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Turf Wars

A playhouse built outside a damaged home on Briar Cove Drive drew neighbors' complaints.
Mark Graham

When Tommy McHenry steps onto his porch, it's obvious what the problem is. Or part of it, anyway. To the elderly ladies who've lived here in Casa View for three and four decades, the retired homemakers and widows of war veterans who get together and play bridge, McHenry probably looks terrifying. Except replace "probably" with "abso-freaking-lutely."

McHenry is a slow-moving, hulking man with a voice to match, a low-pitched rumble that's as soft and vaguely threatening as an approaching storm cloud. A braided goatee juts from his chin and spills halfway down his barrel chest. The tattoos on his arm have faded, but they still scream with red and blue ink. He looks like a slightly gone-to-seed member of a metal band.

In other words, McHenry is not exactly the kind of neighbor they usually come to when they need to borrow a cup of sugar. And Casa View, nestled in the crook of the elbow where Interstate 635 and Interstate 30 meet, is the kind of neighborhood where people did that kind of thing, once upon a time. The neighborhood developed after World War II; the suburbs hadn't been discovered yet, so young families moved here, to these quiet, tree-lined streets and small, comfortable houses.

Five years ago, McHenry followed them, moving into one of those houses at 10934 Cotillion Drive. That's when the problems started. That's why I'm here on a sunny July morning, standing on McHenry's porch with him and a couple of his buddies, one of whom, a wiry mechanic who's probably 15 years younger than his leathery skin would lead you to believe, identifies himself as Billy Rock. The other lets the question pass without comment.

"You wanna hold on one second, I'll give you a whole bunch of my side," McHenry says and disappears inside the house. When he returns, he's holding a file folder marked "Code compliance." A few days later, the city's Code Compliance Department will offer up a similar file twice as big as McHenry's, more than an inch thick. Opening his folder, McHenry starts inventorying the contents.

"All my tickets that they wrote me, tickets that they've not shown me..." He trails off. "Just anything they can find. Anything they say. They told me I can't have toys in my front yard. My kids can't have their toys. I can't have a barbecue grill. I cook on my grill every day. So they say I can't have that. They say stuff about the trucks and whatever."

A quick survey of his property makes it clear McHenry doesn't agree with Code Compliance's view of what he can and cannot do. A little girl's bike lies on the ground near the porch, along with a few other scattered toys. The barbecue grill is right where it's always been, and looks as though it probably hasn't moved since he put it there. Whatever lawn used to be here is now just a patch of dirt. Of course, you couldn't see any of this from the street, since the view is blocked by three huge tow trucks and a few other assorted vehicles--evidence, some claim, that he is running an auto salvage and repair business illegally from his property

You don't need to look at the file to see everything that's in it and more. Which is why the case seems to be open and shut: Tommy McHenry is a bad neighbor. But anyone who watched the O.J. Simpson trial knows anything involving the legal system is rarely so simple. Code Compliance issues aren't quite so life and death, but they are, perhaps, even more complicated. While there are two sides to every story, if the tale winds through the Code Compliance Department, that number rises to at least three, maybe as many as five or six, depending on how many neighbors get involved. It's never he-said, she-said. It's he-said, she-said, they-said, we-said.

Such is the case at 10934 Cotillion. A former Casa View resident who still plays bridge with some of her old friends--and doesn't want her name used--is the source of many of the complaints in McHenry's file. (There are quite a few: Since November 2001, the address has received almost 50 service requests, and only a handful was generated by code inspectors making their rounds.) She says the house is "the most disgusting sight and offensive blight" in the neighborhood, "a pigpen" deserving of a Chapter 54 lawsuit. (That section of the Texas Local Government Code says the city attorney could file a civil action against McHenry and take him to court to remedy the situation. The city files 50 or so of these a year.)

For his part, McHenry obviously believes he is in the right. He talks about his relationship with Stephen Cunningham, the code inspector formerly in charge of his neighborhood. "He knew if he knocked on my door, I would take care of it," McHenry says. "If there was any problem, I would take care of the problem." Now, he says, they never knock on his door. The code inspectors just drive by, and a week or two later, a notice of violation or a citation appears in his mailbox. "When I try to stop 'em and talk to 'em, they'll take off."

