Developers deal with combative council

In News by Reporter News

City leaders are working to manage growth and prepare the city of Manvel to be a place where people will want to live, work, and play. Guiding the vision is a myriad assortment of plans, policies and procedures; some comprising of sub plans within master plans. Citizens clamor for a grocery store and other retail options and look to a future with well-planned roads and infrastructure, parks, bikeways, and even horse trails. All are laudable intentions for a young city on the precipice of expansion. Yet the very ones with the wherewithal to transform those wants and desires into tangible outcomes are more often than not feeling unwanted and unduly tested by a city governance that some describe as dysfunctional and unseasoned. Recent exchanges in the city council chamber well demonstrates the frustration incurred by developers wanting to build in Manvel. One council meeting saw three disgruntled developers making their case to members who, in their view, often appear uninformed, unprepared, in some cases indifferent, and at times just short of hostile toward development in general and particularly any deviation from their perception of what an ideal community should be. Requests for modifications to agreements that may have been negotiated years prior are routinely considered with suspicion and scorn.

Members of city council and some on PD&Z generally refute that contention by claiming just three developers continually complain the city is unfair. While they ask for multiple variances from zoning regulations, the parks plan, the comprehensive plan, the drainage plan, and/or the thoroughfare plan, the city is standing its ground on the vision in place for Manvel’s future. Responding to the accusation of being uninformed and unprepared, council member Adrian Gaspar says, “The council is much more informed than ever before. The problem then comes from receiving information at 3:45 p.m. the day that information is to be discussed. As a council member, I want to make informed decisions so I will move to table the issue, which will allow council to have time to look into the matter, thus ensuring a smart decision.” Gaspar was the sole member of city council or the administration that responded to requests for comments on this story.

A key reason for much of the animosity is that projects approved years ago have yet to be started and development agreements negotiated years back have been subject to an evolving set of rules and regulations. Things that are important to the city today in many cases were not in consideration when the agreements were executed. That is a point council drove hard on with the developer of the planned Blue Water Lakes project that is just west of the high school. Al Parrish and his family acquired the acreage and executed a development agreement in 2011. According to Parrish, he has paid $600,000 in property taxes since owning the property, he’s paid $50,000 to the city in fees for various studies, consultants, and lawyers and delivered another $50,000 to the city to meet a commitment in the development agreement for a public safety facility waiver. Parrish considers his contribution to the city significant as he requested of council a seemingly minor change in the development agreement that would provide for a 30-year term on MUD bonds rather than 25 years. He explained the request for the additional term as reflecting a different economic environment than was the case in 2011, that it would have no disadvantage to the city, and that it ultimately would benefit MUD taxpayers with a lower tax rate. Council did ultimately approve the request but not before Parrish received an earful from Mayor Martin and some on council who expressed exasperation with the more than four year delay in starting a project that he pressed council in 2011 as ready to proceed. Saying she has “a problem with that” Mayor Martin belabored the request by pressing Parrish on a start date. Parrish responded that he has tried to sell the land: “it’s very difficult to sell land in the city of Manvel and the reason is because the people who do development think you’ll are very difficult; you’ll make it very hard to do business here.” He continued, saying “my family has a $6 million investment and we would like to get started and I’m trying very hard to get started.”

Another older development agreement being at the root of conflict is the situation just resolved by the developer of Sedona Lakes. Buck Driggers received considerable skepticism from council in his appeal for an alteration to his program that would allow a greater number of 60 foot lots on the east side of the project. He requests the change due to DelBello road being required to utilize a 120 foot right-of-way when 100 feet was the expectation at the designs inception. He told council that the 70 foot and 80 foot products are not selling and that the demand is for smaller 60 foot lots. City ordinances mandate a minimum 60 foot lot width and Driggers told council that he is not “requesting anything that is less than what you are allowing right now. We are not trying to bring down the quality of the community and are trying to do what the city wants us to do.”

