Responsibilities of Freedom
RECEIVED Tue., May 8, 2018
All Gregory George wanted was some peace and quiet. In 2013, the 41-year-old former Texas General Land Office agent and his wife Staci bought a 10.8-acre plot just outside of Dripping Springs, in a development protected by residential-only deed restrictions. Their plan was to build their dream home and start a family. But that dream turned into a nightmare, George said, when his neighbors decided to open up a wedding venue right next to his new home. Now, he spends his days meeting with lawyers, and nights canvassing his property line with a sound meter.
According to George, his neighbor Jani Saliga came over three days before he poured the foundation for his house and told him she was planning to turn her existing home into a wedding venue. George was surprised: His property came with a neighborhood covenant that prohibited commercial business, and he was told by his real estate agent and his title company that it applied to the properties on both sides of his lot. Saliga, however, says she was unaware of any deed restrictions on her property. George went ahead and built his home adjacent to Saliga’s, on the highest point on his lot, sure the covenant would work. Saliga and her husband also proceeded with their plan, turning their home into what is now the Garden Grove Wedding and Event Venue.
When they began to host weddings in April of 2016, tensions escalated between the Georges and the Saligas. The weddings, which George claims sometimes include live bands that play until midnight, occur about 250 feet from his back porch. George and the neighbors who live on the opposite side of the Saligas’ property filed a lawsuit against them and Garden Grove to enforce the residential-only covenant in June of 2016.
by Robert Wilonsky, City Columnist, Dallas News
…. Frank had attached a lengthy Facebook post from Amanda Austin, owner of the Dallas Comedy House on Main Street, in which she detailed how the comedy club and improv workshop was getting the boot from her Deep Ellum digs by a carpetbagging landlord — Black Market Investments, out of Lockhart — wanting to sink yet another barbecue joint in the neighborhood. Austin would tell me later that she tried to keep the whole thing a secret, hoping it would be resolved to everyone’s benefit, till it became painfully clear her days were numbered….
Austin, who has two years left on her lease, has known for three months that her days on Main could be winding down. In mid-January she discovered her building had been bought by something called Black Market Investments — so named for Terry Black, a Lockhart CPA, and his children Christina, Michael and Mark Black. Michael and Mark also own Terry Black’s Barbecue in Austin, so named for their dad after a legal tussle with their uncle Ken left them unable to use the original Black’s Barbecue moniker made famous by their grandfather Edgar Clarence Black Jr.
The lengthy letter alleged she was violating the lease by holding shows there. And by hosting classes and workshops. And by serving food and drink. And so on. The new landlords also alleged the building was one giant code violation. Kane’s letter said Austin had 10 days to fix everything or else. And so began the back-and-forth between Black Market’s attorneys and Austin’s lawyers.
On March 2, J. Michael Ellis, who reps Austin, told Kane that Black Market might want to reconsider its attempts to oust Dallas Comedy House for a barbecue restaurant. Ellis wrote that the Lockhartites’ “contrived efforts to remove Dallas’s largest and longest continually-active comedy theater from its space are unlawful, in violation of the Lease and represent a malicious scheme that will certainly interest the Dallas courts, local publications and the Dallas community.” Read more…
Dallas Comedy House owner says she ‘won’t be bullied’ by company trying to push her outDallas Comedy House owner Amanda Austin said the new landlord has been looking for alleged defaults in her lease for months, and she is now facing a termination of tenancy notice.
DALLAS – A Lockhart, Texas-based investment company is trying to push out a local comedy club from the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, according to the comedy club’s owner.
Black Market Investments, the group behind Terry Black’s BBQ in Austin, bought the 6,800-square-foot space on Main Street in January, records show. Read more…
The City Council approved the Mark Black Wedding Venue at 130 W. Concord Circle in Driftwood at its Tuesday March 13 meeting.
Present for the council meeting were Mayer Todd Purcell, Mayor Pro Tem Bill Foulds, Council Member Taline Manassian, and Council Member Wade King. The venue passed by a vote of two to one, with Foulds and Manassian voting for, and King voting against. Not present for the meeting were council members Travis Crow and John Kroll.
After weeks of debate, the Dripping Springs City Council Tuesday approved a permit application for the Mark Black Wedding Venue by a split 2-1 vote.
Council member Taline Manassian and Mayor Pro Tem Bill Foulds approved the agreement, while Council member Wade King cast the lone dissenting vote. Council members John Kroll and Travis Crow were absent from the meeting.