 

McHenry not only believes he's not a bad neighbor, he feels as though he's one of the good guys, and there's a case to be made for that. After all, McHenry was one of the people who badgered the city to mow the overgrown lawn at 10433 Plummer Drive, a neglected lot in front of a practically abandoned house a few blocks away. A few weeks ago, the city finally sent out a tractor to give the grass and weeds a quick buzz cut.

The city is on the most complicated side, because it is the one that must be objective, must remain within the letter of the law. Often, those laws say the city can't do anything, and if it can, it's usually in the form of a piece of paper many regard as less frightening than a parking ticket. Few violators seem to respect the department's authority.

Recently, respect for the department has fallen even further, thanks to a scandal that resulted in almost half of the 147 inspectors in the department being accused of lying. If bad neighbors didn't respect Code Compliance's authority before, their opinions have only been reinforced. Code Compliance director Kathleen Davis and her employees are battling to restore the department's reputation while continuing to do their jobs. The last part is a battle in its own right, since every neighborhood has a neighbor like McHenry, whether the city knows about them or not.

They know plenty about McHenry. Code Compliance's file shows that McHenry has been issued citations for illegal land use on two occasions; for illegal storage on his front lawn once; and for litter another time. He has also received six notices of violation for a host of other alleged offenses, including illegally breeding dogs. But more often than not, when the inspectors come to investigate, they find that no violation has occurred. The property may not be the most picturesque on the block--or any block, for that matter--but it's not always out of code, certainly not as often as the service request records would indicate. It's not something they would take to the city attorney's office. Davis has said as much.

When it comes down to it, no one is satisfied--in this case and many others. Residences that are perceived to be a problem often remain that way, even after the notices of violation and citations are issued.

"There's unfortunately nothing we can do, other than to hope that we either find the owners and hold them accountable or that the fines will, obviously, get them to be encouraged to repair the house," Davis says. "Or hope for a new owner. The law doesn't allow us at any point in the program to go out and locate the owner, grab 'em by the hand, haul 'em back to the house, put a hammer or a paintbrush in their hand and stand there while they fix the house. It only allows us to issue fines, civil penalties that try to encourage them to fix the house."


Kathleen Davis has the friendly and firm manner of someone who is used to getting her way, with just enough folksy charm to keep anyone from resenting her for it. She's the ideal person for the job of director of Code Compliance, interested in education as much as enforcement, someone who can be sympathetic and stern in equal measure. She's not the type who will throw the book at someone who moved his bulky trash to the curb two weeks too early, nor is she someone who will let that person get away with it for six months.

All of which will serve her well as she attempts to rebuild the Code Compliance Department on the run. Which it constantly is: In 2003, the department received 102,000 calls for service. Through June of this year, it received 160,000, putting it on pace to almost triple last year's figure.

Davis was prepared to deal with that. In fact, she's pleased to hear the numbers are up. That's been her goal since she came from Indiana in July 2002 to take the job. It means that the word has gotten out about the city's user-friendly 311 phone and e-mail program, that more residents are taking her department seriously. What she wasn't ready for was learning that some of the people assigned to handle those complaints weren't doing their jobs.

 

It all started as a simple request from city Councilwoman Veletta Lill last October. She wanted Code Compliance to prepare a briefing for the city council on notices of violations and citations.

"I was not seeing action that was in line with what was appearing on the system," Lill says. Code violations are a pet peeve. She often drives around with tapeless recorder in hand, noting infractions. "If a problem wasn't corrected, I wanted to know why. When things weren't corrected, I started asking questions. Why aren't we giving tickets when it's not corrected in the prescribed amount of time?"

The request had a short deadline, so Davis and her employees began gathering data. Statistics, information on policy and procedure, recommendations for improvements, reports from inspectors, reports from the courts, everything.

"We started looking at the information and noticed that there were..." Davis pauses, looking for the appropriate word. "Discrepancies. We noticed that the information we were getting from the districts, from the field, and what we were getting from courts and detention services who received the citations seemed to be a pretty big gap between what the court says and what our people were telling us."

Courts and detention services came back with one number concerning notices of violations and citations. Reports from the field indicated that the total would be, in Davis' words, "a whole heckuva lot more." At first, she thought it was just a matter of numbers being in the wrong columns. Maybe, she thought, inspectors write a bunch of tickets at the end of one month and turn them into the courts at the beginning of the next.

