City council addresses roads and variances among other topics

MARFA – Marfa City Council tackled a slate of topics on Thursday night, creating a new roads supervisor job at the city, authorizing a host of public events and paving the way for special use permits that make it easier for vehicle inspection facilities to open in the city of Marfa.

Zoning ordinance and special use permit changes

Marfa’s dated zoning code has been nearing a major overhaul since at least 2017, but without that large undertaking of revamping the code, some are still requesting changes or new variances within the current version.

This week, council unanimously voted to add wineries to the list of permitted uses of properties zoned for C2 commercial use. The planning and zoning committee had recommended the change, since the current C2 allowances were cut and pasted from elsewhere and didn’t allow for wineries, but permitted other alcohol-related businesses.

Ricky Taylor, an owner of new winery Alta Marfa, began planting vines in Fort Davis in 2018, with plans to open a winery in Marfa that would manufacture, bottle, label, package and distribute or sell wine from there. Taylor had found a landowner on Highway 90 near Celebration Liquor willing to build the facility and rent it to him, but then realized it wasn’t permitted for that use. He worked with the planning and zoning committee and city council, and on Thursday, his plans for a winery moved one step closer to reality.

Also on the docket was a chance for the city to authorize the Board of Adjustments to grant a special use permit for Department of Public Safety vehicle inspection stations and self-storage units in a residential district.

Councilmember Buck Johnston expressed discomfort with putting businesses like those into residential areas. “I need to get my car safety inspected right now, I know how badly we need this in the area, but just doing it in a residential area, I’m a little uncomfortable with it,” she said.

When a variance is granted to a property owner, it remains in place until the property is sold. Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda suggested putting a one-year limit on this proposed variance, which would allow the BOA to reassess after a year, but that proposed limit didn’t make it into the final motion.

Previously, a DPS inspection station that operated in a residential area caused neighbors to complain. It was in violation of the zoning ordinance and was ultimately shuttered.

With the loss of vehicle inspections in Marfa, residents have to travel farther just to get their annual inspection in order to register a vehicle. But it’s also impacted other aspects of Marfa, Mayor Manny Baeza said. “We’ve lost a lot of businesses. We no longer have a parts store. We no longer have tire shops. We do have businesses coming to the town,” he said, “but as far as for your basic needs in Marfa, everything being bought in this town is pretty much for galleries and so forth; it’s not really for services for the community.”

The mayor recommended splitting out the self storage part of the resolution, saying those structures are potentially more permanent than a DPS inspection.

Councilmember Raul Lara took up that recommendation, amending his motion so that only DPS inspection stations can be part of a special use permit by the BOA. The motion passed, with Councilmember Johnston voting against it.

Upcoming community events

Council unanimously voted to support the school holding a Folklorico performance celebrating Mother’s Day and Cinco de Mayo this Monday, May 10, at 6:30 p.m. at the county courthouse lawn. Marfa Superintendent Oscar Aguero said they hoped to celebrate the community being supportive of the school and show some of what’s going on at the school. The city’s support will help Aguero petition TxDOT to close the street in front of the courthouse for two hours so the audience can fill the road that evening.

The city also approved of a graduation parade that will take place Wednesday, May 26, at 6:30 p.m., which will process from the high school, east on Lincoln Street, around the north side of the courthouse, and down Highland Avenue, honoring another year of high school seniors who have faced continued challenges from the pandemic.

Finally, the council also voted to approve a free summer concert series in Blackwell Park, put on by the Blackwell School Alliance. The organization will host three Friday evening concerts from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the combined space of Blackwell School and Blackwell Park, with music and free food for guests. The family-friendly event is inviting locals to bring their folding chairs and blankets, Alliance President Gretel Enck told council, “To just say ‘Welcome back Marfa, we’re still here.’” The dates of each concert are still to be announced, but will take place on a Friday in June, July and August of this year.

City moves ahead on proposed “land swap”

Earlier this year, City Attorney Teresa Todd proposed a solution to a long-unnoticed problem. Some years back, a row of city residents had summarily parked their homes into what was technically a roadway for Gonzales Street. Meanwhile, at the back of their lots, the city had put a gas line through those landowners’ private property, rather than on land where the city had an easement.

“What I’ve been looking at is to try to offer something that’s fair and incentivizes people to want to do this trade,” Todd told the council on Thursday. “One of the things is the encroachment onto the city street is harmless to us. It doesn’t impede traffic, it’s not causing problems, we didn’t even know about it until this survey was done recently.”

To avoid piecemeal surveys, the city will use one surveyor to gather accurate data on the land. If left as is, the gas line on private land could cause liability and maintenance issues for the city.

At Thursday’s meeting, city officials authorized the attorney to move forward with a plan that would give city land to those homeowners, in exchange for the right to take city ownership of the land where the gas lines were – a land swap. For one lot that is in the roadway, but doesn’t have a gas line in the back, the landowners have indicated interest in purchasing the land from the city instead.

New road supervisor job created

Council narrowly voted to create a new job at the city, road supervisor, authorizing a hire with a beginning pay of $52,000 at Thursday’s meeting. The job would essentially eliminate the public works director job, instead creating a role that would oversee water and sewer and another that would oversee streets maintenance and city parks.

“We’re not making any movement on our roads, we’re short handed, so we need to have a crew dedicated to road repair and a crew dedicated to sewer and water,” Mayor Baeza said during the discussion. “I think this is a great time to hopefully at least experiment for the next six months; it’s something we can revisit during the budget project.”

Councilmembers Lara and Salgado expressed concerns that the number of crew members currently on staff didn’t warrant a split within the public works department. Currently, the public works department has multiple vacancies, with only five employees on staff at this time. That includes Charles “Chuck” Salgado, who is currently overseeing the department in the interim, after a departure by the former public works director.

City Manager Mandy Roane was unavailable this week to comment on the nature of the public works director’s departure, but at the city meeting on Thursday, council and the city manager spoke candidly about discovering missing paperwork, including applications for those still-vacant jobs. “It’s not something I’m excited about, it’s not the way the city of Marfa operates,” Roane said, “but we are going to do better from here on out.”

City Manager Roane believed once the city was able to fill vacancies in the department, there would be enough crew to warrant splitting public works employees between the role of handling water and sewer and the role of managing streets and parks. Roane said it wouldn’t be done in the short term, but rather in the mid-range, and ultimately, all public works staff would be cross trained for water, sewer and roads.

“I think we have too many chiefs, and Chuck said he could handle the whole division,” Councilmember Salgado said about her vote against the creation of the new role. Nevertheless, on a 3-2 vote, Johnston, Ben-Yehuda and Councilmember Eddie Pallarez voted to create the new role, with Salgado and Lara dissenting.