Marfa City Council discusses possible Vizcaino Park takeover, changes to zoning ordinance

Presidio County officials, Marfa City Council members, Marfa Parks Board members and citizens are in ongoing discussions about the future of county-owned Vizcaino Park.

MARFA — Marfa City Council met last week to discuss the idea of taking over management of county-owned Vizcaino Park, hear new proposed changes to a zoning ordinance adopted in 2002, and more. 

Vizcaino Park

The city’s Parks and Recreation Board initially brought forth the idea to lease Vizcaino Park — a sprawling public space with a rich legacy that the county cannot properly maintain due to a lack of funds — to county officials who threw support behind the idea, in part because the city parks board benefits from a ¼ cent sales tax and maintains a healthy budget. 

Citizens at the initial commissioners court meeting two weeks ago expressed support for the idea, stating that the park had tons of potential but was in dire need of bathroom upgrades and more. Parks Board President Trey Gerfers said the desire to create a soccer field at Vizcaino would help alleviate current congestion that results from too many recreational leagues utilizing too few fields at Coffield Park.

At last week’s city council meeting, City Manager Mandy Roane explained at the top of the discussion that the lease idea was not feasible and other options needed to be explored. 

“It turns out that the ballot language that the voters approved for the sales tax that the parks board receives, that money can only be spent on city parks,” explained Gerfers. 

Roane said that the county may be able to deed the park to the city, but the legality of such an arrangement needed to be determined. The city’s lawyer, Sylvia Firth, said the Texas Constitution does not allow for governing bodies to give away their assets and a trade of some sort may be required. 

“It’s not the county’s property. It’s the taxpayers property,” said Roane. “You can’t give away taxpayers’ property willy-nilly.” 

County Commissioner David Beebe, who attended and spoke at the city council meeting, said he would work with the county’s legal counsel to investigate the possibility of a deed and trade or exchange of services. 

As it stands, the county is broke and barreling towards financial ruin, said Beebe, and needed to cut nonessential services like parks. “If we want, as a community, we want to keep the park in safe hands. I hate to say it, it’s better off with y’all,” said Beebe. 

He said he was concerned that the park could be in jeopardy years down the road if the county continued to experience crippling inflation while only being able to raise property taxes by 3.5%.

“Let’s go four years down the line, and the county can’t make payroll. Then what happens?” said Beebe. “Then we put the land up for sale, to auction to the public, and then it’s not a park anymore.” 

He added that he did not think a previous idea to route the new El Cosmico resort traffic through the park was going to work, and he instead anticipated the county taking on the cost of maintaining Antelope Hills road.

Mayor Manny Baeza said he would like to see the parks board focus on completing Coffield Park improvement projects before taking on the responsibility of an additional park. He said he wanted to know exactly how much money the parks board would need to complete planned improvements, which include a new gazebo with bathrooms, splash pad and closure of the road that crosses through the park. 

“My biggest concern is Coffield Park. We wanted that to be a success,” said Baeza. “We haven’t moved on that park as fast as I wanted to. That should be priority.” 

Gerfers agreed progress has been slow, but not for lack of trying. The pandemic caused delays, he said, and no construction companies bid on the gazebo upgrade project. He said even if the parks board couldn’t afford to allocate significant funds to Vizcaino right away, they would be able to work towards that park’s improvement overtime while preserving a valuable green space. 

Marfa resident Dawn Shannon advocated for the city take over of Vizcaino Park. She said Fidel Vizcaino’s work to establish the park — getting his friend from Fort Stockton to donate grass seed and sod because the county couldn’t afford it — need not be in vain. 

“He personally went out to turn on the sprinklers in the morning and turn them off in the evening,” said Shannon. “He really had a vision for having a public park, a dedicated park, for the people of Marfa.”

The city’s legal counsel, Firth, explained the city’s initial concerns about taking over responsibility for Vizcaino were that the park was not within city limits –– making bans on alcohol and off leash dogs, city park policies –– difficult to enforce. Roane added that the city needed to find out how much the park would cost annually to maintain and more. 

“It’s not that it’s not possible, but there are a lot of questions that we’re going to have to answer,” said Roane. 

Zoning ordinance changes

City council members also heard from Stephen “Chick” Rabourn, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, on six potential changes to the city’s existing zoning ordinance. 

Rabourn explained that internal discussion as well as two public hearings helped inform the report on the zoning ordinance changes, which intend to “allow for more flexibility of use,” as well as “improve the city’s ability to deal more efficiently with building applications and actively with certain zoning infractions.” 

He said the commission worked closely with city administrators, including permit specialist Ann Dunlap, to update parts of the current zoning ordinance, which was adopted over 20 years ago in 2002. 

The first change included in the report is to “restrict the construction of more than one kitchen in houses within the R-1 Single Family Residential District.” 

“Ann [Dunlap] found that we were starting to get duplexes cropping up in R-1 and they didn’t have a very clear mechanism to prevent this from happening,” said Rabourn. “We are proposing to change the definition of a single family residence as a structure with only one kitchen. If it has two kitchens, it’s a duplex.” 

In a follow up call with The Big Bend Sentinel, Rabourn clarified that the rule is designed to prevent two kitchens within one main structure, which by definition is a duplex, otherwise classified as R-2, not a single family home, R-1. He said the change would not impact casitas, which have their own separate rules that are not changing under this revision. 

He said no retroactive enforcement of existing de-facto duplexes would take place, but moving forward those looking to acquire a permit from the city to add an additional kitchen to a single family home will not be able to do so.

Two additional changes involve “allowing residential use of properties zoned Industrial” and “allowing co-use of commercial properties as both businesses and residences.” Rabourn said in many cases these phenomena were already occurring and were presenting enforcement challenges for the city. 

Dunlap said she has been unable to issue permits to co-use commercial and residential building projects due to the city ordinance, but old buildings like those on East El Paso Street across from Saint George Hall included commercial spaces and upstairs apartments, making equal enforcement impossible. 

“We want the ordinance to reflect what’s happening in Marfa,” said Dunlap. 

Rabourn said allowing residential occupation of commercial and industrial zoned spaces typically does not lead to disturbances, and given Marfa’s lack of affordable housing and expensive real estate offerings it made more sense to open up, rather than restrict, housing options. 

“To ask people to have a property where they work and also own a property where they live is a pretty big ask,” said Rabourn. “In the interest of having working people here, having people do jobs here, having people have their own businesses here, this is just a good thing for town because we need people here to live and to work.” 

Roane said the zoning changes would not create additional work for city staff. She explained that council’s initial review of the planning and zoning commission report would be followed by the city’s attorney assessing changes to the zoning ordinance and two additional public hearings. 

The two public hearings on the proposed changes to the zoning ordinance will take place soon, the first during a special meeting at 6 p.m. December 14 and the second during a regular meeting at 6 p.m. January 9.