11. The 1970s – Remember the Bellaire Recall of its Mayor and Council Members

BELLAIRE – OUR TOWN

By Lynn McBee – © June 26, 2008

 The 1970s – Remember the Bellaire Recall of its Mayor and Council Members

What happened. It was 31 years ago, in 1977, that 4,619 Bellaire voters at a Special Recall Election called by a citizens’ initiative referendum succeeded in recalling from elected office the Mayor and three of the five City Council members. Removed were Mayor Joe Poindexter, and Councilmen Jack Gurwell, Jim Hagood and Edwin Milwee. Councilman David DeWhitt survived the recall effort. Remaining on the Council with DeWhitt were Rod Rethwisch and Louise Ware, both of whom had supported a moratorium on development. The initiative election turned out more voters than ever in Bellaire’s history.

The issue revolved around land use and density of development along Loop 610. In the fall of 1976 a straw vote on density was conducted by concerned citizens. Of 4,623 ballots cast, 79% voted for reduction in development density, 82% voted for a moratorium on development and 69% voted for rezoning the Loop 610 corridor for other than commercial. The Straw Vote was presented to the City Council — and ignored – and commercial density zoning regulations were increased by 20%. Again, when citizens called for a moratorium on building permits to allow for pending action on a revised comprehensive plan that might lower density of commercial development, the sitting Council in 1977 voted 2-5 to reject the moratorium. All of this and more occurred over a period of months in 1977.

Loop 610. During the 1970s, ushering in the new Marvin Springer Master Plan, during the reigns of Mayors Grant Webster (1970-1974) and Joe Poindexter (1974-1977), came the seeming onslaught of development of the West Loop 610 (WLS) abutting lands north of Bellaire Blvd. The concept of “Planned Development” (PD) was utilized to promote a “let’s negotiate” form of incentive zoning to introduce highrise office buildings to Bellaire. Promoters of higher density along the Loop argued for increasing the tax base for Bellaire. Residents resisted the overwhelming intrusion of excessive growth spilling into neighborhoods in the City of Homes. Between 1973-1979 townhouses also sprouted along Palmetto, Bissonnet and on Bellaire Blvd.

Three PDs along Loop 610 were contentiously approved, and a fourth failed, amid continued outcry over density excesses:

PD-2-O (1974) at 5909 and 5959 WLS, by the infamous Melvin Lane Powers (subject of reports involving he and his aunt, Candace Mossler, over their affair and the murder of her husband, Jacques Mossler in 1964);

PD-10-LR-1 (1975) by Prudential Insurance (now AT&T) at Bissonnet and the Loop;

PD-7-O (1976) by Rick McCord of Jacinto Development Co. at 6565-6575 WLS; and

PD-3-O (1977-1980) by Wayne Duddlesten at Bissonnet at WLS for multiple office buildings, parking garages and a 400-room convention hotel (“to create a harmonious relationship between our development and the fine community of Bellaire” stated Mr. Duddlesten) – (at the former site of Incarnate Word Convent and current site of Episcopal High School and Post Oak Montessori School.

(The PD was a failed effort, its Council   approval was ultimately overturned by the Texas Supreme Court (as contract zoning) to a Bellaire citizens’ lawsuit, Teer v. Duddlesten.)

Bellaire Civic Action Club. Following repeated refusals by the Council majority to heed the tidal wave of pleas by the citizens to slow down development, the Bellaire Civic Action Club (BCAC) was formed, headed by residents Taylor Hicks, an attorney, and Tom Teer, a physicist., leading the citywide effort to reduce commercial development density involving lot coverage and building height. The first called meeting of the new club in January 1977 drew some 500 people, overflowing the City Hall Auditorium. The Club took on the role of community watchdog and reporter through its newsletter to members and kept everyone informed.

The BCAC, in the face of Council’s ignoring the outcry by the community, mounted an initiative petition, allowed by the City Charter, calling for the recall of the five Council members who had voted against the moratorium on development building. Intense campaigning followed with the Election to Recall held on August 1, 1977, leading to the mandated removal of four of the five named Mayor and Councilmen. On August 15, 1977, the final meeting of the Council was held to certify a recount of the Recall Election vote. Surviving Councilman DeWhitt, Ware and Rethwisch traveled to the State Capitol to ask the Governor to approve a Special Election to replace the recalled four Council members. With the Governor’s approval, a date of October 1, 1977 was set for a Special Election to fill the four vacancies.

Replacement Election. Nothing like this had ever happened in Bellaire, and was rare in the entire country. Bellaire was a hot topic in the media. The special replacement election in October resulted in the election of Rod Rethwisch, Mayor, and Carolyn Schum, Bill Berryhill and Tom Kilbey, Councilmen. Louise Ware and David DeWhitt remained as carryover Council members. The vacancy created in Rod Rethwisch’s prior Council seat was filled by appointment of Taylor Hicks by the new City Council.

Lesson Learned. Following the opening of Loop 610 in the1960s, its major east-west division of the City, and almost 70 years since the formation of Bellaire, the 1977 lesson learned from the Recall of elected officials was, “don’t ignore an aroused community” and “don’t try to overbuild against the will of the people”. Such blatant lack of regard for the beliefs of the community by its representatives has not been repeated since those events thirty-one years ago. The lessons in our town preserved the residential rebirth of the City, as the citizens of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s had expressed many times and in many ways. It reasserted that elected officials represent – but the citizenry direct. (Ironically, this followed the Nixon Watergate scandal of the early 1970s and the emergence of Texas star Senator Barbara Jordan.)

Long-Term Results of the Recall:

  1. Zoning has been focused upon the over 20-year residential resurgence.
  2. Replacement of Bellaire housing stock – far exceeding any appraised value of commercial development.
  3. The Bellaire Chamber of Commerce became the Southwest Houston Chamber of Commerce, no longer openly involved in local Bellaire elections and commercial rezoning endorsements.
  4. Density of development was capped with a building height maximum of six stories along Loop 610.
  5. Open green space, storm water detention, tree planting, parks development and continued non-partisan local elections have been preserved.       Bellaire has been a lesson to developers throughout the area with its active populace defending zoning moderation.
  6. There is always the possibility that this lesson may need to be repeated should there again be a non-responsive, run-away Council in office, ignoring public opinion and offering a panacea of “development treasure.” The initiative petition process remains an option of the people of Bellaire as authorized by their City Charter.

Come Celebrate! The City of Homes continues after 100 years of such civic lessons, with conservation and preservation the new realities of life. Please come and enjoy our first 100 years at the special Friday, July 4th celebration of Our Town’s Centennial in Bellaire-Zindler Park. See and ride trolleys after the Parade (9:00 am) on a tour of the Town and join the food, music, historical recollections, comaraderie and special visitors for a surprise recognition!

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Lynn McBee lynnmb@hal-pc.org

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