Approval of the Site Development Permit Application for the venue was contingent on adding a note to the Water Quality Sheets regarding vegetative filter strips. Requirements called for a minimum 75 percent vegetative cover before final acceptance of the project and implementing additional cross-sections and details regarding temporary sedimentation ponds to its plans.
Prior to the vote, concerned residents of a neighborhood near the venue packed into Dripping Springs City Hall to voice their discontent. Dripping Springs City Hall Tuesday was at capacity, according to the Hays County Fire Marshal….
Press release: 12 March 2018
Despite overflow crowds at three public hearings—and a sustained, fact-based campaign by Friendship Alliance to document the dangers imposed by the project—the Dripping Springs City Council has rejected any further public input on the Mark Black Wedding Venue, scheduling its final vote for Tuesday, March 13th, at 6:30 pm.
“This is a disturbing sign,” says Dr. Carlos Torres-Verdin, President of Friendship Alliance, “that the City will bend to the pressure of an Austin business to approve a project that we contend violates the City’s very own ordinances.” The ordinances in question concern water quality, a critical issue given the venue’s location in the Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones.
On several occasions in February, experts for the Friendship Alliance identified at least five engineering deficiencies related to water drainage and water treatment that put the venue in direct violation of Dripping Springs’ Water Quality Protection Ordinance as well as the engineering design code adopted by the City. The City Engineer, Chad Gilpin, requested that the applicant’s firm (Kimley-Horn) respond to these specific concerns. Recognized, professional engineering experts—Brian Dudley, P.E., Lauren Ross, PhD and P.E., and Jeff Kessel, P.E.—have determined that the newly produced materials from Kimley-Horn fail to address the deficiencies that we contend exist, thus, the project “remains materially out of compliance with the City ordinance[s] … listed.” (See the attached letter from Dr. Torres-Verdin and Mr. Dudley to Mayor Todd Purcell, which summarizes the specific findings in Dr. Ross’s and Mr. Kessel’s reports—also attached.)
A letter from Austin attorney James M. Richardson of Richardson + Burgess LLP, writing on behalf of Friendship Alliance, further details the violations that the Friendship Alliance contends would occur if a permit is issued —“prohibited material increase in storm water runoff into creeks and neighboring lands…; prohibited material increase of pollutants into creeks…; prohibited runoff from roads and parking lots into the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone…; failure to analyze phosphorous and oil and grease pollution”—noting as well the many troubling discrepancies in the project applications submitted to different regulatory agencies. There are, for example, “material unexplained discrepancies in the volume of water to be used and wastewater disposed of by the facilities … in project plans and applications submitted to Hays County, Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the City of Dripping Springs.”
Such inconsistencies in key baseline calculations and divergent designs in “required certifications for applications to governmental authorities” are serious and should trigger heightened scrutiny from the City, but there has been a notable lack of concern over these and similar “process irregularities,” according to Torres-Verdin. He asks, for example, “Why did Mr. Gilpin fully approve the project at the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on January 23, 2018 when our engineering experts testified not only then but several times afterward that there were serious deficiencies and irregularities in the site development plan?”
City oversight has been “perfunctory at best,” he continues. “It’s obvious that the City Engineer doesn’t have the time or bandwidth to carefully review site development applications, and to request and track the necessary changes to them.” The applicant has had the ability to take advantage of the situation, Torres-Verdin says, and, despite being “given three different opportunities to produce a design in regulatory compliance, they and their engineers have, according to experts, failed three times.” Friendship Alliance, on the other hand, has enlisted significant technical and legal assistance to mount a strong case against the wedding venue. “This shouldn’t be necessary,” says Torres-Verdin. “Very few citizens will have the knowledge or engineering or legal representation to stop a faulty engineering project from affecting their neighborhood.”
Friendship Alliance also commissioned its own study—two of them, in fact—to measure the greatly increased traffic that the wedding venue will bring and to document the tangible threats to life and limb owing to its location in the heart of three semi-rural neighborhoods, all of them sharing just one narrow road in and out, especially in the event of an emergency evacuation. “We’re concerned enough about the safety of our neighbors to do the research that the applicant—and the City—should have done,” says Torres-Verdin. Friendship Alliance marshaled evidence—“undisputed,” he points out—from Dr. Siamak Ardekani, Professor of Civil Engineering and nationally recognized traffic engineer, and City of Los Angeles Fire Captain Cristian Granucci, who has twenty-eight years’ experience fighting fires in the urban-rural interface that typifies the surrounding area. But, despite this evidence of the unsafe conditions that will prevail when the wedding venue operates at capacity, creating traffic “choke points” blocking fire and emergency vehicles along the single road in and out, neither the City of Dripping Springs nor Hays County nor the developer will commit to make any improvements to the road.
