San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

July 16th, 2009
San Marcos P&Z keeps AA house open

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members successfully prevailed upon the San Marcos Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) to keep the Last House on the Block open, despite objections from city staff. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Residents turned out in unusual numbers at Tuesday’s City of San Marcos Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) meeting to witness the fate of the Last House on the Block (LHB), one of two daily meeting centers for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in San Marcos.

Against staff recommendations, P&Z commissioners voted unanimously to approve a conditional use permit (CUP) allowing AA members to continue using the house at 322 Smith Lane as a regular meeting place, to the relief of all 14 people who testified at the P&Z meeting. Those who testified included a father of two children living on the same street as LHB, a local chemical dependency councilor and several LHB AA members.

“I’m breaking my anonymity by standing here and telling you that I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous,” said Maxwell resident Ginger Fuentes.

P&Z meetings are televised and archived as streaming videos on the city’s website.

“The Last House on the Block has played a very important part in me getting my life together,” Fuentes said. “I am a single mother of three children … I just want you to know how crucial my anonymity is to me. To be standing here knowing that my boss may be seeing this — I don’t care, because this is that important to me. And I hope that we can, somehow, with your input on what can be done … that (LHB) can continue on, because there’s people within the community, there’s people that move into the community, we have college kids here — there are so many that need this help.”

City code enforcement officials had put a stop to the AA meetings at LHB after receiving word from a neighbor that AA members were responsible for increased traffic during late hours and were not obeying traffic laws, creating a danger for children who play in the area. San Marcos resident Carrie Baker said during the public comment period that if LHB does cause an increase in traffic, it should not be singled out, because the single family residential neighborhood she lives in endures increased traffic from college students.

“I don’t know what the issue is with the complaint, but if it’s parking, we’re on a dead-end street and there’s eleven acres behind us,” said San Marcos Resident Claudia Berry during the P&Z public comment period. “I know that at least one of them we’re allowed to use. So, if there’s a parking problem, I don’t know how that could be. This community needs AA. In June 2010, we’ll have the international AA convention in San Antonio. From what I know of it, we’re already booking rooms here in San Marcos. If we only have one AA club, it’s going to get overfilled, and my hometown, San Marcos, will look like we’re unfriendly to alcoholics and don’t want them in our town. And we do want recovering alcoholics here. I’ve seen what happens. I’ve seen people go out to the community and help … I’m for leaving this house open. We need it. All of us do.”

One person who testified said Wimberley Right Step Treatment Center sometimes buses people to LHB.

“I’ve created a lot of havoc in this town,” said San Marcos resident Mario Rolando during the public comment period. “It’s something that I have to live with and something that I have to work on a daily basis. This program helps me to live with that, to be able to take it and to try to become a member of society — a member of this community. And there was a time I didn’t want to do that … Without these meetings, I believe I would either be dead or back on the streets and y’all would have me in and out of jail on a daily basis — and that is the bottom line for me. There was nowhere else to go, there was no one else to turn to before AA … AA has brought me a new life that I have never, ever, in my life, ever experienced. And it’s a good life … I thank y’all very much for listening, and I am for (the CUP).”

City planning staff told commissioners at the meeting that AA meetings in the SF-6 zoning district are not specifically defined in the land use matrix, though such a use can be allowed if the planning director can classify it as similar to a listed use that is allowed by conditional use permits. Staff told commissioners they were unable to classify LHB as similar to any of the currently allowable uses. On that basis, city staff recommended denying the CUP.

Staff said the commission could legally choose to postpone granting or denying the CUP and request a line item addition to the land use matrix to preserve LHB, which would remain inactive until the P&Z again placed the item on its agenda.

“When does common sense prevail over the rule of law when, sometimes, the rule of law is just a thorn in everybody’s side?” asked P&Z Commissioner Curtis Seebeck after listening to staff advice. “I mean, let’s get realistic, use some common sense.”

Seebeck proposed putting LHB in a comparable use category such as community home, country club or place of religious assembly.

Said Seebeck, responding to the objection that a CUP would set an undesirable precedent because many other groups who have daily meetings in SF-6 would begin submitting CUPs, “I don’t think, for a CUP, we have to worry about setting a precedent. We had this discussion last time even, I think, about setting precedent. There is no such thing as setting precedent.”

Said P&Z Chairman Sherwood Bishop, “I like the idea of us trying to find a way to make it work. I think it would be good if we, maybe, accepted the staff’s suggestion that we postpone action on this until the staff can think of some sort of a use that they’re recommending, not just say that just because we like the organization that we’re just going to say they can do it.”

After Bishop cautioned against granting the CUP without specifying what particular use the CUP would be for, staff came back with the results of its quick research into categories into which LHB could be placed. All categories, staff said, proved to be incompatible with LHB.

“I think trying to jam this into some other thing is not going to work,” said P&Z Commissioner Jim Stark. “We’ve listened to this man, and he says that he’s tried churches, he’s tried jails, he’s tried — AA is what it is. It’s AA. Trying to put it in something else — let’s find a way to work as it is. I’m most concerned that they’re not meeting right now. I think a lot of you guys are under the same concern. Quite honestly, I’m concerned by the letter from the deputy marshal, who I know is doing his job, but it says that if you’re not — I guess he’s fining them up to $200 a day if they don’t cease and desist. We need to get these people meeting again, and meeting right now. Tomorrow morning they need to meet…we’re keeping them from meeting, and let’s stop that.”

With that, Seebeck immediately made a motion to approve the CUP. After a brief discussion, he amended the motion to include the CUP’s expiration date of six months.

“Let legal figure it out and let the city figure it out,” said Seebeck.

The roll call vote was taken, and after the last “aye,” there was general applause from the audience.

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2 thoughts on “San Marcos P&Z keeps AA house open

  1. How hard can it be to amend the ordinance to allow AA meetings? And where is the San Marcos Ministerial Alliance when you really need them? Surely they would want to take a stand on this issue – or rather, stand up for such a worthy cause.

  2. Just to clarify a little…when I said let the city figure it out, I was referring to the planning staff. Later in the meeting, during the discussion section of the agenda, staff was asked to come up with a revision to the LDC that would allow us more flexibility in handling these unique situations. We could not do anything regarding this new classification since we were not agendized for it.

    One other point…every family that lives on this particular block signed a petition or spoke in favor of this request.

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