Council Takes Steps on Super Block

December 8, 2014

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.”