Driggers was not receptive to a notion from Mayor Martin that the right-of-way on DelBello may be reverted back to 100 feet thereby allowing the larger lot sizes to remain. “You’ve got to do what the market tells you to do. An 80 foot lot would probably be priced in the $500’s and I am really pushing it right now to sell (in that price range). You’ve got to put the product on the ground that the market will accept.” Mayor Martin went on to say that she is “worried that the diversity of the market seems to be lopsided and we have tilted too much to the 60 foot lots.” Driggers again took exception, saying “I see it a little differently. Almost half of the development (comprises larger lots) and is really nice looking and its right up in front and it really does set the tone when you come into Sedona Lakes. We can put really nice product on the ground with 60 foot lots.”

Driggers company, Landeavor, acquired the Sedona Lakes development in mid-2013 and has implemented significant upgrades and improvements. He has struggled to find a viable commercial venture for the developments frontage along SH 288 and the current housing market, he says, shows a demand for smaller lot sizes and lower priced homes. His original proposal provided for an apartment project and smaller lot sizes for single family homes. He explained a desire for a fair playing field with the neighboring Pomona development across 288 which has been authorized to construct apartments as well as a collection of smaller lot sizes of 50 and 55 feet in width. Resident reaction convinced him to remove those proposals and resulted in the one change he requested.

After contentious dialog with members, Driggers was emphatic in declaring that he would not change the plan. “I’m not putting any more 80 foot lots on the ground that I can’t sell. I’m already dealing with that.” He also responded testily to an accusation that he was reneging on the original contract; “I don’t want to go to what we agreed to originally. I came in and talked about what we had and was told definitely not multi family, definitely not less than 60 foot lots. You said you don’t allow it.” Referring to the Pomona Development he continued, “I buy (the project) and you changed the rules on me. We didn’t change anything after we bought it, you did. You have seen what we do as a developer and you are treating me like we are trying to put a trailer park out there. We are trying to continue a quality development and if you don’t like it then vote it down. We took over a dying community and we are trying to make it better and I have capitulated on everything. I don’t know what more I can do.”

Council members make the case that each development agreement is unique and believe it insupportable to compare one to another. But that logic seems flawed upon an objective look. Likened to a football season, one could claim that each game is unique. But if in one game the teams are allowed five tries to earn a first down while the other games allow just the traditional four tries, then an obvious inequality exists. Driggers essentially makes a similar case that Pomona was allowed the very things he was told would never be allowed when he initially approached the city before acquiring the Sedona Lakes project.

Thoughtful analysis on Drigger’s proposal was encumbered by a myopic desire among members for larger lot sizes and because members were provided inaccurate maps and received the information only hours prior to the meeting start. Some members expressed a desire for time to further consider the plan and hearing resident feedback before making a decision. That sentiment led to an increasingly predictable occurrence from this council, and another significant complaint among developers trying to solidify plans, that the matter would be tabled for a later meeting. And indeed that is what ultimately occurred. A collective prudence did ultimately prevail as a majority of council did approve the request at a subsequent meeting.

City officials enjoy the luxury of looking at expensive plans, drawings, and appealing renderings that are paid with taxpayer money and often prepared by consultants with little practical experience in the work produced. They can look at other communities, learn from their missteps, and pick and choose the types of development they want for Manvel’s future. Ordinances and plans can be relatively easy to amend as economic conditions and/or personal desires change. But developers are bound by their agreements. They must balance the high ideals of council with a pragmatic investment of tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, often which they are personally liable for. Economic conditions continually evolve and a successful business must be able to adapt to those changes. If it is just three developers claiming unfairness, those three will nonetheless have a significant impact on Manvel’s growth and will be contributing significantly to its long term quality of life. While council did ultimately approve these developer requests, it begs the question why the process seems to necessarily entail such discord. Perhaps council could better serve their community through a more cooperative approach in their dealings with developers.

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