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Not done yet: Zoning board might reconsider developers' request related to Starbucks project

A city board is being asked to reconsider its decision not to allow zoning variances that would lead to a new Starbucks at a busy Longview intersection.

Meanwhile, developers for the project and city officials are at odds over how the plan has failed to gain traction.

Developers and the billboard company, Lamar, want the Zoning Board of Adjustment to vote again on variances they say would practically seal a deal to build the Starbucks at the former Waffle Shoppe site at the intersection of West Marshall Avenue and Spur 63. The board voted Aug. 20 not to approve the variances that would allow Lamar to convert three existing billboard signs from static to digital.

A special meeting is set at 1 p.m. Friday inside council chambers at City Hall.

Longview Mayor Andy Mack says he hasn’t been involved in the now-two-year courtship by developers to redevelop the lot, but he said city leadership has tried to help make the deal happen. He said offers to help prepare the site ready for Starbucks have been rejected by developers.

“We’ve already made a lot of concessions,” Mack said. “When no one else is helping or wanting to play ball or help in any direction, it’s like holding us at gunpoint, and the city can’t be held at gunpoint.”

However, Lamar Companies, which owns the billboard that towers above the former Waffle Shoppe restaurant, and developers Grant Gary and John King Jr. all say that the city’s offers were never presented either informally or in writing, and that it was the city that rejected their request to help remove asbestos from the former restaurant building, re-grade the lot and other site matters.

“Our original requests were rejected by the city and by the Longview Economic Development Corp. board,” Gary said.

Starbucks wants the three-sided billboard removed from the restaurant site at 707 W. Marshall Avenue before it builds a $2 million retail store on the property, valued by Gregg County tax appraisers at $170,210.

At least eight years remain on Lamar’s property lease for the billboard, and the company hasn’t revealed a price for buying out the lease. Lamar has agreed to take down the billboard if it can convert billboard signs at three other Longview locations from static to digital.

Lamar needed a variance to the city’s 2003 sign ordinance, which limit new digital, or changeable copy, signs.

On Aug. 20, that request failed to get a supermajority of four votes on the Zoning Board of Adjustment needed to approve a variance for a digital sign on West Marshall Avenue. The board then voted to “permanently table” variance requests at two other signs on Loop 281.

Representatives from Lamar and developers who represent the property owner and Starbucks met with Development Services staff Monday, said Development Services Director Michael Shirley.

During the meeting, questions arose about whether the zoning board’s decision to permanently table Lamar’s variance requests met the board’s bylaws.

Lamar “had questioned the parliamentary procedure of tabling an item,” Shirley said. “The board can vote to schedule a new meeting to reconsider them within 10 days.”

If the board decides Friday not to reconsider the applications, the variance requests are dead, Shirley said. That would leave Lamar with two options — appeal to a state court or submit a new variance application.

“They can make other requests, but they have to be materially different,” Shirley said. “It can’t be the same request.”

The board isn’t voting Friday on whether to grant the variances. It will consider Lamar’s request for a rehearing. If the board decides to reconsider its Aug. 20 decision, the board will reschedule hearings on the variances at a later date.

Mack said he believes the zoning board made the right decision last week because the variances would effectively be spot zoning, which is illegal.

“I think they did what they were supposed to do at their last meeting,” Mack said, adding that he is “1,000% in favor of the idea of redeveloping the Waffle Shoppe site” because it meets his campaign goals of cleaning up Marshall Avenue and bringing new development to Longview.

Lamar and developers have said that they’ve been working for about two years to come to their tentative agreement, but Mack said that the group should have approved him sooner to work out a deal.

“We solve problems,” Mack said, “and if this process truly started two years ago, they should have come to us two years ago.”

Mack also said that city leaders have offered to developers a 10-year property tax abatement and help in paying off the lease to take down the three-sided billboard on the restaurant site, but Lamar has been unwilling to reveal the payoff amount of the lease, he said.

City Manager Keith Bonds confirmed that the meeting included discussions of the city using its demolition contract to tear down the old Waffle Shoppe, as well as a possible deal, called a Chapter 380 agreement, to reimburse sales and property taxes to the development.

“We didn’t get far,” Bonds said.

King said he’s had two conversations with Mack about his support of the project and how best to proceed. King also was involved in a meeting at City Hall with Grant, Lamar General Manager Dan Noyes, Bonds, City Attorney Jim Finley, Shirley and Councilman Steve Pirtle on Sept. 18. Mack wasn’t present, but his intentions were made known.

“I’m glad that he is actually stating his position on this because I know that’s been absent from the conversation in public,” King said. “I would say that that’s great that he’s 1,000% for it, but we have not had a sitdown with him and/or had any discussions that shore that support up or gives direction to us in regards to what we can do or what are his recommendations to solve these problems.”

“And if I could just take this one step further,” Gary added, “we’ve got an email — I’ll withhold the email for the time being — but it very specifically states and names various individuals within the city, and says that the city has rejected to move forward” with a project in which sales and property taxes would be reimbursed.

