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Steve Reilley

Chron overview of Heights dry referendum

For an issue that directly affects a few thousand people, this sure had gotten a lot of attention.

[Bill] Baldwin is part of the “Keep the Heights Dry” movement, a group of individuals urging residents who live in the dry part of the Heights to vote against the city of Houston proposition that would allow the legal sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption.

If the proposition passes on Nov. 8, retailers like convenience and grocery stores would be able to sell beer and wine in a part of the Heights that has been dry since 1904. The change would not affect restaurants, which are able to sell alcohol by forming private clubs that their customers can join by providing their driver’s licenses.

Baldwin’s group is going up against the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, a political action committee formed earlier this year to push the reversal of the dry law.

Largely at stake is the proposed development of a new H-E-B on a former Fiesta site at 2300 N. Shepherd.

H-E-B wants to buy the property but said it needs to be able to sell wine and beer in order for the store to be economically feasible.

“From a business proposition, if I spend $25 or $30 million building a store I also need to make sure it can earn a fair return,” said Scott McClelland, Houston division president for H-E-B.

The San Antonio-based grocer has put more than $60,000 into the coalition, according to finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Baldwin, who lives in the Heights but outside the dry area, said the election is not about being against H-E-B but preserving the character of the neighborhood.

His group has been urging residents of the dry area to consider the issue apart from H-E-B.

He said more service stations and convenience stores could diminish property values of the homes around them.

“This election is not about H-E-B, it’s about changing the fabric about my community,” Baldwin said.

Honestly, there’s nothing here that you couldn’t learn from reading the dueling op-eds or listening to the interviews that I did with Baldwin and Reilley. The story did remind me that there used to a a tiny HEB – it was called an “HEB Pantry store” back in the day – in the Heights that no one went to because it didn’t have much in it. This whole debate is a little nuts because people in the greater Heights area have been begging to get a real HEB like the one in Montrose in the neighborhood, and if it weren’t for this oddball quirk of history, the announcement that there would be an HEB built on the site of the old Fiesta would be greeted with handsprings and huzzahs. But because we’re held hostage to the way some people viewed the demon rum a century ago, we’re stuck with this silly debate. Everyone in America is ready for the Presidential race to be over, I’m ready for this referendum to be settled.

The dry debate

The Chron hosted a mini-debate about the vote to change the Heights dry ordinance on its Monday op-ed pages. Bill Baldwin represented the status quo, for keeping the Heights (the original Heights) dry.

With the stark reality of land use as it is today, our deed restrictions are patchy, and most properties on high-traffic streets here are not restricted at all. In a city with no zoning, other typical neighborhoods have deed restrictions where the Heights does not. Undoubtedly, the dry area has successfully kept large operators such as Walmart, Target, Sprouts, Kroger and a Whole Foods concept on the way all outside of our historic borders. Eliminate that barrier and you make way for future big-box retailers, gas stations and convenience stores, along with their parking demands and high traffic.

You don’t build a fence to keep out the good neighbors; it’s for the bad ones. In this scenario, we still consider H-E-B a good neighbor, but I am concerned about operators without the reputation of H-E-B.

We don’t know exactly what will happen if we change the dry area, but we do know this: All around the city there is concern about the changing character of neighborhoods. Like the rest of the city, the Heights is wrestling with these issues of development and identity. How do we responsibly progress, increase property values and keep a sense of identity intrinsically tied to the community? In the Heights, the dry area has in many non-obvious ways functioned toward those ends. Keeping the Heights dry means also keeping it local and residential.

Steve Reilley spoke for the pro-change faction, to amend the historic dry ordinance to allow beer and wine sales for off-premise consumption, i.e., retail sales.

We need to alter this regulation in order to welcome locally oriented businesses into the community. Rest assured, this is a grassroots effort, and is not driven by businesses wanting to sell alcohol. More than 1,700 Heights voters signed the petition requesting the measure be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot. Our effort has been criticized because of H-E-B’s involvement. H-E-B didn’t sign the petition – we did. And the Texas Constitution gives us the right to have this election because we want to preserve our neighborhood, increase consumer options, raise property values and increase walkability, as Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen, the chairwoman of the Houston City Council Quality of Life Committee, recently noted that the repeal of this regulation will do.

