordinances and prohibit the creation of new cities.
I went to the St. Mary's Law Library for the first of many times during this incorporation effort and discovered that there were two ways we could become a city. The first was to get permission of the City of San Antonio, and the second was to gather a petition to demand annexation by San Antonio, if they failed to act or annex us within six months, we were free to incorporate. After much discussion at several CIVO meetings it was decided to try to get San Antonio's permission to incorporate, the latter option being to risky.
I had learned from past incorporation efforts that getting permission of the City of San Antonio was going to be a major obstacle. Simply put their policy for the last thirty years or longer was to never to allow new cities to form in their ETJ. I felt that we needed the support of the County and State before we approached the City of San Antonio in order to let them know that this time we did not stand alone. On July 6th we met with County Judge Nelson Wolff and County Commissioner Chico Rodriguez in the County Judge's office at the Bexar County Courthouse. By the end of the meeting Judge Wolff and Commissioner Rodriguez gave us their endorsement.
Now that we had a plan of action and understood the legal and political obstacles before us, we sent another letter to all of Von Ormy with updates and announcing a public meeting on July 19, 2006. The second public meeting went much like the first. A vote to authorize CIVO to pursue incorporation of Von Ormy into a City passed by acclamation.
We began the process of gathering signatures. We needed fifty registered voters who lived within the proposed city limits, but we decided to submit one hundred in case San Antonio tried to invalidate any. On July 12, the San Antonio Current ran an article “Von Ormy, Inc.” about the incorporation effort in Von Ormy. This was our fist County wide media.
On July 28th we meeting with City of San Antonio Councilman Richard Perez (District 4) to discuss incorporation and received a cold reception. This was our first encounter with San Antonio's "no new cities policy". This meeting confirmed our belief that getting permission was going to be very difficult. I left this meeting discouraged, because I did not know how we were going to prevail against the City of San Antonio. However, we had to move forward. We had the support of the people of Von Ormy and so we started the process and with the hope that we would figure out the rest along the way.
On August 5 our first major fundraiser was organized by Charlie Brown and Mike and Amy Suarez. It was basically a bucket drive. CIVO members held signs at the intersection of I-35 and 1604, sold hotdogs, had information booth, passed out flyers and collected money from public. The money was to pay for a survey of the proposed City Limits and to hire an attorney. At this event we encountered our and perhaps ugliest display of opposition from outside of our community.
A public official from the Somerset area burst into the RV that our volunteers were using to cool off and unleashed a tirade about how Von Ormy would never be able to become a city and even if we did, we would not know what to do with it. This display was in front of everyone, young and old alike. I was stunned. Standing in front of us was the personification of the paternalism and elitism that outsiders have held towards our community for generations. How we handled that situation set the mark for how we handled the same attitudes when we encountered them in their subtle ways in the city of San Antonio and elsewhere. We politely showed the naysayer the door and went back about the business of the day with added enthusiasm. I knew on that day that no one would be able to stand in our way, we were fighting not only for sewer, pot-holes and police protection but for self-determination and empowerment of our community. We never looked back.
Charlie Brown began visiting with the business community of Von Ormy and the minutes of the August 8 meeting notes donations from United Rental, Valero, Bates Container, Love’s Truck stop, Amarak Uniforms, 84 Lumber, Turnkey, Mr. W Fireworks and others. Shortly thereafter, the Suarez family hosted a CIVO fundraiser and sold hotdogs on side of road and passed out flyers to the public. By August 16th we had raised enough money to retain a former City of San Antonio City Attorney to represent us. Unfortunately within weeks, he became ill and was forced to retire.
On Aug 28th, we met with Philips Properties about a land donation for a Fire Station and future City Hall for Von Ormy. Charlie Brown had a knack for talking to people and identifying those willing to help us. After several negotiations, Philips Properties agreed to donate an acre of land to the City of Von Ormy at the corner of I-35 and 1604. He also got the Exxon Station and Burger King to join CIVO.
At our October 5th meeting, I proposed the establishment of "Von Ormy Day" to celebrate 120th anniversary of Postmaster Branson Bywaters naming the town Von Ormy and as a means of further informing the public of our effort to incorporate as a city.
On October 11, we filed a petition with ninety-nine signatures asking San Antonio to release ETJ for the purpose of holding an election on incorporation. A week later we met again with COSA Councilman Richard Perez. Again the reception was cold.
