Two months after Precinct 3 Commissioner Grant Moody was sworn into office, his office received a request for help with a troubling problem.
Kennedy Hatfield Asel, an attorney representing the Villas at Timberwood Homeowners Association in Moody’s Northside precinct, was seeking the county’s help with a failing septic system that had tormented residents for more than a decade. Sewage would regularly back up into the neighborhood in unincorporated Bexar County, causing homeowner association dues to skyrocket as residents scrambled for a solution.
As of Tuesday, the neighborhood’s outlook appeared much brighter when Moody’s office secured funding for a plan to address the septic problem — and perhaps solve a bigger wastewater contamination issue.
But Moody‘s solution has drawn criticism from some residents of the surrounding Timberwood Park neighborhood, who say the commissioner’s approach let a developer to whom he has a personal connection off the hook.
In July 2019, the 75 homeowners serviced by the failing septic system sued the neighborhood’s developer, Timberwood Development Co., and the builder of many of the houses, Chesmar Homes. But after years of negotiation, the settlement they reached didn’t provide enough money to solve a problem that was worsening by the day.
Moody, a former Marine fighter pilot, shares a private airplane with Timberwood Development Co. owner Jason Gale, as part of a co-ownership agreement with two other people. It’s unclear how much money Timberwood Development will contribute to fix a problem residents say the company created by constructing a septic system that was improperly installed and insufficient for the neighborhood, according to the 2019 lawsuit.
The lawsuit says leaders of Timberwood Development and Chesmar Homes knew about the problems but didn’t disclose them to residents when they turned over the neighborhood’s common areas to the HOA in 2012.
A plan approved by Bexar County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will direct $2 million of federal pandemic relief toward removing that failing septic system and connecting the Villas at Timberwood to San Antonio Water System.
The total project is projected to cost roughly $2.8 million, but details of the settlement agreement, such as how much the various defendants in the lawsuit will pay, are protected as part of a mediation process that resolved the lawsuit. Other details about where the lines might run have also been kept under close wraps during the mediation, even though it involves county money.
A primary opponent
Among the nearby residents upset with the county’s agreement is Christopher Schuchardt, a trucking company owner who grew up less than a mile from the Villas and now owns a home in the adjacent Timberwood Park neighborhood. Schuchardt self-funded an unsuccessful mayoral campaign last year and is now running against Moody in the March 5 primary for the Republican nomination to represent Precinct 3.
A two-and-a-half-minute video ad Schuchardt’s campaign has been running on Facebook says, “Within months of taking office, Grant Moody tried to use his new position to redirect federal COVID dollars to solve Jason Gale’s sewage problem, saving this rogue developer millions and likely ending the residents’ lawsuit to hold him accountable.”
Though the video had only about 1,000 views last week, its assertions drew questions from fellow commissioners, who ultimately sided with Moody in voting 4-0 to approve the funding last week. Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) abstained.
In an interview at his office the day before the vote, Moody said he was unaware of Gale’s connection to the project when his staff started working on the issue. The plane’s ownership group regularly exchanges text messages about the aircraft but Moody said he never spoke with Gale about the Villas while the mediation was occurring and has no other shared financial interests with Gale, as Schuchardt’s campaign has implied.
“I obviously wanted to keep the separation and make sure that there’s no appearance of impropriety, but we had an obligation to our constituents to try to solve this problem,” Moody said.
After the HOA’s lawyer reached out to his office, Moody said he invited the county’s Environmental Services Department to inspect the Villas at Timberwood in April. Not only did the department agree the system was failing, but it deemed the problem a “public health and safety nuisance” to residents of Timberwood and the general public because the sewage was so close to Mustang Creek and “could have an adverse effect to the water source,” according to a July 5 letter from the department’s director, Javier Flores.
“I’m disappointed that Jason Gale has had his name associated with this issue and that there was this connection with me,” Moody said. “But I know that we’re doing the right thing for the right reasons, and I’m not going to let politics get in the way.”
Gale’s attorney, Bryan Woods, who also represents Timberwood Development, said Schuchardt’s campaign ad made “numerous false statements about Mr. Gale.”
“Because Mr. Gale is exploring his legal options, we cannot comment further,” Woods said.
‘More treetops than rooftops’
Residents of Timberwood Park have long resented the addition of the Villas at Timberwood, which put a cluster of tract homes on one-eighth-acre lots in the middle of a larger development known for custom-built homes on spacious lots, mature trees and deer wandering through unfenced yards.
Well-known radio ads featuring G.G. Gale — the neighborhood’s developer and Jason Gale’s late father — billed Timberwood Park as a place where “there’s more treetops than rooftops.”
In the middle of the serene, 2,200-acre neighborhood just west of U.S. Highway 281 and 5 miles north of Loop 1604 is a private park for residents next to what’s known as the Villas at Timberwood.
“It went undeveloped for a very long time,” Mason Brand, who purchased his Timberwood Park home in 2008, said of the parcel the Villas was built on. “The thoughts I always had about what potentially should have been done with that acreage was to expand our neighborhood park and potentially turn it into a soccer field or some type of baseball or softball field.”