That, unfortunately, wasn't it.

They kept digging into the numbers and were left with one inescapable conclusion: What the inspectors were reporting was just plain off. The inspectors weren't issuing fake citations. They just weren't doing anything. Davis and her team decided to audit each inspector individually to find the source of the discrepancies. They started with September. Soon, they added August and October as well.

"Basically to determine whether it was just an aberration, whether there was some fluke or something that happened in September," Davis says, "or whether there was a pattern of things that weren't going right."

When the findings were released on June 1, 32 inspectors (among them, three supervisors) were issued pre-termination letters, while an additional 20 were suspended and 18 were given reprimands. Five of the 32 inspectors chose to resign or retire, and one was reduced to a suspension. A few of the cases are still under review. In all, 22 inspectors ended up being fired for inflating their numbers of notices and citations.

"I know this is very difficult for Ms. Davis," Lill says. "It required a great deal of investigative and forensic work to discover where all the problems were. However, it was extremely important to the community. The community, for years, had thought that Code Compliance was not being responsive. When Kathy came in and cleaned house, there was a sense of relief and finally, maybe, we will see action. There are a number of good Code Compliance officers, and their reputations were being harmed by those who weren't doing their work."

But their reputations still are in harm's way. A scandal as wide-ranging as this means that a Code Compliance Department already plagued by general dissatisfaction among the city's residents now must prove that all of its citations and notices of violation are valid, even though that was never questioned. McHenry and his friends laughed on his porch, believing that every piece of correspondence he'd received from the city had been transformed into a worthless piece of scrap paper.

"We've had that for as long as I've been in code enforcement," Davis says with a dismissive laugh. "There's always people who are claiming the inspector was wrong, there were errors made, and we're always happy to review any of those kinds of cases. It never hurts to have a second set of eyes look over it. I will tell you that it's a rare instance where we see that there has been an error by the inspector. In general, they're just upset because they got the notice and their neighbor didn't get a notice. Or they just don't want to listen to someone who's asking them to take different care of their property."

That said, you kind of have to admit McHenry and his boys have a point. If almost half of the Code Compliance Department was found to be lying about the work it wasn't doing, who's to say they were telling the truth about the work they were doing?

 


You can't see this particular "problem child," as Northwood Hills Homeowners Association President Gene Saunders calls it, from the street. Which, in and of itself, is a problem. The trees hang low enough to scrape the tops of the weeds. Or maybe the weeds are so high they've managed to merge with the bottoms of the branches. Either way, the house at 14132 Edgecrest Drive is not sporting a good look.

The trees and weeds, however, can't obscure the three cars in various states of disrepair parked at odd angles on the driveway. These are the vehicles that managed to avoid being seized by Code Compliance when it came and removed a motorcycle, three riding lawn mowers and another car from the premises. By the looks of them, they won't elude that fate for long.

If, or when, inspectors arrive there, it'll be just another piece of evidence in the case Jonathan James is building against the department. And his neighbors, both living and deceased. And the Mafia. And whomever else he can think of. Maybe even me, if I don't watch my step.

I wasn't looking for James when I knocked on the door at 14132 Edgecrest. I was looking for his parents, Gifford and Doris, the owners of the house, according to Dallas Central Appraisal District records. (DCAD lists the value of the house at $353,540.) But Jonathan was the one who answered. While attempting to type my name and number into his balky computer, he lets loose with his conspiracy theory when he hears that I want to ask Gifford or Doris about problems they've had with Code Compliance.

"We didn't have a problem," Jonathan says. His voice sounds like Dale Gribble from King of the Hill, Hank Hill's government-averse neighbor. So do his words. "Code Compliance made up a bunch of problems."

He's only warming up. For the next few minutes, he talks about his former next door neighbor's "campaign of hatred" against him, including allegations of theft and shielding people who stole from him, namely a "drug pusher guy" across the street who took things from the Jameses' back yard and sold them to the now-deceased neighbor. Oh, and the dead neighbor and the drug pusher had a crooked cop working for them.

By now, he's so worked up that he refuses to confirm his identity, even though he gave me his name earlier without prompting. When I ask if his name is Jonathan James, he says, "Something like that, yeah."