On November 1, the San Antonio Express-News published an article entitled “City Seeks to Retain its History.” They reported “most residents favor incorporation”. This was our first article in San Antonio's newspaper of record. I remember that day because my phone would not stop ringing. San Antonio processes petitions like ours by first having their Planning Department review the petition and make a recommendation. This process took over a year. Our first meeting with Planning was in early November of 2006. Jacqueline Silva, Charlie Brown, John Ortega, Jr. and I met with COSA Planning Dept. Jesus Garza (NOT the same Jesus Garza who later served as City Administrator) and his staff. The resistance was immediate. It seemed to me that strategy was to delay us into going away. COSA disputed our population stats and refused to accept any population growth since the 2000 census despite the obvious growth in utility hookups and other indicators of population growth. COSA Planning Department suggested we would have a more favorable application if we stayed south of the Medina River, and reduced our city limits to two square miles. I remember the quote "you can have all the cows and trailer parks you like." That was quickly followed by a reminder that their policy was to deny all petitions to form new cities within their ETJ. Even so, we were informed that our application was not valid because the along of Neighborhood Road which we had included in our petition was part of San Antonio's limited annexation area. We were politely told to re-file an amended petition and start the process over. On Nov. 11, we submitted an amended city limits to the COSA planning department, but this petition was "lost". After acknowledging that our petition had been lost COSA informed us that the Planning Dept. would not be able to revisit Von Ormy incorporation until Jan 15, 2007.
I remember there was a surge of community pride leading up to the Von Ormy Day festival. This was going to be the first parade in Von Ormy since the 1976 bicentennial parade. Commemorative Von Ormy Postage went on sale. AJ’s Convenience Store in Von Ormy began selling “I Love VO” t-shirts at their store and their Von Ormy "wall of fame" began to take shape. On Dec 2, we held the first Von Ormy Day Parade and Festival. Congressman “Ciro” Rodriguez, by then a supporter of us, and his brother County Commissioner “Chico” Rodriguez are co-Grand Marshalls. CIVO adopted the Von Ormy Flag for use at the festival. Sally Martinez and Carolyn Campbell were the festival coordinators. Alex Quintanilla was the parade coordinator.
The Von Ormy Historical Society decided to honor local residents who have contributed much to Von Ormy by giving them the honorific title of Count or Countess Von Ormy, a reference to Count Norbert von Ormay, the namesake of our community. The first Count and Countess were Pedro Lila Torres and Amelia Torres, who were recognized for their efforts in restoring the Ruiz-Herrera Cemetery. Around this time we received the support of Constable Ruben Tejeda, mostly through the effort of Alex Quintanilla. The festival was a success. About 1000 people attended and we received a lot of media coverage.
At this point frustration had set in. San Antonio was not playing fair. It seemed as if we would never even get out of the Planning Department, much less a vote on our petition. So I went to Austin. On January 28th, 2007 I arrived in Austin. The Texas Legislature meets for only 144 days once every two years. The Capital is a buzz of activity and lobbyists and lawmakers are running around. I met with Rep. David Leibowitz, Rep. Mendez, Sen. Uresti, and Rep. Farias, all of who expressed a willingness to help us out. Our meeting with David Leibowitz, Von Ormy's representative, went the best. He offered to sponsor a bill that would allow us to incorporate without the need to get San Antonio's permission.
If San Antonio was going to use the political system to stop us, why don’t we use the same system political to take away their power to stop us. Back at home, Charlie Brown and Amy Suarez formed the “Von Ormy Chamber of Commerce” to organize the business community. The first meeting was held at Alamo River RV Resort Clubhouse.
We need sewer in Von Ormy. Not only is the lack of sewer holding back our economic development, but we have real public health risks involved with septic systems. Our rate of Hepatitis and other water born infections is alarmingly high. We could not wait for the City to be formed so arranged a meeting with the CEO of SAWS and a room of about 10 other SAWS people. What we heard at that first meeting was astonishing. After relaying our case for the necessity to bring sewer to Von Ormy, SAWS told us with a straight face "there is nothing wrong with septic." If there is nothing wrong with septic, why doesn't SAWS convert San Antonio to septic system use? Here again was another outside entity being dismissive of Von Ormy and doing whatever they needed to go just make us go away. They were busy working on their projects near Toyota and Texas A & M, so we decided to look elsewhere. In early February we began talks with the Atascosa Rural Water Supply Company about the possibility of providing sewer to Von Ormy. I spent an entire weekend at the St. Mary's Law Library and drafted a bill that would allow Von Ormy incorporate without San Antonio's permission. The wording had to be delicately crafted. Timberwood Park had successfully passed a bill the previous legislative session to accomplish the same thing and the 4th Court of Appeals found it to be unconstitutionally too specific. Their bill was drafted with geographic limitations that could only apply to Timberwood Park. The Texas Constitution does not allow specific laws like this. Our bill was drafted to apply to any community that as over 100 years old and had been identified as a unique community by the US Post Office or US Census for the same period. David Liebowitz's staff tweaked it a bit and on March 3, State Rep. David Leibowitz introduced the bill. It was assigned to the Land and Resource Management Committee of the House of Representatives for hearings.