Some have suggested that permitting the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption will lead to the opening of convenience stores along Heights Boulevard, negatively affecting the Heights’ character. High property costs in the area would inhibit such use. In addition, much of Heights Boulevard and most of the affected area falls within the Houston Heights East and Houston Heights South Historic Districts, which prohibits existing covered structures from being torn down and replaced with nonconforming structures, such as convenience stores. Moreover, various properties along Heights Boulevard and other parts of The Heights are subject to deed restrictions that preclude commercial use.

Some opponents to the proposition have unfortunately engaged in “scare tactics” by suggesting unrealistic harm will fall upon our neighborhood if Heights-area stores are permitted to sell beer and wine for off-premise consumption. This election has nothing to do with liquor stores, bars, strip clubs or chain restaurants. It will have no impact on restaurants that operate as private clubs to serve alcoholic beverages to patrons. Residents will not be able to sell beer, wine or liquor out of their homes. This activity is already prohibited by numerous state laws, county regulations and city ordinances.

I did interviews with both gentlemen about this – here’s Baldwin and here’s Reilley. The latter was done in June after the petitions were submitted and before there was any organized opposition, so that interview was more informational, since there were still a lot of questions about what this effort was and what it meant. Baldwin doesn’t really say anything in his piece that he didn’t say in the interview he did with me, while Reilley’s article necessarily includes some rebuttals of pro-dry talking points. If you are in the affected area and somehow haven’t yet decided which way to go on this referendum, the two opinion pieces and interviews should tell you all you need to know.

I have no idea which side will win. I won’t be surprised by either result. There’s been a lot of recent discussion of it on the Heights Kids mailing list, with a fairly even split between the factions; the few recent threads I’ve seen on Nestdoor were all started by pro-dry people. I’ve seen more pro-dry yard signs than I have seen pro-amend signs, but I’d say half of those signs are in yards that are not in the affected area. (A good bit of the discussion I’ve seen in both places has been about who actually gets to vote on this issue.) I’m pretty sure there will continue to be a lot of chatter about this after the election, whichever way it goes.

Interview with Steve Reilley

By now you are aware of the effort to alter the historic regulations that keep the part of town that was once the independent city of the Houston Heights dry. The dry designation, in the area you see in the embedded picture – see here if you’d like a more modern context – was part of the annexation agreement between the Houston Heights and Houston. It could only be overturned by an election. Well, that election appears to be slated for this November, as a group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition says it has collected enough signatures from relevant residents to put this on the November ballot. The issue has already attracted a great deal of attention, and no small amount of misinformation, from residents and folks nearby, some who want to keep things as they are and some who can’t wait to have an HEB built nearby. To try to clarify things and get some answers to my own questions about the process, I sat down for an interview with Steve Reilley, who is heading the effort for the HHBC. Reilley is an attorney and a resident of the affected area, and he was a Democratic candidate for civil court judge in 2010. Here’s what we talked about:

As I said, there is definitely some opposition to this, as well as some enthusiastic support, but as yet I am not aware of an organized effort to oppose the ballot measure. When I do learn of such a group or organization, I will reach out to them for an interview as well. What are your thoughts on this?

A brief summary of the effort to make the Heights less dry

The Heights Life provides a fact sheet:

beer

  • The petition is backed by HEB, who hired a law firm to handle the drive. Some of the canvassers, who are paid and may or may not be your neighbors or Heights residents, may not know about HEB, only the firm that hired them. Either way, it’s all about HEB.
  • The petition itself does NOT actually change anything about the existing law. The petition puts the issue on the ballot to be voted on in November.
  • You can only sign the petition and participate in the subsequent vote if you live in the dry zone.
  • The petition/future vote are for *off premise sales of beer and wine only.* This means you can buy beer or wine at the store and take it elsewhere. You will not be able to drink at the store.
  • The petition and vote will NOT ALLOW hard liquor sales.
  • Restaurants and bars will still have to get a club license to serve on-premise beer/wine/alcohol in their establishment.

