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.

It was the construction project, in fact, that caused Kemah to put up the Berlin Wall that blocks Sixth Street. Large trucks hauling off the dirt to level the land were going through Kemah because Guthrie wouldn't let them through his city, King says, so Kemah had no choice but to block them in June.

The combination of big trucks, small streets and lots of kids was a dangerous mix, he says. "It just made me furious," he says. "Here's Guthrie playing this stupid game over there, trying to be cute by making the trucks go through Kemah…It's bad enough to put a commercial development in a residential area, and to ruin Kemah's streets doing it. That's chickenshit enough, but to put kids' lives at risk is criminally irresponsible. Any respect I had for Ted Guthrie vanished when he pulled that stunt."

Guthrie says county officials didn't want trucks going over the two bridges in Clear Lake Shores because of the vehicles' weight, but they didn't tell King. "He thinks we arbitrarily sent trucks east," Guthrie says. "We didn't, but this is all just an excuse so King could close that road -- he was talking about doing it in February. He probably would have closed the street anyway."

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

During the dispute Guthrie was quoted in the Galveston County Daily News as saying King knew in advance the trucks would go through Kemah.

"That infuriated me," King says. "I wrote him and said that was slander, and I got back this weasel-worded letter saying he assumed that I did know beforehand. I told him to either tell me he didn't say what the paper said, or to retract it. He didn't, so I have sued him for slander, and it's pending in Galveston County."

The street closing came amid the other big battle, the one over who would annex Home Depot and Target. The mall containing the stores lies across FM 2094 from Clear Lake Shores, and Kemah wraps around it.

By virtue of being incorporated shortly before Kemah, Clear Lake Shores had the advantage -- first dibs, in effect, on unincorporated land between the two cities. If Clear Lake Shores could annex a piece of land between the mall and the storage-facility property, they would be able to claim the newly opened stores. And they could capture the annual sales-tax revenue from them, projected to be up to double the city's current $650,000 budget.

But between the two pieces of property is Stewart Elementary. And much of the school's students are from Kemah, which had provided police protection and other services to it for many years.

Both King and Guthrie took office in the spring of 2001 (each says it was with the goal of improving relations between the cities). The Home Depot/Target mall became an immediate sticking point.

Maybe the two men were never fated to work well together. Both are notoriously blunt-spoken and used to having their way. Guthrie, whose large extended family makes up an appreciable voting bloc in Clear Lake Shores, runs his city like a fiefdom. He's not a screamer, but he makes his wishes known and they're usually granted in the ramshackle City Hall.

King is used to more polished halls of power -- he's a key player in the Houston offices of Linebarger Heard Goggan Blair Graham Peña & Sampson, the state's largest delinquent-tax collector. The firm is cozy with politicians on every level in Texas, whether as a result of lobbying to get laws changed or to get contracts -- like the ones they have for Houston and Harris County.

King urged the CCISD board not to approve Clear Lake Shores' request to let that city annex the school's playground as a link to the mall. He knew there was a large tract of unincorporated land behind the new mall; he says that tract's owners wanted to be annexed by Kemah, but that couldn't happen unless Clear Lake Shores allowed it.

"I suggested to Ted that we get an overall development plan for the entire area, how to control it, how to split tax revenue," he says. "Our ETJ lines cut across property lines in crazy arcs, and it makes it impossible to develop the land. You could do any kind of solution, like have one city annex the land and negotiate out a split of the tax revenue with the other."

King says Guthrie rebuffed him. "He said he didn't want to talk about all that, he only wanted to talk about the school. I said I would talk only in the context of overall development. I got a 30-minute lecture on how Clear Lake Shores consented to Kemah's creation in the '60s, and that I was trying to blackmail Clear Lake Shores, and then he stormed out of my office. That was our first encounter," King says.

Guthrie says King cost Clear Lake Shores $350,000 by holding up the annexation request pending before the school board, asking members to delay a vote until a broader agreement could be worked out. "It was ridiculous -- it was in our ETJ, no one else could get it," he says. "Bill thought he could use it as a club over us, to beat us down on all the other stuff."

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