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Local
Troubling signs for redevelopment at site of former Longview restaurant

Two developers say they’ve found an international retailer willing to invest at least $2 million into a former Longview diner property that sits at one of the city’s busiest intersections.

However, John King and Grant Gary have encountered an obstacle involving the three-sided billboard towering over the former Waffle Shoppe at Marshall Avenue and Spur 63 and the city’s 2003 sign ordinance.

Though King and Gary have worked 18 months to broker a deal — even forging an agreement with Lamar Advertising that would remove the sign — they likely won’t get the blessing of municipal staff unless they meet sign ordinance requirements.

Neither the developer nor city officials have disclosed the name of the interested retailer, but Mayor Andy Mack said it is a major brand that will attract customers regardless of the billboard.

“Knowing that I know who the applicant is and the strength of their marketing and advertising,” Mack said, “in my opinion, the billboard that they’re trying to remove will have zero effect on their business. They’re so strong in their branding that people will go to them no matter who’s around them.”

Developers don’t need city staff’s recommendation to obtain variances to the sign ordinance that would move the project forward.

However, they would need a super-majority vote of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, but that board’s vote is final. It isn’t a City Council or Planning and Zoning Commission decision.

“We’ve invested too much time (and) money, and I think the net gain for the city is way too great for this to be shot down because of someone’s taste or distaste for signage,” King said, “or for billboards or for whatever it is.”

In 2003, the city adopted a sign ordinance that outlawed any new, reconstructed or converted billboards from being installed in Longview unless at least two existing billboards were removed. The ordinance also prohibited “any sign using any combination of forms, words, colors or lights which imitate standard public traffic regulatory, emergency signs or signals, flashing signs or snipe signs.”

Gary said the ordinance doesn’t specifically prohibit digital billboards.

“At the same time, there is the ability for a variance,” he said.

“I want to be cautious here. We’ve met with city staff on multiple occasions, and they had originally been supportive of the project, but as we continued working on the project, when the component of bringing down the billboard came up, their tune changed,” Gary continued, “but there had been support, and I do think there was support for redeveloping this corridor.”

The 2003 ordinance followed a 12-month moratorium that prohibited any new billboards. The community banter over signs was so memorable that developers say they’ve already been warned by members of the City Council, including the mayor.

“He just kind of cautioned me on the aspects of emotions on this deal, so he didn’t really indicate one way or another on it,” King said. “It was more or less a ... this was a boar’s nest last time, and it could very well turn into that again.”

Mack said Friday, “This has always been a volatile issue because businesses want as big a sign as they can possibly get and the citizens want no signs, so it’s a balancing act. ... It was almost a yearlong process (to create the sign ordinance), and it was very difficult because it was hard to make everybody happy because there were different viewpoints on it.”

Looking for a deal

Representatives for the developers’ prospective tenant said they wanted the sign removed before they would invest at the site, so King and Gary turned to Lamar to work out a deal.

In exchange for removing the tri-billboard, developers would pay for converting three other Lamar-owned billboards elsewhere in Longview from vinyl, paper or plastic into digital or LED signs.

Developers didn’t disclose which existing billboards that they’re proposing to convert to digital but said that one is in District 6 and two are in District 4. They’ve also gotten support from council members Steve Pirtle and Kristen Ishihara, who represent those districts.

Ishihara “is kind of guiding me through the nuance of how to approach the other council members,” King said.

“The one thing that is preventing this from moving forward is the Lamar sign,” King said. “Planning and Zoning has indicated they it will not be in favor of this (because of the) sign ordinance — really city staff.”

Development Services Director Michael Shirley said the deal between the developers and Lamar would violate the digital sign prohibition and also doesn’t meet the city’s two-for-one requirement.

“We don’t make recommendations based on personal feelings,” Shirley said of Planning and Zoning staff. “We make a professional opinion interpreting the rules, state law, local guidelines and the Comprehensive Plan, and based on that, there is a desire from the community and the council that billboards should be highly restricted and they shouldn’t be digital. And if you’re going to try to put one up, you’ve got to take two down.”

Shirley recalled the community reactions and billboard moratorium that led the city to create the sign ordinance in 2003 and that further restricted new billboards in 2008.

“They specifically wrote in the language that digital signs can not be used as billboards,” he said, “and at that time, (former Mayor) Jay (Dean) said, ‘We’re not talking about billboards. … We’re not opening the door for digital billboards.’”

The ordinance

The Comprehensive Plan adopted five years ago included a specific theme for Longview to pursue a scenic city certification, and “One of the main things that they require to be a scenic city is that you have to have a prohibition on new billboards — not just very strict requirements like we do, but an all-out prohibition,” Shirley said.

