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 Chris Davis
HAYS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – The owners of more than 12 acres of land in Hays County, who were recently sued by their neighbors over their occasional use of the house they built as a wedding venue, filed a lawsuit of their own this month against those same neighbors.
A judge ruled last October that Jani and Shon Saliga were allowed to keep renting out their home between Buda and Dripping Springs to host weddings. The couple filed a lawsuit this month against the neighboring property owners who sued them, alleging the neighbors are intentionally disrupting weddings held there.
Jani Saliga told KXAN she originally bought the land and built the home for her and her husband to retire to, and it wasn’t until real estate agents suggested it could be a venue that the pair turned it into Garden Grove. Read more…
‘I’m hostage on my own land’ | Local wedding venue, neighbors in legal battle
“I’m just waiting to be served any day,” said the homeowner.Controversy has filled the air in the wedding capital of Texas.Homeowners in Dripping Springs are fighting a back-and-forth legal battle with a well-known wedding venue off FM 967.
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….
…. Muckler said an appraiser told him that, in his opinion, the venue would have no impact on the property values of neighboring properties.
Andrea Lohmeyer with Cochran Engineering said the site is in an area without access to several utilities. She said the facility would likely need a large septic system and a well for water.
The buildings also would need sprinkler systems, she said, which would likely require a holding tank.
Lohmeyer said even with the buildings and parking lot, the Mucklers would maintain the area’s green space and preserve the natural look.
As far as traffic is concerned, Lohmeyer said according to a MoDOT study, Highway OO is only used by 2,108 cars per day. With the venue maxing out at 300 guests, she said the traffic impact of 140 cars a few days a week would be minimal.
Andrew Lammert, an attorney representing Muckler, reminded the board it needs “clear and convincing evidence” to not award the permit. Lammert said, in his view, Muckler meets all the requirements needed to obtain a CUP.
For more than an hour, people stepped forward to address the commission and voice their objections.
Residents living or owning property near the proposed venue expressed a variety of concerns.
“It’s too much, too loud, too long and too (much) light,” said Jerry Wilding, who is concerned about the size of the venue, the size of crowds, noise pollution, light pollution and other issues… Read more…
The first ordinance was to clarify where special events venues, which mostly host weddings and receptions or other private parties, can operate either as an allowable use or as a use by exception.
It’s an important distinction because business owners who want to host special events as a use by exception have to go before the Planning and Zoning Board. That’s a public hearing where public comment is allowed.
“It allows for neighbors to make comments on the impact (to the area),” city Planning and Building Director David Birchim said.
Zoning areas where special events venues are allowable are Commercial Medium One (CM-1) and CM-2. The zoning areas where it is a use by exception are: Commercial Low Two (CL-2), Historic Preservation Two (HP-2), HP-3, HP-4, Residential General One (RG-1), RG-2, Residential General Office (RGO) and RGO-A.
Birchim also reminded the commissioners that the use rests solely with the applicant. It doesn’t transfer with the property should it be sold.
The ordinance has slowly evolved over the course of the past year to deal with what has become a growing business in St. Augustine. The city has been attracting more and more people as a wedding destination, and there is a scarcity of appropriate venues. That’s caused some property owners to start hosting events as the demand increases.
So city politicians and staff members are trying to accommodate the growing business while trying to keep it from causing trouble in residential neighborhoods.
Still, Commissioner Leanna Freeman said she was worried the ordinance might open too many properties to be used as special events venues without must chance to stop it. … Read more…
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.”