There’s more, so go read the rest. The Houston Heights Beverage Coalition now has a Facebook page if you’re into that sort of thing. Note that my embedded graphic is an inaccurate representation of what’s at issue here, but I don’t feel like finding something else. As The Heights Life notes, there are already plans for an HEB on Washington Avenue, which is outside the dry zone. A Heights-based HEB would surely be in the spot of the now-shuttered Fiesta on Shepherd, just inside the northern boundary of the zone. This only happens if the vote to alter the off-premise sales restriction passes.

As Campos notes, there’s been a lot of discussion on Heights Kids and Nextdoor about the petition effort and what it means, not all of it (in my opinion) very accurate. I’m sure that is what prompted this post by THL, to help clear things up. I’m going to do my part for that shortly, as I plan to interview Steve Reilley of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC; there are a bunch of process-related questions I’d like answered, among other things. The HHBC has reportedly collected a sufficient number of petition signatures, so assuming they are verified, some number of voters will have another item on which to vote this November. If an opposition group should form for this, I’ll do my best to interview a representative from that group as well. In the meantime, this is what we’ve got.

More on the effort to make the Heights less dry

From the Chron:

beer

With the intention of building a new store in the Heights, H-E-B said Wednesday that it has been working with a political consulting firm in Austin to help change a law precluding beer and wine sales in a dry part of the historic Houston neighborhood.

The grocer said it has contracted with Texas Petition Strategies to collect signatures needed to secure a place on the November ballot where residents can vote to make beer and wine sales – for off-premise consumption – legal.

The effort has led to a petition drive by a group called the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition, which has been seeking some 1,500 signatures needed.

H-E-B spokeswoman Cyndy Garza Roberts said a location in the Heights has been identified, but the company is still in negotiations on the site and commenting on specific details would be premature.

“We definitely want to be in the Heights, but in order to do so we need to make sure we provide those customers with the same quality products that they’re able to find at our other stores,” she said.

[…]

The group has 60 days to gather the signatures from residents who live in the area formerly known as the City of Houston Heights. Once the signatures are gathered, they will be verified by the City Secretary with Houston City Council then calling the election for November, according to a news release.

The signatures are being collected by a door-to-door effort and they can also be signed at area establishments, including Coltivare and Revival Market, said Hatch. The coalition has secured more than half of the signatures needed.

See here for the background. The one thing I know for sure is that a lot of Heights residents have been hoping for an HEB to be built in the neighborhood. I’d recommend playing that angle up, both in the signature-gathering and the election itself. I’ll be interested to see what if any opposition arises to this as well. Given the November date, turnout won’t be an issue.

Making the Heights a little less dry

From Swamplot:

beer

A GROUP CALLED the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC is hoping to bring about a vote on allowing beer and wine sales in the technically dry section of the Houston Heights. The group published a notice on May 5th announcing an application to the city to start collecting the petition signaturesrequired to get the measure on a local option ballot.

[…]

The group’s immediate goal isn’t to do away with all alcohol restrictions, and the proposed ballot measure wouldn’t get rid of the current private-club workaround frequently employed by area bars and restaurants. But the proposal would lift existing barriers for stores trying to sell beer and wine to becarried away elsewhere — an issue that forced the recently closed Fiesta Mart at N. Shepherd and 24th St. to install its traditionally-in-the-parking-lot Beverage Mart a full 4 blocks away on the corner with 28th St. (across the northern boundary of the zone).

Here’s a map of the dry area, which hasn’t slowed the proliferation of places to dine and imbibe in the Heights. Many of them are east of Oxford, which puts them outside the zone. Others, like the Down House, do the “private club” dodge, while Torchy’s on 19th inherited a grandfathered license from a defunct icehouse. When I first read this story, I thought it would be about repealing the ban for eateries and drinkeries, but apparently not. The Press has since given some clarification about who and what is behind this.

The chair of the [Houston Heights Beverage Coalition PAC] is an attorney named Steve Reilley, a founding partner of the Thompson & Reilley law firm. He says that the main impetus for this action is that the group simply wants to have “a nice grocery store in the neighborhood.” He pointed out the recent closing of the Fiesta location in the area and says that retailers are unwilling to expand or move in owing to the inability to sell beer and wine. “They can’t make the money without the beer and wine sales. We hope we are able to bring these stores in if we are able to alter the statute,” he said. “We want the same nice stores you see in other parts of town and [to] have them be economically viable in The Heights.”