“It’s just every step along the way, the community and the council has told us on the whole that they’re not supportive of that,” he added, “so that’s where we get our direction.”

There also is direction that staff has received from the courts.

In the mid-2000s, Lamar Advertising wanted to repair three of its billboards in Longview, but the city said that would trigger the two-to-one requirement — meaning it would have to tear down six other existing signs.

The company sued the city in state court, but the Zoning Board of Adjustment and later the court ruled with the city. Lamar appealed the decision, but a state court of appeals affirmed the decision, Shirley said.

“So that’s where our very basic lack of support for billboards comes from,” he said of the past community and court actions.

It’s unclear when the Zoning Board of Adjustment would consider any variances at the Waffle Shoppe site because the city hasn’t received a formal application from developers, staff said.

“They’ve not given us any formal locations as far as where they’d like to make conversions. We don’t even know what variances they would need because it’s probably going to be multiple variance per location if they were to pursue,” Shirley said. “It’s like it’s shrouded in secrecy.”

Developers say they’re also in the dark over city staff’s reasoning.

“They’ve just kind of given us the stiff-arm to say that it’s not something that would be supported by city staff,” Gary said, “and they’ve just kind of pointed back to the code at the end of the day, so there’s not been a specific reason. “And we’ve remained at the ready with Lamar to go over and address any concerns whether it’s timing or people looking up at the billboard or any other safety (or) traffic concerns, and we’ve cited other markets where they’ve converted digital billboards, one being Tyler.”

The restaurant site is at the corner of West Marshall Avenue and North Spur 63. A recent transportation survey determined about 87,000 motorists pass through the intersection each day, King said. Across the street, Regions Bank is building a new branch, and Whataburger recently remodeled its restaurant nearby on the other side of Spur 63.

“We wanted the community at large to understand ... that we’re not just simply asking for something that would benefit us,” King said, “but we’re looking for something that would benefit the micro-economy of that part of Longview and also the greater hurrying of development for that corridor.”


Local
Few bites, plentiful smiles at Lake O' the Pines kids fishing day

LAKE O’ THE PINES — Jefferson moms Brandie Baldwin, Des Forbes and Charity Rouse sat in lawn chairs chatting and perusing magazines before a view of their combined nine children all tossing bait into Lake O’ the Pines.

For them, it was certainly not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning, especially at no cost.

“If moms can do it without the dads,” Rouse said, “it’s not too bad.”

Their youngsters, ages 6 to 11, were among at least 200 children plus parents and guests at the 20th annual Kids Free Fish Day at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane Creek Recreation Area on the lake.

Each year on the first Saturday in June, children ages 2 to 16 are invited to fish.

The Pine Cone Fishing Club, with help from Lake O’ The Pines Chamber of Commerce plus dozens of commercial and personal donors, provided the tackle, live bait, snacks, drinks, hot dogs, popcorn and snow cones, and the first 300 children who registered received a gift, organizer Marie Dunn said.

Children fished from the Hurricane Creek bank. When they caught a bass, bluegill, red ear, striper, catfish or turtle, they could bring them in for weighing.

Trophies were awarded to the top three finishers in five age groups, while cash prizes of between $125 and $50 were given to the children with the heaviest weigh-ins.

After lunch, the club conducted an auction of donated items — fishing gear, recreation items and more — to raise funds for the following year’s Kids Free Fish Day and ensure that it remains a free event, Dunn said.

“We furnish everything,” she said. “It doesn’t cost them nothing – not a dime. We survive and maintain each year on donations from people and businesses that give us things.”

Dunn noted that there weren’t as many children Saturday as in past years, when the fishing club has welcomed as many as 450 young anglers. She also noticed that the fish weren’t biting quite as enthusiastically, either.

So did Shirley Smith, who brought her grandkids from Gladewater to the event for the second time.

“Usually, we’ve already had a stringer of fish. This year, we’ve caught nothing,” Smith said 90 minutes into the event. “I think it’s because the water is too high because it’s rained so much this year.”

Still, the event is worth the drive “because they have a good time. They learn to fish, they learn responsibility to know how to fish,” she said.

Eight-year-old Jackson Healy had already passed up on the fishing, so he and his mom, Rebecca Dorris, walked across the recreation area from attraction to attraction.

“He wants to go swimming,” Dorris said. “He wanted to make a splash where other people were trying to fish, and I said, ‘You’re scaring all of the fish away.’

“We come every year,” she said. “Our church (Lake O’ the Pines Baptist Church) helps with food, does the popcorn and the snow cones … I help a little bit if some of the kids need a little help.”

