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Oak Cliff Businessman Says the City Reneged on Zoning Rules

Sean Segura
MARK GRAHAM

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.

"My MO is not to go around picking on any kind of particular business in this area—that's not what my track record is," Spence says.

But in November 2002, Spence resigned from his seat on the city's plan and zoning commission after an ethics panel reprimanded him for abusing his power. That came after a Dallas Observer story that reported how Spence tried to obtain an Oak Cliff restaurateur's liquor license application in what Spence called a "silly neighborhood pissing match." The restaurant owner viewed it more seriously and claimed Spence was using his stature to prevent him from opening.

Five years later, Segura says that Spence is back to his old tricks. Of course, Spence, a one-time ally of former Mayor Laura Miller, is no longer a city board member, and while he might be a prominent developer in Oak Cliff, it's not clear he still has any pull with city officials. Spence forwarded a series of e-mails he sent to city officials complaining about Segura's property, and many of those went unanswered for months.

In any case, Spence is clearly not the only neighborhood resident who has gripes about Segura's business. Others have also complained to the city that he wasn't providing any parking for his prospective customers and that he was stationing his used cars on the sidewalk.

"As the president of the Bishop Arts Merchant association, a property owner in the district, and a resident off Davis, I cannot tell you how disappointing it is to see such a poor development take place during a time when we are all actively working to redevelop Davis to better serve the needs of area residents," wrote Rob Shearer in an e-mail to area council member Elba Garcia.

Still, nobody matched the indignation of Spence, whose rousing and prolific prose seemed wasted on the subject of a car lot.

"In more than a dozen e-mails with city staff I have patiently laid out the issues and offered my observations, assuming that city employees don't need to be prodded into action like cattle if they have the facts in front of them and a polite request from a knowledgeable citizen," he wrote in an e-mail to Garcia. "Well, I'm about to go out and buy me a blow horn and a cattle prod. The system has utterly failed to protect the neighborhoods around Davis and other legitimate investors from the kind of lawless development that holds Oak Cliff back every bit as much as graffiti, muggings and drug-dealing."

Not everyone thinks that Segura is bringing down the neighborhood. Rebecca Charles, who works as a bookkeeper at Butch's Auto Clinic directly across the street, says that Segura fixed up an old, abandoned house and cleaned a vacant, treeless yard filled with weeds and closed off, in places, by an old barbed-wire fence.

"It's been a vacant lot forever," she says. "It looks a lot better than it did before."

City officials say that even though neighborhood residents informed them of Segura's code violations, officials were not unduly influenced. It just turns out that the neighbors were right. Chris Bowers, an attorney with the city, says that the city just wants Segura to follow the law and are willing to work with him to make sure he's in compliance. Segura, meanwhile, is exasperated. He is looking into hiring a lawyer and is also hoping for a helping hand from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

But with neighbors watching his every move, Segura is being a little reckless. He acknowledges he's sold a few cars from his lot, even though he still hasn't received his permit. That's illegal. With the city giving him a hard time over his palm trees, what are they going to do now that he's breaking the law? The neighbors may get their way yet.


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