Showdown at the Shore

Thrill to the battle of the boardwalk brawlers of Kemah versus the maulers of Clear Lake Shores. Sales-tax slugfests, counterpunches to kayo streets and a flurry of jabs have jolted city services in a municipal grudge match yet to end.

North and South Korea have their DMZ, the demilitarized zone where itchy soldiers stare tensely at each other across a patch of deserted border.

East and West Berlin had their famous wall, with barbed wire, spotlights, motion detectors and guard towers all designed to keep two populations apart.

And two small towns just south of Houston have…well, you couldn't call it a wall. It's really just a couple of portable "Street Closed" barricades across one-lane, barely paved Sixth Street. They tried putting up some large planters to add to the feeling of permanence and authority, but vandals smashed them right away. And as far as authority goes, at any given time the temporary barriers are liable to have been pushed to the side of the road by an impatient driver.

Kemah Mayor Bill King professes to be baffled by his Clear Lake Shores counterpart.
Monica Fuentes
Kemah Mayor Bill King professes to be baffled by his Clear Lake Shores counterpart.
Strip annexation by Clear Lake Shores bypassed unincorporated Lazy Bend to reach the tax-rich shopping area. larger view
Strip annexation by Clear Lake Shores bypassed unincorporated Lazy Bend to reach the tax-rich shopping area. larger view

While the structure may not be imposing, it symbolizes a raging border war between the tucked-away hamlet of Clear Lake Shores and the newly glamorous tourist destination of Kemah. The two bayside towns have been feuding for years, for reasons lost to the mists of time, but now -- with big-bucks developments like Home Depots and Super Targets on the line -- the battle has been taken to new heights.

The two mayors don't speak to each other, but they've got plenty to say about each other.

Clear Lake Shores Mayor Ted Guthrie, a 73-year-old retired surveyor who's been a power in the small town's politics for decades, says his Kemah counterpart is utterly untrustworthy. There are issues the two governments need to resolve, he says, "but you don't go into a partnership with someone who's trying to screw you."

Kemah Mayor Bill King -- a 50-year-old attorney for one of the state's most politically connected law firms, born and raised in the city he heads -- has sent letters to all of Guthrie's 1,200 residents comparing their mayor to Fidel Castro. He calls Guthrie a "liar," and his actions "chickenshit." Not to mention he's filed a slander suit against Guthrie that's pending in state district court.

The fracas is serious enough, with millions of dollars in tax revenue at stake. Most residents of either city can dismiss it as so much political squabbling, though -- it's not city taxes that irk them, for the most part; it's county, school and water-district taxes.

There is a group of residents, however, for whom the fight has come to mean a great deal. They live on either side of the DMZ between the two combatants -- half of them in the low-income enclave of West Kemah, half in the unincorporated subdivision of Lazy Bend. Many can look out their windows and see the sad little barricade on Kemah's city limits.

For years the half-block gap between the two neighborhoods was wooded land. But now that land has been leveled and graded, and construction is about to begin on a five-story facility to house, residents say, cigarette boats -- 280 or so loud, fuel-engorged muscle boats stacked to the ceiling in a 1.5-acre shed that will tower over homes and kids walking to an adjacent elementary school.

The school board has protested, the residents have howled, and Kemah's mayor put up that barricade to keep construction trucks from tearing up his streets.

The long-simmering civil war between Kemah and Clear Lake Shores, it seems, has taken an ugly turn.

The two northern Galveston County towns are good examples of the quirky burgs that dot the Texas Gulf Coast, places that have slumbered contentedly for decades before waking up to find an invasion of shopping centers and million-dollar bayside homes in their midst.

Clear Lake Shores -- not to be confused with the more well-known Houston suburb of Clear Lake -- is artfully hidden away less than a mile from the Kemah Boardwalk, west of State Highway 146, just off the beaten path of FM 2094. Turn north off 2094 onto Clear Lake Street, and a block later you cross a small humpbacked bridge and enter a town of narrow streets winding aimlessly between old fish-camp shacks and new McMansions. The street signs warn of duck crossings and let you know you're in a designated bird sanctuary. They also make sure you're on the lookout for alligators.

Development began on the shoreside strip in the 1920s when two brothers started selling lots. In one promotion, a six-month subscription to The Houston Post came free with the purchase of a small lot for just $69.50.

The half-square-mile area incorporated itself as a city in 1963. The move came just a few months before a similar decision by its neighbor, Kemah. That small period of seniority has bedeviled Kemah mayors ever since.

Kemah's history is a bit more colorful, both in its putatively sleepy era and in the late-20th-century boom period. The city, which now has about 2,500 residents in a two-square-mile area, began around 1898 as a place where shells were scooped up for use in road construction, and by 1907 it had a post office and about 200 residents. In the '40s and '50s, however, its dockside restaurants and bars became known as a place where Houstonians could come and gamble and enjoy other furtive pleasures without having too many questions asked.

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