Then, abruptly, his tone changes. At first, he was angry at his neighbors and the Code Compliance Department. Now, he's confronting me.

"Are you telling me the Dallas Observer is trying to attack me?" he asks. No, just trying to get your side. "Well, are you attacking Code Compliance?" Again, no, but it is comforting to know that I've found a regular reader of the Observer.

I switch tacks, asking what, exactly, were the problems Code Compliance made up? That did the trick. I'm safely back on his side, and he opens up.

"Well, they said that we had broken windows and cars that wouldn't start and, uh, I don't know what they said, you know?" he says, speaking so quickly the words bounce off each other like bumper cars. "But the thing was, it was all lies." He mentions that another inspector came back and checked everything and said he was well within his rights. But it didn't last.

"Then they got sneaky, and eventually they took a chain cutter and came over with an armed security guard and cut through the chain on the fence," Jonathan says. "They hauled off a car that had a broken brake line on it. It was my main car, and I was changing the engine on it, and it had a broken line. Boy, they sure did move on that. I learned my lesson. You don't fix your car in this neighborhood.

"They hauled off a motorcycle," he continues. "I couldn't find the keys to it, and they hauled it off. It was a perfectly good, vintage Honda 754 that was working perfectly. You know, it hadn't even been started for a long time, but it ran perfectly. I had driven it the last time that it was started, maintained it for years. Tires were perfect, battery was perfect, everything was good on it. They hauled off three riding lawn mowers that were perfectly functional. Had brand-new 16-horsepower overhead valve engines on two of 'em."

Sometime during his monologue, the conversation turns confrontational again.

"I'll tell you this: If you're on the side of Code Compliance, then you're on a side that's going down," he says. "If you're trying to make any insinuations against this property or this family, then you will also go down, because I have some very important advocates in this case."

 

None of whom, it would seem, happens to live in the neighborhood. Saunders, the president of the neighborhood homeowners association, says the situation at 14132 Edgecrest has elevated from a nuisance and an eyesore to a problem that is beginning to drive homeowners away.

"The people next door, I just hear kinda by word of mouth or whatever it is that they sold the house simply because it was just so out of place," Saunders says. "If you look to the left and the right of it, you know, there's fairly nice houses, well-maintained and all that sort of thing. And then you've got this thing. It looks straight out of The Beverly Hillbillies. I've not done anything myself, but I've heard that Dallas Code Compliance has been there many, many, many times and has cited them, and they just don't care."

He's right. Notes in the Code Compliance file on the Jameses' house indicate the department has never had an easy time at 14132 Edgecrest. That's why they had to come with a chain cutter and a guard to seize the vehicles. The report says they sent a waiver form to Doris James at her place of work to allow them to perform a heavy clean on the property, and that, at long last, she reluctantly agreed to sign and return it. But she never did.

Jonathan James refuses to admit there's anything wrong with the house or the cars or the weeds, even though, when taken together, they make the property stick out like a sore thumb on a hand of well-manicured pinkies. Whatever he's questioned about, either he maintains it's not a problem or he blames it on someone else. Like the weeds, for instance, which are well over the allowable 12 inches.

"That dead neighbor? Came over here one day and poured--I don't know where he got it, but his lawn mower bag was filled with seeds of Johnson grass," he says. "Our lawn was always the only lawn on this whole street that had zero weeds in it, because we went out there and pulled 'em by hand and kept it fertilized and everything like that. He took that sack of seeds and poured it on the front lawn, and basically...it was just sabotage.

"His persecution started when I was, like, 8 years old. I could never tell you everything that happened. We're scared as hell when we're dealing with these kind of people. If you need some extra guns or some extra news people, we know some, too. Thanks a lot, bro."


You may not have someone like Jonathan James or Tommy McHenry living next door. You may not have anyone at all. Sometimes, that's even worse. Then, there's no one to complain to.

Take 6737 Briar Cove Drive, for example. It's maybe three or four minutes from the Jameses' house. Built in the '60s, at one point it was one of the most beautiful homes in the area, a 3,500-square-foot, two-story mansion with classic Greek columns. Two years ago, when the fire happened, it was owned by James Wimberly, an executive with Southwest Airlines, and his wife, Marjorie.

