Councilman’s requests for specific use permit, new public hearing rejected

Audwin Samuel's Samuel & Son Law Firm is at 2226 Hazel St., Beaumont.

Beaumont Ward 3 City Councilman Audwin Samuel’s battle for a specific use permit (SUP) to run his law office out of a residence in the Oaks Historic District is seemingly over after the Beaumont City Council unanimously denied his request for the permit and a new public hearing.

The controversy began when neighbors complained that Samuel was already operating his business, Samuel & Son Law Firm, at 2226 Hazel St. prior to attaining the necessary permit and certificate of occupancy required to open shop in the residential neighborhood.

Oaks Historic District residents spoke before City Council and to The Examiner, voicing concerns about negative impact on property values, the clientele that would be seen at the criminal attorney’s office, and about the future of the house on Hazel.

In early June, Oaks Historic District Neighborhood Association president Virginia Jordan told The Examiner, “Commercial encroachment diminishes property value. It would become another bad spot in that location, and it would spread like a disease.”

Historic District resident Gretchen Hargroder said, “What they don’t understand is no one wants to live next door to a legal office that specifically services criminals and criminal law. If he leaves this and it’s been rezoned for commercial use, it could be used for a halfway house, or other commercial use, and we have nothing we can do about it at that point.”

Samuel denied allegations that he was conducting business at the Hazel Street location, saying that prejudice was the true motive behind the complaints.

“You can’t discriminate against who comes into a neighborhood, as long as government interest in served,” Samuel told The Examiner in June.

Beaumont Planning and Zoning investigators contradicted Samuel’s claim that he was not yet in business by sending a warning letter to him after a June 1 inspection.

In the letter, Anna Varela of the city’s Planning and Zoning Division wrote, “Information received and an inspection on June 1, 2015 revealed that business activity has been occurring at the location. … Please accept this courtesy warning letter and cease business activity no later than June 17, 2015.”

During a public hearing of Beaumont’s Planning and Zoning commissioners on June 15, Community Development Director Chris Boone outlined the issues with the SUP, as determined by the city. Among the problems noted were the law office’s incompatibility with the city’s comprehensive plan, impeding orderly residential development, and hindering residential neighbors’ ability to live in a community free from commercial activity. Boone told them no SUP has been granted inside the neighborhood since 1992.

The motion to grant the SUP failed 4-5. Commissioners Eddie Siniguar, Walter Kyles, Shani Daigle and Bill Little sided with the law firm. Commissioners Frank Messina, Sina Nejad, Lynda Kay Makin, Marty Craig and Lauren Williams-Mason voted to the contrary.

At the meeting, Sean Villery-Samuel, Samuel’s son, said he felt two commissioners who lived in the Oaks Historic District should have recused themselves. Commission chairman Sina Nejad said the commissioners had already taken his objection into consideration and determined none of the commissioners would need to abstain from voting, including commissioner Daigle, who Samuel himself appointed to the board of commissioners in March 2013 and who voted in favor of the SUP.

After the vote, Samuel & Son Law Firm sent a letter to the city citing an attorney general opinion relating to the validity of the Planning and Zoning commissioners’ vote, requesting a new public hearing and the recusal of commissioners Craig and Makin due to “substantial interest” in the matter. However, a closer inspection of the ruling revealed, “The … member must abstain only if it is reasonably foreseeable that the action on the matter will have a special economic effect on the value of the (member’s) property, distinguishable from its effect on the public.”

Samuel’s request for a new public hearing and his SUP request were both up for vote on the June 30 agenda. Also appearing on the agenda, under the Executive Session heading, was for council to “Consider matters related to contemplated or pending litigation” pertaining to “Samuel and Son Law Firm, P.L.L.C. vs. City of Beaumont.”

During citizen comments preceding the June 30 council vote, local attorney Paula Blazek spoke against approval of the rehearing.

Blazek told the council, “I have looked at the local government code. I have looked at the laws that govern conflicts of interest, and there simply isn’t a conflict of interest for the Planning and Zoning commissioners who live in the Oaks Historic District to vote on matters involving properties in the Oaks Historic District.”

Blazek said if one were to follow the logic of the argument Samuel & Son made for the new hearing, business in the city “would grind to a halt.”

“Every single vote would have to be considered,” Blazek explained. “Ward members may no longer be able to vote on items specifically affecting their ward since they own property within that neighborhood, and that’s just not how it was meant to apply.”

After the vote, Ward 1 Councilman Claude Guidroz told The Examiner that Blazek had a “viable argument.”

“As council members, we have to represent our wards and the city,” Guidroz said. “We have to be able to vote on matters that concern the ward we live in.”

Guidroz said that in the past Samuel has trusted the commission and voted in accordance with its recommendations, so he obviously values the guidance, at least when it does not pertain to himself.

When asked about the executive session and the potential of a lawsuit against the city by the Samuel & Son Law Firm over the SUP, Guidroz said the council simply discussed the possibility of litigation and that, to his knowledge, no lawsuit has been filed regarding the matter.