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Council Listens, Delays Super Block

November 17, 2014 By:Anne Marie Kilday

Local News

A majority of the West U City Council agreed Monday to conduct a citizen survey and to seek additional legal counsel on the creation of the controversial so-called Super Block

The council also agreed to suspend city staff’s efforts to seek bids on city-owned properties included in a long-range master plan for municipal facilities.

Mayor Pro Tem Susan Sample, Councilman Dick Yehle and Councilwoman Joan Johnson agreed, in effect, to delay any immediate plans to proceed with their mid-October decision to approve a long-range facilities Master Plan that included potential real estate transactions with West University Baptist Church.

At the start of the meeting, Sample apologized “for what appeared to be rushing through a deal” when the council approved the master plan last month.

The council decided to delay the so-called Super Block — now rebranded as a City Center — after dozens of West U residents filled the Community Center in two town hall meetings Monday afternoon and evening.

Mayor Bob Fry, who is out of the country on vacation, and Councilman Ed Heathcott did not attend the meeting. Heathcott, who earlier made the motion to approve the long-range master plan, is a deacon at the Baptist Church and has recused himself from any future votes.

The council’s decision came after two heated meetings in which they were threatened with a recall, accused of “corruption,” faulted for a lack of “transparency,” and berated for not listening to residents.

The council scheduled the two Town Hall meetings to give West U residents more information about a long-range master plan to create a campus of municipal buildings on the block bordered by University, Amherst, Auden and College.

Jeff Gerber, chief executive officer of PGAL Architects, explained that the process to come up with a long-range plan for West U’s municipal facilities actually began in 2006. Gerber took the blame for coming up with the “Super Block” name for the long-range plan, as city officials on Monday started referring to the facilities plan as a “City Center.”

The 2006 effort was revived by the current city council last March, when they contracted with PGAL for an updated long-range facilities plan.

Gerber said that “sometime last summer,” West U Baptist Church notified the city that it was considering building a new Youth Center on property that the church owns on Amherst. Because of the city’s planning exercise, West U officials asked leaders at the church to “hold off” on the construction of the new Youth Center until the city’s long-range plan was fully developed. Church officials initially planned to start construction on the center late this year or in early 2015.

The “Super Block” proposal approved by the council originally proposed a real estate transaction where the church would “trade” property it now owns on Amherst for the city-owned Public Works maintenance and operations center at Milton and College.

The plan also provided that the maintenance and operations side of Public Works would be moved to the old Recycling Center property on Dincans.

Since the council’s vote in mid-October, the church has said that it will not start construction of the new Youth Center until April 2015.

The plan also proposed that the city of West U would eventually buy four privately owned homes on University Blvd. The city has consistently said it would never use “eminent domain” to acquire those properties.

Sample and Councilmembers Joan Johnson and Dick Yehle all reiterated their positions that the long-term master plan no longer includes any immediate changes to the city’s library, senior center or Community Building.

The decision about the library, senior center and Community Building seems to have calmed many opponents of the long-range plan, but several residents continued to express concerns about the expansion of West U Baptist Church.

An anonymous donor has pledged $3 million for the construction of a new Youth Center to serve the church’s Launch Ministry for middle school and high-school students.

City Attorney Alan Petrov tried to explain that court decisions, as well as state and federal laws, limit cities’ abilities to prohibit or limit churches’ religious activities. Petrov said that cities could enforce zoning regulations, such as height limits, setbacks and construction codes. The council decided to seek further legal research on the issue of a city’s powers to limit church activities.

West U resident Frank Vargas insisted that the city of West U should limit the church’s expansion. He said that residential property owners are forced to pay higher taxes when churches expand. “I am asking the council to get to work on stopping the growth of these churches. Every time a church buys a new piece of land, we lose taxes,” Vargas said.

West U Realtor Heidi Dugan agreed. “To me, this looks like we’re being bullied by the church,” Dugan said. “You have total control over what they can build there.”

Other residents suggested that the council should not move the Public Works operations to the city-owned land at Dincans and Westpark.

Realtor Larry Kelly said that the Dincans property could become very valuable real estate; if a developer decided to build a multi-family high rise there. “It may be worth $10 million. The Dincans property has a higher and better use than garbage trucks,” Kelly said.

