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.

The area was eventually cleaned up. By the '80s restaurants like the Flying Dutchman and Jimmy G's were popular stops for seafood lovers wanting a quick bayside fix. In the '90s, Galveston restaurateur Tilman Fertitta came in and transformed the place into the Kemah Boardwalk, a massive development that brings in millions of visitors -- and sales-tax dollars -- each year.

Beyond the boardwalk, Kemah is a modest town of comfortable homes. In the neighborhood of West Kemah, across Highway 146 from Fertitta's baby, the homes are decidedly more modest.

Between West Kemah and Clear Lake Shores sits Lazy Bend, a subdivision created in the '60s. It's unincorporated; the 250 or so residents pay dues to a civic association for street upkeep and other services. Each house in the three-block-wide development backs up to a small canal, where the residents parallel-park their boats.

Veronica Veerkamp stands in front of the "Berlin Wall."
Richard Connelly
Veronica Veerkamp stands in front of the "Berlin Wall."
All of Lazy Bend's homes back up to canals.
Monica Fuentes
All of Lazy Bend's homes back up to canals.

Veronica Veerkamp, 52, came to Lazy Bend about five years ago. She had been a flight instructor and commercial pilot in the Lubbock area for years; she switched careers to get into making television documentaries when she met photojournalist Richard Coberly. In order to work more closely with KUHT, the Houston public television station, the pair moved here and have helped produce shows on the explorer La Salle and high school "robot war" competitions.

They lived in League City for a while, but jumped at the chance to move to Lazy Bend.

"It's just a nice, quiet residential neighborhood that's been here for years and was always supposed to stay that way," she says. Veerkamp says the narrow streets are peopled with doctors, lawyers, NASA engineers, professors and others who love to live by the water.

Her unassuming 2,000-square-foot home has a pleasant backyard quiet enough that, when the wind is right, she can hear the playful whistle of the Kemah Boardwalk's miniature train a half-mile away.

Soon, though, what she'll likely be hearing is the powerful rumbling a block away of idling cigarette boats. Things have changed in the area. For years, the residents of Lazy Bend have been like anxious kids watching helplessly as Mom and Dad fight; they could shut the bedroom door and try to ignore it. But now the Kemah-Clear Lake Shores battle is going to have a much more direct effect on them.

A turf war was probably inevitable.

The two cities have long had overlapping ETJs, extraterritorial jurisdictions, a term that describes land outside a city's border that it can annex.

Clear Lake Shores has shown some creativity in its annexing prowess. In 1984, a developer announced he wanted to build a town house/marina project between Lazy Bend and West Kemah. Clear Lake Shores annexed a thin strip of land, a strip that is actually under the surface of Clear Creek Channel, to reach around Lazy Bend and annex the vacant land. The city zoned it for commercial use and waited for the tax revenue to come in.

It didn't -- the project fell through -- but that move opened the door for much of the current bickering. The annexation would eventually enable Clear Lake Shores to reach for the sales-tax jackpot when Home Depot and Target opened on unincorporated land across FM 2094 in early 2001.

And, of course, even though the 1984 project fell through, the land was still zoned commercial. In the spring of 2001, Houston attorney Philip Bryant approached Clear Lake Shores with the idea of building a boat-stacking storage facility there and got preliminary approval. In October, when his plans had evolved, word got out. (Bryant says he made it public himself; Lazy Bend residents say they had to depend on a leak from City Hall.)

It was all perfectly legal, within the zoning guidelines for the property. All the Lazy Bend residents could do was howl, and all Kemah Mayor Bill King could do was fling some rhetoric and close a street.

For Lazy Bend and West Kemah residents, the most pressing concern is the boat facility, not the ETJ fight. They say the marina will be a noisy, polluting facility plopped into their backyards without their having any say over it. The Clear Creek Independent School District, whose Stewart Elementary is across the street from the building, agrees.

"We don't know why Clear Lake Shores felt so strongly that they had to go ahead with this -- there are storage facilities all around," says Paula Tomasi, president of the CCISD school board. "There are children in that city who go to that school, and we have concerns about fire, about traffic, about flood and runoff, and to my knowledge they have not been resolved. But we do not have the power to force the issue."

The fear of fire is uppermost for many who live in the area. They remember a little over 13 years ago, when a blaze at the nearby Watergate Yacht Club spread quickly and engulfed 50 boats.

And it won't be sailboats using the new facility, says Lazy Bend resident Paul Perisho, an engineer -- it will be cigarette boats. "There's only one kind of boat that will fit in with what they have," he says after looking at plans -- plans that residents had to fight to get Clear Lake Shores to release.

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