How the City's Board of Adjustment turned the dreams of Josh and Jenn Terry into a nightmare.

I want to catch you up on a story I told you about in September, concerning Josh and Jenn Terry, both 29 years old, who were rehabilitating an apartment building in North Oak Cliff. It's sort of a Halloween story.

Before starting their project, the Terrys checked in with the city to make sure their zoning was OK. The city said it was. Full steam ahead.

Then, after the Terrys already had invested two hundred grand, the city changed its mind. Nope. Tear it all out. It's illegal. Two hundred grand be damned.

The city told the Terrys they could appeal their case to something called the Board of Adjustment. (Whenever you hear this term, "Board of Adjustment," I want you to picture a large wooden plank with a mechanism of steel plates and huge thumb-screws and a place for you to lay your head so that your skull can be "adjusted.")

Some catch-up. As I told you in the first column ("Tough Noogies," September 9), the Terrys bought an 87-year-old apartment building in the King's Highway Conservation District on Winnetka Avenue in North Oak Cliff and were rehabbing it with the city's express consent.

In fact, before they did a lick of work, Josh Terry checked with City Hall. The city didn't just say the zoning was good. They sent Terry a full copy of the 36-page March 23, 1988 city ordinance establishing the conservation district to prove to him that he was legal.

The ordinance included a lot-by-lot map of the district showing the proper zoning for every single property. The Terrys' lot was on the map with notations showing it was for use as multi-family or apartment.

Good to go, right?

That's what they thought. They poured money into the place. The city gave them building permits and even allowed them to go through the first steps of getting a "Certificate of Occupancy," meaning people would be allowed to live there. They couldn't get the final certificate until the work was done, but everything was moving along swimmingly.

And then bang! The city shut them down. No more building permits. No certificate of occupancy. The Terrys reminded the city they already had OK'd the whole thing. The city said to them what it has repeated in public hearings and in e-mails to me: It said the Terrys' inquiries and applications for permits had been "processed [by the city] in error."

But even after the city admitted its mistake, the city maintained it still couldn't allow the Terrys to complete their project.

This is a big, old, square brick property that nobody would ever try to turn into a single-family home. So if it can't be an apartment building, it can't be anything. The only thing it's good for is demolition.

In order to shut the Terrys down, city staff embarked on a major research project, digging up old utility bills and building permits, most of which wound up supporting the Terrys. But the city folks found enough scraps of paper here and there to hang a hat on, and on that basis they told the Terrys they were out of luck.

I said at the time that stuff like this does not happen out of the blue. City staff doesn't jump like that even if you drop a bomb on them. Somebody's got to be behind the scenes turning the screw—somebody special.

The city told the Terrys if they didn't like what was happening to them they could always go to the Board of Adjustment (imagine the words, BOARD OF ADJUSTMENT, printed in big black letters with blood dripping off them and scary music and haunted house screams in the background).

Oh, no! Not the BOARD OF ADJUSTMENT!!!!!

But before we take you down to the...BOARD OF ADJUSTMENT!!!!!...allow me to share a little tidbit with you. At a certain point in all of this, I learned that a member of Board of Adjustment, a gentleman named Christian Chernock, had expressed an interest in buying the Terrys' apartment building some time before they got it.

A real estate agent named Guillermo Reyes confirmed to me that Chernock had come to him about it: "He expressed an interest to buy that house," Reyes told me. "But he didn't phone up and continue. It wasn't serious. I never had offers from him."

OK. But there was "interest."

The property eventually went into a complicated HUD foreclosure. Terry was able to buy it out of the foreclosure before an auction by being a bit clever, a bit ahead of the game.

Chernock, by the way, has insisted that he cannot comment on any of this because of the rules governing the Board of Adjustment—by law a "quasi-judicial" agency.

But the fact is that Chernock has been very involved in the case, according to a trove of City of Dallas e-mails that I finally obtained in spite of over-the-top efforts by the city to keep them from me. The e-mails between city officials, some of whom are city staff working for the Board of Adjustment, contain phrases like "Christian Chernock is very much interested..." and "...regarding my conversations with Christian Chernock," all having to do with shutting down the Terrys' permits.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze