City considers hiring a building inspector, gives $44,000 in grants at bimonthly meeting

MARFA — At the Tuesday evening council meeting, elected officials debated whether Marfa should hire a third party inspection company to conduct building inspections and enforce its mostly-unenforced building code. Though residents listened with interest, most attendees had gathered to hear how the newly reorganized HOT committee would now allocate nearly $50,000 in grant funds.

Building Inspections

City Manager John Washburn invited Gregory Hallmark of Bureau Veritas to speak with the council about building inspections on Tuesday. The international company conducts building inspections and provides other related services, and the city is considering a contract with the firm.

While Hallmark explained how the company ensures safer buildings in cities and helps the city avoid liabilities, some council members spoke against the idea of enforcing building code at this point.

“I’m not in favor of this,” said Councilmember Buck Johnston. Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda noted that post-construction inspections were a new addition to make sure people comply with setbacks. “But I don’t know if we’ve ever had a building code. There’s a big difference between zoning code and building code,” said Ben-Yehuda.

The city has a building code on the books, though it is largely unenforced. The code requires variances regularly, in part because most lots in Marfa are smaller than what the building code is written about.

Washburn hoped that Bureau Veritas would help homeowners rest assured that their residences were safe to live in, buy and sell, and Ben-Yehuda agreed to that point. “I want to make it safe. I also want to make it really simple for contractors and homeowners. They know what to expect and a third party will help in some ways with this, but it’s also going to increase the cost and extend the timeline,” he said.

One concern raised by Ben-Yehuda was that hiring a third party contractor to inspect could delay building timelines, because the company would have to travel out to Marfa from their El Paso office for any inspection.

Even without city ordinances, builders are supposed to be in compliance with state mandates. Hallmark explained that their company operates on “the basis of the minimum standards,” so homeowners and contractors know what to expect when building. Washburn pointed out that the building code and zoning codes for the city were not in great shape. “It’s extremely onerous and difficult to understand, and it pushes you to a special use or variance. Our previous zoning ordinance really doesn’t reflect reality on the ground.”

“I’d rather focus on that, and get that done, before we take on another chunk,” Ben-Yehuda replied. But the long awaited ordinance proposal from the Planning and Zoning Committee has not arrived yet. They are waiting for additional input from city staff like City Attorney Teresa Todd before setting their public hearings.

Todd said she is working with Board of Adjustments’ Ann Dunlap to finish specific sections, saying, “That’s pretty much the last part. P&Z will need to set their public hearings. Once it’s in a form they’re comfortable bringing to council, it can go forward.” The attorney couldn’t say whether it would take weeks or months to get there.

Code Enforcement Officer Christina Pryor spoke up next. “What about structures used for the general public? We might be getting applications for more B&Bs or hotels.” In fact, Pryor had received multiple preliminary inquiries about new motels in Marfa, which Washburn described as multi-story, commercial structures. “We’re not prepared,” he said, “And we need to be.”

Attorney Todd suggested starting with commercial building inspections, and Hallmark reassured them that if Bureau Veritas was contracted, the city could have them come out to inspect commercial projects. Hallmark told the council, “Our objective is to be proactive and work with the homeowner or contractor to let them know what the code says.”

Councilmember Buck Johnston spoke against the idea of building inspections, adding that the fee structure could make renovations and building more onerous and expensive for Marfa residents. “I do think that we need to get our zoning ordinance approved, and then take it from there.”

Ben-Yehuda responded, “I think we’re all for the safety of our citizens and the liability of the city, but I think it’s about finding the right balance for our town. Finding exactly what works for the people that live here and how people want to develop here is the challenge for us.”

Ben-Yehuda motioned for staff to work on presenting a negotiated contract with Bureau Veritas for council approval for commercial and multifamily review and inspection. The motion was amended to request an additional fee schedule, and councilmembers Raul Lara, Irma Salgado and Ben-Yehuda approved. Johnston voted against the motion, and Councilmember Natalie Melendez was absent from the meeting.

Hotel Occupancy Tax grants

After the dissolution of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax Committee, the city formed a committee of Mayor Manny Baeza, Tourism and Visitor’s Center Director Minerva Lopez and Councilmember Natalie Melendez. The trio had a closed meeting to discuss the quarterly granting of HOT funds, considering 11 applicants for Arts and Culture grants, a departure from the previous HOT committee process.

Presenting to the council on Tuesday, Lopez said the committee prioritized “heads in beds,” a metric that measures how many visitors will rent short-term rental rooms in Marfa because of any given event. Events with similar estimates of how many out-of-town attendees would come were given equal recommendations of funding from the committee.

As the committee read through their recommendations, Blackwell School Alliance Board President Gretel Enck spoke up, reminding council that when a subject expert on HOT grants spoke to council previously, he said that heads in beds was not the only consideration in giving funds.

“He talked about things that aren’t only happening and at their full performance, but are looking at the future. We’re working directly with Will Hurd’s office to become a National Historic Site, which is what [Fort Davis National Historic Site] has. It’s a really elevated designation.”

“Even though we think of the Blackwell School as a local story, it has much bigger connections to history across Texas and American history,” Enck said. She spoke with another site that went from 2,000 to 16,000 visitors a year just by receiving the designation, and hoped that the council would consider funding the alliance’s block party events in hopes it would bolster future tourism.

Council took the plea to heart. The committee had held back $5,500 in unassigned funds, so the council allocated more to Blackwell School Alliance. The smaller requests had also been recommended to receive $0, and council instead chose to give $500 to events with less than 50 people coming in.

Ben-Yehuda noted that the larger grants seemed to assign roughly $10 to $20 per head in bed, and wanted to apply that more equally to smaller events. Johnston agreed, pointing to Marfa Community Print, which was just getting on its feet, but was already planning to bring in master printmakers and hold a variety of events.

Johnston motioned that the city grant HOT funds accordingly: $5,000 to Ballroom Marfa, $6,500 to the Blackwell School Alliance, $2,000 to Cinemarfa, $5,000 to the Agave Festival, $5,000 to Marfa Book Company’s Desert Encrypts, $8,000 to Marfa Invitational, $3,000 to Marfa Live Arts Spring Sing event, $8,000 to Viva Big Bend, $500 to Marfa Community Print and $1,000 to Marfa Studio of Arts’ Imagination Summer Camp.

Other business:

Stephen Boelter, a current candidate for city council, gave an update on the disc golf course, which has installed two of its nine tee pads, removed 20 loads of brush and is working to repair the city wood chipper once again.

Planet Marfa’s Jon Johnson said his search for quality walking paths in Marfa led him to request that the city mulch and beautify Marfa’s alleyways. Baeza said the Parks and Recreation Board is trying to make Johnson a liaison for the effort, as councilmembers Salgado and Johnston affirmed the effort.

The city unanimously approved a resolution that will allow Marfa Police to complete the application for a JAG grant for new body armor.

EMS Director Burt Lagarde discussed EMS response times, sharing that Marfa is consistently faster than other area EMS organizations, yet the Marfa team sometimes struggles getting accurate information from dispatch, slowing their response at times. Police Chief Steve Marquez told the council that his officers were sent to Marfa Burrito for a heart attack, when it had actually occurred across the road at Cordero Trailer Park.

Lagarde then gave common sense tips, along with City Manager Washburn, about the spread of coronavirus. “Clean your hands often, avoid close contact, stay home if you’re sick, cover coughs and sneezes and wear a face mask if you’re sick,” Washburn said. Lagarde said, “There’s no need to stock up on water because Marfa water supply will stay good and functional. Wipe down surfaces of doorknobs and light switches,” because the virus can survive on surfaces for days.

After an executive session regarding the city’s organizational chart, council voted to create a director of community services position and removed the position of assistant to the city manager.