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Votes confirm 'mudhole' on Main

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

"This is a sad day for Bandera. They've pushed away an expensive hotel development by looking at one tree and not the forest," said Al Rajabi in an interview on Wednesday, Oct. 2. "Most troubling of all is that they decided to play politics and blame Mike (Cardenas) for this. That was perhaps their biggest mistake. Mike was the key person keeping us here all this time. We would not have been here tonight if it had not been for Mike."

Rajabi had hoped to develop a vacant city block on Main Street with a retail center, off-premise digital sign and hotel complex with conference center. However, by declining to approve his request for a sign variance, city council, acting as the board of adjustments, effectively stopped development of 703 Main Street.

'Don't pass the buck!'

Rajabi's "playing politics" statement referred to an outburst by Councilman Jim Hannah prior to the 4-2 vote that rejected the variance request. In a not-so-veiled attempt to shift the blame for the debacle onto the shoulders of City Administrator Mike Cardenas, Hannah had said, "I'm sorry this did not go before the planning and zoning commission earlier this year in June or July. Now it's almost too late." Hannah then blamed "city politics" on a decision to send the request before the board of adjustments, naming Cardenas specifically.

In response, Cardenas told Hannah, "Don't pass the buck," and asked him to explain his accusation. Predictably, however, Hannah refused to clarify what he meant for the record, preferring his usual method of behind-the-scenes pot stirring. Mayor Don Clark quickly asked Mayor Pro Tem John Hegemier, who was presiding over the meeting, to make a motion, effectively cutting off further discussion.

Hannah later failed to answer a Courier email that requested clarification of his "city politics" comment, as well as other questions.

Hannah's ostensible "off-the-cuff" statement seemed designed to deflect heat from the planning and zoning commission. A meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 24, not only allegedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by discussing at length an item not on the agenda, but also recommended that the development team apply for a special use permit (SUP). By definition, a special use permit allows specific exceptions to zoning regulations for a particular parcel of land. Typically, a local zoning authority, such as P&Z, reviews and grants special use permits.

SUP not necessary

However, according to Cardenas, an SUP was not necessary for the Main Street property because the site was already zoned B-1, business commercial. This zoning designation already allows for food services, enclosed general retail sales, hotel or motel, recreational and entertainment facilities and taverns, among other businesses. "Developers don't have to go before P&Z every time they turn around," Cardenas said.

The attempt to have Rajabi apply for an SUP was seen by some as a ham-handed attempt to garner more authority for the planning and zoning commission, essentially allowing an unelected body to oversee development in the municipality.

After accusing Cardenas of sabotaging the hotel, Hannah also referenced the need for an SUP as a development tool. However, according to a witness to an exchange after the meeting, a 'Get Together' was apparently held the evening of Oct. 1 at that time, Clark had apparently warned Hannah not to mention the SUP during the Oct. 2 meeting. If one other city council member had been present at the clandestine conclave, then another violation of the Open Meetings Act would have occurred.

Municipal attorney Monte Akers foresaw "legal problems" occurring should city council subsequently take action on the P&Z recommendation that the developers apply for a special use permit.

Advertising venue

During the discussion of the variance, Gene Hartman said the digital sign would give small businesses and nonprofits an advertising venue on Main Street. In addition, the development team was prepared to offer the municipality 10 percent of the advertising space without charge. They also offered to reduce the size of the sign further - to no avail.

"The investors are willing to continue work on the sign," Hartman said. "This isn't a Las Vegas-style sign, it's a top of the line digital sign. It's not flashing; it's not neon. The messages change every eight seconds."

For months, developers made no bones about the fact the hotel project - the forest - hinged on getting a variance for the digital sign - the tree.

To a criticism that granting the variance would lead to a domino effect of bigger and bigger signs along Main Street, Rajabi asked how many local businesses were prepared to spend $350,000 for a similar sign. "Are current retailers willing to invest $5 million in this town?" he also queried.

Stars vs. future revenue

To a citizen whose criticism was "I don't see you making any revenue on this sign for five years," Rajabi replied, "This is part of our master plan for the property. If you think this sign won't generate any revenue, then I must be a dumb businessman, but I'm willing to take a chance."

Others, including Hegemier, who called the proposed sign "intrusive," expressed concern that the sign would contribute to the city being inundated with light. However, according to developers, the digital sign would dim after nightfall - unlike the "Friday through Thursday Night Lights" that currently surround Bandera's Bulldog Stadium.

Hegemier said, "I don't see how the board could vote for a variance." Previously, he had complained that the presence of the digital LED sign on Main Street would preclude him from seeing the stars at night.

Where's the rabbit?

Taking an opposite position, Councilman Brandi Morgan noted, "I want the city to move forward. A declining population has affected the city's budget and the drought has impacted revenues. I have trust and faith in intelligent people who want to help this town. It will be a very long time before an opportunity like this comes again."

Venting his frustration, Rajabi said, "We've been sent down all kinds of rabbit holes and yet there is no rabbit. This sign is part of our business and master plan for development. All these changes - renderings, graphics, tearing down the burned property - have cost us money. If you want us here, do an up or down vote tonight. If not, I'll be out of this town and you can find yourself another developer. This is no longer worth my time. And, please, don't see this as a threat, it is a statement of business fact."

In the end, the board of adjustments rejected the variance by a 4-2 vote, with Hannah, Hegemier, Clark and Binky Archer voting against granting the variance and Maggie Schumacher and Morgan voting in its favor.

Ironically, Hannah had earlier voted against approving the 2013-2014 city budget because council decided to carry over a $192,000 surplus into the new budget rather than relegate the funds to cash reserves. Essentially, he voted against a development project that could have alleviated what he sees as future tapping of reserve funds.

In an interview, Schumacher decried the decision, saying, "The hotel developers were willing to compromise once again on the size of the sign, which made no difference to most of the council. It was apparent they had already made up their minds and, in fact, had not even read the information prepared and submitted to them by the developers."

Earlier, Schumacher told her colleagues, at a minimum the new hotel complex would add $150,000 annually in revenue to the city coffers. "And that's just the bare minimum," she said.

As if unwilling to admit, the hotel is now a dead issue, the agenda for the Tuesday, Oct. 8, planning and zoning meeting includes this item: "Discussion and possible action on property for proposed sign and hotel at 703 Main Street." Did someone not get the memo?