“It may be that, even in the face of all our scientific evidence, City Council members fear legal action if they don’t approve the venue,” Torres-Verdin hypothesizes in a nod to the development lawyer (Richard Suttle) whom the applicant has retained. And a developer’s threat of legal action usually works remarkably well in a town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, where political accountability is intentionally fragmented and spread so thin that it cannot serve as a check against the power that money buys. “But we want to remind Council members that state law also compels them to comply with—and to enforce—their own codes and ordinances, even in the face of possible lawsuits.”
“From the very beginning,” notes Torres-Verdin, “Friendship Alliance was told that the law is on the developer’s side. He can do whatever he likes with his property.” But, besides pointing out the harm to his neighbors’ own property rights and their enjoyment thereof posed by a large, busy, and noisy commercial enterprise bulldozed in the heart of long-established neighborhoods—several of them explicitly spiritual—Torres-Verdin also points out “the irony of it all. No, the law isn’t on ‘their side.’ At least some of it is squarely on our side—and on the side of the City Council if they choose to enforce those water quality ordinances, for instance.”
Ultimately, Friendship Alliance aims to hold all officials, City, County, and State, to enforcing whatever laws haven’t been designed precisely to “tie their hands” with respect to disputes between commercial and residential property owners—and, more broadly, to uphold their civic duty to preserve the safety, well-being, and rights of all 30,000 citizens within the ETJ, not just the 1,600 or so registered voters in the City proper.
Torres-Verdin insists, “Our fight against this particular wedding venue is not an isolated event. Honestly, everyone across Hays County should take heed, even if they haven’t been threatened just yet by a giant storage facility, or a big box store, or a pricey wedding venue going up next door.” The Mark Black Wedding Venue offers an urgent reminder that citizens living in an ETJ—a kind of unincorporated “Wild West”—must have better protection under the law and a more robust voice in the political process.
He concludes: “Enough is enough. The Applicant is taking advantage of the City Council—all of them unpaid for their efforts—and taking advantage of their future neighbors and fellow Hays County citizens.” In an area where development policy has systematically favored businesses over communities, Friendship Alliance aspires to “set a precedent with the City of Dripping Springs,” says Torres-Verdin, “to restore accountability and oversight of businesses that fail to respect either their neighbors or the environment.”
March 9, 2017
City of Dripping Springs City Council Honorable Mayor Todd Purcell
511 Mercer St,
Dripping Springs, Texas 78620
Ms. Laura Mueller
Attorney at Law
Assistant City Attorney
City of Dripping Springs
511 Mercer St,
Dripping Springs, Texas 78620
Re: Site Development Permit – Mark Black Wedding Venue
Dear Mayor Purcell:
I write on behalf of The Friendship Alliance in connection with the City of Dripping Springs’ consideration of a pending site development plan application for the Mark Black Wedding Venue. The application proposes construction of two buildings for events, a front office and commercial kitchen with associated parking, sidewalk, septic system, private well water, and utilities located at Concord Circle, Driftwood, Texas.
The proposed site is located within the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributing zones. Strict compliance with applicable water quality ordinances is required.
For all of the reasons stated below – and as presented to the City Council in writing at the public meeting on February 20, 2018, and later on March 2, 2018, and previously by way of a series of presentations and expert reports
(See Reports of Brian Dudley, P.E., Lauren Ross, Ph.D., P.E., and Jeff Kessel, P.E. The Friendship Alliance hereby incorporates by reference all its written submissions, presentations, and expert reports – and analyses of those reports – previously submitted to the City of Dripping Springs.)
– the issuance of a site development permit for the Mark Black Wedding Venue should be denied because such action will result in at least five if not more distinct violations of the Water Quality Protection Ordinance, and other laws, as follows.
1. Issuance of a permit will result in a prohibited material increase in storm water runoff into creeks and neighboring lands in violation of Water Quality Protection Ordinance Sec. 22.05.023;
2. Issuance of a permit will result in a prohibited material increase of pollutants into creeks in violation of Water Quality Protection Ordinance Sec. 22.05.015(c);
3. Issuance of a permit will result in a prohibited runoff from roads and parking lots into the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone of in violation of Water Quality Protection Ordinance Sec. 22.05.019(a);
4. Issuance of a permit will result in a prohibited construction of impervious cover downstream of water quality controls in violation of Water Quality Protection Ordinance Sec. 22.05.017, and;
5. Issuance of a permit will result in a prohibited failure to analyze phosphorous and oil and grease pollution in violation of Water Quality Protection Ordinance Sec. 22.005(c) (3).
