Council Takes Steps on Super Block

December 8, 2014 By:Anne Marie Kilday

Local News

The West U City Council on Monday took steps to continue a possible real estate transaction to “swap” property with West University Baptist Church.

Councilman Dick Yehle made the motion to advertise for a Request for Proposal for an interested bidder to swap and/or purchase the city of West U’s property in the 3800 block of Milton for church property in the 3800 block of Amherst.

That action was approved by a 3-1- vote, with Mayor Pro Tem Susan Sample opposing the solicitation of bids. Councilman Ed Heathcott, a deacon at West U Baptist, has recused himself from voting on the issue.

Sample said she wanted to delay voting on the advertisement for proposals until the city conducts a city-wide citizens’ survey about the proposed long-range master plan and the city receives a legal opinion on cities’ authority to regulate the expansion of religious institutions.

The council also agreed,  by a unanimous  vote (with Heathcott’s recusal,) to retain Dr. Richard Murray of the University of Houston’s Hobby Public Policy Center, to  possibly design and conduct a citywide survey of West U residents about the long-range master plan for municipal facilities.

The City Council had already approved the plan to create a so-called Super Block, bordered by University, Auden, Amherst and College, to possibly house future municipal buildings. The plan drew fire from many West U residents, include four individual property owners whose homes would eventually be purchased by the city at fair market value.

Another issue in the controversy over the city campus is the expansion of the West U Baptist Church. The Church has received a $3 million anonymous donation to construct a Youth Center, to serve middle and high school students as part of its youth ministry. But some West U residents are concerned about the church expansion, and possible traffic congestion.

The Council, and City Attorney Alan Petrov have tried to explain that state and federal laws limit the authority of cities to impose limits — other than zoning rules — on religious institutions. The City Council approved hiring Lowell F. Denton, an attorney with a San Antonio law firm, to provide a legal opinion on the state and federal laws relating to the expansion of churches.

The Council approved hiring Denton, for a fee of $10,000,  again by a unanimous vote. Heathcott recused himself.

Many of the same West U residents who have earlier protested the long-range master plan for a city campus spoke out against the plan.

But long-time West U resident Dave Agerton told the council that the long-range plan “remind me of plans to expand Colonial Park that I helped with on the Parks Board 20 years ago.  Back then, original homes stood on the east half of that block. We met with each owner to share the hope that when they wanted to sell their property, the City could buy it for the park,” Agerton said. “It took years and the efforts of many people for the City to acquire all the private property at Colonial and to fully implement the plan.  As far as I know, the home sale values were fair and independent of park expansion.  Given what’s at Colonial today, I applaud the foresight, patience and care that City officials exercised 20 years ago,” Agerton said.

Agerton said the long-range master plan “makes sense to me. In any case, I applaud you, as City officials, for looking ahead and for pursuing opportunities to further improve our  City.   You got a step ahead of us residents when you needed to react quickly to Church plans.  But, you are fixing that problem,” Agerton said.

For Mayor Bob Fry, who was on a long-planned trip out of the country during the earlier controversy, a council workshop and regular session gave him the opportunity to respond to critics.

Fry also apologized for his angry statement on October 13, when he told critics that West U’s municipal government is “a republic, not a democracy.” The mayor apologized for making that statement.

Fry said he remains convinced that the long-range master plan was in the best interests of all of West U’s residents, the best decision for residents of the 3800 block of University, and best for the church.

“The whole thing we were trying to do was leave options for future councils,” Fry said. “It may be 30 years before something happens.”



12 Responses to “Council Takes Steps on Super Block”

  1. Steve Says:

    Let me get this straight, Reilly and the Superblock opponents want the city to pay 25k for a legal opinion to restrict a rightful, long term property owner (West U Baptist) from developing their property ? Fund it yourself ! Some folks knowingly move adjacent to land owned by the church and now want to city to use tax dollars to stop the church from using their land, to sue the church, or even take their land away from them. Some anti church bigots accuse the church of wanting to steal a libary. I feel very sorry for them. Others say their concern is parking. Where do they think West U Little League would park if it weren’t for the church. Some opponents probably got a cheaper price on their land because of it’s proximity to the church, city hall or a truck depot. They now want to restrict the city from getting a good deal.

