Board of Scrooges

No better holiday fun than evicting the poor from their hovels


In 1984, neighborhood groups won their first major political victory in decades--maybe ever--in Dallas by pushing through a comprehensive rezoning of the city. The new law provided that so-called "nonconforming uses," even ones that have been grandfathered, can be forced to cease operation if their continued existence constitutes a danger or hardship for surrounding neighborhoods.

I was here then. What people had in mind were lead smelters and rendering plants.

Susan Graham, a nurse, came here several years ago to live with and look after her elderly father at the Ash Creek Mobile Home Park. A nearby gated community wants the mobile homes gone.
Susan Graham, a nurse, came here several years ago to live with and look after her elderly father at the Ash Creek Mobile Home Park. A nearby gated community wants the mobile homes gone.

The body that makes the decision on forcing a grandfathered operation to cease is the Board of Adjustment, which is appointed by the city council. Good and smart people serve on it sometimes. And so do pompous morons relishing their first taste of power.

Delores G. Wolfe told the board she represents 13 neighborhood organizations, all of whom feel the park has "deteriorated into a dilapidated eyesore that pulls a disproportionate share of this city's resources related to crime and noncompliance of code enforcement." To support her charges she presented the board with a catalog of code violations and police calls, as well as criminal background checks showing that many people in the park have criminal records.

I looked at the 911 calls. Many appear to have been made by residents of the park asking the police to do something about people outside the park firing guns in the creek bottom at night and setting off firecrackers.

My experience with criminal background checks is this: If the trailer park people could afford to do comprehensive background checks on everybody in the 13 complaining neighborhood groups, I'm sure they would come up with an impressive number of drunk-driving arrests, hot checks, nonsupport warrants, peace bonds and at least a couple of registered sex offenders. What separates the mortgaged middle class from the unmortgaged trailer park class is a filamentous line, which, of course, is what makes the puffed-up houses so nervous all the time.

Maralyn ("Marty") Ray, who has lived in a house on Barbaree for 34 years, made an impassioned speech in defense of the mobile home park. "I am a college art professor," she said. "I teach design. I am interested in beauty."

She described the area along Ash Creek as "a natural forest" and "a wonderland." She turned away from the board and told 60 or more mobile home residents sitting meekly in a clump at the back of the auditorium: "You do fit into the character of our unique area."

She said she had scoured back issues of newsletters put out by the complaining neighborhood groups for any mention of crime at the trailer park and had found none.

And finally Ray said that the code violations were a legitimate concern. But she said she had been working in recent months with owner Steve Crossett, who lives in Austin and inherited the park from his father, and Crossett had been entirely cooperative.

Crossett later told the board he was informed recently by city code enforcement that there are no open complaints against him.

And then the board started in on him.

Board member Samuell A. Gillespie earlier had disagreed with the city attorney when she told the board they were not required to take away anybody's "grandfathered" zoning, even if it conflicts with zoning for the rest of a neighborhood. A "nonconforming" use, the lawyer said, is not an illegal use. Only if the board finds that the nonconforming use is harming other properties nearby should it force an operation to cease.

But Gillespie was prissy about it. He said his reading of the ordinance was different. He saw in it a positive mandate to make everybody conform, no matter what.

When Crossett told the board he had been informed by a city code inspector and the inspector's supervisor that the park was in compliance, Gillespie, a part-time unpaid civilian appointee, told Crossett that he disagreed with that assessment.

Then Gillespie grilled Crossett about whether Crossett evicts tenants from his park if they don't follow the rules. Crossett said he does.

"Do you think you could extend the analogy to the greater neighborhood on that?" Gillespie asked.

"I don't understand the question," Crossett said.

"If certain parts of the neighborhood didn't comply and had a history of noncompliance, do you think they should be asked to leave?"

Asked to leave? Excuse me? The people from the gated community deem that another part of the neighborhood does not comply with their...what? Their aesthetic? And so the "noncomplying" part of the area is asked to leave? Is that like when you ask people to leave, and then you put them on cattle trains to the east?

Mr. Gillespie: Now there is a man who loves government power.

And here's a scary thought for you: A few days after the hearing, I spoke with a friend who's a member of the Board of Adjustment. He/she (I won't say which) spoke to me not for attribution in order to avoid the wrath of fellow members. But she/he told me that recent changes in the law, especially the anti-McMansion "over-lay" ordinance, are putting areas of older residential housing into legally nonconforming status in wholesale numbers.

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