A patron of Last House on the Block asks San Marcos Planning and Zoning commissioners to approve a conditional use permit for the house, which is used as a meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Thirteen months after the matter last went before the San Marcos Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), concerned residents again packed a P&Z meeting last week to see if the city would shut down the Smith Lane meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
As they did last year, commissioners voted unanimously against the recommendations of staff, deciding to allow the continuation of AA meetings at the Last House on the Block (LHB), called so for its physical location and for its function in the lives of recovering drug addicts. Commissioner Bucky Couch was absent.
With the recent revisions to the city’s land development code allowing for meeting places in SF-6 districts, commissioners granted a conditional use permit (CUP) for one year and admonished the applicants to make contact with the city when it expires. The applicants’ last CUP expired in January.
“It was my understanding that I would get paperwork, and I didn’t,” said LHB patron Claudia Berry. “And I guess that, you know, time goes by and I … but his time, I will take personal responsibility and I will make sure that whatever time you give me, I’ll be back here.”
City of San Marcos Planner John Foreman said the city’s policy is to send out a notice when a CUP expires, but he said “there were several months where there were no notices sent out.”
Last week, Foreman told commissioners that city police, engineering, fire, and environmental health personnel had reported no major concerns regarding LHB.
However, like last year, resident complaints about LHB prompted the city’s scrutiny.
“I got more than one complaint,” said San Marcos Fire Marshal Ken Bell. “I got probably three. One of the complainants was someone who used to live there. They basically indicated they were using the property outside the scope of what the organization was designed for. I’m not clear on all those details. But it is a residential neighborhood and it is a residential structure.”
Bell said complainants objected to the number of people living in LHB. Bell said complainants also objected to people coming and going from LHB at odd hours of the night.
Last week, Foreman told commissioners that the LHB seems to be used as a boarding or rental facility in violation of the SF-6 rules, and appears to be advertised as an alcohol treatment facility without any certification or oversight. Foreman reported that Bell recommended denial of the latest CUP, and Foreman concurred. However, Foreman suggested conditions to be applied if commissioners chose to grant the CUP.
Commissioners took most of Foreman’s recommendations, though not unanimously. Commissioner Randy Bryan cast the sole vote against requiring LHB patrons to conclude their AA meetings at specified times, though he voted to grant the CUP.
“It sounds like we got where we can allow the meeting place,” Bryan said. “If there’s something more we can do to be able to have this in our community, I think it’s important that we have this opportunity in our community.”
Commissioners attached further conditions on the CUP, namely, that LHB must conform to SF-6 occupancy restrictions, shall not advertise as a boarding house or drug treatment facility, shall hold AA meetings not more than twice per day, and all meetings must end by 7 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays, and by 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The city reserves all dwellings in SF-6 zoning districts to a family and no more than one other person who is not related to anyone in the family by blood, legal adoption, marriage, or conservatorship.
The city notified residents of the Blanco Gardens neighborhood of last week’s public hearing. During last week’s P&Z hearing, only one of the several public speakers opposed the existence of LHB. Andrea Ovalle, a nearby resident, said friends of hers moved out of the neighborhood due to LHB. Ovalle said LHB is not the sort of place that should be in a neighborhood where families are trying to raise children.
Karen Kalina, who lives down the street from LHB, said she has never had any problems with the place.
“I’ve had help from the people who live there, with landscaping,” Kalina said. “They mow the lawn or they dig holes when I need things done. They also helped me when I had an emergency water leak. I didn’t know how to turn off the water, and they came to my rescue. They keep the place neat. They are not noisy. I’ve had more noisy neighbors who do not live at that house … they have curfew, they don’t have loud parties, I don’t see any difficulties with their living environment … So, I do approve of the house. I do hope it’s within your power to make special consideration for it.”
Last week, an LHB patron told commissioners he learned of the meeting place just before he got out of prison three years ago.
“I lived there for 13 months,” the LHB patron said. “About two years ago I moved out of there. I got a job, I’ve got a car a cell phone, I’ve got bills, I’ve got all the stuff that citizens have. And if it wasn’t for that place, I don’t know what I would have done. I think I would have done crimes to survive or lived on the street, I don’t know. But I think that I definitely need it. I’m about to finish my probation. No problem. I spent that year in that nice, sober place and moved on. It’s definitely an asset to the community. Without it, y’all are going to be hurting. Thank you.”
Berry said she attends all AA meetings at LHB and is known as the “house mom” because she volunteers most of her time and intercedes on behalf of LHB patrons with probation officers and drug rehabilitation center personnel, among others.
“I’m ecstatic,” Berry said, responding to the P&Z’s decision last week. “I prayed all day long, and all I could receive from my higher power was that everything was okay and that this was the right thing, and that the council would do the right thing — and I’ve seen it done. I’m really, really happy.”
Last year, city code enforcement officials halted the AA meetings at LHB after receiving word from a nearby resident that AA members were responsible for increased vehicular activity during late hours and were endangering neighborhood children by not obeying traffic laws. The patrons of LHB applied for a conditional use permit (CUP) and the P&Z took up the matter at a July 2009 meeting, when city staff told commissioners that LHB could not be classified as similar to any currently allowable building uses. Staff recommended denial of the CUP on that basis.
Commissioners approved a six-month CUP, anyway. All of the residents who spoke during the July 2009 public hearing supported the continued existence of LHB.
“Let legal figure it out and let the city figure it out,” said Commissioner Curtis Seebeck last year.