At 2:30 p.m. today 14th Civil District Judge Eric Moye put the Planet Earth back where it belongs, much to the relief of people clinging to its surface in one East Dallas neighborhood. In the infamous "dirt skirts" case, a zoning dispute over building heights, Moye ruled that city of Dallas building inspectors and a subsequent appeals body had violated the city's own ordinances -- not to mention science, common sense and probably the Bible -- by trying to change the location of "ground," which is viewed by most people as ... well ... the ground. You know, what you walk on.
Last year neighbors near a property at 6159 Oram Street were shocked when a new apartment building rose to four stories in a zone normally limited to three. The builder pointed out that the zoning didn't really say how many stories the building could go up, only how many feet it was allowed to be built up from "the ground."
He built concrete planter boxes around the building, filled them with dirt and said, "There's the ground." When he measured form the top of the planter boxes, he was A-OK. More amazing: City building inspectors, notorious for wanting to make developers happy and not known for having much sympathy for neighborhoods, gave the builder a passing grade on his grade, so to speak.
Jamie Pierson, a very determined neighbor who had built a house across the alley, took the builder to the City Board of Adjustment. In a ruling straight out of Through the Looking-Glass, the chairman of the Board of Adjustment, casting the deciding vote, said the decision of the building inspectors was final because ... well ... they were the building inspectors.
In other words, the city of Dallas, in its wisdom, ruled that the ground, previously believed to be what's under our shoes, is actually seven feet higher than that -- or, potentially, however high human beings can build planter boxes.
In a one-hour trial today, Judge Moye, a graduate of Harvard Law School, decided against the builder on the basis of: You can't just build a box and fill it with dirt and say it's the ground. This is an over-simplification of Moye's ruling and far less elegantly expressed than he put it, but ... c'mon. It's ... it's the ground.
Actually, Moye ruled on the basis of what a structure is. Using the common definition in building codes and law books everywhere, he said a structure is "anything artificially built up of parts." The ground, then, is what's underneath the structure. Not what's on top of it. Duh.
Here's the scary thing. In addition to being very determined, Jamie Pierson, the plaintiff in this matter, had three -- count 'em, three -- lawyers in court with him today from the pricey law firm of Jackson Walker. Does anybody have any idea what it cost this man, a citizen and taxpayer in the city of Dallas, to force Dallas City Hall to concede that the ground is underneath the buildings, not on top of them?
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Moye agreed to issue a writ of certiorari overturning the ruling of the Dallas Board of Adjustment, which had ruled that the surface of the planet is not where it used to be. Moye's writ will say it still is. Moye expressed concern for people living in the building and said he didn't want to issue a ruling that might make "four families homeless."
The pricey team from Jackson Walker told him they thought there might be other solutions. Maybe it's finally time for somebody else to take out his checkbook.
A spectrum of outcomes now is possible. The developer could offer to pay off the neighbors. Or he could be ordered to give his building a haircut. Or he could do what this writer would do: change his name and move to Ohio at midnight.
But what comes next? Will City Hall issue new rules saying that the direction formerly know as "up" is now "more sideways than it used to be?" Will it take six lawyers form Jackson Walker to beat that one? Stay tuned. Anything can happen in the Hall or Mirrors.