Showdown at the Shore
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.
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.
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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.
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, 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.
The boats are typically stored loaded with fuel, he says, both to prevent water condensation in the gas tanks and to make it more convenient for owners wanting to get out on the gulf quickly.
Although officially neutral about the project, the local fire chief says he does have concerns. Federal firefighting guidelines say that an area within a distance 1.5 times the height of a tall structure is the so-called collapse zone, which poses special dangers for firefighters. In the case of the proposed marina, the collapse zone would include not only houses but the streets needed to get to the fire.
"It would be putting the fire trucks and the firefighters in a dangerous situation," says David Dockens, whose 15-volunteer, two-truck department covers Clear Lake Shores, Lazy Bend and Kemah. Whether he could get in close "would depend on the fire," he says. "We're going to try to do what we can, but if it's a huge inferno, it's better to stay at a safe distance than to go in and throw some water on it."
Dockens's department is funded through Galveston County's Water Control and Improvement District No. 12, and he does not work directly under either mayor. So, he says, he knew nothing about the proposed storage facility until Lazy Bend residents showed him plans last October. (The school board also knew nothing about the project until residents complained, Tomasi says.)
"I've told everybody I'm not for it, I'm not against it, but as fire chief, this is what I'd look at," he says. "When Wal-Mart and Target and Home Depot came in, they asked us to come look at what they had and see if we had any concerns."
That hasn't happened with the boat-storage project. He says he doesn't know such specifics as what type of sprinkler system the facility plans to use, and has not met with the developer.
"They haven't approached me," he says. While guarded in his comments, he admits to some hesitancy. "If I lived around there, I could see where I'd be concerned or upset about it," he says.
Bryant, speaking by phone while vacationing in Spain, says he doesn't want to respond again to complaints about what will be called the Kemah Boat Club.
He says he has answered the issues in public hearings in Clear Lake Shores, in Kemah -- where he went to argue against the closing of Sixth Street -- and in a lawsuit that was filed by Lazy Bend residents and dismissed in state court.
The boat club meets the zoning requirements, he has said in those forums, and it will be safe and nowhere near as noisy as its opponents claim. Other vessels, not just cigarette boats, will use it, Bryant says.
"The Kemah Boat Club intends to be a good neighbor and an asset to the community," he says by phone. Both he and Guthrie say the project has broad public support in Clear Lake Shores.
Veerkamp says that Bryant has told residents the facility would be open only until dusk.
"But I know people who own cigarette boats, I know the culture," Veerkamp says. "They go to all the clubs that are on the bay and drink until two in the morning, and all they'll do is drive their boats up to the [storage] thing and leave them there for the workers to put in when they come in in the morning."
Those protesting the $3 million project also express annoyance -- or more -- at what they perceive as the secrecy surrounding it. No formal notice about a hearing on the project went to residents or the school district or the fire chief, they say.
Clear Lake Shores Mayor Guthrie says he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. "Those people in Lazy Bend, they protest any development that's proposed out there," he says. "There was going to be a marina in there a couple of years ago, and they were all up in arms about it and stopped it. They had a chance to buy this property and turn it into a park. They'd like it better if there were nothing there, and I understand that. But the people who own the property are entitled to develop it."
Lazy Bend residents say there was no way they would be able to pay the $3 million the property owner wanted for the land. It's been tough enough spending $15,000 on attorneys who are trying to give them standing somewhere to fight the project, Veerkamp says.
Failing that, she and others say they will aggressively monitor the facility when it opens by the end of the year, notifying relevant agencies of noise, pollution or fire-code violations.
Needless to say, the marina project has stoked the always-simmering hard feelings between the cities. It didn't help matters when Veerkamp let it be known that one Clear Lake Shores city councilmember told her that Lazy Bend was a "buffer zone" protecting his city from the project, and that no one cared about the effect on West Kemah because "it was all just trailer trash."
"West Kemah is about 50 percent Hispanic, so I think there's probably some racial overtones to it all," Kemah Mayor King says.
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."
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."
The school board eventually approved letting Clear Lake Shores annex the needed piece of land last August. (A few months later, they found out about the boat-storage facility, a matter of timing that board president Tomasi won't comment upon.)
