Mom's the Word
Chiropractor Don Huey Jr. was having trouble with the property he owns at 7725 Westview. Huey wanted to convert the nondescript ranch house from a residence to his new office, and he needed city approval of his plan before he could proceed.
But the plan had flaws: at less than ten feet in width, his driveway fell far short of the 24 feet the city building code mandates for a commercial project. Though he had room for the required six parking spaces, his site plan had the spaces located in a way that would unacceptably restrict the smooth flow of traffic. And there was a problem with the location of the driveway in relation to a break in the Westview median. Consequently, Huey's permit application had been rejected by the city agencies responsible for those details.
Then his mom got involved. Four phone calls from City Councilwoman Helen Huey and one week later, the site plan had all the necessary stamps and signatures -- even though it still didn't meet the code.
Huey avers that she never asked anyone to intervene on her son's behalf and says she even emphasized the reverse in her conversation with Public Works and Engineering Department director Jimmie Schindewolf.
"I told him I did not want him or anybody else to do anything extraordinary about it," Huey says. If so, somebody ignored her request. As the people who normally handle the driveway and traffic permit were negotiating with Don Huey's designer, the project was suddenly yanked from their hands and delivered to a bureaucrat who had never before signed such a permit approval. Using a stamp that was three years out of date, he approved the plan.
That public works bureaucrat, assistant director of traffic management and maintenance Mark Lupher, says he got a call from Helen Huey, who wanted to know the reasons behind the delay on 7725 Westview, which is in Huey's Council District A.
"Her concern was it was taking forever and a day trying to get this permit for this particular business, and she was under the impression that the holdup was in my shop, as far as requiring all these amenities," says Lupher, using a novel term for the city's building code requirements. He adds that Huey never mentioned that the property in question belonged to her son.
Huey remembers the conversation differently.
"The slowness of the appeal process didn't have anything to do with [the call]," the councilwoman says. Rather, says Huey, she simply wanted to resolve confusion over what the rules were and who was in charge.
Regardless, Lupher says he looked at the property and determined that variances from the building code were warranted on several counts. One thing Lupher concluded was that the need for a 24-foot-wide driveway to accommodate two-way traffic couldn't be justified, since only a few patients were expected to be going in and out of the proposed office at any one time.
That's not the way Mike Nowroozi and T.K. Tarafder saw it, however. As the two engineers in the street and bridge division who review site plans for adherence to the building code on traffic matters, they had rejected Don Huey's plan for its shortcomings. Westview is a relatively busy, divided four-lane thoroughfare, and the engineers found the prospect of having cars stop at Huey's driveway while waiting for another car to exit too dangerous to waive the width requirement. And the location of several parking spaces didn't offer easy egress from the lot. "That's not allowed by code," says Tarafder. "It's obvious from the drawing."
It wasn't so obvious to Lupher, who, when asked by the Press, seemed to know very little about the code's finer points. In fact, he didn't know exactly what elements of the plan his approval covered. That's not too surprising, since Lupher acknowledges he had never previously issued such a variance. And though he thinks such a waiver had been granted in the past by someone else, he could provide no examples.
Nor could Nowroozi or Tarafder, or their boss, John Hatch, assistant director of the street and bridge division. "We know of no previous action on our part which would set a precedent," Hatch says.
Up to the point where Lupher set his own precedent, the process had been functioning pretty much as designed. Nowroozi had been working with Don Huey's designer, Rebecca Crow, to resolve the problems. Following a May 3 rejection of the plan, Nowroozi and Crow had faxed revisions and comments back and forth for several weeks in an effort to find a compromise. They were making progress, especially after Crow wired over a plan on May 28 that had a 20-foot-wide driveway and a passable parking alignment. "I think we're closing in on an acceptable driveway layout," Crow wrote in her cover letter.
There was still a problem with the median opening, but as Nowroozi's boss, T.K. Tarafder, told Helen Huey after she called him about the project, that detail could be resolved. "He said that was something that a variance could probably be granted on," the councilwoman recalls.
Charles Darelik also saw some of the compromise plans. Darelik, the administrative manager of subdivisions for the city's Planning and Development Department, took the first call from the councilwoman on May 28. He then went to Nowroozi and Tarafder, he says, "to see if I could help resolve the parking issues." Such a step is not unusual. "We get requests every day to help people through the system," Darelik says. At no time, he says, did Huey mention to him that the project was her son's.
Nowroozi and Tarafder disagree with Darelik on a couple of points. For one, they say he recounted his conversation with Huey and indicated she was displeased with the delays. "He said she was very upset because we are not doing our job," says Nowroozi. In addition, Nowroozi says Darelik mentioned that Huey's son was the applicant.
At any rate, Darelik helped the process along, at one point faxing a sketch of a modified plan to Helen Huey's office. Evidently satisfied with the pace, he backed off. "That was the last I saw of it," he says.
