Marfa council updates zoning map for first time in six years

MARFA – City Council showed a united front at last Thursday’s council meeting. The four present council members voted unanimously on eight of the nine segments in the rezoning proposal brought by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The council’s unanimous votes upheld priorities of saving residential properties from commercialization, and preventing up-zoning from single family to multifamily residences without holdbacks for affordable housing. Council members hoped that Marfa’s workforce will be able to afford living in Marfa going forward.

The votes from Thursday night were “a good first step,” according to Councilmember Manny Baeza.

Before the vote, Councilmember Buck Johnston emphasized that her priority was to preserve housing stock in Marfa. She asserted that she would not vote to up-zone any lots from single-family to multifamily housing, unless it included deed stipulations that some of the multifamily units would be deemed “affordable.”

In Texas, affordable housing can only be created if cities withhold rezoning of lots until the developer agrees to a restrictive covenant where a certain percentage of housing units are designated as affordable for low-income residents. By up-zoning a lot before securing that agreement, the city would be “getting rid of our bargaining tool,” according to Johnston.

As a counterpoint, Peter Stanley, the chair of the Planning and Zoning Committee, pointed out that creating “more housing stock can stabilize the cost of housing.” By up-zoning to multifamily, the city would be creating more units of housing. A more saturated housing market could cause prices to lower, but it does not necessarily guarantee affordable housing as defined by the intricate calculation that is used to determine affordable housing’s rent costs.

The first vote of the night was the only one that was split. Big Bend Title Company had purchased a single-family residential house on Lincoln Street across from the courthouse where they hoped to relocate their offices. Then the title company requested the city rezone it for commercial use. Planning and Zoning recommended the change, but council members were divided.

Council members Irma Salgado and Brit Webb voted to approve the change, but Baeza and Johnston voted to deny, creating a tie since Councilmember Natalie Melendez was absent.

Mayor Ann Marie Nafziger broke the tie with a nay. If Marfa and its council were trying to preserve and increase available housing, it would be counterintuitive to get rid of an already existent single-family residence.

City Attorney Teresa Todd said she agreed with Johnston’s ideas for affordable housing, but urged council to treat one proposed change, Debbie Sproul-Parrott’s property, as an exception.

Sproul-Parrott had requested an up-zoning of her property to multifamily because the city had granted her permission in the past to have apartments, and gave her multiple water taps, indicating that they were allowing her to operate a multifamily unit. Only once she decided to sell the property did she find that it was zoned for single-family, not multifamily use.

Johnston said she spoke to the buyer lined up to purchase the Sproul-Parrott property, who said he would be doubling the price on each unit from $600 to $1,200 a month, and would keep one as his own apartment for when he visits, reducing the available units from four to three.

Baeza supported affordable housing as well, but pointed out that Sproul-Parrott’s case was exceptional based on the evidence.

“If there was only one tap” it might prove that the property wasn’t approved as multifamily by the city in the past. But, “because of the history of this one,” Baeza motioned to approve the up-zoning, with Councilmember Brit Webb seconding the motion. Councilmembers Irma Salgado and Johnston joined to unanimously approve the up-zoning with no holdbacks.

Another property owner, Jake McHargue, who owns a property on Dean Street, between Galveston and Dallas, requested his single-family residential zoning be changed to commercial, so that he could build a hostel.

In response, Planning and Zoning instead proposed rezoning the land for multi-family housing. It was a compromise that they hoped would increase available housing in Marfa, while also encouraging the owner to save the multi-family adobe structure already on the lot. However, the council voted it down, noting that multi-family zoning could turn into another set of Airbnb’s, which wouldn’t add any housing stock to the city.

In another property, with no discussion, council voted down rezoning a building that currently operates as apartments on South Austin and West Galveston, but is zoned as single-family residential.

Reached for comment, Baeza said, “The individuals who requested these changes did not show up to the meeting and plead their case. Also, current use does not dictate zoning. If council were to grant changes without hearing the reason as to why, this would not set a good precedent on future decisions to change current zoning.”

The Planning and Zoning Commission said the building would have been grandfathered in, but because it was renovated, it was not in compliance with the ordinance any longer.

When asked about enforcement against apartments that are not properly zoned, City Manager Terry Brechtel said that if buildings were “were nonconforming prior to the passing of the current ordinance we are living under, you can maintain that non-conformance.” When asked about properties that are out of compliance, Brechtel said, “We’re in the process of trying to hire a new code enforcement officer. This gives us the opportunity to take a fresh look at how we approach the codes we have on the books as well as new codes.” The city has received a couple applications for the position, but has not made any hiring decisions yet.

Other zoning votes included unanimous approval to re-zone two of the Marfa Housing Authority properties to multi-family, since the housing complexes obviously already function in that manner.

They also rezoned a stretch of properties along the west side of highway 90 as highway commercial. Councilmember Baeza said the west side of town “was never zoned properly after being annexed by the city.” The city incorporated a portion of land on the west side of Marfa in the 1990s, but failed to zone it, so the lots automatically reverted to single-family residential zoning under Texas law.

With an initial revision of the zoning map, the city is now ready to tackle the Planning and Zoning Ordinance, which has not been revised in over fourteen years.

In other business covered during the regular city council meeting: – City council unanimously chose to increase their match to a grant that would improve the city’s roads. By increasing the city’s payout, the city will be able to repair all four proposed roads—Yale, El Paso, Hoover, and Ridge Street. The project is expected to be completed by Spring 2020.

– The city was awarded a $20,000 grant from Dixon Water Foundation for Alamito Creek Clean Up and Greenway Planning.

– At the next regular meeting, council will set new priorities for the updates to Marfa’s ordinances, and identify new ordinances the city might codify. During the discussion, council and city employees mentioned ordinances about short-term rental restrictions, small and large animal control, creating new permits, and carrying out compliance inspections.

– Rural county residents will be able to text 9-1-1 to request emergency assistance when calling is not possible, beginning April 2019 or sooner.

– The council called for the general municipal election to be held on May 4, 2019 to elect the mayor and two council members to the Marfa City Council. No election judge had been chosen at the time of meeting.

– Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez says the department will be enforcing the 15mph school zone more strictly, because people have been speeding and illegally driving around stopped school buses. – City Manager Terry Brechtel said no new code enforcement cases would be opened until a Code Enforcement Officer is hired. She added that there might be new cases for exceptional violations.

– Brechtel also informed the council that the city set up ten game cameras to catch illegal dumpers.

– Key Capture Energy proposed a five-megawatt battery be placed on city or private land near the AEP substation on Oak Street that would store and dispense energy. One citizen wondered about the visual impact of the proposed structure, and council questioned what they stood to gain by allowing the battery’s construction. The company surveyed land around Alamito Creek on the north east side of town last week.