    And make no mistake, it is a good deal for the city. George Boheme had one of the few fair-minded articles about this issue. It included an informative map of the proposed swap. In sum, the city would trade property across the street from a water tower for more valuable property on Amherst. The church is also offering up more overall land. The overage is worth more than half a $ million. That’s big. Ask me, it’s a bad deal for the church but they are good neighbors to the city and provide a good service to local kids. Bottom line: the move protects the city’s possible interest in building a park, an improved library, whatever they want. They lose the opportunity if they don’t do the deal. I support the swap and know there are many, many more out there who don’t show up at these meetings and would support the same.

    • Mike Brem Says:

      I only take issue with this one sentence: “Some folks knowingly move adjacent to land owned by the church and now want to city to use tax dollars to stop the church from using their land, to sue the church, or even take their land away from them.”

      That’s exactly backward, of course. What my wife and I did was “knowingly move adjacent to land” that is unquestionably zoned single family. In other words, before making our significant investment, we confirmed that our investment was legally protected by the City’s zoning regulations.

      Instead, it was WUBC that “knowingly” acquired properties that were zoned single family at the time of those purchases and now wants to change the nature of those properties to the detriment of our investment.

      So, yes, as a City taxpayer, I do expect the City to make whatever investment is reasonably necessary to enforce its laws . . . laws that we relied when purchasing our home . . . such that my property is protected from non-residential encroachment.

      • longcat Says:

        Well said. I wasn’t aware there were exceptions to the single family zoning in West U, so I’d also like to understand what are the limitations (if any) of any kind of religious organization to buy land anywhere in the city currently zoned single family, and build whatever they want there. I think it’s quite low risk that some group would buy a lot in the middle of houses and turn it into who knows what, but I would like to at least understand the full risks to my property rights.

        • Brennan Reilly Says:

          According to the Council and the City attorney there are zero limitations other than complying with building codes. So a church could buy the lot on one side of you to build a chapel and parking lot and buy the lot on the other side of you to put in a larger parking lot. Think that would affect your property value?

          As far as that being low risk, that is exactly what happened in Bellaire, although the church in question did not have enough money to buy the parking lot and so they were shut down for violating the parking rules.

          As to whether this is a “good deal for the City,” the transaction is a bad deal for the City independent of the parties involved. According to Michael Ross, the cost to relocate public works is $2 million. The City is not realizing any cash from the proposed sales, so it will have to raise those funds from taxpayers. If that capital cost is added to the maintenance activities currently performed at the Milton/College facility, then those activities (oil changes and other maintenance on City vehicles and construction of road signs) no longer make economic sense for the City to perform. Moreover, the location to which the City will move the public works is far more valuable than the current location. So the City’s sale of the public works facility just doesn’t make sense independent of whether you think it is a good idea for the church to build a youth center.

          Steve, you will have a chance to vote on these issues in a few months. You may be right that a majority of residents will be in favor of this sort of “master planning” and of allowing non-residential construction on residential property, but I think a majority of residents will vote for candidates who pledge to strongly protect residential property rights. There is room for compromise here, but that compromise should not involve the construction of non-residential scale buildings or parking lots adjacent to residents.

          Anyone making long term plans should consider that every Council member and the mayor will be gone in five months (all term limited, but one council member could run for mayor). The City will look very different in a few months, so striking a deal with the current City may not make sense. The City can always revisit the terms of any deal in the interim once the new Council is sworn in. If the new Council decides that it does not make sense to relocate the maintenance facility it could force a sale of that property back to the City.

          • West U Resident Says:

            Sounds like Brennan Reilly is grabbing onto any issue as an excuse to run for office. Either that, or he fancies himself a Kingmaker. He brings up “his slate of candidates” at every opportunity.

    • withheld Says:

      It was part of the original SuperBlock plan for the library to be part of the land swap.

      The details of the plan with graphics of the library land swap were presented at the first Parks Master plan meeting on October 20th, and a few days later, the document titled “Facilities MasterPlan Update 10/13/2014” was posted on the city website.

      After the backlash against the SuperBlock, the city pulled the document off the website. Do not try to find it there. It is gone. As a matter of fact several citizens asked the city council to re-post the original document at the city website. However, that did not happen.

