New neighbor riles historic district

Audwin Samuel (inset) has an office in the Oaks Historic District.

Longtime Beaumont City Councilman Audwin Samuel, responsible for enacting and enforcing city codes and ordinances, was found this week to be skirting the policies he exacts upon the rest of the community, according to correspondence from the city’s Planning and Zoning Division. 

The controversy comes as Samuel relocates his law office to a home in the Oaks Historic District, currently zoned for multi-family residential dwelling only. After receiving complaints from Samuel’s new neighbors that an unauthorized business was budding in the historic neighborhood, Planning and Zoning Division Inspector Anna Varela visited the law office to investigate.

“Information received and an inspection on June 1, 2015 revealed that business activity has been occurring at the location,” Varela determined. In a letter to Samuel, Varela additionally wrote that the city councilman is in violation of city ordinance that requires a Certificate of Occupancy prior to starting any business in the city limits. A Certificate of Occupancy, she stated, would only be granted once a Specific Use Permit (SUP), which Samuel does not have, is obtained. 

“Please accept this courtesy warning letter and cease business activity no later than June 17, 2015,” Varela wrote.

Samuel told The Examiner he is seeking an SUP from the city Planning and Zoning Commission to legitimize his new business venture, Samuel & Son Law Firm, but the permit is no “sure thing” as Samuel faces stiff opposition.

Residents such as Oaks Historic District Neighborhood Association president Virginia Jordan do not support granting any special provision for the sitting city councilmember, saying that allowing new business in the historic district would directly counteract efforts already underway to preserve the neighborhood.

“Commercial encroachment diminishes property value,” Jordan said. “It would become another bad spot in that location, and it would spread like a disease.”

Jordan spoke about all the work that has gone into getting the neighborhood designated as a historical district with zoning restrictions.

“This neighborhood has really fought back,” she said. “This would represent a giant step backwards, and we are really not ready to let that happen.”

According to Jordan, upward of 30 residents of the Oaks Historic District are prepared to speak when Samuel’s SUP application comes up for review at the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting June 15.

“We’re hopeful people will show up and take a stand,” she said, “if nothing else than by their sheer presence.”

Oaks Historic District resident Gretchen Hargroder said she, too, was against any SUP.

“We put our blood, sweat, tears, and dollars in these houses – and saved them,” Hargroder said. “We’re making progress. This is just another setback.”

Hargroder said she is adamant in her staunch opposition to allowing a criminal law office in the neighborhood.

“We have e-mailed all the councilmembers and talked to people in Planning and Zoning on this particular issue,” she said. Hargroder also lamented all the hard work that has gone into cleaning up the neighborhood only to see someone who was supposed to be helping the cause derail all efforts for change.

“There were a couple of apartment buildings … all that’s been cleaned up,” she said. “Now we have a councilman that wants to apply for a Specific Use Permit and has already started setting up shop to do whatever he wants.”

Jordan said she feels Samuel’s application for a SUP is improper – and she is incensed by the councilmember operating a business in direct violation of city ordinance.

“We are extremely angry someone in charge of enforcing these rules and protecting us is now trying to take advantage of us,” Jordan said. “We’re pretty much convinced (Samuel) felt he was above the law; and there was no one to stop a city councilperson from doing what he wants to do.”

Beaumont Planning Director Chris Boone said that no one, even a sitting councilmember, is allowed to operate outside the city’s ordinances and regulations.

“We know the applicant and we are doing our best to treat them as any other applicant,” Boone said of Samuel’s SUP request. Part of the Regular Joe treatment occurred when Planning representatives followed up on complaints about Samuel conducting business at his Hazel Street locale in the Oaks Historic District without a permit.

“We went out to the site and it appeared the business had opened,” Boone said. “They said they were just setting up computers; however, for us it was enough to constitute a problem.”

That’s when the cease and desist letter was sent, Boone said. Whether Samuel’s premature business opening would have any bearing on granting the SUP, Boone could not say for sure. But, he said, “Opening up does not help your case; if anything, it hurts your case.”

Jordan said she’s seen clients at the Hazel Street law office. Samuel denies operating a business in the Oaks Historic District without a SUP and said the only visitors to his office have been those with concerns about the city there to talk with a councilmember.

“I’m not in business,” he told The Examiner. “I can’t see clients here. I’ve met with my clients at the Tyrrell Library; I’ve met with my clients at the Jefferson County Courthouse, trying to make sure I’ve met the guidelines.”

Samuel said he was offended that his neighbors are pre-judging him, and “not by the integrity of my character.” Additionally, in an e-mail circulating to city officials and employees, opponents to Samuel’s SUP application contend that allowing the permit will bring “pimps and drug dealers” into the neighborhood, an assertion Samuel takes strong exception to.

“You can’t discriminate against who comes into a neighborhood,” he said, “as long as government interest in served.”

According to the councilman, he meets all the requirements to obtain a SUP, and believes less than honorable ulterior motives are prompting the backlash.

“They said they didn’t want ‘you people’ here,” he said. “I have a problem with that. I’m not a drug dealer. I’m not a pimp. I’m not violating any laws. I’m just trying to make a living.

“I serve the community. I’m concerned about the future of this city. I was here through each one of the storms. Why would I want to see there being a detriment to any part of my city? This is where I’m from. This is my city.”

Samuel law partner and son Sean Villery-Samuel said he, too, only wants what’s best for the community and the Oaks Historic District neighborhood.

“I believe we have just as much value in the betterment of this community,” he said. “And we have just as much interest in this community being safe and protected.

“It actually surprised me when those types of comments were directed toward our business.”

Still, residents disagree.

“What they don’t understand is no one wants to live next door to a legal office that specifically services criminals and criminal law,” Hargroder said. “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 said if he is not granted the SUP, his business would be jeopardized and the Oaks Historic District community would be losing a good neighbor.

“I didn’t come in to fight anybody,” Samuel said. “I came in to serve my community.

“I followed the rules and they’re trying to take my livelihood.”