City council hears citizen presentations, discusses property sale and future of the council in latest assembly

MARFA — The last city council meeting of the month, held last week in Marfa City Hall’s Casner Room, was well attended by Marfa citizens, with council members hearing multiple presentations and, along with usual business, discussing the future of the governing body, which will see two council members — Buck Johnston and Yoseff Ben-Yehuda — exit office early this summer. 

Present at the February 24 meeting were City Manager Mandy Roane, City Attorney Teresa Todd, council members Johnston, Ben-Yehuda and Raul Lara, with Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado leading the meeting in Mayor Manny Baeza’s absence. Councilmember Eddie Pallarez was also absent. 

Historic District designation for Downtown Marfa

Caitlin Murray, director of archives and programs at the Judd Foundation, discussed the designation of downtown Marfa as a nationally-recognized Central Historic District. Murray gave a summary of the project and stated news from the National Park Service should come in March or April regarding the official designation. The boundaries of the Central Marfa Historic District are Washington Street to the north, Dallas Street to the south, Dean and Russell streets to the east, and Austin and Abbott streets to the west. A draft of the proposal is available online.

In addition to the honorific status, which could allow the city to conduct historic walking tours and other programming, the designation also opens up funds for buildings within the boundary to receive federal and state tax credits on restoration projects that honor the original structures. Historic buildings not within the boundary of the central district can still apply to be part of the national register, said Murray. The National Register of Historic Places already recognizes Marfa’s Fort D.A. Russell, Hotel Paisano and Blackwell School. 

“They’ve already acknowledged a lot of key, really important sites in Marfa so this is kind of another expansion of that, just drawing attention to how important Marfa is,” said Murray. 

While City Hall will not be a part of the historic district because it is a city-owned facility, Councilmember Johnston did mention she’d like to see the building painted soon. She said it has been budgeted for, and because the city is approaching its six month mark in the fiscal year, she would like to get it on the agenda and get it done. Others agreed. 

“It would be nice to paint it more historical like it used to be,” said Todd. 

Council votes to approve sale of city property to resident in encroachment case

Next council took up old business, starting with the petition by Marfa resident Conception Campos to purchase approximately 234 square feet of East Lincoln Street on which her adobe home and front porch are encroaching. A survey was conducted which notified Campos of the 3.9 foot encroachment. Now, in order to sell her property to an interested buyer, she must purchase the area of encroachment from the city. 

Since council last met, the city obtained the signatures from Campos’ neighbors that were needed to proceed with the sale. Council ultimately voted to approve the sale. Campos must now provide the city with a survey and an appraisal, and a public hearing was set for 6 p.m. on March 31 at City Hall.

While council members decided how to handle this specific sale, it was brought up by multiple parties that these incidents were likely to keep occurring and it would be good to set a precedent for the future so the new council has clearer guidelines. 

“I think it’s just gonna keep popping up as homes — because normally they were going from family member to family member, so we didn’t know, but now that they are being sold outside the family, we’re getting the surveys,” said Roane. 

The whole block is off by three to four feet, Todd said. And it’s not the only area with encroachments in the city, stated Councilmember Johnston. She questioned whether there was a way to understand the scale of the issue rather than just dealing with encroachments on a case-by-case basis, to which Roane said it wouldn’t be feasible to get a survey of every city lot. Johnston was concerned these sales would not benefit the city financially, she said. 

Ben-Yehuda questioned whether there could be an alternative to selling the land in order to avoid perpetuating an offset in property lines. He and Johnston were concerned about giving the impression that if a structure is built in the wrong place, the city will simply sell the land to the person in violation. Todd said an encroachment agreement might be a possible alternative, but city staff are limited and she didn’t think the few encroachment agreements they currently hold were being collected on. 

“The thing about the encroachment agreements is you have to have somebody stay on top of that,” said Todd. 

Johnston agreed the idea to do an encroachment agreement was valid but thought it would be ill-received. There was also discussion regarding what the future owners intend to do with the property and how that might affect the sale; for example, if new owners decided to tear down the porch or entire structure, an encroachment would no longer exist. 

The 234 square feet in question does not contain city utilities, noted Roane and Todd, meaning the city does not require regular access to the area, making the sale simpler. 

Salgado ultimately made a motion to approve the sale, stating council can worry about setting the precedent later, but — out of concern for holding up Campos’ sale — should let this one go. Johnston advocated for not waiting. 

“We’re setting the precedent for moving forward — this one to do it. Because this is the one that encroaches probably the most on that block as far as structure,” said Johnston. 

Ben-Yehuda said he didn’t like the pressure to make a quick decision and that an interested buyer would still be around two weeks later. He said he felt his solution to do an encroachment agreement didn’t seem to garner much support but agreed this would be a good case in which to set the precedent for the whole block. 

“You’re presuming that everyone who comes after you will follow your precedent and not want to do their own,” said Todd, alluding to the two council members leaving office soon to make way for their replacements. 

Ben-Yehuda said the matter touched on one of the primary challenges of serving on city council.

“To a certain level, we often try to make decisions, balancing the specifics of the situation and having a mindset to the future and the past to try to be fair and treat everybody the same. And that’s tough,” said Ben-Yehuda. 

After more back-and-forth discussions, Salgado reminded council there was already a motion made by her to approve the sale on the table which had been seconded by Councilmember Lara, to which Ben-Yehuda ultimately voted yea and Johnston voted nay. 

Tourism, infrastructure: mobile app, Marfa and Presidio County Museum, Chinati sewer pipes

Director of Tourism Abby Boyd gave updates regarding a new mobile app for Marfa visitors. While it was originally thought the project might be funded by an Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant, Boyd, who is now serving on the board of the Texas Mountain Trail Historic Commission, said the organization is looking into options that would fund the project in its entirety. 

Council members also discussed a request for qualifications (RFQ) for engineering services for the Marfa and Presidio County Museum.The RFQ is fairly simple and requires engineers to have past experience working in the area and with historic buildings, said Roane. At the last council meeting, it was established that the initial assessment by an engineer would serve as a roadmap for future repairs, and the city would work from a list the engineer provided to improve the structure over time. Council approved the RFQ. 

Serendipitously, Chinati Foundation Director Jenny Moore was present at the meeting, and in lieu of going into executive session to discuss aging sewer pipes on Chinati property for which the city has received violations from the Texas Center on Environmental Equality, Moore spoke with City Attorney Teresa Todd and City Engineer Ramon Carrasco to schedule a meeting in order to discuss the matter soon. 

City manager’s report: website and water tank updates

Lastly was the city manager’s report. During her report Roane said the city’s new website is nearly complete and staff is currently being trained on the incoming system. The website redo will include the utilities portal. Roane said the new software should be fully up and running by this summer. Roane also reported the city’s new water tank, originally slated to be completed this March, will likely not be completed until November due to delays. 

Public Works Director Chuck Salgado said the project has experienced multiple challenges including equipment and chemical delays. He said he has been regularly patching the current tank, which is leaking, but it should hold up until November. Costs for the project haven’t gone up yet, but may, Roane said. After council member updates in which outgoing council members promised to stay involved — Ben-Yehuda said he would remain on the Presidio County Appraisal District Board and Johnston said she had interest in the Planning and Zoning Board — the meeting concluded. 

Councilmember Lara’s motion to adjourn was seconded by Councilmember Johnston with a definitive, “I’ll second that baby!”