A dispute between developer David Gracedel and the city of Lumberton played out at a council meeting June 24 that ended with the council denying Gracedel’s request to be excluded from the requirement that he build sidewalks when constructing a new strip center.
The city’s Zoning Commission required that Gracedel build sidewalks in front of a property he owns and is developing as Gracelake Plaza, a future commercial shopping center, at 434 North L.H.S. Drive.
The nearly four-acre tract of land is in front of Gracelake Estates, a residential sub-division also developed by Gracedel.
The council based the decision on an ordinance that requires sub-divided property to construct accessible sidewalks.
“Under the term ‘subdivision,’ the definition includes any subdividing of land, whether it’s residential or commercial,” said Lumberton City Attorney Curtis Soileau. “When we have a property owner that decides he is going to subdivide his land for purposes of building a strip mall or business, he falls under this sidewalk requirement.”
Gracedel, however, says he did not apply for a subdivision.
“They’re using a subdivision ordinance, and I’m not asking to subdivide the property,” Gracedel said. “They’re saying that it has been subdivided at one time, but it has been platted that way for 13 years. I’m asking for a permit requesting to build a shopping center on one piece of property that’s been commercial before the sidewalk code went into effect in 2005 under the subdivision ordinance.”
Soileau responded to Gracedel’s claim that his property was not subdivided by stating that “the city council disagrees with his assessment. When property is subdivided as he is going to do to put in a strip mall, a sidewalk ordinance applies.”
Gracedel also says that some subdivided properties were not required to build sidewalks.
“Right now the (intermediate) school just built their parking lot – no sidewalk,” Gracedel said. “CVS pharmacy and that whole strip by Walmart – no sidewalk. The fire department – no sidewalk. Right across from where I’m building is a dollar store, and there’s no sidewalk. All the federal buildings – no sidewalk.”
Soileau responded by saying that “even if Mr. Gracedel is correct in that assessment, that does not excuse him from having to comply with the ordinance.”
Initially, there seemed to be some support on the council for Gracedel’s position.
“Our intention was never when we drew up the subdivision ordinance to include this in the commercial development,” Councilman Don Burnett said during the council meeting. “Do I think sidewalks should be put in and be made where people can use them? Absolutely. But putting an undue burden on somebody to put a sidewalk in that starts nowhere and ends up nowhere to me is a waste of property. Looking forward, we have to be consistent. Up and down 69 and 96, we’ve given people variances and allowed people not to build sidewalks because they start nowhere and end nowhere. It’s a waste of property and a waste of land.”
Burnett, however, who mentioned that this was the first time the council had addressed the issue of sidewalks in a meeting, said he saw both sides of the point. He later said in an interview with The Examiner that “our decision last night (June 24) was to go ahead and have the sidewalks included, that way whoever builds south of him and north of him will have sidewalks. There are future plans with undeveloped land north and south of the property that will connect with this piece of property. Our opinion is that the purpose of sidewalks is to connect properties where people will have access to those properties from property to property. It doesn’t matter if the property is leased or owned; when you are building multiple units or multiple stores that people need to gain access to by walking or riding a bike, they need to be able gain access to those.”
Gracedel said his plan for the property accounts for a 5-foot take-back line from TxDOT in case the state decides to come in and purchase the property from him to widen Highway 69 in front of Gracelake Plaza. With this take-back line in mind, Gracedel planned for a parking lot with a driving lane between two parking areas. With the council’s decision, however, the cushion that Gracedel included would cut the parking areas down to 18 feet each and the lane to 24 feet to account for the sidewalk. Gracedel argues that this would not only require him to have the construction plans completely redrawn, which would cost him $20,000, but it would also require him to construct a smaller building, which would result in a loss of revenue of $60,000 per year for the remaining life of the building.
Gracedel said he plans to consult an attorney and possibly bring a lawsuit against the city for the cost of redrawing the plans and for lost revenue.
“I don’t want to come off as I am dying to sue this community because I am not,” Gracedel said. “I don’t want to see them losing in a lawsuit over a bad decision that could easily be done in a better manner.”
Burnett said the city must remain consistent with commercial development despite threats of lawsuits.
“We are going to require every person to put in sidewalks when deemed necessary or reasonable by our city engineer. (Gracedel) eluded that he was going to consult a lawyer and he has every right to do that, but I just don’t see how he’s been wronged,” Burnett said. “We didn’t deny him building it; we denied him asking for the variance not to do sidewalks. He needs to do sidewalks. The sidewalks are there for people to be able to migrate from area to area. Instead of walking through grass or ditches, these folks should be able to ride their bike or walk on sidewalks.”
Solieau said that the city of Lumberton plans to revise the city ordinance for clarification regarding subdivisions and the city requirement to build sidewalks.
“We are going to draft the city ordinance so that it is clearer, so that people like Mr. Gracedel won’t have any misunderstanding about it,” Soileau said.