By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sean Segura is a wiry 28-year-old with a roughly shaved head who is trying to open up a car lot in a tight cluster of auto-related businesses on Davis Street in North Oak Cliff. You wouldn't think he'd have any trouble, but even though his place doesn't stand out as a peculiar eyesore, Segura's been locked in a bitter and bizarre battle with the city and the nearby middle-class residents. The self-described Christian has become a neighborhood pariah and the subject of a community newspaper editorial.
Much worse, he hasn't been able to open for business, and some people couldn't be happier.
"We're sorry to see more car lots going into West Davis," says Barbara Barbee, whose family has lived in Oak Cliff since 1947. "I'm sure the neighbors would like to see a nice store there or a restaurant there."
Segura has the zoning he needs to open his business, but he says the city is suddenly changing the rules on him after so many neighbors complained. Segura's tale, like those of many who deal with the city, is hard to follow, so we'll just give you the short version: The city gave the small-business owner preliminary approval to pave his property, renovate the abandoned house that he inherited and open a car lot on site, until suddenly informing him last month that he had to completely redevelop his land.
Segura's property covers three separate parcels, and the city now says that if he wants to open up a car lot, he has to have some sort of structure for each of them. Segura says that he can't afford to fulfill this requirement and, even if he did, the additional buildings would take up the space he needs to sell his cars. He adds that plenty of other car lots in Oak Cliff also fall on two or more parcels, but they only have one building.
The city, however, is singling him out, he says, after a torrent of community opposition.
"I went through and followed all the codes and all the legal steps and everything was approved, and now they're changing the rules at the end of the game," he says. "The point is they don't want me here. There is a small group of well-off people who are trying to run off people like me."
City officials concede that they initially told Segura that his plans were fully in compliance, but that's only because they didn't know he was going to open his car lot on all three parcels. Neighbors, they say, let them know what Segura was actually doing. They say that another option Segura has would be to go before the plan commission and "re-plat," or combine the three parcels as one. Segura says that process would cost him at least $6,000 and would keep him from selling cars for months.
Segura's story begins a day or two after Thanksgiving in 2006, when a man came by asking Segura if he had the right permits. The prospective car salesman assured him that he did, and the man, a former city plan commissioner by the name of David Spence, told him that he planned to talk with city officials to see if that was true.
"I'm going to go back and check, and are you sure you want to pour concrete and have the city come back and tell you to stop?" Spence says he told him.
Segura says he wasn't about to pour concrete since he didn't have his paving permit yet. He was just clearing the brush and tree stumps from his property.
Spence also told Segura that he knew the landscape inspector, Phil Erwin. He called him a friend. Segura didn't think much of that until a few months later when Erwin dropped by to inspect Segura's property, and, shortly after, Spence arrived in his car as well. That's when Erwin told Segura that he was in violation of the landscape ordinance since the palm trees he planted on the perimeter of his car lot to meet the buffer requirement didn't technically count as "trees." He also said they may be a fire hazard and could fall on a pedestrian or lead to an infestation of rats.
City officials now concede that Segura's palm trees, though rather small, are OK. "The palm trees are not the usual trees we see," says Leif Sandberg, with the city's Building Inspection Department. "I don't know if they are not approvable; I think there is a possibility these trees can work."
While Segura was surprised to learn from Erwin about his wayward landscaping, he couldn't help but notice Spence sitting in his parked car, nodding his head and taking notes. As soon as Erwin left, Spence followed closely behind him.
For his part, Spence says that he didn't plan to accompany Erwin, he just happened to drive by when the inspector came.
"Is it conceivable that I pulled up and took notes? Absolutely," he says.
Spence owns several businesses in North Oak Cliff, including the office building for Oak Cliff People, a local newspaper that penned a critical editorial about Segura's business in June. Viewed as a folk hero of sorts among many of the area's middle-class residents for his slew of stylish-looking properties, Spence seems eager to show that he's not trying to gentrify a busy street that historically has been populated with Hispanic businesses.