For parents like Baldwin, Forbes and Rouse, what mattered was that the children had fun.

“They’re always really good about how everything is very organized, they have stuff for all of the kids and they just make sure that the kids are taken care of,” Baldwin said.

The event was about more than fishing, Dunn said, noting that there were vacation Bible school registrations, 4-H sign-ups, safety lessons taught by the Corps and other items meant to stir a sense of community among the children.

“We kind of pull the community in, and that’s what we want to do. We want our children to get involved with the whole community, not just us,” Dunn said, “and it works.”


Local
Doulas advocate for mother-friendly birth experiences

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of stories on maternal morbidity and infant mortality in East Texas.

TYLER — With supporting hands from her husband, her midwife and her doula, Flint mother Laura McHugh, 28, gave birth to her daughter in the comfort of her living room.

She had a birth plan, and her wishes and expectations for her birth were respected and encouraged by those in attendance at her delivery.

In the birthing pool in front of the family’s television, which was playing images of a fireplace and music from a calming, inspirational playlist, McHugh had the special experience of catching her daughter and pulling her up out of the warm water for her first breath.

“My birth was euphoric, intense, spiritual, holy and empowering,” McHugh said. “It was reassuring that birth really does go well a lot of the time, and it really can be a beautiful experience. There was something so powerful about catching my own baby that I never would have been able to experience in another setting.”

McHugh said her doula was an essential piece in her positive birth experience. She chose doula Gwen Spadie of A Sacred Nest in Tyler.

A doula is a nonmedical person who is trained to support a woman through her pregnancy. Doulas are companions who provide guidance, emotional support and comfort measures for expectant women.

Spadie created the birthing space that McHugh desired. She gave supporting words reassuring the soon-to-be-mother that her body was working toward the birth. She helped McHugh relax and stay calm. She made sure McHugh had plenty of water to drink and fresh fruit to eat and she applied counterpressure to McHugh’s back to help to relieve the intensity when she felt strong back labor spasms.

When the McHughs’ son Silas, 1, woke up and ran into the living room crying right as his baby sister was crowning, Spadie comforted the boy and allowed him to be a part of the birth experience.

McHugh is no stranger to the benefits of having a doula. She herself is one and the owner of Lighthouse Doula Services in Tyler.

This was McHugh’s second birth, and she chose to take the midwifery model of care instead of seeing an obstetrician and going the hospital birth route. McHugh likes the rapport that is built with having a midwife who spends the entire appointment with the mother unlike at a doctor’s office, where the patient might be seen by a nurse first and only spend a few minutes with the physician.

Midwives have training and clinical experience in childbirth and give prenatal exams and deliver the baby.

McHugh’s midwife, licensed certified professional midwife Diane Dreier of Seeds of Grace Midwifery in Longview, and the midwife’s apprentice, Bri Gunter, did all the medical work at the birth, from tracking heart tones, to taking blood pressure readings, administering Pitocin to control bleeding after the birth, tracking vitals for mom and baby, delivering the placenta and checking for any hemorrhaging. They made sure everything was medically safe for McHugh to labor at home.

McHugh’s midwife and doula were both aware of her birth plan, which included where she wanted to give birth, who would attend the birth, and what forms of intervention, if any, would be used including pain relief. McHugh wanted to take full advantage of her home birth setting.

She said having a woman’s birth team know her plan is important because sometimes when a mother is in labor, she is so absorbed in the experience that she agrees to do or not do something that was specifically in her plan.

She needs the doula to keep her on track to meet her goals.

Everly Rose was born at 6:09 a.m. weighing 8 pounds, 6 ounces.

Minutes after the baby was born, Laura McHugh, her husband, Micah, and their son, Silas, moved into the comfort of their bedroom, and the bonding between baby and family began.

“Our role as doulas is to be space makers,” McHugh said. “In a hospital setting, the birth process can be like a fast moving train, but as a doula, we can create space for the family. It’s such a vulnerable time in the birthing space. When you’re in labor, you do what you’re told and trust who’s around you.”

The midwives and doulas stayed for several hours after the birth and met with the new mother for postpartum checkups.

Interventions

Another role of a doula is to advocate for the mother and to offer guidance when medical interventions that aren’t necessary are presented as an option.

“Typically one intervention leads to another,” McHugh said.

“When you are induced, that leads to a group of interventions including constant fetal monitoring, increased intensity of contractions and it’s more likely to lead to an epidural. Once you have an epidural to block pain, you’re bedbound. You can’t move around. If you’re not up and moving, you lose the natural elements of gravity and things that are shown to move birth along.”