Many residents complained that the city council had acted too quickly, and without transparency, in approving the long-range master plan last month.

Brandy Wolf said, “Frankly, this whole thing doesn’t smell very good.” I don’t know whether the urgency of the church is the biggest problem,” Wolf said. “If this truly is a good idea, then the church can wait.”

Former Mayor Linda Lewis urged fellow West U residents not to be fearful of change. “The changes that have been made are genuinely good changes,” Lewis said. “I don’t disagree that the council should have undertaken a master plan effort, but why pursue change for change’s sake,” Lewis said.

The crowd at the evening town hall session was a little more heated, and vociferous. At one point, a number of West U residents jeered and booed a Bellaire resident who tried to caution West U about trying to stop a church’s expansion. The Bellaire woman said she and her neighbors had tried — unsuccessfully — to stop the construction of the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church on church on Mulberry St. in Bellaire.

West U resident Franz Brotzen-Smith was cheered, however, when he suggested a recall of the West U City Council. Calling the Super Block “a disaster for West U,” Franz suggested the council had been “secretly pushing the Super Block. Brotzen-Smith specifically criticized Mayor Fry and Heathcott, and called for their resignations. Brotzen-Smith also suggested a recall election, . “Their power was given to them by the voters. And the residents of West U stand firmly and overwhelmingly against the Super Block,” Franz said.

West U resident Fawaz Hashmi accused the council of corruption. “This is corruption. There is no denying it,” Hashmi said. “They are not building a church. This is a sham. This is corruption.”

Yehle responded by saying that none of the council members “has a stake” in the church’s construction plans.

West U resident David Dutch, who has been an outspoken opponent of the city’s long-range plan, attended the meeting and thanked council members for meeting with him personally to discuss the issue.

42 Responses to “Council Listens, Delays Super Block”

  1. Bob Kelly. Former Mayor Says:

    We all know who WU Investor is !!!!

    • Bob Kelly. Former Mayor Says:

      I am behaving exacty like a former Mayor supporting our citizens. Indenify your self if you deserve a further response. The Brems deserve a response from someone who uses their true name. Their home is at risk, yours is not. If you wish to discuss this further with me give me a time and location.

  2. Brennan Reilly Says:

    The ironically named “advocate for transparency” has a valid concern (about avoiding anti-religious bias), but I can assure him that it is misplaced. I am very much concerned about the City’s plans for selling and swapping property with WUBC. However, my concerns are driven by sympathy for my neighbors and residential property values rather than any anti-religious bias. I agree that churches are good for our City, and I would say that based on personal experience, West U Baptist Church is particularly good for our City. I don’t belong to the church, but it has welcomed my kids in its basketball league and even provides an opportunity for special needs kids and adults to play, something they do quietly as part of their mission without any expectation of public recognition.

    As much as I respect the church for what it does, I want it to be a good neighbor to the residents surrounding it. I have no problem with the church (or the City) building residential scale buildings on residential property. As Mike Brem mentions, the church already owns several residences that are very consistent with the neighborhood even though some have a non-residential use. But surrounding a residence with parking lots as proposed on some of the drawings that have been circulated by the City would be immoral. Most residents’ life savings are wrapped up in their homes, and destroying that value by surrounding homes with parking lots is not being a good neighbor. I live a couple of blocks away. If a church or the City bought my neighbor’s house and tore it down for parking, the value of my house and those of my neighbors would plummet. I do not think that would be fair.

    One of the main problems with the past and ongoing secrecy of the City Council’s closed meetings regarding these issues is that it has prevented a public discussion of possible solutions to these issues. Up until now, the City has been the focus because it hijacked the church’s desire for a youth center and turned it into an excuse for the City’s desire for new public works facilities (that would cost millions of dollars). The discussion is now turning back to the youth center, and WUBC needs to be part of that public discussion. I am optimistic that solutions exist that would be more satisfactory to all involved and that would protect the expectations and property values of residents who own homes around the church and City Hall.