In addition, required certifications for applications to governmental authorities by the Mark Black Wedding Venue are inconsistent and violate city and county ordinances as well as state law. Specifically, project plans approved by Hays County for the construction of the On- Site Sewage Facilities System (OSSF), including the site collection system, are inconsistent with the OSSF previously acted upon by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Edward’s Aquifer Group.
For example, the design set filed with the City of Dripping Springs and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is believed to identify totally different sewage collection systems than the system actually approved for construction by Hays County. The defect is fatal to the applicant’s position because the sewage collection system, as approved by Hays County, requires the applicant to develop an Organized Sewage Collection System Plan (OSCS) in compliance with Chapter 26 of Texas Water Code and 30 TAC 213 and 217, and applicable regulations, and submit such plan to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for approval.
The applicant has also declined to address material unexplained discrepancies in the volume of water to be used and disposed of by the facilities. These discrepancies are evident in project plans and applications submitted to Hays County, Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the City of Dripping Springs.
Estimates of water required, as specified in the HTGCD application – and the water usage and disposal rates in the Hays County OSSF application – are completely contradictory. The basis calculations specified are inconsistent. Assumption of domestic sewage rates do not include a demonstration or required basis for values provided for the proposed commercial kitchen. Moreover, no calculations are provided for estimating the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) load to the domestic treatment system included with the plan set from the wedding venues or the commercial kitchen.
These material deficiencies should be considered in the context of other troubling violations. For example, the applicant has failed to demonstrate that it obtained a permit necessary to a “taking” of an endangered species in the designated habitat of the proposed development.
According to Texas Parks & Wildlife, the proposed development lies well within the habitat of the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler (GCW). However, to the best of our knowledge at this time, the applicant has not demonstrated the required permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Nor has the applicant addressed the fact that bulldozing, construction, development, amplified noise, and loud parties typically contribute to a finding of a “taking”2 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Activities within the habitat of the GCW, including activity that may disturb its habitat, are prohibited during the nesting season of March 1 through September 1. The Code of Ordinances requires proper collateral permitting prior to issuance of a site development permit.
2 The term “take” means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct. Moreover, the term “harm” may include significant habitat modification or degradation where it actually kills or injures wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, or sheltering.
Apart from the serious deficiencies addressed above, please also respectfully accept this objection to the City’s decision to disallow a public hearing related to the completely new site development plan and design filed by the applicant after the February 20th public hearing.
Indeed, it was only recently discovered that the City Engineer privately informed the applicant before the February 20th public hearing of a request to defer City action on the application until March 13, 2018. The City Council – without informing the public on February 20th of the City Engineer’s request – granted it with the notation that no public hearing would occur on March 13th. By implication, the result is that continued material deficiencies and ordinance violations will not be addressed in a public hearing.
Unfortunately, the City’s position today is that it never needed to grant a public hearing in the first place on an application for site development permit, and that with respect to the proposed ordinance violations reported by the Friendship Alliance, the City can now decide not to allow resolution of continuing violations and engineering deficiencies in a public hearing.
Finally, the City also inexplicably extended the deadline it imposed on the applicant at the public hearing on February 20, 2018. At that time, the City – in response to numerous potential violations of ordinances – imposed a new deadline on the applicant to file a new, most- hearing site development design and engineering report. On the record, the City directed The Friendship Alliance to file a written response to the new report no later than the close of business on March 2, 2018. As we now know, the applicant effectively ignored the City’s request by filing a new report that failed to address any of the City Engineer’s questions.
On March 8, 2018, however, nearly a full week after The Friendship Alliance’s response was timely filed identifying these continued violations, the City inexplicably allowed the applicant to file additional expert reports after the deadline passed, all while insisting – in a significant change of the protocol announced on February 20th – that the Friendship Alliance would have only twenty-four hours to respond.
Such procedural irregularities – including ‘hopscotching’ from public hearings to nonpublic hearings with the result that important comments regarding potential violations of ordinances cannot be lodged – seriously interfere with the fair and proper application of the site development plan permitting process.
Respectfully, The Friendship Alliance reiterates its previous request for a public hearing on March 13th regarding issues of the City’s compliance or lack thereof with its ordinances.
For all of the reasons stated above, and pursuant Sec. 28.04.011 of the City of Dripping Springs Code of Ordinances, the application for a site development permit should be denied without leave for further continued opportunities to amend.
Thank you for your attention to this letter.