She also warns against the artificial rupturing of the membranes to induce or accelerate labor because that puts the mother on a timeframe to deliver the baby. This can lead to a failed induction that leads to cesarean section.

“C-sections have their place; they can be lifesaving, but they do have risks that can lead to death,” she said. “You have the risks that go along with surgery.”

In a situation where a doctor wants to induce, McHugh would ask the family if they would like to slow things down and have some space to talk it over.

“The doula can say, “Here are some questions you can ask. Is there a reason why you’re recommending that? Is it absolutely necessary? What are the risks?” she said. “As a doula, we can go over the risks and benefits and things to consider,” she said. “We are not the decision-maker, but we’re helping to create the space for the decisions to be made.”

Doulas can help a mom get out of bed and get moving to help labor continue. They can use tools such as a rebozo, a traditional Mexican garment of long, flat fabric that can be used to wrap a woman’s stomach. The rebozo can be used to help shift the baby into a better position for birth.

“We can try some essential oils; we can get you dancing,” McHugh said. “You can have your partner come and kiss you for a while to get your oxytocin flowing — there’s a lot of things we can tangibly do to help keep labor on track.”

Medical event or natural process

The World Health Association states that since 1985, the international health care community has considered the ideal rate for cesarean sections to be between 10 percent to 15 percent.

The rate of C-section delivery in the U.S. is around 30 percent.

Dr. Harsh Adhyaru, an OB-GYN at UT Health East Texas Physicians Jacksonville, said that the rate of C-section is high in the U.S. for multiple reasons.

“If you have a C-section once, you are more likely to have all other deliveries by C-section,” he said, adding, “If you reduce primary C-sections you will reduce the overall C-section rate. If the patient has a primary vaginal delivery, there’s a 95 percent chance she’ll have all other deliveries vaginally.”

Adhyaru said in the past, many women were told by their OBs that their pelvis was too small to deliver a baby, but that 75 percent of those women were actually able to delivery vaginally.

Adhyaru said that with patience and giving vaginal labor a try, most women can have a natural birth.

“Everyone deserves a trial,” he said.

To decide if a C-section is medically needed, there should be sufficient documentation of need due to a medical condition that might harm the mother or baby or a lack of progress in cervix dilation, Adhyaru said.

“We need good evidence of the lack of progress,” he said. “C-sections have been used quite liberally, and I think they should not be.”

Even in the case of a breech baby, ultrasound guidance can turn the baby around to the optimal position with a 50 percent chance of success, he said.

The risk of having a vaginal birth after a C-section is uterine rupture, which can be lethal to mother and baby, but some hospitals are now able to offer vaginal birth after C-section (VBAC) depending on the risk factors to the patient and in-hospital staff resources.

“It’s our job to give them options,” Adhyaru said. “I list the options with her. I’ll tell her the risk of uterine rupture. I’ll tell her the risk of C-section.

“It’s the risks versus benefits options that you give the patient and they decide. It’s called informed choice in collective decision-making.”

Mother-friendly experience

Evidence suggests that the presence of a doula or nonmedical companion at birth can have a positive effect on a woman in labor, according to a 2017 opinion by the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists (ACOG), which provides guidelines for maternity care physicians.

Benefits described include shortened labor, decreased need for analgesics, fewer operative deliveries, fewer C-sections and fewer reports of dissatisfaction with the experience of labor. A woman with continuous support is also less likely to have a newborn with a low 5-minute Apgar score, which is a method of measuring the health of a newborn child against infant mortality.

“I don’t have to be a victim of birth,” McHugh said. “I can own and embrace and enjoy it. It’s such a powerful experience to not feel like a victim to (pregnancy), to medicate it away or to rush it.”

McHugh said she loves her job as a doula and enjoys the education side of her profession.

She is certified as a doula through DONA, a nonprofit organization that provides ongoing education and professional development for doulas worldwide.

“Now I’ve seen women experience their births in unique ways,” McHugh said. “Birth matters. You can ask a woman with a 30-year-old child about the birth and she still remembers the details.”

McHugh would like to see the hospital setting become more mother-baby friendly.

Some hospitals do not allow doulas to come to the delivery room, but the doulas still can play a role in staying with the mother before going to the hospital and helping the mom decide when it’s the right time to go.

“There’s been an emphasis on a doctor knowing everything and moms are passive participants in the birth, but mom should be the most active,” she said. “A healthy baby matters, but it’s not all that matters. Women reclaiming their birthing experiences matters.”


Local
Local building professionals in doubt over future without state agency that certifies plumbers

Teachers and property owners might have survived the 86th Legislative Session that ended Memorial Day, but the plumbers didn’t.