  3. David Says:

    WEST U ANTI-RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY and Advocate for Transparency, its nice of you to call me out publically for being anti religious. You are a fool. I will make the assumption you do not live on a block adjacent to the church? I do,and I worry about the constant desire to build more and bigger buildings. It adversely affects traffic, noise,and my property value. Go talk to the homeowners on Milton and surrounding streets. Everybody is stressed out over this. I would be against this if it were the Boy Scouts of America or any other entity that does not appear to take the concerns of it’s negatively affected neighbors into to it’s expansion plans. I am not anti religious and I am for sure not anti WUBC. Stop stereotyping me and come visit me personally if you would like to chat.

  4. advocatefortransparency Says:

    WEST U ANTI-RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY – Many of these individuals probably do not know that they are being associated with this group but if you are keeping score at home the following list of names are the individuals on Kelly’s anti-religion e-mail list thus far regarding WUBC: Bob Kelly, David Dutch, Brennan Reilly, Vernon Tyger, Burt Ballanfant, Linda Lewis, Adrienne Vanderbloom, Barbara Livingston, Judy Lee, Sue Jensen, Ann Kelly, April Blondeau, Michael Brem, Katherine Brem, Dan Krocker, Joni Fichter, Randy Batsell, Carolyn Betti, Barbara Mattsson, Sonny Brandtner, Cyndi Boyd, Cindy Siegal, Cindy Hassler, Dan Malin, Rep. Sarah Davis, Ellen Wolpert, De De Stefano, Ken Blondeau, Steve Brown, Bob Mace, Mark Lowes, Dee Pitts, David Page, David Fulenwider, Lea Rentch, Larry Pirtle, Leah Ragiel, Levi Goode, Richard Schechter, Pat Rosenberg, Susan Ohsfeldt, David Page, Keyes Page, Mark Brooks, Judge Ed Emmett, Pat Rutz, Janine Schueppert, Jim Whitehead, Jeanne Whitehead, Deborah Pilmer, David Kuykendall, Stan McCandless, John Neighbors, Heidi Dugan, Frank Vargas, Katrina Vargas Robert Wells.

    Of course it is perfectly fine for everyone to have their opinions about religion but when they’re talking about running candidates we all should be aware of who they are and what they stand for so we can make informed decisions. Hopefully all of the religious institutions in the city are paying close attention as well as their congregations.

    • longcat Says:

      Wow – so it’s come to this, has it? – name and shame. Let’s try and stick to facts and issues. I’m highly skeptical that there is some vast anti-religious conspiracy going on here. People are just wanting to understand how a church in a “season of growth” plans to ultimately expand into existing single family zoned areas.

    • Bob Kelly. Former Mayor Says:

      The fact that anyone would even suggest that either I or anyone on the email list published by advocate for transparency are in any manner anti-religious only shows just how worried they are that the upcoming City elections in May 2015 will most likely call for a complete end to the Super Block concept and City land sales. This whole matter has nothing to do with religion, but instead the lack of transparency of our City government. If the person or persons known as advocate for transparency is in reality concerned with TRANSPARENCY then let them identify themselves now and not hide behind false labels. If they will not, then I trust our citizens will disregard their false allegations.

    • West U Resident Says:

      Bob,
      It’s not “transparency” advocates you’ve stirred up, but a lot of people very angry at a growing church, many paying lip service to the “lack of transparency” in their tirades. They then quickly move past that argument to go ahead and badmouth the church, rage about how they don’t want a church to expand in the city center and then make demands that the city not stop short of threatening condemnation on the church or suing them. That seems like the real issue that’s surfaced out of all these “transparency” complaints. It’s just a pretext to stop the chuch’s expansion mission, and you know it. It’s not-so-subtly anti-religion, yes.

      • Mike Brem Says:

        A few questions:

        1. Are the properties at issue in an ares zoned single family?

        2. Did WUBC know they were in a area zoned single family when it acquired them?

        3. Is the proposed Youth Ministry building a single family structure?

        4. Are the proposed parking lots single family structures?

        5. In light of this, and since our home is among these same ten lots, can’t I legitimately be concerned about and, in fact, oppose to the Church’s plans without being anti-religious, subtly or otherwise?

        • Mike Brem Says:

          Before moving here, we lived just a few houses away at 3909 University.

