Bad Deeds

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.

At one point, it literally became a pissing contest. Williamson had neighbor Dan Daigle admit that he'd seen the construction laborers urinating on her clients' house. Schweitzer then took his turn, having Daigle concede that he had also seen tenants peeing on the property.

Judge Roy Quintanilla granted a temporary injunction prohibiting The Four Seahorses from renting to anyone for fewer than 90 days, even though there is no mention of 90 days in the deed restrictions.

"The neighborhood is going in and asking the court to change the deed restriction because it can't," says Williamson. "And legally, the court can't either, but that's in effect what they've done."

Jim Williford knows about such leasing problems.

He bought a home in the late '90s across the bay, on Warsaw Street in the town of Bayou Vista. Created on an artificial canal system in which every home is on the waterfront -- think Amsterdam without all the tulips, drugs and prostitutes -- Bayou Vista has ten distinct neighborhoods composed of one street each.

Over time, Williford renovated the home, which he describes as "two complete houses under one roof." He started renting it out at the beginning of this year, taking in $200 to $350 a night.

And then came the letter from the mayor's office.

"They passed a policy so you couldn't rent for less than 30 days," he says. "What they're doing is completely illegal. The restrictions they've got don't say anything about renting, especially for any length of time.

"All it says in there pertaining to houses is 'residential purpose only,' which is fine," he says. "It doesn't say anything about renting, and it certainly doesn't say that you can't rent for less than 30 days."

Mayor William Jackson says the town is merely enforcing deed restrictions in effect for more than two decades. Those ban using the property for commercial purposes. Jackson says the new policy on enforcement is to ban rentals of less than 30 days.

Williford doubts he'll consider such long-term rentals. He doesn't want to give up his own use of the property for such an extended period of time.

"It's not worth near what it would be," he adds. "On a monthly rental, you couldn't get any more than probably $2,500 or $3,000 a month. I get that much over a week sometimes."

The Spanish Grant Civic Association and The Four Seahorses are due back in court this week, when Judge Quintanilla will decide whether to lift the injunction or make it permanent.

Since there is no mention of a time limit for rentals in the deed restrictions, the judge could establish precedence for the entire island if he makes the injunction permanent.

"Any individual in any subdivision can say, 'I don't think I like rentals in my neighborhood,' " says Williamson. "It's going to really hurt the economy of Galveston if that is the end result."

Williamson has already appealed the earlier injunction in the 14th Court of Appeals.

She is especially concerned about the other Spanish Grant neighborhood on the beach side of Stewart Road, where weekend and weekly rentals are the norm. This neighborhood has the same deed restrictions as the bayside Spanish Grant.

This issue doesn't seem to be of great concern to Schweitzer, Moll and company.

Moll sums up his neighborhood's issues as "a conflict of some new owners who want to run a rental operation, and a group of permanent residents who have deed restrictions on their side."

Says Williamson, "Galveston is dependent on the tourism industry. A lot of the homes on the west end of Galveston are bought by out-of-towners who purchase them for precisely the same reason that my clients purchased them, which is as a vacation home, and then you rent to defer expenses.

"If this is a trend, then people in Houston, Dallas and wherever who are thinking about buying vacation homes in Galveston need to think twice."

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Keith Plocek
Contact: Keith Plocek