By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
With funding secured, Margaret filed a variance regarding the floodway, writing that she just wanted to add three walls to an existing slab of concrete. The city pointed to Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations (Look, it said, it's not us. It's FEMA.) and required her to provide no-rise certification, technical data stipulating that construction would not increase flood levels. From January to June 1997, Margaret spent $10,000 on an engineering firm that verified no rise in floods.
In the process, the engineers noticed that the 1996 FEMA maps were outdated and didn't reflect the 1985 channel improvements to Little Cedar Creek Bayou. Based on the improvements, the firm wrote the city engineer, Blondie's "would be in the floodplain, but not in the floodway," a distinction that determines who must obtain a no-rise certificate.
In fact, according to the questionable 1996 map, McDonald's and La Quinta Inn across from Blondie's on Fairmont, and Bayshore Bank and the Comfort Suites next to Blondie's, are all in a floodway too. Of those, only Comfort Suites, which opened this year, has a no-rise certificate. Margaret is livid, saying, "Everybody got to build but little old Blondie."
Not so, says former La Porte planning director Guy Rankin, whose duties included regulating the floodplain. The other buildings could have been constructed when they were not in a floodway according to maps at that time. Floodways can move. "She makes it sound like a conspiracy. That's not true as far as my office was concerned.I don't bend the rules for anyone, not for Blondie's, not for Jesus, not for anyone."
Maybe not in his office. But the rest of city hall plays favorites, says one former city employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If they don't like you, it's not going anywhere. They make so many demands to do this, this and this that it's impossible for them to attempt it," the source says. And the people they don't like include minorities and blue-collar folk, both those who work for the city and those who come to city hall to apply for permits, like Margaret. "They made her go by the book, but with other companies they worked with them around it," the source says.
"She's a rough woman, and what really ticked them off was how she had put a sign outside her business saying everything the city was doing to her. She fought them publicly."
The city made a concerted effort through many departments to thwart Margaret, the source says, including the police department. One chilly Sunday in February 1997, she held a crawfish cookout that turned into an impromptu biker convention with Harleys and Gold Wings parked all over. Three hundred and fifty people were digging in and listening to the blues when the cops arrived, checking customers for their ID's although no one was rowdy. "They were taking down the information from motorcycles. They wanted them to know they were calling them in and making sure everything was legal," says Elisa Yates, a friend of Margaret's. The cops, Elisa says, stayed at the club for more than an hour, causing patrons to roar off on their bikes. In an affidavit, Bobby Powell, police chief at the time, stated the officers believed some of the bikers were gang members. Elisa says police had an ulterior motive. "That was the beginning of the end," she says. "To this day, people stay away."
Over the next eight months, Margaret says, La Porte police pulled over patrons as they left her bar and sometimes followed her employees home. Business and staff dropped like flies in the summer heat.
Powell says records indicate only six stops occurred on Blondie's property in 1997, not an unreasonable number, given the club's proximity to the police station. But customers tell a different story. "You didn't dare go outside, because they'd be waiting to pull people over," Jay Legg recalls. "They harassed people, so they didn't come in. Everybody was scared. They used to come in, and you didn't dare say anything or else you might get a [public intoxication ticket]."
Even Rankin is stunned by all of Margaret's problems. "That city is its own entity; a small group of people have been there for a long time," he says. "But they didn't put any pressure on her. It looks like a lot of that dropped on her from the city, but that's just a lot of coincidences.They were all isolated, as strange as that sounds."