Is Council Candidate Philip Kingston a Neighborhood Advocate or a Bully?

After this month's city elections, we repeated a quote that District 14 candidate Bobby Abtahi gave to the Morning News alluding to Philip Kingston, his opponent in next month's runoff, as "someone who sues their neighbors." Kingston wasn't pleased. He called shortly after to offer a barbed response, calling Abtahi a "stranger to the district" and arguing that he had no idea what neighbor-suing Abtahi meant.

Technically, anyway, he may have a point. It's his wife, a lawyer named Melissa Kingston, who is suing the couple's neighbor Avi Adelman, who doubles as the most loud-mouthed neighborhood activist in East Dallas. Another lawsuit was filed recently by the Kingstons on behalf of the Belmont Addition Conservation District, but it was filed against a local developer who, Melissa Kingston argued, was flouting the neighborhood's building restrictions.

But even if Abtahi's statement was technically correct, what he was alluding to was the Kingstons' governance of the conservation district, which history shows they do carry out with a heavy hand.

Melissa Kingston is the head of Belmont Addition's so-called "enforcement committee," which "periodically reviews proposed building plans, monitors construction in the BACD and works with City staff and builders in order to ensure compliance with the terms of the BACD ordinance," as she described it in a court filing. It was in that capacity that she sued the developer. And it was in that capacity that she threatened to sue their soon-to-be neighbor Brittany Bailey.

Bailey and her husband had purchased a property on Goliad Avenue with the intention of building a new, prairie-style house. City staff approved the plans, determining that they were in keeping with conservation district guidelines, and gave them the go-ahead to could start building.

But not long after starting on the foundation, the enforcement committee filed an appeal with the city's Board of Adjustment, forcing them to stop. WFAA had a brief report on the impasse in December.

Adelman, when he's not Photoshopping Philip Kingston's face into unflattering pictures, has been chronicling the story with obsession, posting materials submitted to the Board of Adjustment, including emails between Bailey, Melissa Kingston and city officials.

According to the docs, the Kingstons first caught wind of the new construction last August. Melissa Kingston immediately reached out to Bailey through the home builder to welcome her to the neighborhood and gently remind her of the conservation ordinance. At the same time, she emailed a city building official to object to their garage, which was below the grade of the home. "There is nothing that permits a subterranean level in our CD," she wrote.

What followed was a chilly exchange of emails over several months as the Kingstons -- usually Melissa, but sometimes Philip -- sought to persuade Bailey to change her plans. That culminated in the Board of Adjustment appeal, which Philip Kingston expressed regrets about.

What we have here is a disagreement with City staff about the interpretation of the CD ordinance. We shared with you, your builder and staff a detailed explanation of our concerns in August long before your plans were approved. We also reached out to you and your builder as soon as we knew you were coming to the CD. We do this specifically so that we can help builders get plans approved and avoid conflict.

Unfortunately, when there is a disagreement over ordinance interpretation that is not resolved through discussion, the sole remedy the neighborhood has is to use the Zoning Board of Adjustment to challenge staff's interpretation. ... I have confidence in the arguments presented in the appeal and anticipate prevailing, but actually going through with the BdA hearing is not BACD's preferred option. What we would much prefer to do is sit down with you and your builder to understand the project from your perspective and explore whether there are changes that can be made to meet your goals for the house and the neighborhood's concerns as well.

That's what happened several months before, when the Kingston's objected to another set of city-approved plans for a home on their block of Palo Pinto. They ultimately entered into a detailed settlement with the builder.

But Bailey was not so amenable to compromise. She opted to make her case to the Board of Adjustment and, on a 3-2 vote in February, she won.

In an email exchange with Unfair Park, Kingston objected to the notion that he and his wife were the driving force behind the appeal. "The committee has 20 members, and I didn't even vote on whether to pursue the appeal because I was trying to craft an agreed solution, which my record of email communication confirms," he wrote. " When that failed, my involvement ended. BACD is not unlike any other conservation district in that we all have people who work on ordinance enforcement."

One can bet that's not how Abtahi would frame it, particularly as the District 14 runoff is sinking ever deeper into the mud. And these neighborhood issues are a something of a Rorschach test anyways. Neighborhood defender or nitpicking bullying: It's in the eye of the beholder.

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