          Let me assure you that, before we purchased our home, we confirmed that the surrounding lots were zoned single family. It was easy to do. It’s on the City’s website.

          More than that, we’re both lawyers and we understood what “zoned single family” meant. We would have never purchased it otherwise.

    • Lucille Says:

      Are you saying that anyone who expresses their opinion in the discussion is anti-religious? I feel certain you do not represent West University Baptist Church or any church that I can think of. Why is it that you print everyone’s name but your own?

      • proreligionwestu Says:

        Of course not. But when Kelly and his group start calling for the condemnation of a church and their property at the microphone in a public meeting then we have a problem. It’s unfortunate that Kelly and Reily lead their group down this path. In the end they will pay. Those of us who believe religious institutions in a city are a good thing will make sure of it.

    • MiltonWatchDog Says:

      Those of you playing the “Anti-Religion” and “help the poor children” cards should be ashamed of yourself. The threatening nature of your comments are more anti-religious than any comments from Bob Kelly or Mike Brem. Don’t forget what we all learned in Bible School: Love Thy Neighbor and Thou Shalt not Covet . . . . .”

      Pastor, can you tend to your flock?

    • West U Resident Says:

      Case in point, Councilman Heathcott was beholden to the West U Baptist Church.

    • Lucille Says:

      To: advocate for transparency: You really should ask Instant News to remove your November 20 post.

      • Lucille Says:

        I hope you will seriously consider removing your November 20 post. I am sure you wouldn’t intentionally hurt the feelings of people who have devoted so much to others who cannot help themselves.

  5. Lucille Says:

    In October, the city announced that someday the city wants to own certain properties. If I understand what I read, any city can take property for a public purpose and not be violating the Fifth Amendment as long as “just compensation” is paid. In West U, the definition of “just compensation” is debatable. Is the owner or real estate business obligated to disclose to a potential buyer that the city has said that someday it would want to take the property? I think they would have to disclose this which would probably prove fatal to a deal. Whether or not it ever happens, the cloud is hanging over the property. I guess it could be looked at another way: The city’s mentioning it now was the ethical thing to do. Even though the present mayor and council forget the whole Super Block idea, I think the market values have dropped and the present owners have been financially hurt.

  6. proreligionwestu Says:

    It is also undisputed that WUBC has owned the properties surrounding the Brem home for decades before they purchased it and no one in their right mind ever expected the church to build six residential homes on their properties.

    • Mike Brem Says:

      And how does that change the fact that the properties are indisputably zoned single family or the fact that the Church knew how they were zoned when it purchased them?

      It doesn’t, of course.

      Indeed, what kind of zoning laws do we have if it is the case that the mere fact that a non-single family entity could acquire property zoned single family and that could somehow change how the property is zoned?

      For example, if Exxon bought every house on both sides of the street in the 6400 block of Belmont, would that allow it to avoid the City’s single family zoning regulations?

      Of course not. Otherwise, the City’s zoning regulations would be meaningless.

      But perhaps even more clearly, the Church is presently using one of those six lots . . . and the house on it . . . as a residence for one of its employees. Similarly, the original cottages remain on at least two other of those lots on Amherst. It’s not like we’re talking about open fields here.

      And it’s not as if the Church has lost the value of the property if it is required to simply obey the law. In fact, I’d venture a guess that it can sell those six lots at a tidy profit in a matter of days to a builder . . . as if investment was its plan all along.

      But more basically, don’t I have have the right to expect that my government will enforce its own laws to protect my property interests?

      Isn’t that all I’m asking?

  7. Lucille Says:

    I recommend going to http://www.google.com and typing in “The U.S. Supreme Court decision on eminent domain.”

  8. Bob Kelly. Former Mayor Says:

    Longcat, you are correct. Nothing the current City Manager, Mayor, or City Council Member say about the use or non use of eminent domain against property owners within the Super Block is binding on future City Councils. No reasonable person would bet their home on promises made by the current City Government. Also, the Brems concerns are real. Who is going to buy their home if they try to sell it? The establishment of the Super Block creates only one buyer, ie the condemning authority. Homes in WU are going to the highest bidders. Super Block homes will have no bidders. Only the City sitting back till they are ready to take the properties with no one bidding against it. All this continues to beg the question: what is the compelling need for a Super Block? None has yet to have been demonstrated.

    • Bob Kelly. Former Mayor Says:

      I LIVE NEAR BY, our citizens are not afraid of facts. It is a fact that the current Council can’t bind future City Council. A fact that you agree with, but some seem not to realize as they keep saying the owners of property within the Super Block have nothing to worry about as the current City Council and City Manager say condemnation will not be used.
      Also a fact, the City is a Condemning Authority as it has the power of eminent domain under the law.

      • Bob Kelly. Former Mayor Says:

        Election Time and I Live Near By, I would be happy to meet with both of you over coffee and discuss this matter in detail. Just send me an email at bkelly44@gmail.com. Thanks.

  9. proreligionwestu Says:

    From: David Taylor [mailto:DTaylor@hcnonline.com]
    Sent: Tuesday, November 18, 2014 11:55 PM
    To: Susan Ohsfeldt
    Subject: RE: Youth Center is not a place of worship

    Thanks Susan for the string of emails. I must ask however, why you are so opposed to the church building a recreation building for young people? Do you hold some sort of negative feelings toward churches in general? Kids these days have so many options for entertainment and activities that are not so religious or even lawful. It would seem to me that folks in the neighborhood would be overjoyed that the church is providing young people an option for recreation—and an opportunity for ministry to kids outside of the church and in the neighborhood.

    Being in a building of their own would offer safety too. Far too many of our young people are being snatched off the streets and even out of their own homes. At least at the Youth Activities building they would have a place where adults could oversee their activities and children would not be challenged by adversaries that are interested in nothing but their demise.

    The tone of your comments seems to suggest you don’t support those kinds of wholesome activities and I’m puzzled by that. If I’m wrong, I truly apologize. But my curiosity and common sense seems to tell me there’s much more to this than a piece of land.

    While I am only an outsider looking in, I would humbly and truly like to know why you are so adverse to the church expanding their ministry in the community?

    Best wishes and thanks for including us in the dialogue. Hopefully, cool and rational minds will prevail and the council will do what is best for all in the community.

    DAVID TAYLOR
    Editor/HCN Design Editor
    Houston Community Newspapers
    NEW ADDRESS: 7613 Katy Freeway, Suite C
    Houston, Texas 77024
    dtaylor@hcnonline.com

    • Mike Brem Says:

      As one of the property owners most closely affected by WUBC’s plans, perhaps I can answer you.

      By way of full disclosure, the 10 lots on Amherst and University Blvd, west of the City Hall, include our home.

      It is undisputed that these lots are zoned single family.

      It is undisputed that they were zoned single family when WUBC acquired six of them.

      It is undisputed that these lots were zoned single family when we purchased our home in 2008.

      It is undisputed that Youth Ministry building contemplated by WUBC is not a single family dwelling.

      It is undisputed that the parking lots that WUBC contemplates surrounding our home with are are not single family dwellings.

      While possibly open to debate, I suggest that WUBC’s plans would surely change the nature of this area of our City into something different than homes and families.

      I’ll go further and suggest that, if allowed to go forward, WUBC’s plans will most assuredly directly and negatively affect both our property values and the use and enjoyment of our home.

      As a result, we are compelled to insist that the City enforce its zoning regulations against anyone attempting to turn these lots into anything other than single family dwellings, including WUBC.

      And for these same reasons, I reject your insinuation that opposing WUBC’s plans with regard to these properties makes me or any of the other affected property owners in any way anti-religion. That is simply not true.

      I hope this helps in your understanding and I’m happy to discuss this further.

      Mike

    • Motherof4 Says:

      Could Proreligionwestu and advocatefortransparancy be the same person from Houston Community Newspapers? I wondered why the West U Examiner is not reporting on the Super Block issue. Mr. Taylor doesn’t have a dog in this hunt but his letter to Susan about snatched children and their demise was just plain creepy. This made me think. A Youth Center with so many children in one place would likely attract child predators to “minister to” these children or just hang around waiting for an opportunity . . . . . Just another thought to add to this debate.

