Land Conservation - Land Owners
A Stitch in SA Time
At 69-years-old, Leilani Gary sits in a grove of live oaks beside a pond filled with golden koi and watches the silver blades of a recently purchased piece of sculpture twirl in the morning breeze.
Above her, airplanes make their noisy approach into and out of San Antonio International Airport. Around her, cicadas scream their song.
Gary, lost in memory, hears none of the dissonant duet.
A few minutes earlier, I asked her how long she had lived at the corner of Toftrees and Nacogdoches Road, just south of Loop 410 and one of the last undeveloped five-acre parcels within the Loop.
“Since 1936,” she said, tapping the years with an index finger to her temple. ” was six months old.” But that’s not the important part, she insists.
“This land was entrusted to me when I was 5 years old. I have owned it that long,” she says. In her mouth, the word “entrusted” goes without an explanation, as if the word itself were the very essence of who she has become.
On December 31, 2004, Gary signed an irrevocable legal document putting her land into a conservation easement with Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas, a local non-profit land trust that will protect her land from future development. In other words, she entrusted it to the future.
Of course, she could have sold the five acres for millions. However, having watched all of the open land around her cut into small lots and plotted with mansions and Nacogdoches Road become busier by the day with traffic, Gary and her four children made a different choice. “In our souls, the land was more important than the money,” she said.
Conservation easements have been used around the country to battle urban sprawl and are becoming more common in Texas. Recently, the City of San Antonio has purchased conservation easements to help protect the Edwards Aquifer.
The way Gary sees it, the conservation easement that she donated was the way to resolve her own internal dissonance. She gets to retain ownership of her land, pass the ownership on to her children, restrict development and protect its natural resources from development with the help of Green Spaces Alliance both now and in the future.
For as long as she can remember, the land has defined her. When she was a child, she lived in the large white stucco house with the flat roof, but it was the land itself that was her earliest classroom. Every time she tended the horses, sheep and turkeys or planted and harvested vegetables from the garden, the land taught her the process of discovery. Later, she raised her own four children here.
In 1978, she opened a Montessori school called Green Gateways on her property. For 20 years, hundreds of children came through the green iron gates, using the land as their classroom. She taught them the history of the Alamo by pointing out that the school grounds, exactly seven miles from the Alamo, was once a way station to the mission. Farm workers who could not make it back to the Alamo compound stayed on her property.
Ten years ago, Gary closed the school. By then, she felt hemmed in by what she described as the “humps and bumps” of development. Some neighbors complained about what they reported as the tall grasses in her yard, which were actually wildflowers. She was forced to plug her underground water well. The energy and cost of maintaining the structures on her property ” an old windmill, a studio and a log cabin ” seemed overwhelming.
“I just kept thinking of this land as our gift and our silver lining,” Gary said. Eventually, the solution of the conservation easement presented itself.
Since she signed the easement, Green Spaces Alliance has brought in many groups of children to the property on weekends. Naturalists have shown them native plants. The children have taken photos of wildflowers and live oak trees.
Gary hopes that Green Spaces Alliance will build one of their community gardens on site. “I’d like to show the children that carrots and radishes come from the ground, not just Central Market,” she said. In a way she could not have planned, the past has repeated itself: her land continues to teach the process of discovery.
Many of us believe that urban sprawl is something that happens elsewhere; not in our backyard, but in the new developments to the north or to the south. However, open and scenic spaces within the older areas of the city are also disappearing. When it happens in our own neighborhoods, the tendency is to call sprawl by a more flattering word; progress.
Gary reminds us of the noblest kind of progress, which is protecting what has been entrusted to us.