November 10, 2020

Specific Use Permit Amendment for BHS Ballfields a Balancing Act

Of the 40 schools being replaced or repaired across the Houston Independent School District as part of its $1.89 billion 2012 bond program, Bellaire High School will be the last one completed.  That’s because the typical campus flip—building a new school on the adjacent athletic fields and then replacing them after the old school is torn down—which HISD has done often throughout unzoned Houston, was simply not an option.  The project stalled for several years, until finally in 2017 HISD presented a plan to relocate the baseball field to the site of the former Gordon Elementary/Mandarin Chinese school to make more room on the crowded BHS campus.  Following the public process, including a great deal of input from the surrounding neighbors and other stakeholders, the City Council granted a specific use permit to HISD to construct and operate a baseball facility at that location.

For the girls’ softball team, while a potential shared-use arrangement with the City at Feld Park was contemplated back at that time (but ultimately did not come to pass due to programming conflicts), HISD’s plans called for, and the specific use permit included, an overlapping softball diamond out in right field.  Since then, however, concerns have been raised whether this combined, single-field solution truly provided equal opportunity for the softball team as required by Title IX (and as the right thing to do).  HISD thus filed a new application last year, for its specific use permit to be amended to allow for the construction and operation of a separate softball facility in addition to the baseball facility previously approved.

Having twice delayed a final vote, last week the City Council unanimously approved the amendment, but only after putting 20 conditions on it (reproduced below), believed to be a record number and far more than are usually imposed on specific use permits (18 more than were included in 2017).  All of them are in response to certain objections expressed in public comment, which predominantly focused on the preservation of mature oak trees on the property, parking and traffic on neighborhood streets, and the perception that the proposal would increase flooding in the area.  For what it’s worth, community support for our student athletes was never in doubt; they’d get their fields either way.  The only question was whether it would be the 2017 plan already permitted or some version of the new plan HISD was requesting.

Working through these issues has been very much a balancing act, in more ways than one.  While there are legal limitations on cities’ ability to restrict the land use desires of other governmental entities, and nor can they be zoned out entirely, neither is that a blank check for HISD to do whatever it wants to do, irrespective of the consequences for Bellaire.  It has also been a balancing act among competing community priorities, such as the desire for more on-site parking but not at the expense of tree preservation and flooding.  The final product combines the best of the several plan iterations that had been considered, and is also a better outcome in some respects than would have been achieved with the 2017 approved plan.

The shape of the outfield has been modified to save several more of the mature oak trees on the Avenue B side of the property, while also allowing for additional on-site parking.  To offset the loss of those trees that will need to be removed, HISD will be planting at least 34 new ones.  Should any of the trees to be preserved not survive construction, HISD will be required to replace them with trees of the same size and species if possible, and if not then with multiple smaller trees (each a minimum 8”) that collectively equal the same total caliper size.

Fencing around the entire perimeter of the property will further protect the neighbors by deterring on-street parking, an advantage over the 2017 approved plan.  Unlike some of the alternative options that were presented, ingress and egress on Bissonnet only has been restored, to reduce traffic impacts on residential streets.  Numerous other conditions attached to the permit are directly responsive to community concerns, including a net reduction in storm water runoff and more on-site detention than the status quo.

We recognize this new site plan may not be entirely perfect in all respects and to all people—no more than the 2017 approved plan was—but hopefully once it’s operational it’ll prove generally acceptable to most.  Council carefully considered the thoughtful public comment we received, all of which contributed to a better outcome than would have been achieved otherwise.  The conditions below are reflective of and effectuate that input, in attempting to strike the right balance between HISD's use of the property and reasonable protections for the neighborhood:

  • (a) No field lights or public address system shall be installed on the property;

  • (b) The facilities shall be for the sole and exclusive use of Bellaire High School and not by other entities without prior consent from the City Council of the City of Bellaire, Texas (the “City Council”);

  • (c) The site shall be locked when not in use.  However, the City of Bellaire Police Department shall have access to the site at all times.  The access plan shall be approved by the Bellaire Police Department;

  • (d) The facilities shall be used for only the following uses and times listed below, and any other use or time shall require prior approval from the City Council:

  • i. Bellaire High School varsity and junior varsity baseball and softball practices – on weekdays until 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays until 5:30 pm;

  • ii. Bellaire High School junior varsity baseball and softball games, excluding tournaments – on weekdays until 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays until 5:30 pm; or

  • iii. Bellaire High School baseball and softball community events, not to exceed two events for baseball per year and two events for softball per year – until 7:30 p.m.  For such events an access/parking management plan shall be submitted to the City of Bellaire Development Services Director for review and approval prior to the event and specifically detail overflow parking and access management considerations to minimize impacts to adjacent residential streets and to prevent excess traffic congestion on Bissonnet Street;

  • (e) Construction ingress/egress shall be limited to Bissonnet Street, specifically restricting construction access through Avenue B and/or Feld Park, except as required to close the existing driveway to Avenue B and to plant trees along Avenue B;

  • (f) There shall be no net fill nor significant impediment to sheet flow on the site;

  • (g) The lowest visual impact netting material shall be utilized for all nets on the perimeter of the site.  The netting on the third base line of the baseball field shall be extended to protect parked cars;

  • (h) HISD shall meet the lot coverage and setback requirements of the Code of Ordinances of the City (applying to schools in residential areas);

  • (i) As represented by HISD at the public hearing before City Council on September 21, 2020, the fields must be graded to avoid runoff and may only be compacted consistent with residential greenspace and solely for the purposes of creating a safe playing surface;

  • (j) All trees shall be preserved behind residences on the west side of the property, on the south side of the property adjacent to Feld Park, and along Avenue B, excepting one tree in right field, and HISD shall take all reasonable measures necessary for such tree preservation, including but not limited to following the direction of a professional arborist.  However, if any of the above referenced trees on HISD property do not survive construction, HISD shall make all reasonable efforts to replace their lost tree(s) with tree(s) of the same size and species, in approximately the same location.  In the event that similar caliper trees are not available, are prohibitively expensive, or cannot reasonably be placed in the same location, HISD may replace their lost tree(s) with multiple similar species trees of minimum 8” caliper to collectively equal the caliper dimension of the tree(s) that do not survive;

  • (k) No artificial or impermeable turf may be used for the fields.  No tarps may be used.  No solid (plastic or otherwise) horizontal ground weed barriers may be installed;

  • (l) No concrete on site except as may be necessary under the batting cages, bleachers, restrooms and storage, for the parking lot, and for sidewalks and pathways which are necessary to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended;

  • (m) As represented by HISD at the public hearing before City Council on September 21, 2020, the result of the drainage study and drainage plan (including the use of on-site detention) must reflect a net benefit in reduction of runoff and on site detention in comparison to the current condition, taking into account all changes;

  • (n) Upon the request of City staff (at the direction of Council or on its own accord), HISD must provide an officer to assist with traffic during any games or events;

  • (o) The pre-existing sidewalk on Avenue B and Bissonnet must be preserved;

  • (p) No video monitors;

  • (q) The only on-site lights on the property shall be low impact safety lights directed away from residences;

  • (r) Except for on the parking lot driveway, HISD shall construct a fence around the entire property inside of the existing sidewalk;

  • (s) Ingress/egress to the property shall be only on Bissonnet Street; and

  • (t) On-site parking shall include a minimum of 48 parking spaces.