It's still a beautiful house, on the outside, but it is uninhabitable. That's because of the two-alarm fire that broke out on December 5, 2002. The attic blaze, blamed on an electrical short, took the life of Dallas fire Captain Michael DePauw and, on a lesser note, caused $150,000 worth of damage.

That's when McCollum & Associates, home builders and remodelers, became involved. Scott McCollum and his company were hired to consult with the Wimberlys on the adjustment with the insurance company, and to help decide what to do with the property. McCollum also asked the Wimberlys if, since the house was unoccupied, he could use the driveway to build the playhouses he auctioned off for charity. They agreed.

Some of the neighbors weren't as supportive. They had no problem with the playhouse at first. But then it stayed there for a month. Then another. Soon, it had been there for five months. Maybe more. You lose track at some point. That, combined with the temporary trash bin out front and the construction debris scattered around it, caused a problem--especially since no work appeared to be going on inside the house. One neighbor, who declines to be named, took those concerns to the Code Compliance Department.

"I called the city of Dallas four times," the neighbor says. "Four times I've called the city. Three times they sat on it and didn't do anything. The fourth time I called her, she gave me the name of this guy I could call and talk to, and the number doesn't work. So it's very, very frustrating."

 

McCollum says he had no idea there was a problem with any of the neighbors.

"Well, whoever it is that's been complaining has never complained to me, and that sign has been up in the yard for a year and a half now," he says, referring to the McCollum & Associates sign with their phone number on it. "That's kind of strange that there's a complaint and nobody's ever called and complained to me, but that's not unusual for the way that these things usually go. No one has ever contacted me about a complaint regarding the playhouses or anything else. There was a complaint about the noise late in the evening one evening, and I think we asked the guys to stop and move."

The problem, it seems, is that Code Compliance didn't investigate the matter thoroughly. An inspector visited the house and issued notices of violation regarding the playhouses and illegal storage. But these notices were sent to the house, not to McCollum. When he says he didn't know there were any complaints involving the playhouses, he just might be telling the truth. Why else would he have started building another one?

He'll have time to build plenty of others, unless Code Compliance stops him. McCollum says he's set to demolish the mansion and begin building a custom home on the site. He's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Francis James, on the other hand, has no idea where the people responsible for the problems at 7159 Rolling Fork Drive have been for the past seven or eight months. Maybe New Mexico. Maybe Arizona. She's not sure. James, the president of the Buckner Terrace Homeowners Association, is certain, however, that the property (owned by Elvira Flores, according to DCAD records) is a stain on an otherwise well-kept neighborhood.

"When you go down Rolling Fork, you'll look on either side," James says. She sounds, at first, like a grandmother who's stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but she's a bulldog. "Those people are as nice as they can be. One side is a retired city employee that was hired back because she was such a specialist they needed her. On the other side is a police officer. Next door to the lady retired from the city is one of the biggest and prettiest houses in the whole neighborhood. So we're not talking about idiots."

James has lived in Buckner Terrace since 1986 and has been the president of the homeowners association for three years. The home on Rolling Fork has been a constant source of complaint during her term in office, racking up 54 service requests since 2002 for everything from high weeds and junk motor vehicles to illegal land use (for selling cars) and illegal storage.

The main problem is the weeds. James and some of her neighbors had a plan of attack, figuring if they just let it go long enough, the city would be forced into action. But--as if proving James' point about how much pride her neighbors take in their homes and the area in general--someone couldn't wait it out.

"Some new person in the neighborhood...went up there and mowed the yard," she says, more than a little exasperated. "Here we were trying to get it 12 inches tall so the city would put a lien on it. So this neighbor just went over and mowed it: 'Well, I was just trying to keep it a nice-looking neighborhood.'"

So far, James can't see that anything has been done to remedy the situation. She calls and e-mails, and Code Compliance dutifully gives her another case number. But nothing changes. She blames the department's habit of reassigning inspectors as soon as they know the area and its various hot spots.

"Some of the best ones we've had, that we could tell we were really getting results, one of them they moved him over on Illinois [Avenue]," James says. "I thought, 'Why in the hell would you take our good man and move him over there?'"

But she hasn't given up.