RICHARDSON + BURGESS LLP
By: James M. Richardson
President, Friendship Alliance
Dear Mayor Todd Purcell,
Dear Mayor Pro Tem Bill Foulds,
Dear City Council Member Taline Manassian,
Dear City Council Member Travis Crow,
Dear City Council Member Wade King,
Dear City Council Member John Kroll,
Regarding: Mark Black Wedding Venue
On Saturday, March 3, 2018, at 3 PM, Friendship Alliance (FA) conducted an organized live traffic study to assess the effects of vehicular traffic on Crystal Hills Dr. expected from the operation of the Mark Black Wedding Venue (MBWV). The study was conducted with 78 vehicles, which would correspond to approximately 50% and 25% of the vehicular traffic expected from the operation of 1 and 2 of the venues projected for the MBWV, respectively, without taking into account additional traffic due to vehicles to be used by staff, caterers, musicians, and other venue operators, competing weddings held at the Wizard Academy, or circumstances requiring.
Previously, in January, 2018, we conducted a formal traffic impact analysis based on road counts over a 5-day period. Results from this January study are here.
However, the live traffic study serves for the important purpose of visualizing a partial projected impact of vehicular traffic on Crystal Hills Dr and confirms professional findings from the January, 2018 study.
Please take a look at the video and judge the traffic impact of the MBWV with your own eyes! Seeing is believing beyond the calculations.
What you see on the video should be multiplied by at least a factor of 2 to visualize what Crystal Hills Dr. would be like with the operation of one single wedding venue at the MBWV. Multiply that by 4 and then you can visualize the effect of two wedding venues in simultaneous operation (actually, a factor of 4 is a very conservative estimate because of the “choke” effect at FM 1826).
Some important observations:
Current time of travel from the MBWV entrance to FM 1826 is approximately 2 minutes without venue operations.
Average travel time with one venue in operation = approximately 10 minutes.
Average travel time with two venues in operation = approximately 20 minutes.
These times are conservative estimates during the time window when MBWV clients will be entering and exiting the venue.
What does it mean to anyone driving on Crystal Hills Dr during Fridays or weekends?
(1) You will be significantly delayed if you happen to drive during the time windows of ingress and egress of invitees of the MBWV.
(2) The safety of Crystal Hills Dr. will be significantly degraded because of the excess vehicular traffic during ingress and egress of clients of the MBWV. The video shows that sharp curves and blind curves become alarmingly unsafe with the excess vehicular traffic.
(3) The traffic already generated by Wizard Academy compounds the safety problems because of the narrow and sharp ingress and egress of cars into that facility. The possibility of MBWV clients egressing under the influence of alcohol consumption compounds the problems even more.
(4) You won’t be able to walk, jog, or bicycle on Crystal Hills Dr. during ingress or egress of clients of the MBWV because of the deteriorated road safety conditions.
(5) The intersection of Crystal Hills Dr. and FM 1826 will become a serious “choke” point that will also affect residents of Rim Rock.
(6) You will not be able to safely evacuate in the event of fire because Crystal Hills Rd. will become a long, static parking lot with the traffic generated by guests of the MBWV and neighbors attempting to evacuate.
What are the solutions to the above problems?
(1) Reduce the size of the MBWV so that Crystal Hills Dr. is safe to drive during ingress and egress of their invitees with the current road conditions.
(2) Improve and widen Crystal Hills Dr. before the MBWV starts its operations. However, this will only be a partial solution because of the “choke” point at FM 1826.
(3) Widen and improve the bridge on Crystal Hills Dr. at the intersection of FM 1826 before the MBWV starts operations. The northbound turn into Crystal Hills Dr. is too sharp and becomes too dangerous with the excess vehicular traffic.
(4) Place a traffic light at the intersection of Crystal Hills Dr. and FM 1826 to partially alleviate the “choke” traffic point at that intersection.
It is highly irresponsible to allow operations of the MBWV with the current design of Crystal Hills Dr. The MBWV needs to be resized to be consistent with the level of service and safety standards of Crystal Hills Dr. Business operations of the MBWV should not start until Crystal Hills Dr. is safe and enables expedient evacuation of neighbors and MBWV guests in the event of fire. Who will be responsible and accountable for accidents and loss of life if the current design of the MBWV is approved by the City of Dripping Springs, by Hays County, and by the State of Texas?
We would like to thank all the neighbors who participated in the live traffic study; they made a great difference in perception. Mike Dunmire and Carlos Torres-Verdin coordinated the preparation and execution of the live traffic study. Laurel Treviño organized and tabulated the times of travel submitted by most of the drivers in the study and measured the baseline times used in the calculations. Thanks to all!