The Good Laura

I have to tell you this story because it's three things: 1) an appalling example of arrogance and sleaziness at City Hall, 2) a stirring example of integrity and courage at City Hall, and 3) it's about Laura Miller.

This guy owns a business that has been in his family since 1938. Since the 1950s the business has occupied a series of metal barns on nine acres down in a hollow near Walnut Hill and White Rock Trail, in a little leftover remnant of countryside swallowed up by the city.

A small equestrian center is near him, as is a DART train track and a creek called Jackson Branch. You could pass this place a thousand times and never know it's there.

Across the DART tracks from him, major development plans are afoot. The guys doing the developing want this guy's nine acres. Offered to buy him out. He said no. Not interested.

Jack Pierce's business, Hollywood Door, makes garage doors, but its main business is the hand manufacture of huge, very heavy industrial overhead doors. His product is expensive to ship because it's so heavy. Over the last seven decades, his family has developed a good regional trade based in part on having the business right where it is.

He does not want to move, at least not at the prices being offered. The location is worth more to him than its real estate value. This company employs 40 people, and it makes a product, which it actually sells to other people.

Makes stuff. Sells stuff. This is what used to be called a "business," as opposed to insider grease-ball political land-flipping, which is what some people think is a business today.

Got it so far? Developers offer. Business owner says no.

Then he gets a letter. An official letter. A City Hall letter. It appears that Bill Blaydes, the council person for that area, wants to call a hearing to see whether the city should yank the man's zoning out from under him, which would force him to sell.

Pierce, part owner with his brother and sister of Hollywood Door, told the city council last week: "The first time I became aware of this item was when I received notice in the mail.

"I called for additional information and was told that Councilman Blaydes had placed this item on the agenda. So I spoke to Mr. Blaydes.

"I was informed that it was time for our company to move out. I was informed that since I had previously rejected discussing the sale of our property, they decided they might get my attention by putting this item on the agenda.

"I was informed that the process which starts today will end up removing us from our property. This was the first time I ever spoke to Mr. Blaydes."

Stunning, what? But get this. Blaydes doesn't even deny it. With Pierce standing down there at the microphone, quaking in his boots like Charlie Chaplin in front of Big Brother, Blaydes gives this speech that is Gomer-Pyle-meets-Tony-Soprano:

"Mr. Pierce is threatened," Blaydes says. "There's no doubt about the fact that he's threatened, because that's his livelihood. We're not asking to close it. We're asking to move it."

I mean, are you still with me here? The guy's been on the property since the 1950s. His business is almost invisible from the road, emits no smoke or noise, generates very light traffic. But Commissar Blaydes comes along with his letter and pretty much tells him to get the hell off his own property.

And even worse in my book: While Pierce is standing there at the microphone looking up at the mighty councilpersons with his life and his family's business in his hand, Councilman Ed Oakley, one of two candidates for mayor in the June 16 runoff election, launches into this big, sleazy package of lies aimed at pushing him into giving up.

Talking in his trademark incomprehensible used-car-salesman-on-crank cadence, Oakley says to Pierce: "Let me just ask you hypothetically if you were to go through this process and the process and the staff would allow you to have your area that allowed the use that you have there today which is a manufacturing facility and in addition to that it was created into a p.d. or sub-district that allowed for the other uses such as mixed-use or whatever the neighborhood would determine but you were allowed to be legal and conforming but along with that some of the obnoxious uses that maybe the neighborhood would be fearful of such as a recycling plant or something would be left out of that and would allow you to continue the family business in perpetuity which would be legal which would be a given zoning which would allow you to use that specific use but then the additional uses would allow for residential or mixed-use development or office or retail which aren't allowed there today which actually gives you more land-use rights than what you would have today giving up some of the things that would be obnoxious would you be amenable to sitting down having that conversation?"

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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