Raise high the roof

A battle Uptown targets the city for bending its own rules

Not exactly.

So far, the Uptown trio's lawsuit has met some success. On December 3, Judge David R. Gibson agreed that building permits for the townhouse project were issued "in clear violation of Dallas City Ordinance 21859." But he declined to take action, claiming he lacked jurisdiction because the group failed to exhaust their appeals to the Board of Adjustment.

The city didn't act on Gibson's advice. The anonymous official dismisses the judge's declaration of city malfeasance as "dicta," which is lawyerese for "superfluous bullshit."

MAC owner Claude Albritton says the city enforces its zoning laws arbitrarily.
Mark Graham
MAC owner Claude Albritton says the city enforces its zoning laws arbitrarily.

Meanwhile, attorney Gammon argues that Gibson's comment wasn't meaningless "dicta" but sage advice that city officials should heed. Nonetheless, she says Gibson's order for her clients to exhaust their appeals isn't germane. Her clients have already tried that with little success, she says, and therefore are stuck in a Catch-22.

That's because the board won't even accept the group's appeals, citing a 10-day deadline that expired months ago. Even so, the issue is moot, Gammon argues, because her clients aren't appealing a "variance" to zoning codes the developers requested, under which a deadline would apply. Rather, she says, they are attempting to roll back a project that breaks the law.

Meanwhile, Gammon is appealing Gibson's ruling by calling on another judge, Bob Jenevein, to declare that Gibson has authority to rule on the matter, a ruling that could be handed down later this week. The twists and turns of the case through several city agencies, she says, illustrate her belief that the city is becoming as corrupt and arbitrary as Chicago or New Orleans in enforcing its own building laws.

"I have never been so frustrated," says Gammon, who normally handles corporate cases. "It's like they make their own rules."

Gammon's clients may be in the same boat as homeowners near Lower Greenville Avenue's bar strip who fault city zoning enforcers for arbitrary enforcement. Angry over a lack of parking space at local bars that forces noisy revelers to park on their streets, they charge that zoning officials are too quick to grant exceptions (Buzz, January 6).

Upset that the Board of Adjustment recently issued a variance to a Dodie's Seafood Café that allows it to make room for a veranda by cutting parking spaces, the homeowners complained to council members Veletta Forsythe Lill and John Loza, who pressed for city intervention. Because the council lacks authority to reverse Board of Adjustment decisions -- only a court can do that -- the city last month came close to suing itself to settle the matter (Mayor Ron Kirk scuttled the idea).

So far, however, Lill and city attorneys are less sympathetic to the beefs of Albritton's crew. "What the city has to do is rely on the interpretation of its building officials," says Lill, who points to a new internal review panel as evidence the zoning board is getting its act together.

Why has the city not taken action against the townhouse developers? The disgruntled property owners claim top officials performed a cost-benefit analysis that put the city's bottom line over enforcement of its own laws. Bennett claims Lill, who represents Uptown, confirmed this to him in a September 30 phone conversation.

"Veletta made the comment that even though the city might be at fault, she has been advised by [assistant city attorney] John Rogers that the city...will suffer less damages if the neighbors sue the city than if the developers' big law firm sues," he recorded in his notes.

Rogers didn't return calls for comment, but Lill flatly denies making the remark.

Bennett, who sits on Richardson's zoning board, says he wonders what happened to the vigilance Lill showed in the Lower Greenville dispute, which didn't even occur in her district. "Here, she won't even help out with a problem in her district that's a lot worse," he says, pointing out that Lill serves with project architect Jack Irwin on the leadership of the Uptown Public Improvement District, a civic group that pays for neighborhood improvements. (She says she barely knows Irwin.)

Lill argues the circumstances are different between the two conflicts and says officials may have to let construction of the townhouses continue because former city zoning chief Claude Forte approved the project as far back as 1992 -- even though official permits weren't granted until last February.

Before the lawsuit, Bennett was perplexed when building officials took action on his complaints to withdraw the permits, only to back off later. Reiterating Bennett's complaints word for word, Ed Simons, development coordinator for the city's building inspection division, on September 16 revoked Finlay's building permits, an action that derailed the project. He also left a message on Bennett's answering machine stating the permits had "shaky value."

But then Simons, who is also targeted in the suit, had a change of heart. On September 24, he issued a terse, two-sentence letter that reinstated the permits -- without stating why the project now met zoning criteria.

Bennett, who initiated the first complaints against the project, laughs in disbelief when he recounts the case's many details. He says he's glad to be retiring soon and leaving the Dallas development milieu. Eventually, he may not renew Irwin's lease in his building, he says.

"These guys are getting in bed together and doing what they damn well please at everyone else's expense," he says. "The whole thing keeps dragging out, and all the time these guys keep building and building."

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