Kemah had been providing jail and dispatch service for the Clear Lake Shores police department, but King put a stop to it. "We were charging them $1,000 a month, a completely nominal cost," he says. "I had my chief look into it, and he said the cost was really $6,000 a month. I told Ted, and he said, 'Not one cent more, period, end of negotiation.' "
"That was one of his strokes of genius," Guthrie says derisively. "So we just went to Hitchcock." That city, 30 miles away, now provides the services for about the same cost.
He's similarly dismissive about being compared to Castro in a letter King sent to Clear Lake Shores residents. "It was just a bunch of garbage, typical King stuff," he says.
King doesn't back down from the letter or the reference to the communist leader. He says he wrote the letter because Guthrie had been telling residents that Kemah was trying to block the smaller city's chance for progress.
"The Castro analogy is very appropriate," he says, "because it's the same strategy: If you have problems, you change people's focus to some imagined enemy that's supposed to be the real cause of it all."
King says he's flabbergasted by some of Guthrie's actions. When heavy rains hit the area last summer, King says, he offered Kemah's mosquito-spraying trucks to Clear Lake Shores but was turned down.
"He says it was because I'm untrustworthy. What does he think, I was going to spray poison over there?"
Guthrie says King's ultimate goal is to absorb Clear Lake Shores and Lazy Bend into Kemah. "This is all an ego trip for him," he says.
King says a merger would make sense. "It would cut $500,000 out of our combined budgets." Getting rid of the "jurisdictional quagmire" that includes two cities, two water districts and a municipal utility district would spur development, he says.
The merger idea has been around for decades but never got off the ground. Even King admits residents of both cities would probably oppose it, but, he says, "when you look at it unemotionally, it makes sense."
Not always, says one economist. Merging can take away competition between cities just like it does between stores, says Steven Craig, an economics professor at the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy.
"It's always tempting to think that if there was a monopoly by merging into one city, that they'd plan everything right, but human nature doesn't work that way," says Craig, who was talking generally about mergers, not specifically about Kemah and Clear Lake Shores.
"There's also the question of the political process, how in touch the local government is with local residents," he says. "The bigger the city, the more out of touch they can be. When it's really small, you see your elected representative in the store, you say what's on your mind. In Houston, you have to go to a hearing, and that's a daunting process for many people."
King is unconvinced and thinks the larger city would work. It would have to be called Kemah, of course. "Landry's [on the boardwalk] does a million dollars in advertising every year about Kemah," he says. "If you do an Internet search, you get thousands of hits for Kemah, you get three for Clear Lake Shores."
Guthrie doesn't see a merger happening anytime soon. "You can't trust Bill King, he's proven you can't trust him," he says, adding that he couldn't be partners with someone who is "trying to screw" him.
The disparaging will go on -- "Clear Lake Shores, the streets there are like a third-world country," King says; "It's a joke -- you can't work with Bill," says Guthrie -- and the bystanders will find they can do little but look on.
"The grudges that exist -- there are just so many grievances, things that go back years," says Lazy Bend resident Veerkamp. "It's like the Hatfields and McCoys. They're lobbing things at each other, and it's landing here in Lazy Bend."
"I don't understand why the two cities can't work things out," says CCISD board president Tomasi.
"I just stay out of everything," says fire chief Dockens. "I tell everybody that the fire department is apolitical, and that's how I stay."
King admits he doesn't see any short-term solution. "Part of the problem is that there's not real good lines of communication," he says.
On that, Guthrie can agree. "I don't think anything like the merger will ever come to pass," he says. "If so, it would probably be many years down the line, when people's memories are gone."
Guthrie's estimate is an echo of an earlier assessment, one that points out how long the feud has been simmering. In 1988 a Kemah councilman made a public push for merger; a Clear Lake Shores councilman told the Houston Chronicle that such a move would inevitably come, but bad memories had to fade first. "In time, I see it happening," Councilman Chuck Ruhl said, "maybe 15 years down the road."
Almost 15 years later, with the barricades thrown up and the name-calling as spirited as ever, peace still seems an unlikely prospect.
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