I was scheduled to testify for Von Ormy, but on I had a final exam scheduled on the same day. On April 4th, Sally Martinez, Pedro Lila Torres, Amelia Torres and Ruben Castro went to Austin. My mom, Sally Martinez, testified before the Legislature on behalf of Von Ormy. Representing San Antonio was Jesus Garza of the San Antonio Planning Department. My mom carefully laid out our case, the needs of the community, the unwillingness of San Antonio to provide those needs, our unique history and heritage, San Antonio's pattern of obstruction, SAWS' dismissiveness and finally invoking our constitutional right as Texans to establish local self-government.
Our argument prevailed. The Committee gave San Antonio a tongue lashing and instructed them to work with us, or the committee would pass the bill to the full house and San Antonio might loose some its ETJ rights. ETJs were designed to regulate growth that would someday be annexed, not to restrict a community from needed improvements in an area the city had no current plans to annex.
On May 18, we meet again with Jesus Garza of the COSA Planning and Infrastructure and their attitude had completely changed. We began negotiations on an acceptable City limits for Von Ormy. Though they were working with us, they were extremely conservative with their data. It was clear that they had reconciled to give us a 2 square mile city, but nothing more. Negotiations went slowly that summer because in May I graduated from Law School and began studying for the Texas Bar Exam. Bar review was intense to say the least. The Bar exam was the last week of July (I passed!).
On August 2, CIVO met and approved a city limit that met State Law and San Antonio's requirements. This was quite a task. Israel Rocha, now a private land developer, worked for many years in Congress and was involved in the recent Texas Congressional District redistricting. He volunteered his expertise and on an afternoon, utilizing a custom mapping software and census data we created was able to come up with a single configuration that met all the requirements. This is the current City of Von Ormy boundaries that were finally adopted.
On August 15th, we filed another amended petition, this time with new signatures. Along with the petition we filed letters of support from Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, County Judge Nelson Wolff, County Commissioner Chico Rodriguez, State Rep. David Leibowitz, State Senator and Carlos Uresti. That completed my plan of having County and State support to go along with our petition.
Another important development that occurred was the Spring 2007 City of San Antonio election. With it came a new City Councilman and new ideas. On October 7th Israel Rocha, Joe Kierstead and I met with San Antonio City Councilman Phil Cortez and staff regarding incorporation. To our delight Councilman Cortez agreed to support our petition and work to get it through City Council. He said he admired our persistence and wanted to help our community help itself.
On December 1, 2007 CIVO held the second Von Ormy Day Parade and Festival. The Grand Marshall was our friend in Austin State Rep. David Leibowitz. The Count and Countess were Joe and Mary Louise Castro.
On January 1, 2008, our petition was heard before the San Antonio Planning Commission, who voted to give its endorsement to allow for an election on incorporation. I testified on behalf of Von Ormy.. Jesus Garza at that time was promoted and introduced a revision to the ETJ policy. San Antonio now considers new city incorporations within their ETJ and looks at all factors when making its decision. On January 31 our petition finally reached the San Antonio City Council after fifteen months. It passed unanimously!
Our future was finally in our hands. CIVO geared up for the incorporation election. With the help of PowerPoint guru Israel Rocha, we put together a presentation of the positives and negatives of forming a city. We held two public meetings, made yard signs, and went door to door to discuss the election. On May 10th, 2008 the voters of Von Ormy, Texas, by a vote of 117 in favor and 16 against, passed a proposition to establish the city of Von Ormy, Texas.
After the results were announced, residents gathered for a victory celebration at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and toasted to the new city with locally made wine and champagne. We then processed to the church's bell tower and rang the bell for nearly one hour. The church's bell dates to the 1840's and is perhaps the oldest continuously used community symbol in Von Ormy. It is still rung as it was in the old days by manually pulling on ropes. The last time residents rang the bell for an hour was at the end of World War II.
After two years of hard work by those named in this article and countless others, we accomplished our goal of creating the City of Von Ormy and did so with a 90 percent consensus. This is not the end of the story, but just the beginning. No matter what the future brings I will always be proud of being a part of the generation that stood up for Von Ormy and brought home to Von Ormy part of the American dream: independence and self-determination.