But after Lupher intervened, the compromise evaporated. The plan he stamped and signed looked virtually like the first proposal, with the narrow drive and inadequate parking design. Lupher's okay surprised even Charles Darelik. When shown the Lupher-approved plan, Darelik called it "completely different" than the version he'd last worked on. "I don't see any of [the modifications] on this set of plans. I don't know why."
On the other hand, the plan came back to Darelik after Lupher signed it -- the planning department still had to sign off on the deal, since it has jurisdiction over the number and size of the parking spaces and issues its own permit approval for those. Moreover, in a somewhat confusing overlap with the duties of the street and bridge division, the planning department can reject a site plan because it hasn't passed muster on traffic matters. Inspector Kay Preston, Mike Nowroozi's equivalent in planning, had earlier rejected the plan because Nowroozi had flunked it. When Preston received the Lupher-approved plan, she asked Darelik what to do with it. "I was informed by Charles to go ahead and approve it," she says.
Darelik says that once the street and bridge division has approved a plan for traffic, as far as he's concerned, the approval just needs rubber-stamping by his department -- whether or not the plan should have passed. "If traffic signed it, I don't have a problem with it," he explains.
Just who has the authority to approve what is the source of some confusion among the agencies themselves. Lupher says his stamp and signature only covers the plans up to the property line, not the driveway and parking configuration. But Tarafder, who usually signs the approvals in the street and bridge division, says Lupher okayed the traffic-related items inside the property line as well. "He approved the driveway and the parking," Tarafder says. "That's what we approve."
Deputy director of public works Dan Jones, who also doubles as Mayor Bob Lanier's agenda director, is likewise confused about the approval process. In an unsolicited phone call to the Press, Jones tried to spin Lupher's unusual action as perfectly legitimate. Nowroozi and Tarafder, he said, check for adherence to the building code, and any variances or appeals would be handled by Lupher as chief traffic engineer. "What the guys down in paving are doing is pretty strictly by the book," says Jones. "No interpretations, no variances, no nothing."
But Tarafder says granting variances is a routine part of his job, and that he does it all the time. In the Huey case, for instance, he was negotiating variances on the driveway width and Westview median break. Lupher, on the other hand, could not recall an instance where he himself had ever granted such a variance.
Though Lupher has not, his traffic management and maintenance division has handled an occasional appeal of a street and bridge matter and determined that a variance should indeed be granted. In those cases, however, the plan has then gone back to Nowroozi or Tarafder with the ruling, and they then attach their signatures to the document.
Asked why that hadn't happened in this case, Dan Jones replied, "The way I've been thinking about this is, it's a lot like the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, it takes up a traffic ticket, it doesn't order that the police officer change his opinion. It changes the result. And Lupher in this case is very much like a Supreme Court or federal judge, something like that, the appeal authority. So he is putting his opinion on top of it, is in fact changing it, but it wouldn't be appropriate for him to order back down to Mr. Tarafder, 'Change your opinion.' "
Even Lupher has doubts about Jones' Supreme Court analogy.
"It should be T.K. Tarafder's signature," he acknowledges. "Most of the time [if there's a reversal], we get with them, and they go ahead and sign off."
Lupher has a different explanation of why the street and bridge division didn't get the plan back. "[Nowroozi] wouldn't sign it," he says. Neither would Tarafder, or his boss, Herbert Lum. Nor would John Hatch overrule his staff. "I made the decision, and it was the right thing to do," says Hatch. That apparently left Lupher to do the deed himself.
Why Helen Huey chose to express her thoughts on the issue to Lupher remains a mystery. She says she called him at the suggestion of Tarafder, who told her she should go to Lupher to appeal the rejections. "He said that approval would have to come from Mark Lupher," says Huey.
It would have been odd if Tarafder had made such a suggestion, since he had never passed anything to Lupher before, and his doing so would have been outside the standard procedure. Tactfully, Tarafder says he doesn't remember saying that to Huey. "I thought I said, 'I'm going to talk to Herbert Lum,' " Tarafder says, referring to his immediate supervisor.
Another person who could possibly shed light on the issue, Jimmie Schindewolf, did not return phone calls from the Press.
Huey, whose mayoral aspirations are no secret, says she did not aid and abet her son's efforts -- appearances to the contrary.
"It's not fair for me to be accused of seeking some kind of favored treatment, when in fact, if anything, I actually discriminated against him because he was my son. In his case, I let it rock and roll for weeks [before placing any calls] because I was afraid if this office did anything, I would be accused of using this office. I've never done that; I never will do that."
This isn't the first time that Huey's name has surfaced in connection with alleged inappropriate influence over the city's permitting and inspection process. In 1994, the Press reported that Huey's name had appeared on a couple of computerized city documents related to a controversial apartment complex in her district. "CMHH [Council Member Helen Huey] approval required for permits," said one note, though only the chief building inspector had that particular approval authority.
In that instance, Huey denied having any authority over the approval and termed the note "totally erroneous." She suggested that whoever put the note in the computer should be disciplined.
If she's consistent, perhaps Mark Lupher should be looking over his shoulder for a while.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.