This is not the dirt box the council will be discussing. It'd be cooler if it were.

Ground Up: Or, "Dirt Skirt" Would Also Make a Good Band Name.

The city council's Economic Development Committee meets this morning to address the question of where the ground is. In a special briefing on the question, Assistant City Manager A.C Gonzalez will take a neutral position typical of the city’s professional management staff. He will point out that most people think the ground is where their feet are. But he also presents the thinking of the city’s business-friendly building inspectors, who have joined some real estate developers recently in arguing that the ground is where you say it is.

This is an issue I have written about in the paper version of Unfair Park a few times, especially the case on Oram Street in East Dallas, where an apartment developer was successful in persuading city building inspectors that the ground was not where they had always thought it was.

City rules say you can only build up three stories from the ground in certain kinds of residential neighborhoods. Tom Nelson, the developer on Oram, built a four-story building, but he said the roof of his building was only three stories up from the ground because the ground was higher than everybody thought it was.

Nelson put planter boxes full of dirt at the corners of his building and said that because dirt is ground, the inspectors should measure from the tops of his planter boxes. The inspector did not roll up the plans for Nelson’s building in one hand and begin thwacking Nelson over the head with them, as many homeowners in the area thought he should have. Instead he approved Nelson’s plans and allowed his building to stand.

A subsequent hearing before the city’s so-called “Board of Adjustment” failed to provide the neighbors with relief. Speaking for the neighbors, lawyer Jonathan Vinson argued that everybody knows where the ground is. But board chairman Rob Richmond was not persuaded. He said the ground was where the building official said it was at the time.

Since then, the politics of the issue have become complicated. City council member Angela Hunt, in whose district the Oram case took place, feels strongly that the city should amend its ordinances to say that the ground is where your feet are, no matter what. But some other members -- including Mayor Tom Leppert, who have never really forgiven Hunt for opposing the Trinity River Corridor Project -- may want to punish Hunt by voting against making the ground where your feet are.

The question is where else it should be. That is wide open. It’s a Pandora’s box. --Jim Schutze

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