Zoning commission refuses councilman’s request

Mayor Ames and Audwin Samuel

At a meeting of Beaumont’s Planning and Zoning commissioners held Monday, June 15, the group elected to deny a requested Specific Use Permit (SUP) to longtime Ward 3 city councilman Audwin Samuel, who has made arrangements to open a law office in the Oaks Historic District residential neighborhood with his son Sean Villery-Samuel. The neighborhood where the law office is situated is zoned for residential dwellings, with businesses allowed only by SUP. According to Planning director Chris Boone, there was evidence Samuel was operating his law office at the Hazel Street address even without the SUP, prompting a warning from the city to cease and desist all business.

In addition to correspondence noting that business should halt at the locale, Samuel was also notified in writing that his SUP application was in jeopardy due to several factors, not including operating the law office outside the letter of local ordinance.

In a pre-meeting workshop, commissioners were briefed on the request and reasons a SUP was inappropriate in this case. According to Boone, an abundance of information was given to the group concerning the request.

“We just considered more to be better,” Boone said.

Boone’s presentation to commissioners noted three main problems with Samuel’s SUP request in relation to an eight-part conditional plan that must be met prior to any SUP issuance. Some of the conditions were met without question, including noise restrictions and parking. Other stipulations, however, were not met, according to Boone.

Among the problems noted with issuing the SUP 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.

According to Boone, since 1992, no SUP has been granted for the neighborhood where Samuel is setting up shop.

“We go back to the fact that this would be the first new commercial development in this block. Period,” Boone said. “It’s true that this (law office) is not as intrusive as a restaurant, but it’s not a residence, either.”

Boone said written notice about the SUP request was sent to 30 addresses, with 10 responses – five in favor, and five opposed. At the Monday meeting, citizen input was also split down the middle.

Before commissioners made their decision, Villery-Samuel represented he and his father’s position in their fight for a SUP. Villery-Samuel argued that the law office would be good neighbors to the community and disputed the city’s position that no other commercial activity was underway in the neighborhood.

The majority of commissioners were not swayed by Villery-Samuel’s argument. 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. The motion to grant the SUP failed 4-5.

After the meeting, Audwin Samuel took to social media to decry the commissioners’ decision.

“For over 30 years I have tried to serve and represent all of the citizens of Beaumont generally and the people of my community (Ward 3) specifically,” he wrote. “I have always tried to stand for what is just and right, not regarding the political impact or who it might offend. Because of that, I have not always been liked but yet I stand.

“Today ... I stand. I stand not thinking that I am ABOVE THE LAW. But knowing I am standing UNDER THE LAW!”

“While moving in, I was approached by a resident of the neighborhood, (a member of the Oaks Historic District Neighborhood Association), and told ‘we don’t want YOU PEOPLE here.’ When she saw my expression and heard my response, she restated ‘we don’t want any businesses on this street.’ I listened to what she had to say and walked away. That evening I received an e-mail stating, ‘Life is good in the Oaks and we will not go backward 20 years and give it back to the drug dealers and pimps.’”

Samuel goes on to say that his office meets all eight conditions of garnering a SUP, despite the city’s position.

“But now there are members of the council that believe the neighborhood association FEELINGS are more important than the LAW,” he said. “They have accused me of pulling the race card!

“What do you think?”

Whether the race card is in play is being hotly debated on social media and in the community, but in official context, the card played was an attorney general opinion relating to the validity of the Planning and Zoning commissioners’ vote. In a letter sent to Planning and city officials, Samuel and son are asking for the recusal of two commissioners who reside in the Oaks Historic District.

According to the letter sent from the law firm’s letterhead, commissioners Craig and Makin (who both voted against granting the SUP) should not have voted on the matter since they both hold “substantial interest” in the property. The attorney general opinion cited by Samuel and son does state that “substantial interest” in property could result in the need for an official to recuse themselves from voting, but does not require it at all times.

“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,” the ruling states.

Villery-Samuel raised a similar objection at the Monday meeting. Commission chairman Sina Nejad said the commissioners had already taken his objection under 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.

The Beaumont City Council, which will ultimately be the deciding factor in granting the SUP or not, will take on the matter at its June 30 meeting, according to Mayor Becky Ames.

 

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