by SEAN BATURA and BRAD ROLLINS
An ordinance intended to keep Texas State University students and other young people from disturbing the peace of single-family neighborhoods has ensnared three former U.S. Marines who were twice deployed together in the Iraq the Afghanistan wars and want to live together as civilians.
After their stints in the service ended, Adam Bryan, Matthew Osborn and Nathan Wood enrolled at the university and, in January, leased a four-bedroom home in the El Camino subdivision where they say they get along with the neighbors. Police say there have been no noise complaints or other calls for service at the address this year.
At least one person, however, apparently lodged an anonymous complaint about the trio’s violation of an ordinance that prohibits more than two unrelated people from living together in a house zoned for single-family use. In August, City Marshal Ken Bell’s office sent the men a letter saying they were breaking the law and at least one of them would have to move or they would face eviction and potential fines of up to $2,000 a day.
Wood says he has moved out of the house to come into compliance but the disruption to their living arrangements has outraged them, in part, because of their military service. The larger issue, they say, is an ordinance clearly intended to target students. They feel so strongly about the issue that they have filed a housing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urband Development and rejected out-of-hand a compromise proposed by council member Jude Prather that would have exempted active and reserve duty military if their homes are not deemed to be a neighborhood nuisance.
“The problem that I have with this revision is it doesn’t address the real issue at hand. …If a revision is to be made with this ordinance, then is should apply to all students,” Osborn said.
The single-family occupancy restrictions has been on the books since 1963 but periodically becomes a flashpoint of town and gown tension.
In 2004, the city council created Bell’s marshal’s office and empowered it to enforce a range of codes and ordinances from unkempt grass to fire hazards to the occupancy restriction. When dozens of residents angry about loud parties and drunken driving in the area of the Sagewood development off Craddock Avenue flooded City Hall in 2007, their demands included stricter enforcement of the occupancy restrictions. In the weeks that followed, police stepped up enforcement in Sagewood which led to a backlash, again played out at the speaker’s podium in the city council chambers.
In response to the escalating problems, the council established a taskforce to consider a system proposed by Bell that would require landlords to register with the city and submit to inspections. That, predictably, angered rental property owners who staged their own City Hall insurrection in spring 2008 and led the council to dissolve the taskforce before it had even made recommendations.
“We couldn’t get very far because several interests clashed,” Bell said. “We were tasked with evaluating the possibility of doing renter registration. A lot of cities were looking at that at the time, some of them were getting into it, some were getting out of it. That was dissolved by the council at the time, to stop moving forward with that piece.”
At roughly the same time, the city and university embarked on the much-praised Achieving Community Together initiative that is credited with resolving some of the issues. But the single-family occupancy restriction remains a centerpiece of the city’s efforts to tamp down on disruptive college and college-aged behavior that homeowners often describe in terms of an invasion of their peaceful neighborhoods. When it is brought up like in the course of city council elections — and it always is — it is usually in the form of neighbors asking why it is not enforced more aggressively.
So the issues surrounding the single-family rule have been tread and retread. What’s new about the El Camino case is a situation fraught with political peril for a City Hall not eager to be seen as oppressing soldiers just returned from the battlefield.
“They chose to live together for two reasons. After weathering five years of military service together, they could not stand to break the bonds of brotherhood that it created. And sharing living expenses allowed them to stretch the meager stipends they receive from the G.I. Bill and remain focused on their educations,” wrote Lt. William Powell, who owns the home on Valero Drive and is himself deployed to Afghanistan. He wrote City Manager Jim Nuse that he had to rent the house to whoever would take it because his previous tenants did not pay rent for five months and he needs to the rental income to pay the mortgage on a home he can’t sell.
“Why is it that a family can live in a property rent free for 5 months, enjoying the protection of the city court and legal system, yet responsible, rent-paying tenants are sent an eviction notice with a 14 day deadline and no avenue for rebuttal or recourse? It appears the swift justice is only possible in San Marcos if the city itself is the one desiring the ‘justice’,” Powell said.
Propery manager Rick Tarr, whose company Prime Property Management leased the home to the Marines, claims improbably that he did not know the home was in the city limits. Still, he says the city should use common sense in not picking on the veterans.
“As a Vietnam-era veteran, I am incensed that the city would not allow three Marines who served our country an exception to this ridiculous ordinance,” Tarr said. “All of us who have served our country are brothers and sisters in a way that no one can understand unless they too have put their lives at stake as we all have done. This is not right nor is it fair.”
Bell said his office does not investigate a residence for occupancy restriction violations unless his office recieves at least one complaint about the residence. Bell said his office investigates about 57 such cases per Texas State semester.
San Marcos Neighborhood Commission Chair Elena Duran said the law is legitimate response to a recurring problem in San Marcos. She said in her neighborhood, Hills of Hays, one home was rented by four male college students all of whom had girlfriends. Commonly, eight cars would be parked at the house and on the narrow residential street as a result of their living there.
“It makes our property value go down,” Duran said. “I’m really kind of for (the occupancy restriction) because it protects our property rights as homeowners. … We need across-the-board enforcement.”
CORRECTION: This story originally stated that a city law prohibiting more than two unrelated people from living in a home zoned for single-family use dates to the 1980s. In fact, city staff say the definition of a single-family home as being occupied by no more than two unrelated people first appeared in the city’s zoning ordinance in 1963.
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