“Everybody in the industry is pretty shook up, not knowing what the future holds,” third generation Longview plumber Michael Goettle said Friday at the end of a work week that began with news the state board that certifies — and polices — plumbers will stop issuing licenses Sept. 1.

The Texas Board of Plumbing Examiners was under Sunset Act review during the legislative session. Last-minute legislative haggling prevented its survival of the periodic life-or-death review every state agency in Texas undergoes.

At the crux of the holdup was Senate Bill 621, which was carried in the House by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, as a member of the Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures. Instead of shepherding the plumbers board into another 10- or 12-year lifespan, SB 621 merged the agency into the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which regulates other construction trades including electricians and air conditioning technicians.

Paddie said the proposed merger was the committee’s response to years of complaints about the plumbing examiners board — lengthy delays in the licensing process, phones rarely being answered. The Licensing and Regulation agency, by contrast, typically issues licenses to applicants in the trades it oversees within weeks, he said.

“The biggest thing was the time it took to get a license, and general customer service — a typical lack of efficiency,” Paddie said, adding that the situation couldn’t come at a worse time with Hurricane Harvey repairs ongoing amid a shortage of plumbers in the Lone Star State. “One of the major things we had were reports and testimony that it takes some people eight months to get licenses. ... When we had Harvey ... other agencies did some things to expedite licenses. Frankly, it’s just an inefficient, poorly run agency.”

Paddie said residents testified of bureaucratic “additional barriers” thrown up by the agency.

“It makes it very difficult for people to get in the profession at a time when we have a shortage of plumbers in this state,” he said.

Paddie said the average age of plumbers in Texas is about 60.

“We have a real shortage, and here we have all these barriers and unnecessary hoops to fill the need,” he said.

Paddie, a former Marshall mayor, said most cities already require plumbers to satisfy requirements of the International Plumbing Code, the Uniform Plumbing Code, or both. They just don’t issue plumbing licenses.

Maybe now they will.

“Many municipalities go ahead and adopt it by local code and don’t rely on the state,” said Michael Shirley, Longview’s director of development services. “We will no longer just register people who are already certified through the state. We’ll have to certify them. But if a journeyman or mid-level (plumber) wants to be a master, now we’re going to have to create a mechanism for us to make sure they know what they’re doing.”

Shirley emphasized that everything is kind of up in the air in the days since the legislative session ended. And the plumbing examiners board will not start its one-year wind-down until Sept. 1 when it stops issuing licenses.

“We will, in the time between now and then, figure out what makes sense for us,” he said. “Everybody’s kind of scrambling.”

He said Longview officials will visit other cities in an attempt to coordinate whatever solutions arise.

“We don’t want to be so drastically different (from each other),” he said. “That is the good thing about it being centralized.”

“The State Board of Plumbing Examiners, as of Sept. 1, is no longer accepting any applications or reviewing applications for a license,” said Craig Berendzen, manager of the Local 100 of the United Association, a plumbers and pipefitters union. The Dallas-based Local 100 includes all counties in Northeast Texas, though Goettle, the Longview plumber, said no local plumbers are union members. (Berendzen gave the name of a Tyler plumbing outfit when asked for a local member).

Berendzen offered one tip for residents considering a plumber for a job.

“The consumer needs to say, ‘Can you produce a license?’ “ he said, listing a plumber’s apprentice card or a tradesman’s, journeyman’s, master’s or drain-cleaners license as proof of state certification. “If they can’t produce one of those documents, I would not let them in my house. ... I would also check their ID, because it’s got to match the license (which has no photo).”

Ronnie Rice, with National Wholesale Supply and a member of the East Texas Builders Association, said the loss of the board leaves people with nowhere to take complaints for shoddy work. And shoddy work, particularly in natural gas line work that plumbers are asked to perform, can prove deadly.

“This isn’t about just plumbers,” he said. “It’s about the safety of our nation.”

Texas joins Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania as states that do not have a regulatory agency setting and policing plumber standards.

The spokesman for the city of O’Fallon, Missouri, which has a population similar to Longview’s at 85,200, said neither the city nor the county of Saint Charles certifies plumbers. He said residents rely on the reputation of people they hire for plumbing work.

He added he’s not heard of a problem with plumbers in the 45 years he’s lived there.

“I’ve never heard this before,” he said. “Obviously, there are some things that the state (of Missouri) certified. But obviously, with the people you bring into your home, you’re going a lot on reputation.”

Goettle said state Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, has arranged a fish fry this month at the East Texas Builders Association headquarters on Alpine Road for plumbers and building contractors to talk about what comes next.