By Kathi Bliss
It must be a difficult thing to be one of seven people in charge of determining the trajectory for a community of upwards of 12,500. It’s a job I know I wouldn’t want, and I understand why it’s a job that is, on occasion, difficult to fill.
Because I genuinely believe that, when I use this space to criticize our local elected officials, I don’t come to that decision lightly. I think long and hard about it, and am generally very careful with the words I choose; I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t admire and respect the service they have chosen to provide to this community. But at the same time, I have a little prepared speech I give people when they are elected – oftentimes because I’ve engaged with them socially long before they were ever elected for office.
“Know that I support you and appreciate you, and that I’ll be the first in line to back your decisions when you’re doing the right thing,” I always say. “But please be aware that I’ll also be the first one to call you out when you’re not making sense.”
Here lately, I’m afraid, the City Council has made a few decisions that simply don’t make any sense.
A few months back, a few members of the Council painted the entire team into a corner. Upon hearing a request for a zoning change, some members chose, under scrutiny and pressure from a certain segment of the community, to look at the change not on the merits of the zoning of the building itself, but rather on projections of what the requesting business “might” become, if the requested zoning was granted.
That specific case, had the zoning been changed, would have allowed Lilly’s Bar and Grill the leeway to apply for a TABC permit for on-premises alcohol sales; notably, the property owner that triggered the requirement for a “super-majority” of the council to approve the change, rather than a simple majority, holds the exact zoning and TABC permit the owner of Lilly’s was seeking. The measure did not achieve a super-majority of support, and was therefore defeated.
Where it gets sticky is the fact that much of that decision was made, not because the zoning in the area would have been in any way uncompliant with the current or future projected land use for the area, but rather because the zoning change would have opened the door to allow the owner to apply for a Specific Use Permit to turn the location into a bar, rather than a restaurant that serves alcohol. It bears repeating that the owner told the Council on the record, that she had no intention of applying for that permit; it bears repeating that had such an application been made, the Council could have, likely would have, and rightfully should have, struck the Specific Use Permit down at that time.
Instead, they chose to deny the zoning change based upon what might happen in the future.
Fast forward to Tuesday evening. A new, but prolific and productive, local property owner teamed with a well-respected, established member of the community to request a similar zoning change, this time opening the door to establish a retail, multi-use “warehouse and distribution” center on the fringes of the business district, bordering an established residential neighborhood on the corner of South Church and West Live Oak Streets. While the residents immediately bordering the property had no objections, several residents in the adjoining neighborhood did object. In fact, the City Planner himself said he had concerns about the location, and the fact that at distribution center might not be appropriate for the area. Neighbors raised concerns, not about the proposed business, but about the potential future uses for the property – at least one of which could have allowed a bar or dance hall to be established on the property.
Still, you could clearly see that the Council wanted to find a way to grant the zoning. Unfortunately, because of the corner they painted themselves into by looking at “future use” of Lilly’s, there was no way they could do it without opening themselves up to well-deserved backlash for using a different set of standards for different businesses. They did try, very hard, to discount concerns about what “might happen” in the property’s future.
So the Council split the difference. They opted to direct the City Manager and City Planner to bring forth an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance that would allow the owners of Commercial – Medium Density properties to apply for Specific Use Permits for warehouse and distribution centers within those zoning areas. In effect, the Council ordered the City Staff to create a “back door” policy that will allow them to welcome a new business with open arms. In doing so, they also set an extremely dangerous precedent.
While what the Council did does not rise to the level of “spot-zoning,” it makes it abundantly clear that they are willing to let different businesses play by different sets of rules; in fact, they made it clear that they are willing to change the rules, on a whim, to please certain businesses, over and above the objections of the residents of the community they were elected to serve.
And there’s absolutely nothing to say, now that they’ve done it once, that they won’t do it again. To borrow a phrase from the National media – the optics on that are just bad. It just looks bad; it makes the Council look bad. It potentially puts the property owner and the business owner in a negative light that they don’t deserve, because some might think they are getting special treatment from the Council – through no fault of their own. It was just, all around, a bad move.
I applaud Councilmembers Michelson and Mendoza for stepping forward and moving to approve the zoning change outright. I respect that. And I don’t disagree with what they were trying to do. Frankly, I live and work in the neighborhood being discussed, and I personally don’t see any problem with the proposed project. I think it would provide a service that we need in our community, and I hope the property owners are able to get it off the ground.
What I DO take exception to is the Council changing the rules to create a loophole for this particular business, because they left themselves no other choice. I object to the Council using different sets of standards, depending upon who they’re talking to, and who they’re talking about. And whether or not that’s what the Council ACTUALLY had in mind, when they made the decision they made on Tuesday evening, that’s sure what it looks like.
And if I’ve learned anything about community politics, I’ve learned that perception is reality. And this decision is sure quacking like a duck.
I’m sorry to have to say this, Council… but doing whatever you have to do to justify not granting the zoning change to Lilly’s, while granting less neighborhood-appropriate, though arguably more socially desirable changes? It just doesn’t make sense.