Thursday, April 25, 2024

Steel box homes, divided trailers, ‘junk’ cars highlight county’s lack of authority

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Gene Auerbach was shocked by what he saw when he was given a tour of some of the neighborhoods served by the Rancho Brazos Community Centers.

The nonprofit organization was formed years ago to serve families in the Rancho Brazos community but has grown to serve areas throughout Hood County. Auerbach, a member of the Kiwanis and Optimist clubs, became interested in the RBCC after Executive Director Sharla Caro spoke to the civic groups.

While riding in the white bus that the RBCC uses to transport children, Auerbach saw a single-wide mobile home divided into four separate, tiny living quarters with four exterior doors.

Auerbach is worried for the people living there. He said that renters are reportedly paying $175 per week in rent.

“Somebody’s making a fortune off it,” he said.

Auerbach saw something else that surprised him: several shipping containers that had been converted into housing in that same neighborhood not far from the Hood County YMCA and Acton Middle School.

Auerbach shared his concerns with County Judge Ron Massingill and Granbury Mayor Jim Jarratt. The three of them, along with county Development Director Clint Head and Environmental Director Jeannie Stacks, went together on what Caro calls her “beyond the square” tour.

Massingill called the divided mobile home “appalling.” He was also displeased by yards that contained multiple “junk cars.”

Although there are things that can be done to improve the living conditions of Hood County’s most economically challenged residents, those things mostly involve donations or help with the physical labor that goes into cleaning up or fixing up a property.

But the fact that the divided mobile home and the shipping container homes exist are beyond the city’s and the county’s control. That is especially true for the county.

“The government limits what counties can do,” Head said.

The county has no jurisdiction over that neighborhood, Head said, and even though the dwellings are on the city’s water and sewer systems, neither does the city. The reason is because it is in the city of Granbury’s extraterritorial jurisdiction rather than inside the city limits.

“If it’s not in the city limits of the city of Granbury, the city does not have jurisdiction over development,” Granbury Communications Manager Jeff Newpher said.

As Hood County continues to grow, city and county officials are sometimes confronted by angry residents who don’t want certain developments coming in.

“Here’s what most people don’t understand,” Head said. “A home-rule city has unlimited power, and counties have zero power.” 

RUBBER STAMP

Head said that under the Texas Local Government Code, county officials have 10 days to review a development application and 30 days to approve it or deny it. After 30 days, if no action is taken to deny it, an application is automatically approved.

For an application to be denied, the county must cite the law or regulation that it violates.

If the developer corrects the issue, the application must be approved, Head stated.

“If I recommend approval (to the Commissioners Court), it’s because it’s statutorily required,” he said. “Some people think that we can (deny a developer’s application) because of traffic, or population, but there’s nothing in (the Local Government Code) that gives us grounds (to deny it) because it’s going to increase traffic or going to increase the population.”

He said that the county also has no authority over aesthetics.

Head noted that building codes often stem from fire codes, but under the law, a Commissioners Court can adopt a fire code only if the county’s population is 250,000 or more. Hood County’s population is just over 60,000, according to the 2020 census.

“The way the laws are, some things require us to have a public hearing and it makes people think, all right, we can go voice our opinion and protest this,” Head stated. “But it kind of sets the elected officials up to look bad because you’re inviting people to come protest but the law says you can’t deny it.”

The development director said that developers are “going to do what they can get away with” to save money and that “citizens end up having to pay to get it fixed.”

Might state legislators act to give counties more authority over development?

“They might,” Head said. “But I’m pretty sure that developers probably have a bigger lobby. They probably fund the politicians a little bit.”

He added, “Hopefully, they’ll find a balance somewhere where there’ll be conscientious developers and conscientious lawmakers that will give us enough (authority) that it will be equal for everybody.”

PERSPECTIVE

With the shipping containers, well-intentioned concerns expressed by Auerbach and others who have taken Caro’s tour may highlight differing perspectives where developments are concerned.

One person’s steel box is another person’s shelter from a storm.

Head said that the developer came to his office and talked to him about his plans for the homes. He explained to the man that he has no jurisdiction over those plans.

“He explained to me what they were going to do,” Head stated. “He said that they’re trying to make (the neighborhood) better.”

Caro, too, said that the developer’s goal is to improve living conditions there.

Converting shipping containers into homes is a trend that is not unique to Granbury.

The homes range in size and cost, but the average cost to build one is around $10,000-$35,000, depending on amenities and materials. They last about 25 years but can last longer if well maintained.

Caro’s main concern about those dwellings isn’t that they are repurposed shipping containers. She fears that even those homes may be unaffordable for people who are struggling financially.

She said that some people who work in area stores and restaurants are having difficulty finding full-time work and instead are working two part-time jobs.

RBCC Board President Jan Neal said that some employers hire part-time workers to save on the cost of health insurance and benefits.

Caro said that people who want to help those at risk of becoming homeless could donate money to be used for rental and utility deposits. Mission Granbury and other local nonprofits help with other needs.

As for the container homes, she views them positively.

“It's just a cleaner environment, a safer environment for children,” she said.

Caro said that, although it is not the case now, there was a time when 18 children were living on that street, some of them walking to and from classes at AMS.

“I think that what they are doing is 100% better than what it was, and I think that they have nothing but positive intentions,” she said.