‘Let Them Sue,’ Kemah Mayor Spurns State Supreme Court Ruling Amid Property Dispute

‘Let Them Sue,’ Kemah Mayor Spurns State Supreme Court Ruling Amid Property Dispute

Already fighting a federal lawsuit over unconstitutional takings, the City of Kemah now faces a state district court suit filed Friday over its handling of permits and code administration, with allegations that Mayor Carl Joiner attempted to thwart legally permissible short-term rentals (STRs).

On the same day the lawsuit was filed, the city council posted a meeting agenda for Wednesday, January 4 that included communications previously withheld from plaintiffs in the federal suit along with a request to censor the mayor.

In addition, The Texan has obtained a secret recording of a meeting between Joiner and building consultant Robert Kelly in which Joiner dismissed legal concerns over regulation of short-term rental properties.

“Let Them Sue”

Prior to a lengthy dispute with property owners Veronica and Mark Crow over building permits the city allegedly granted and later revoked for a “barndominium” and rental cottages, Kelly met with Joiner and City Administrator Walter Gant in May 2021 to discuss possible resolutions to avert a lawsuit.

Kelly, who met with the mayor on behalf of the Crows, recorded the highly contentious meeting during which Joiner proposed to levy fines on STR owners if renters caused a nuisance. Kelly warned Joiner that the Supreme Court of Texas had already ruled against regulations targeting STR owners, but Joiner responded by saying, “I don’t care.”

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“We can’t do something that the Supreme Court has already said we can’t,” said Kelly.

“Let them sue,” retorted Joiner.

The following audio file contains obscene language.

The Crows File Suit

Filed in state district court in Galveston County, the Crows’ lawsuit concerns property the couple purchased in January 2021 in the city’s Bay Breeze neighborhood. In July of that year, then-building code administrator Brandon Shoaf emailed a report approving their plans. On August 5, he sent a text message to Veronica saying the report served as a building permit and that she could pick up a hard copy of approved plans at City Hall.

Although the Crows proceeded with work on the property, Shoaf began requesting in-person meetings with the couple, which Veronica recorded. On one occasion, Shoaf warned them that Joiner opposed short-term rentals, and on another that Joiner might offer his architectural services to re-design the property.

Shoaf later informed the Crows they must elevate the property by a full 18 inches above the street, but after the couple spent more than $18,000 to comply, a neighbor complained about the elevation; in December 2021, the city council issued a stop-work order.

Shoaf then suggested Crow seek a variance for the elevation, but Crow said when the council considered her request, the previously-approved flood plain documentation presented to them had been altered, placing the property in a different flood plain.

Around the same time in another recorded meeting, Joiner told Crow she could only have one structure on her property even though there are no city ordinances prohibiting additional structures and other properties in Bay Breeze have them. Joiner, who also lives in Bay Breeze, told Crow that neighbors did not want a barndominium built.

As the Crows attempted to negotiate with the city over the conflict, Veronica says council member Doug Meisinger contacted her, which Shoaf claimed was inappropriate before asking if she wanted to file a complaint. Shoaf then sent an email to the council asking them not to contact the Crows, which became an element of the Crows’ lawsuit alleging Veronica had been denied her First Amendment right to petition her government.

At a public meeting on February 16, 2022, after hearing from the Crows, the council voted to lift the stop-work order, with members Darren Broadus and Teresa Vazquez-Evans confirming and condemning the alteration of the Crows’ flood plain documents done by someone at City Hall.

“She can show you the email that was sent to the city, proof of where the house was going to be built, and then we’re showed something completely different,” said Broadus. “That’s criminal.”

Following that meeting, the Crows paid for a second drainage analysis that resulted in a requirement to remove the dirt elevating the property. Afterwards, newly hired building code administrator Alfonso Acosta informed the couple in the summer of 2022 that they would have to start their building permit application process all over again.

After the Crows sent a demand letter to the city last November, outgoing city attorney Dick Gregg III contacted their attorney Kimberly Hoesl, claiming the Crows had no permits, and later asked for a development meeting. When Hoesl refused, Gregg allegedly told the city council the Crows were not going to develop the property. The Crows’ lawsuit also alleges Gregg lied to Hoesl about the status of the permits.

City Council Agenda Publishes Emails

Within the January 4, 2023 agenda, Meisinger proposed a resolution censuring Joiner over multiple allegations, including “abuse of process” and “actions disrespectful of city council members, city employees, city staff, and private citizens.” Supporting documentation repeats allegations that the mayor instructed Police Chief Holland Jones to surveil Meisinger, an allegation Jones made in another secret recording published by The Texan.

Other supporting documentation includes an email from city attorney Dick Gregg Jr. warning Shoaf and Gant that the mayor had no authority to order revocation of STR permits and that such an action could lead to a lawsuit.

But there is more since Meisinger’s documentation also includes emails from Shoaf that were sought but not provided in the federal lawsuit T&W Holding Company v. City of Kemah and which contradict sworn depositions provided by Shoaf, Gant, and Joiner regarding building code enforcement.

T&W Holding Company’s attorneys have already filed for sanctions against Kemah’s attorney Bill Helfand for allegedly making false statements to the court. Last October, the city council voted to terminate the city’s relationship with Gregg’s law firm.

A Kemah resident who spoke to The Texan on condition of anonymity, who has frequently addressed the city council regarding alleged selective code enforcement, said that he has had difficulty in obtaining materials via public information requests to the city.

“After one request failed to produce emails I knew existed, [City Secretary] Chandra Jobb told me that emails from Shoaf were kept on a separate machine, a workstation used by Deanna Wallace in human resources, and would not appear in a search for requested materials,” said the resident, adding that the city charged him hundreds of dollars to produce additional documents.

Shoaf submitted a written resignation to the city on January 25, 2022, but in Joiner’s federal lawsuit deposition he claimed he had never previously seen Shoaf’s resignation letter. Jobb also recently submitted a resignation letter to the city.

Both the T&W Holding Company and Crows’ lawsuits against the city include permitting disputes but also touch on the subject of STRs, which have been litigated elsewhere.

Kelly’s comments to Joiner regard a 2019 state Third Court of Appeals ruling, effectively upheld by the Supreme Court of Texas, that struck down an Austin ban on STRs.

Last August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled a New Orleans STR ordinance unconstitutional, and an appeal is pending in a similar federal case against the City of New Braunfels.

Texas Public Policy Foundation general counsel Rob Henneke, who represented plaintiffs in the Austin case, told The Texan that cities face steep constitutional obstacles in attempting to ban short term leasing of residential properties.

“Once the issue is fully litigated in the State of Texas, I think it will be devastating to municipal efforts to regulate and prohibit vacation rentals,” Henneke said.

The Kemah City Council is scheduled to meet on January 4 at 6:00 p.m.

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