Mack said he’s never spoken to Gary or to Noyes.

Immediately after the zoning board votes Aug. 20, Mack asked Bonds to place on the City Council’s Sept. 12 meeting agenda his request to revisit the city’s 2003 sign ordinance, he said Tuesday.

Christus Good Shepherd-Longview opens OB emergency department

Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center-Longview is set to open a 24-hour obstetric-designated emergency department today to improve the quality of maternal care.

The OB emergency department, which is next to the labor and delivery unit, will be staffed by a team of four full-time hospitalists, Christus said.

They all are board-certified OB/GYN doctors, and one OB/GYN doctor will be on duty per shift, along with nurses, medical assistants “and a variety of other people,” said Mark Anderson, chief medical officer of Christus Good Shepherd Health System.

While not disclosing the costs, Anderson said, “It’s an important investment” at a hospital that delivered 170 babies in July.

“This is a significant improvement for the mother and the baby,” Anderson said. “It is improving maternal safety because babies don’t always time when they are delivered.”

Anderson said a patient’s OB/GYN doctor might be on call or at another hospital when she needs immediate attention.

“They are not just there to deliver babies,” Anderson said. He added staff will respond to emergencies such as infections, high-blood pressure or bleeding during pregnancies.

Anderson said the hospital also is responding to a recommendation from the state to improve the quality of maternal care. The Texas Medical Association cited a study that shows maternal death rates in Texas have nearly doubled in recent years because of factors that include drug overdoses, cardiac events and hemorrhage.

To support the new service, the hospital partnered with Ob Hospitalist Group, which says it is a leader in developing and managing 24-hour, on-site OB/GYN hospitalist programs. It is based in Greenville, South Carolina, with an office in Houston.

The partnership will ensure highly skilled, board-certified OB/GYN doctors are on site at all hours to provide expedited emergency care to patients who are greater than 16 weeks along in their pregnancies, the hospital said.

The OB emergency department has six beds, but Anderson said he doubts they all will be in use at the same time. He added patients might be sent home in a few hours or admitted to the labor and delivery unit.

Women needing to go the OB emergency department must arrive at the ER entrance to the hospital at 700 E. Marshall Ave.

Longview Regional Medical Center did not respond Tuesday to questions about whether it operates a similar program or has one in the works.

Mexico's Playa Bagdad mixes sun, sand and drug trafficking

PLAYA BAGDAD, Mexico — At the very eastern end of the U.S.-Mexico border there’s a long strip of sand where the Rio Grande meets the sea. It is called Playa Bagdad — or ‘Bagdad Beach.’

Unlike the Tijuana-Imperial Beach border on the western end, here there are no steel pilings marching out to sea to stop migrants from swimming, wading or paddling across to the United States.

In Playa Bagdad, which is spelled ‘Playa Baghdad’ by the Drug Enforcement Agency, it’s apparently unnecessary: This is a beach for drugs and crime, not migrants.

As attention focuses on the migrant crisis along the border that has drawn harsh rhetoric and actions from President Donald Trump, Playa Bagdad seems to have escaped notice.

Here, there are no walls or border guards, just miles of dunes and Gulf coast beaches marked only by simple wooden huts or awnings held up by sticks.

The only highway ends abruptly in a handful of structures populated by beachgoers looking for alcohol and fishermen who might catch sharks one day and unload cocaine the next.

On the U.S. side, there is not much more besides a single Customs and Border Protection checkpoint, a gun store complete with a shooting range, and a SpaceX hangar where some rockets that might reach Mars are being tested. The nearest city of Brownsville is 25 miles away.

Where the two countries meet lies an expanse of water perhaps 25 yards wide, so shallow that you could walk across at low tide, but few people do.

The reason it’s kept under wraps is simple: Cartels tend to use these coastal plains for purposes like transporting drugs — or as the DEA notes, dumping bodies clandestinely. And they put a premium at keeping migrants away.

“They want to keep the heat off this spot,” said Marco Antonio Álvarez, a rail-thin old man with a greying beard and leather-like skin toughened by the sun.

Álvarez, who spent time in U.S. jails for migrant smuggling, says he still gets paid $300 per month — he won’t say by whom — to watch the expanse of water and two boats.

“If people start crossing the river, you start seeing (CBP) patrol vehicles show up on the other side,” said Álvarez, who usually sits sheltered from the sun in the shade of an old plywood camper that once served as a seafood stand.

Playa Bagdad appeared on maps in 1848, when the border was drawn during the Mexico-American War. Later, it became the seaport for cotton produced in Texas during the Civil War.

The origin of the settlement’s name is lost to the annals of history. A ship might have run aground and been looted there.

, a scene that might have reminded some of “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.” Or the person who named it might have been a fan of “1,001 Nights.”

Mike Vigil, a former DEA operation chief, remembered one story which maintains that the U.S. Army might have stationed some camels at Playa Bagdad during its experiments with those animals in the 19th century.

