Room to Crow

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When Betty Heacker moved her business, the Wabash Antiques and Feed Store, down Washington Avenue in 1990, the new location included a cinder-block building and a chunk of Houston history. Beside the building stood a majestic pecan tree once known as the West End Jail. In the '20s, prisoners were chained to it.

Heacker, who bought the century-old business in 1985, needed to expand the building, but wanted to spare the tree. Do not cut down the tree, she told her architect. He told her she was crazy, but they built around the tree, and now its shady top protrudes from the tin roof. In the fall, pecans rain on it, sounding like gunfire.

While Heacker carefully preserved her surroundings, she says a new neighbor isn't treating Wabash with the same consideration. Just behind the Wabash, developer George Polydoros this spring finished six town houses, $260,000 models with granite countertops, Jacuzzi tubs and precast cultured stone fireplaces. Then he complained about something the business has done for a hundred years: sell roosters. The roosters, he says, crow too loudly. And not just during early-morning wake-up calls, but all day long.

In pens beneath a patio, Heacker keeps roosters, hens, geese, doves, pigeons and even a pair of peacocks for sale. She also sells bunnies, puppies, kittens and a variety of pet birds. "Cute kittens $20," one sign reads, hanging above a trio of napping fur balls. "Ugly kittens $10 extra."

"There are actually a lot of people who wouldn't mind listening to chickens from across the fence as long as there's not a problem with odor or flies," Heacker says. "There are people who think it's charming, actually.This is a little piece of the country in the heart of the city."

When Polydoros first started on the town-house project over a year ago, he asked Heacker if she wouldn't mind moving the chickens and roosters farther away from the fence. She did, spending $5,000 on redoing the surfaces beneath the pens and other improvements. Polydoros says he does not know if she ever relocated them.

The developer, Heacker says, fears her nearby livestock will make his town houses difficult to sell. "George will harass me until he sells those places. And I think George will go away. It's just an economic thing for George," she says.

"I love chickens," Polydoros insists at his office. "We have no problem with her selling chickens. Our only concern is the noise coming from the roosters."

He and the one resident who has moved in called animal control. A city ordinance prohibits chickens from being kept within 100 feet of any residence, church, school or hospital. But a commercial exception allows chickens to be held for sale so long as they stay in pens inside a building.

Animal control officers visited the feed store. They found chickens. But no violations.

Yet someone continues to call animal control roughly every ten days.

Polydoros says the ordinance doesn't make much sense to him. "Now you can't have a dog kennel within 100 feet of a residence, but you can have chickens," he says, shrugging. A past councilmember must have owned a chicken business or had a client who did, he speculates. If the city zoned like other cities did, then no barnyard animals would be kept inside the city limits, he says.

But lack of zoning has also allowed Polydoros's company, Prestwick Custom Builder, to construct town houses in the Heights. The Houston Heights Association, opposed to the very un-Heights-like nature of town homes, protested them in June.

As development surges inside the Loop, more and more clashes are cropping up between existing communities and businesses and their new neighbors.

For almost two years, town house resident Billy Murphy has called police concerning Jax Grill and Walter's Ice House on upper Shepherd (see "Murphy's Law," by Melissa Hung, August 3). No noise citations have been issued against them. However, disputes over livestock and fowl had been largely the stuff of suburbia pushing into previously rural enclaves, until Polydoros arrived.

Since the chickens are supposed to be kept inside a building, Polydoros called the city's building inspection department to scrutinize the Wabash fowl arrangement. An inspector found that Wabash's covered patio and sometimes greenhouse (under which the chickens cluck) had stood there for a good seven years and was technically a building, but it did not have building permits.

Heacker and the city are now working on obtaining the proper permits.

"If she builds a building that meets city code, I don't have one complaint," Polydoros says.

Technically, Polydoros adds, producing two different surveys, Wabash is encroaching on his vacant lot by less than a foot.

"We haven't even complained about it," he offers.

He declares he wants to be a good neighbor and work things out. "I think Wabash is an asset to that street," he says. "Otherwise you have just car lots out there. We've been trying to resolve it, but my God, if she doesn't return your calls, what do you do?"

But Heacker says she feels harassed by frequent calls to animal control. Polydoros has even threatened her with legal action, she says. Tearing down and replacing the fence between them had proved a difficult process. Polydoros had claimed then that her existing fence encroached on his side by a few inches. She agreed to let him put up the new fence where he saw fit.

"I don't want to get into a spitting contest over an inch and a half," she says with a sigh. "I just want Polydoros to leave me alone."

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