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2013-10-03

Hotel or mud hole on Main?

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

A special meeting of the City of Bandera Planning and Zoning Commission was convened on Tuesday, Sept. 24, to review an off-premises sign proposed to be located at 703 North Main Street, the site of a possible hotel and retail center. Not surprisingly, all didn't go well.
This was the third go-round for the digital sign. When it failed to comply with city ordinances, City Administrator Mike Cardenas denied a permit to the developers, which kicked the matter to the Bandera Board of Adjustments. That occurred in June.
During the public comment agenda item, city resident Jodi Sinclair asked the commission what they would rather have on Main Street, a hotel or mud hole. Her fear was if the present project is stymied, no other developer would touch the property.
In an interview, Cardenas said normally P&Z would have taken up the matter, but although a new commission had been appointed in January, apparently they were unable to take up the request for a variance.
In turn, the board of adjustments failed to reach a consensus on the sign and, instead, asked property owner Al Rajabi of Building Blox and city-corporation liaison Gene Hartman, a member of Rajabi's development team, to withdraw their request for a variance and essentially go back to the drawing board.
At that time, board of adjustments member Denise Griffin suggested they discard the "Welcome to Bandera" motif, decrease the sign's height to 15 feet maximum and reduce the size of the digital message center.
"If the sign is brought down to 'Bandera size,' the people will be more receptive to it," she said. "Reconfigure the sign and bring it back to the board, the people will be happier. I think it's a great thing, but just not that big."
Accordingly, Rajabi and Hartman took her advice and presented a reconfigured version to P&Z. Still larger than allowed by current ordinances, the new sign still had to be approved by the board of adjustments. After the June meeting, however, Bandera City Council dissolved the old board and has taken over their duties. A board of adjustments meeting to hear recommendations from P&Z is slated for Wednesday, Oct. 2.
However, the meeting may be for naught. Despite warnings from Cardenas, the majority of the discussion during the P&Z meeting centered on the proposed hotel rather than the sign.
Chairman Tony Battle noted that the intended sign could only be discussed "in context with the hotel." In support, member Tom Brosz said, "If the sign isn't discussed along with the hotel, I will have to vote no!"
Any Best Western Hotel is clearly years down the road. However, as a good will gesture, Rajabi offered to draw up architectural plans at a minimum cost of $100,000 and present them to the city within six months of operation of the sign.
"If I don't deliver the architectural plans by that time, you can take the sign down," he said. "I don't know what else I can do. We want to be here. We believe in your town but we only have so much time. I'm putting my money where my mouth is."
At that point - and despite warnings - the discussion ventured into the sale of land for a Dollar General Store, hotel parking, food service at the hotel and even eventual ownership of the hotel, prompting Cardenas to say, "The variance is about the sign, not the hotel or the Dollar General Store." This advice seemed to fall on deaf ears, however, even after Rajabi and Hartman indicated they were not prepared to discuss specifics "at this time."
"The board's intent is not to discourage this project," Battle said. "Who wouldn't be in favor of a hotel with a western flair?" He then recommended that Rajabi review the city's special use permit (SUP), saying, "Look at the SUP and see how to make it best work for this development project."
County resident Robert Koimn, who formerly served on P&Z, supported Battle's suggestion with alacrity, saying, "This would solve all your problems at one time."
The motion coming out of the P&Z meeting was a recommendation that "the landowner look into a special use permit showing the overall plan for the entire property (the sign, hotel and retail). Planning and Zoning will work with landowner to further the design of the sign."
For his part, Rajabi found cold comfort in the P&Z resolution to the sign variance. "If $100,000 isn't good enough, I don't see you approving this sign at all," he said.
In fact, Rajabi's observation may be moot. Because the property is zoned B-1-Central Business District, no special use permit is required, according to Cardenas. "Everything they want to do is allowed under this zoning designation," he said in an interview. In fact, businesses allowed under B-1 zoning include food services, enclosed general retail sales, hotel or motel, recreational and entertainment facilities and taverns, among others.
The problem is that variances would still need to be applied for, not only for the digital sign but also for the hotel, Cardenas said. The Mansion in Bandera project utilized a SUP because although used as a B&B, owner Steve Ball wanted to add a conference center and boutique hotel to the property, which is zoned B-2, Neighborhood Commercial.
In addition, P&Z potentially violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by its protracted discussion on the hotel and ultimate recommendation, which was clearly not on the agenda. This, according to an attorney's opinion, could create legal problems should the city council, in its capacity as the board of adjustments, take action on the P&Z recommendation about the hotel.
One potential solution would be for P&Z to convene another special meeting to repeal its former motion. With a properly posted agenda item, P&Z could take up the matter again, then forward any recommendations, once again, to the city council acting as the board of adjustments.
And, for the record, P&Z seemed more partial to the "Welcome to Bandera" sign rather than the scaled down, sanitized version that, according to one member, "... looked like something you'd see on 1604."