Dozens of West U residents overflowed the City Council chambers Monday night to insist that the council “step back” from its earlier decision to approve a long-range master plan that would create a municipal campus.
Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack threatened the council, saying that he had a copy of a “quitclaim deed” that would prevent the city from using the property where the city hall and library now stands for anything other than those purposes.
Radack said that deed, dated October 15, 1939, involved a piece of land of more than 100 acres that transferred the property to the city of West University Place. Actually if only involves the 31,000 SF tract where these buildings are located. Radack said the deed provided the land would “revert” to the original property owners if West U changed its use.
“Clearly, beyond a reasonable doubt, you cannot convey this property to anyone else,” Radack said. More than 100 residents who had gathered to speak to the council cheered wildly at Radack’s pronouncement, but West U officials, including Mayor Pro Tem Susan Sample had already announced that the city has no plans to move the library or Community Building on Auden Street.
Sample, who presided over the council meeting in Mayor Bob Fry’s absence, welcomed the crowd of residents and encouraged them to give their input on the so-called Super Block plan that was approved by the city council in mid-October.
Under that plan, the city of West U would acquire property on both University Bld. and Amherst for a so-called Super Block. The plan involves the possible swap of land between the city and West University Baptist Church of tracts of land on Amherst and Milton Streets, so that the city could develop a municipal campus on the block between University, Auden, Amherst and College.
But, Sample said, that the council will not take any action on that plan until January, 2015, and will take the public input from two scheduled town hall meetings into consideration. Those meetings will be held on November 17, at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. in the Community Building.
The long-range plan was being developed last spring, when West U Baptist Church applied for a change in its parking agreement with the city. The Church was planning to build a new Youth Center on Amherst, with a $3 million grant from an anonymous donor. The city of West U asked the Church to hold off on its new construction until the long-range master plan was developed.
Sample stressed that the city will not use “eminent domain,” to acquire any property, and she conceded that the church is likely to be the only viable bidder on the city property on Milton St., where the Public Works Department is now located.
“Just wishing the status quo would remain unchanged is no way to run a city or to get ahead,” Sample said. “Failing to act in this case would have had irreversible repercussions.”
Councilman Ed Heathcott, who voted earlier to support the long-range plan, is a deacon at West University Baptist Church. Heathcott said that vote was not a conflict, since it involved only the city of West University Place. He said that he would not vote on any future dealings with the church, and that he would recuse himself. Two former West U Mayors — Burt Ballanfant and Bob Kelly — urged the council to get more public input before proceeding with the master plan.
Ballanfant suggested that the city could hire a pollster to determine whether “the support is there” for a municipal complex.
Kelly was far more combative in his remarks, suggesting that Radack’s discovery of the 75-year old deed had “blind-sided” the city council.
“Slow this thing down,” Kelly said. “You’re way out ahead of the citizens,”
Many residents who spoke also urged the council to delay and get more citizen input on the master plan.
Realtor Heidi Dugan suggested that the council had rushed to approve the plan without hearing from residents.
“I think everybody feels this is underhanded, no offense,” Dugan said. “That’s the way I feel.”
“It looks like there is a threat from the church here,” Dugan said. “I don’t understand why the city council cannot tell the church they can build a community center somewhere else.”
West U resident Paul Monroe said the council did not act in the best interests of its citizens.
“What it really looks like is (that) it’s the best interest of a very small minority — the membership of West University Baptist Church,” Monroe said. He added: “With all due respect to them, there’s probably more Democrats in West U than there are Baptists.”
Doug Schuler accused the council of corruption.
“”Light is the great disinfectant,” Schuler said. “That’s usually what we say about corruption.”
“Shame on council and shame on the city manager for keeping us in the dark on the details of this,” Shuler said.
In response to Sample’s earlier comments, Schuler said he agreed.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to change the status quo. I invite you to think of that the next time you are running for council,” he said.
West U resident Michelle Moore’s comments echoed those of many of her neighbors.
“My suggestion is for council to create a facilities planning task force, similar to the parks master planning task force,” Moore said.
The council meeting concluded with a light touch, as six-year old Raka Underwood urged the council to keep the library.
“I love the library. I think we should keep it.”