Instead, Timberwood Development laid plans for 75 garden homes served by an unusual communal septic system in a community where other homes have large enough lots to accommodate their own private septic systems.
The result was years of exasperation for residents of both the Villas and Timberwood Park, each of which has its own HOA, though residents of the Villas pay dues to both.
A letter from the Villas at Timberwood HOA to commissioners this week said the HOA began raising questions about the septic system roughly a decade ago, after the homebuilder turned over the maintenance of the system to the homeowners. At that point, they realized the current system was designed for homes half the size of what were ultimately built.
“When I was buying my home, the builder made it seem like it was going to be so good having a community septic system — it’s easy, it’s going to save you time and so much money,” Eddie Douglas, a resident of the Villas, told commissioners Tuesday. “It has done none of that. It has cost me time, and stress is through the roof all the time because of it.”
The 2019 lawsuit the Villas homeowners filed said the septic’s drain field was set too close to the Mustang Creek Tributary, and its drain field lines were laid too close to one another. While residents awaited a settlement, their HOA dues increased rapidly to fund temporary solutions and legal fees.
“We have had years where our HOA dues were $5,000 plus,” said Tori Vendola, another Villas at Timberwood resident. “We’ve all made it through, but not without a struggle.”
No good solution
The San Antonio Report has made multiple open records requests to the county about the project, but the county said it is delaying release of the records while it reviews them for “proprietary information.”
A preliminary map of the plan to connect the Villas to SAWS, provided to the San Antonio Report by the Villas at Timberwood HOA, shows a proposed 8-inch sewer line starting from between the Villas and Timberwood Drive, running along Mustang Creek and connecting to the Vista Bella substation.
That plan was prepared as part of a feasibility report for the HOA’s application for the federal funds but has not been evaluated or approved by SAWS.
SAWS declined to comment for this story.
Misty Spears, Moody’s director of constituent services, said the county brought out engineers, septic installers and other experts to assess all possible options for a solution to the Villas’ septic problem.
“They thought maybe we could put another septic in and looked at other ways that might be less expensive,” Spears said. “These are the top in their fields and they all conclusively said no. There’s no other way.”
The Villas project is sensitive because the proposed sewer route is partially in the Edwards Aquifer contributing zone and partially in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
SAWS added Timberwood Park to its service area after the Villas were already constructed, and in 2014 it halted Timberwood Development’s plans for a “Timberwood Villas Phase two” because the developer again wanted to accommodate small lots through a wastewater system. SAWS filed a cease and desist order saying SAWS was the only retail sewer utility authorized to provide sewer in Timberwood Park.
SAWS Senior Vice President of Engineering and Construction Andrea Beymer submitted a letter to Judge Peter Sakai on Sept. 21 noting that the utility hadn’t seen the proposed plan to connect the Villas but wanted an experienced engineering firm to handle the work.
The HOA has engaged Pape-Dawson Engineers to complete the infrastructure, using funds from the lawsuit as well as county funding from its federal COVID relief money. Any additional funds required must be provided by the Villas at Timberwood HOA.
While residents of the larger Timberwood Park neighborhood also want the sewage problem solved, some say they’re still disappointed Gale wasn’t held responsible.
Woods said Friday that the settlement with Timberwood Development gave the Villas residents what they wanted and that his client is “paying a confidential sum, along with a whole bunch of other folks.”
No county ethics code
When the commissioners approved money for a sewer system Tuesday, roughly 40 Villas of Timberwood residents in the audience erupted in cheers.
Many gave emotional speeches ahead of the vote, explaining their years of worrying about whether the septic system problem would eventually lead them to bankruptcy.
The county had about $9 million of unallocated money from the American Rescue Plan Act, which gave cities and counties millions in pandemic relief funding, and Moody urged county staff to put out a request for proposals for water and sewer projects. Of the qualified applications received, county staff indicated the Villas at Timberwood had the greatest need. Two other projects also were selected for funding.
“This is exactly what these types of dollars are supposed to do,” Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said at Tuesday’s meeting. “These dollars are supposed to help communities that have been affected by lack of sewer and water.”
As county officials sought solutions for the situation in Timberwood Park, Schuchardt says it’s unacceptable that Moody didn’t disclose his connection to Gale.
“I find it odd that when he brought it up and they went through the whole spiel at Commissioners Court, that [Moody] never mentioned that there was litigation surrounding this issue and that he and Jason Gale are both managing directors of a private business entity,” Schuchardt said.
The airplane is held by an LLC, which Moody says is strictly designed to protect the owners from any kind of liability involving the plane.
“There’s no financial interests, or shared business interests, between me and Jason Gale or any other members of the plane share,” Moody said.
The county doesn’t have a code of ethics that directs commissioners when and how to disclose personal ties to the projects they’re voting on. Moody said he never viewed the connection to Gale as a conflict of interest but addressed the issue privately with commissioners, who ultimately agreed the county should get involved.
“You can go through this thing in great detail and say, ‘Where were mistakes made?’ … What could have been done that would have avoided this problem?’” Moody said. “My perspective is I’m focused on the here and now and the situation as it exists today.”