But contraband has always been here in one form or another. Centuries back, silver was trafficked through. During Prohibition, alcohol could be procured. And in the 1980s and 1990s, it was marijuana and Colombian cocaine that made its way across.

DEA Special Agent Sammy Parks said Playa Bagdad is now a center for loading and unloading drugs bound for the U.S. market.

“It is a short, easy route without much law enforcement,” added Vigil.

Of the 1,215 members of the National Guard that Mexico has deployed to Tamaulipas, none are seen in Playa Bagdad. They are mainly in the conflictive border cities further west along the Rio Grande Valley.

Three decades ago, people like Álvarez combined fishing with small-scale migrant smuggling, guiding people across to Brownsville for $20 per head. That all ended in the 1980s and 1990s.

“When they started to sell crack, you couldn’t do business anymore because everything was controlled by the mafia,” Álvarez said.

The city of Matamoros, whose territory covers Playa Bagdad, touts the beach as a great tourist destination.

But Álvarez said that drug cartels completely control it.

“You have to pay them a quota and get their permission,” he notes.

For years, the violent state of Tamaulipas, where Playa Bagdad is located, has been ruled by silence and fear, and the state government itself is suspected of having been infiltrated by drug gangs, with two former governors currently on trial on corruption charges.

One of the key drug-cartels operating in the area is the now-splintered Gulf Cartel.

In 2000, the Gulf Cartel’s armed enforcement wing, The Zetas, split and began an all-out offensive. The Zetas later split themselves again, but still control the westernmost part of the state, while the Gulf Cartel has also fractured and controls the east.

The federal government did not respond to requests for comment, although the current state government headed by an opposition-party governor says it is actively collaborating with U.S. and Mexican federal authorities to combat cartels, often by sharing information.

These days though, the only law enforcement The Associated Press saw were four state police officers who rode through quickly on two ATVS and just as quickly left.

According to the DEA, small fishing boats load drugs in Playa Bagdad and run it up the coast to Padre Island, in Texas. Other boats are known to drop off goods which are then loaded onto vehicles and taken into the U.S. by highway.

Some of the border crossings themselves are under de facto cartel control on the Mexican side.

One man who was fishing with friends at the mouth of the Rio Grande, recalled seeing a would-be border crosser who cartel gunmen brought back from the river between the two countries at gunpoint.

“They pointed guns at him and brought him back,” he said. “If you want to cross, it is with them.”

He was one of the few who were willing to talk, and even then, the conversation died down every time a boat passed. “You never know who is listening,” said the man, declining to give his name.

There are more than 6,000 disappeared persons in Tamaulipas alone.

“Mass graves have been discovered in the Playa Baghdad area, and there’s a local threat about being ‘taken to the beach,’ which implies someone will disappear,” said Parks, the DEA agent.

The only official presence is a sandbag guard post on the highway between Playa Bagdad and Matamoros, although locals protested at the post this month, saying it was only used to demand bribes.

For Álvarez, “the Guard” doesn’t mean President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s National Guard either. Instead it means “former soldiers, marines and police who report to the gangs.”

Further down the coast in the hamlet of Playa Bagdad, there is a lively scene. Small seafood restaurants stand on stilts and the sound of mariachi music mixes with the shouts of vendors selling oysters. A marine guard post offered some semblance of protection to tourists.

Then, a big man with close-cropped hair descended from a truck selling roast chickens to ask what journalists were doing in the area.

“As tourists you can film whatever you want,” the man said, emphasizing the word tourists and suggesting anybody else should get out.

“Here there is freedom of expression.”

Longview officials working with attorney over reopening motel

The city of Longview and attorneys for the owner of an Estes Parkway motel are trying to resolve a dispute that would enable the owner to reopen, according to the attorneys.

Development Services Director Michael Shirley said Express Inn owner Bob Patel recently hired Tyler attorney Steve Mason. The city also pulled a hearing from a municipal court docket that would determine the motel’s fate “so we can work through the administrative process.”

Shirley said a month ago that he planned to pursue a case in municipal court for a substandard building after the city issued two fire code citations at the motel. He also said the city judge could order repairs at the 121-room hotel or order it to be vacated, demolished or boarded up.

A follow-up inspection July 22 by city staff determined a number of rooms where people had been staying lacked appropriate smoke detectors or ones that did not function.

Patel faced warnings from the city since February when a letter from environmental compliance inspector Sabrina Graves cited a number of deficiencies and violations including “failing structures” such as landings, elevated walkways, guardrails, roof supports and the foundation supporting them.

“Generally, court is the last option,” Shirley said.

Mason and fellow attorney Julie Wright, both of Freeman Mills PC, concurred with Shirley that the next step is to try to resolve the matter. Wright said the motel has been closed temporarily.

“The city officials have assured us that they want to see our client in business,” Wright said.

Mason said an expert has a plan to try to resolve the maintenance issues at the hotel, adding it could take months.

He added that Patel has operated the hotel for 19 years.