      At the second Parks meeting on Nov 20th, the city presented a new version of the document titled “Facilities MasterPlan Update 11/9/2014” without any references to the library land swap.

      However, you can find parts of the original document with details of the library land swap at the westuhappenings website.

      Hope that helps.

    • David Says:

      I am one of those adjacent property owners Steve. Why not come over to my house (it will look onto the youth center as it looks onto the maintenance facility now)and talk to me man to man so you don’t have to sling accusation’s at me? And oh yes Steve: Merry Christmas!

  2. MiltonWatchDog Says:

    Once again, the taxpayers of West University Place have been “Gurbered”. Much like our POTUS, Frey, Yehle and Ross will move forward with their agenda, trampling on the homeowners in their path.

  3. Brennan Reilly Says:

    Article has been edited extensively and is now more consistent with what actually happened at the meeting. Despite the engagement of Dr. Murray, it appears from the Council’s discussion that a survey is unlikely. Still disappointed in the meeting and the lack of transparency on decision making. Presumably Council has discussed in closed meetings much more than they are willing to discuss in open meetings. The mayor referred me to the City Manager to answer questions regarding the costs of relocating City facilities and other details of the transactions. I have a request in to the City Manager for that information, but no response as of yet.

  4. Mike Brem Says:

    As one of the property owners in the subject area, I applaud this move.

    And, while my interest is admittedly a narrow one, I’m completely in favor of the property swap with WUBC because I prefer having the City as my neighbor by its acquisition of the properties in the 3800 block of Amherst.

    • David Says:

      Which move do you applaud Mike? With the exception of removing the block with the Library and Senior center from land swap consideration (only because of Commissioner Raddack blowing up our city attorney in a public meeting), absolutely nothing has changed since the day you received your letter (were you applauding the day you received your letter?). I am still scheduled to have a youth center built adjacent to my home and have had none of my concerns about traffic and parking addressed. Do they want to buy my home or my neighbors home and put in a parking lot? My family’s concerns seem to be meaningless to the Church and this City Council, at least your family’s concerns seem to have been addressed to your satisfaction. I have requested a meeting with Pastor Robert from the Church and have gotten no response. Mayor Fry has never answered a single concern of mine. I have never even been categorically opposed to the whole Super Block concept but I really thought the Church and the City would be kind enough to answer my questions and concerns. This can really adversely effect my property and it’s value and I believe I have the right to some honest answers. So unfortunately at this point Mike, I cannot applaud with you.

      See you around while I am walking the dogs.


  5. Brennan Reilly Says:

    The article contains several mistakes. Council did not rescind their prior approval of the “superblock.” They only rescinded their prior actions (on October 13 and November 17) to sell and then to suspend solicitations to sell the Public Works facility at Milton and College. Tonight Council approved issuing an RFP to sell that property as well as the Public Works facility that is behind West U Baptist Church. The “time out” has ended and Council is moving full steam ahead with actions that could result in the sale of these properties even though a survey has not been conducted.

    Council did not approve the hiring of Dr. Murray to conduct a survey. Council only approved hiring him to discuss certain aspects of a potential survey. Sue Samples offered an amendment to actually approve conducting the survey, but the amendment did not pass when Bob Fry and Dick Yehle voted against it. They indicated during the workshop preceding the meeting that they do not see the need for a survey given the complexity of the transactions.

    Similarly, Council rejected Sue Samples’ proposed amendment to retain Mr. Denton, the San Antonio attorney, to provide a legal opinion regarding the City’s ability to apply zoning restrictions to church developments on property zoned for single family residences. Instead, Council voted to engage Mr. Denton as needed, and a couple of Council members indicated during the workshop before the meeting that they did not anticipate needing such advice.

    A very disappointing meeting for residents concerned about the absence of details (such as costs and alternative options considered) regarding the sale of public works facilities. Despite their assertions to the contrary, City staff and council members have been working on these sales and discussing them with the church since January or March of this year. This was not something that came up in September. After nine months you would think we would know more about the transactions. But we don’t.

    Unfortunately Council does not appear to have gotten the message sent by the 300 plus residents who showed up to the meeting on November 10. The “timeout” approved on November 17 lasted all of three weeks. We are now back to where we were on October 13 with a City intent on acquiring a superblock and spending millions of dollars to relocate City facilities.

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