Fireworks at City Council over AT&T zoning request

May 22, 2018

After hearing from many residents who live near the AT&T facility on Bellaire Boulevard who vociferously oppose a proposed zoning change on the property, the West University Place City Council voted nonetheless Monday to go forward with a joint public hearing with the Zoning and Planning Commission on June 11.

The vote was 3-1, with Councilman Bob Higley the lone dissenter. Higley had earlier asked City Attorney Alan Petrov (whom he repeatedly called “my attorney”) whether Council, having heard the complaints from residents, needed any more information to deny the process from going forward.

Petrov responded (and, apparently, elaborated further on the point during an ad hoc executive session Higley demanded) that none of the comments heard thus far count legally as “evidence” in the dispute, which is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit between AT&T and the city.

Councilmember Bob Higley

At issue are several lots behind the AT&T building which were are zoned residential, but which the city granted special exemptions in the 1970s to serve as parking spaces when the facility (originally operated by the former Southwestern Bell) operated mostly as an office complex.

In the decades since, AT&T has changed its operations at the complex to include servicing customers throughout the Houston area. Now AT&T wants to be able to stock its service vans in the parking area, causing increasing consternation among the residents who live on Ruskin Street behind the parking lot.

Many of those residents spoke up during the public comment part of Monday’s meeting, laying out their concerns, which largely have to do with the potential for increased truck traffic in and out of the facility and its negative impact on the area’s (and the city’s) residential character and on property values.

Robert Grossman, who has served as a sort of unofficial leader of the residents in their opposition to the proposed changes, said that if the city went ahead with them, it would be a “precedent-setting” move that would allow for even more industrialization of the city’s residential areas.

He was among a few who raised the specter that the changes might be exploited by the neighboring Whole Foods store in the future. Since the dispute originally began, Whole Foods was purchased by Amazon, which has announced plans to move into the food delivery business.

Lillian Irani, a mother of two, implored the Council members to consider the safety of children who live behind the facility.

Ray Viada, an attorney who is representing some of the residents, echoed the point that the proposed changes could have far-reaching unintended consequences for West University, including making it vulnerable to even more litigation in the future.

Amar Patel, another resident, noted that there are about two dozen homes in the affected area, which he said have a total taxable value of $26 million. The AT&T property, he said, has only about $6 million in value the bulk of which is in the land value.

“This is not a good pursuit in the area of fiscal responsibility,” he said.

Only two people spoke on behalf of going forward with the June 1 joint public hearing — Anthony Marre, an attorney representing AT&T, and Lindsay Munoz, external affairs director for the company.

Richard Wilson, chair of the ZPC, told Council that the purpose of the hearing was to hear from people representing all sides of the dispute in a forum where all the testimony would serve as official evidence. Much of the final decision will hinge on the interpretation of the language in the agreement made between the city and Southwestern Bell in the 1970s, he said.

After the Council voted to go forward with the June 1 joint hearing, nearly all the people in the audience filed outside of the chamber to talk outside In the other major piece of business, the Council voted unanimously to appoint the members of the Charter Review Commission, which is mandated this year.

The appointed members are Dick Yehle, Steven Segal, Kenneth Mercado, David Furlow, Betsy Kamin, Kathleen Brem, and Spryos Marago. The two alternates are Eddie Matthews and Candida Alvarado.

Ken Fountain

Ken Fountain is a writer for and the West University Essentials magazine.

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