"There's a lot of us, and we're all active reporting these things because we want to be sure that this neighborhood doesn't become another ghetto for the city of Dallas," James says. "They've got enough."


The house on Rolling Fork is nothing compared with what Wanda Bean has been dealing with. Bean is such a sweet little old lady, you'd half expect her to live in a gingerbread house. Instead, she lives just around the corner from McHenry in Casa View, in the same house she's been in for 31 years. But McHenry is not her problem.

 

It's the house next door, 10376 Sandra Lynn Drive. Rotting holes dot the fascia board. There are holes in the floor, too, providing easy access for the rats that live there. The roof has been leaking for years, so the wallboard is falling apart. The grass is sickly brown and overgrown. The windows are covered in plywood. It's been empty for 12, maybe 13 years. No one's really sure. The last owner, Guendolyn McDonald, died a decade ago. But she had vacated the house a few years earlier, moving to a rest home in Allen.

"Well, there was some kids come and taking her off," Bean begins. "They were neighbors at one time. And they kinda"--she lowers her voice--"Miss McDonald drank a little, and they did, too. They kinda had taken up with her, and she put them on her bank account. She had enough money to live comfortable, you know, as long as she lived. But they'd taken her off, and they spent all of her money, and then they put her in the rest home. They come over here and sold her furniture, what they could sell out of her house. And they was gonna try to sell the house, but they found out they couldn't sell it."

The house has sat there ever since, slowly deteriorating. Bean's husband, Titus, mowed the lawn regularly, until he fell ill and died. Wanda took over, with help from the neighbor on the other side of the house, but they eventually gave up. The city told them to.

"They told us not to mow it, that they'd take care of it," she says. "Well, they do. About once a year." She laughs, a high girlish giggle. "Then when they came out the other day, they mow the front yard with a tractor like you would use out on the farm. They hit it with the bricks and knocked them down, so that made it look even worse. I don't know how much worse it's gonna have to get before they just tear it down. But I wish it had been sold. They wait until they just completely fall apart or someone gets in there and sets it on fire or something."

When Bean opened the door to talk to me, her security alarm went off. She forgets about it sometimes, since it was installed only recently, after her house was broken into on May 10. It shouldn't be much of a surprise. One of her former neighbors, who actively reports violations in her old neighborhood, says, "My ongoing speech is that crime follows code violations. Three houses on that block have been broken into recently."

Maybe it's too late. Maybe the criminals who have targeted the area are there to stay. But Bean will finally get some satisfaction. Davis says the house on Sandra Lynn has been referred to the city attorney's office for a Chapter 54 lawsuit. With any luck, the house will be a pile of rubble before the year ends. It was heading that way anyway.


In just two years on the job, Kathleen Davis has already transformed the Code Compliance Department. It just wasn't the way she thought she was going to do it. Sure, it was her call to reassign or demote a number of inspector supervisors last fall. But she didn't expect that would be followed by the kind of turnover that came in June.

But she's moving on, filling the vacated posts with her kind of code inspectors, people who are willing to work with problem neighbors rather than declare all-out war. Mostly, she wants to improve the department's efficiency. She's already made strides in that area, improving how Code Compliance deals with bulk trash violators. On August 1, the city will begin issuing immediate citations with a penalty of up to $175 to residents who put bulk trash on the curb out of schedule. Before, violators were sent a warning by certified mail that a citation would be issued if the trash wasn't picked up. Of course, by the time the warning was picked up from the post office--as long as 10 days after it was mailed--the trash had already been picked up.

That's just one step. She knows there are many others to take.

"I don't think I'll ever be satisfied," she says. "I'm just that kind of person. It's never good enough, there's always more to do, there's always other things in the neighborhoods that I'd like to go out and accomplish. We passed a wonderful multifamily ordinance this spring, in March, and already there are things that I'm thinking about, like, 'Well, you know, if this works, then we ought to think about tweaking this a little bit and trying to improve it even further than what it is.'"

 

Veletta Lill, who started the investigation that led to the terminations in June, is confident that the right person is in place to turn the department around.

"Ms. Davis has a challenging year ahead of her," she says. "To hire new folks and to train them properly and then begin the implementation process. But I have faith that we can get this situation under control and that we can make a difference in cleaning up our community."


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