    • Lucille Creekmore Gallman Says:

      Mr. Taylor: I read The Rancher when I can find it and Mike Tenney, who I think is very good. I don’t know Susan Ohsfeldt, but I feel sorry for her after reading your public reply to her. I moved to West University Place in 1940, moved out in 2008 and now live in Cinco Ranch. Unlike the Katy Area, West U City Hall and the Baptist Church have very little land for expansion. This dialogue they are having is more like a family feud. It is nothing new and when either has a problem; the other is there to help. For some reason, it appears that anti-religion rhetoric has surfaced. Believe me, this too shall pass.

      • Bob Kelly. Former Mayor Says:

        Lucille, you have paid your dues. Keep expressing your views. Those that attempt to shut you down are should be shamed. You are WU.

        • Lucille Says:

          Some of the Katy folks probably wish I would move back to West U because of my efforts for there to be some control over fireworks. I would consider it but with the Market Value of West U homes and the ability of the present homeowners to negotiate for the best price they can get, I’ll just have to settle for the wide-open spaces of Cinco Ranch.

  10. Lucille Says:

    I’ve read comments from residents who I think could win an election in West U. I’ve never understood why people hesitate to use their name. I thought about attending the matinee but figured I would be met at the door by one of West U’s finest, asking for proof of residency. I can remember some council meetings of long ago when the police were in attendance. I thought I saw Chief Walker in a photo taken at a recent meeting. I’m really kind of surprised if there wasn’t a police presence (small one) because of the publicity.

  11. West U Resident Says:

    What about the four homeowners most affected on Milton and University Blvd? What about their property values? What about their peace of mind? No mention of a cost justification before this got rolling. The council keeps mentioning not wanting to be land locked. West U is already land locked by Houston and city of Bellaire. Interesting discussion about what religious organizations might or might not be able to do. City Council and City Staff need to get legal representation from an attorney that is qualified and experienced in this specific area.

    • longcat Says:

      When you only have a single buyer, it’s pretty hard to generate much buyer competition to drive a good price. Also, there is no incentive to improve their houses in the meantime (since they may not see any of the value from those improvements since the city (only buyer) is looking at them as lot value) so they are deprived of the potential value of those improvements to them in the meantime as well. Who wants to live next to empty lots on “borrowed time” for their own house either?

      • Mike Brem Says:

        We are one of the four property owners in the area. What if we want to sell before the City is ready to buy? Who would buy our property with this “cloud” hanging over it?

      • longcat Says:

        I think I’d rather have an arm’s length market based sales process than rely on the whims of future city government beneficence to make sure I received the fair value for my home, but I guess that’s just me.

      • Luclle Says:

        At the present time, a seller in West U will receive more if their property is sold based on its market value instead of its appraised value.

      • WestUInvestor Says:

        Mike – if you want to sell – happy to buy now or in the future. Would be a sure bet for me.

      • Mike Brem Says:

        WestUInvestor, we’ll look forward to entertaining your offer.

        However, since our address is well known as result of all this, I’m pretty confident that any serious “WestUInvestor” would not be making his/her first overture to us anonymously on a public forum and that this is simply a transparent attempt to score cheap rhetorical points.

  12. Milton Street Says:

    When asked if there had been any traffic studies to determine the effect of added church buildings, the answer by PGAL was that there was none because they were not asked to do so.

  13. Bob Kelly. Former Mayor Says:

    Councilmember Dick Yehle said that he would “like to move that we do three things:
    1) That we suspend any external solicitation of interests for the property;
    2) That we instruct the City Manager to move ahead with preparation of a proposal for a citizens survey;
    3) And that we also ask the City Manager to come up with a proposal for a further legal opinion on the issue.”
    Councilmember Joan Johnson seconded the motion. MOTION PASSED

    I posted this as it was a little hard to hear the specifics of the motion.

    MiltonWatchDog, there are several people lining up to run for Mayor and Council. All these matters you listed and those raised over the past few weeks will be issued in the upcoming City elections next year.

  14. MiltonWatchDog Says:

    Fry and Heathcott should resign. Recall Council. Elect new people and replace the City Manager. In other words, it’s time to clean house.

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