By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Flee the concrete heat -- this is the unspoken mantra of thousands of Houstonians who head down to Galveston every summer.
Bill Friedrich is one of them. He so enjoyed the coast that he teamed up with three partners to buy a five-bedroom house in the west end neighborhood of Spanish Grant. They called themselves The Four Seahorses, LLC. And, like most purchasers of vacation getaway homes, they concede that they wanted it for more than Bible study.
"Our idea was to go to Galveston and buy us a house that we could use as a bay house -- and have parties, enjoy, have friends and family and that sort of thing," says Friedrich, a 46-year-old vice president at Oppenheimer & Company.
When the group wasn't using the $375,000 home, they planned to rent it out in order to help defray costs. They placed an online listing with Gary Greene Realtors, naming the house "Le Bon Temp Roules," a nod to the phrase "Let the good times roll."
"That was a mistake," says Friedrich, "if you look at it in retrospect."
His 20/20 hindsight is the result of numerous complaints by his neighbors about noise and traffic, not to mention a court battle over whether the partnership is even allowed to rent the house at all for fewer than 90 days at a time.
Similar turf wars are breaking out in other neighborhoods near Spanish Grant. The disputes may sound like isolated spats, but the ramifications could be significant for anyone who's ever wanted to rent or buy a vacation home on the island.
Shortly after Friedrich and company bought the home, construction began on three other houses in the Maria Court cul-de-sac. "There's always things that go along with construction," says Friedrich. "But their builders were just horrible: left stuff in our yards, drove in our yards, parked in our yards, put 18-wheel trucks in our yards.
"They broke a sprinkler system and just let it flood," he says. About 99,000 gallons of water flowed into the bay, resulting in a $680 water bill.
"They put a Port-o-Can on my guys' property and just left it there," says Holly Williamson, Houston attorney for The Four Seahorses. "My guys were complaining and the homeowners association didn't do anything."
So The Four Seahorses sued the builders, one of whom happened to be a resident of the neighborhood. The quiet little bayside burg soon erupted with a flurry of letters, lawsuits and calls to the cops.
The Spanish Grant Civic Association notified The Four Seahorses that they were violating deed restrictions by renting their home for short periods.
"As the property owners' association, it's our job to make sure these restrictions are followed," says Bill Moll, president of the association.
The deed restriction states, "Each lot shall be used only for single family residential purposes. The term 'residential purposes' excludes commercial and professional uses but includes renting a single family dwelling to a single family."
Williamson says none of that language bars short-term rentals. She filed a lawsuit asking for a court ruling that rentals were permitted. Jim Schweitzer, the civic association's attorney, soon filed for an injunction preventing the rentals. The lawyer lives in the neighborhood and carries influence by virtue of another title: justice of the peace.
Meanwhile, The Four Seahorses kept renting the house. On Memorial Day weekend, an African-American family rented it. "And that's when all hell broke loose," says Williamson. "The neighborhood almost had a nervous breakdown."
Nearby residents said about 30 or 40 people gathered at the rental house for a loud, belligerent party -- it hardly looked like a typical family gathering.
"Some kind of fracas broke out," neighbor Bill Philips later testified. "And then it got somewhat violent and my concern turned to whether or not there might be a shooting or something like that."
The cops were called multiple times throughout the weekend, although no citations were issued. Schweitzer, who has declined to comment for this article, was reported to have called realtor Shelly Bagot at her home after midnight, and he threatened to keep calling every 30 minutes until something was done about the partying.
The civic association is denying any racial bias, saying Schweitzer had filed for an injunction before the hullabaloo on Memorial Day weekend.
"We don't care what race, creed, political persuasion or whatever you are," says Moll. "If you are nice and orderly, that's good. If you're disturbing the neighbors, that's not good."
The next weekend, residents were ready when the home was rented again. One of the neighbors told the occupants to "get the hell out." This time, however, the house was merely hosting a sedate family reunion, complete with grandparents and grandchildren.
"When they checked out," testified Bagot, "they said that they would probably not be renting that home again because the people there were very rude."
At the hearing in Galveston County court, the civic association paraded neighbor after neighbor in to testify that they moved into Spanish Grant because they wanted a nice, quiet neighborhood. No one wanted to live near a "party house," as many of them called it.
One-upmanship was the rule of the hearing. Schweitzer's complaints about tenant parking and trash would be countered by Williamson raising similar complaints against the construction companies.