H-E-B is one of the grocery store chains that are eyeing building a store in The Heights, but nothing definitive has happened on that yet, according to Swamplot. We asked Reilley if H-E-B was one of the members of the Houston Heights Beverage Coalition. “I believe they have definitely expressed interest in it and they’re definitely going to support this,” he said. “It is my understanding that if it passes, they are going to very likely move into The Heights. To that degree, yes, they’re part of it, and I believe they will be part of it going forward.” We left a message for H-E-B’s director of public affairs in Houston to see if the grocery store chain has any comment, and will update this article if we receive a response.

Reilley said other grocery chains are part of the special interest group but said he wasn’t able to confirm that. He referred us to John Hatch of Texas Petition Strategies of Austin, a company that has been hired to oversee collecting signatures and, if the issue makes it onto the ballot, stumping for a passing vote. We left a phone message for Hatch but have not yet received a call back.

The press release says, “TPS has conducted over 300 petition efforts in 170 different Texas communities, with more than an 83% the efforts passing — including efforts in Brazoria County, Lumberton, Lubbock, Dallas and Fort Worth.”

I gather from recent activity on the Heights Kids message board that people have been out knocking on doors to gather petition signatures, with an aim of having something on the ballot this November. I also gather that some folks are not clear on the details of this issue – specifically, why part of the Heights is “dry”, what exactly that means, and why there needs to be an election to change it. That may add to their challenge. A this subsequent comment notes that there are some potentially tricky legal issues involved as well, meaning that however this shakes out someone may wind up suing over whatever the result is. Any lawyers in the crowd want to comment on that? In any event, we’ll keep an eye on this. I live outside the “dry” zone, so I (presumably) wouldn’t get to vote on this. If you’ve been asked to sign a petition, leave a comment and let us know. More here from Swamplot.

Judicial Q&A: Steve Reilley

(Note: I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. There are a lot of judicial races on the ballot in Harris County this election, and so this is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. I will also be conducting some in-person interviews of candidates who will be involved in contested primaries for non-judicial offices. Please see my 2010 Election page for a full list of Q&As and interviews.)

1. Who are you, and what are you running for?

My name is Steve Reilley and I am running for Judge of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1. I worked my way through college and law school at the University of Texas, and I am a founding partner of Thompson & Reilley, a recognized and growing litigation firm. I have worked as a litigator in Houston for fifteen years representing plaintiffs and defendants in state and federal court. Besides practicing law, I have volunteered on various community projects including reading programs in HISD schools and fundraising efforts for the Houston Area Women’s Center. As a volunteer lawyer, I contribute my time to the Houston Volunteer Lawyer Service, to victims of Hurricane Ike, to the Dispute Resolution Center, and to state and local bar committees.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

These courts hear civil cases that can have a big impact on the everyday lives of average Harris County residents. Most of the matters considered by the four county civil courts at law are personal injury cases, contract disputes, and collection suits in which the amount of controversy falls between $500 and $100,000. The county civil courts at law also hear appeals from the Justice of the Peace courts and certain administrative matters including worker’s compensation act claims. Importantly, these courts are responsible for eminent domain and condemnation cases with unlimited amounts in controversy.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this bench because I passionately believe that the Democrats must not waste an opportunity to reform and improve the county civil courts at law. I requested that the party slate me for a county civil court at law bench rather than a district court bench even though I am equally qualified to serve as a district court judge, because I believe that we need strong and experienced candidates running for every position on the ballot.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Before founding my law firm, I worked in the Consumer Protection Division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office, and I worked for Texas Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Doggett. I have been lead counsel in nearly 2,000 cases. I have tried cases and handled appeals in federal and state court. Also, I am a trained mediator, and I have participated in 500 mediations as an advocate or as a mediator. I have been representing my own clients as lead counsel in County Civil Court at Law No. 1 for nearly fifteen years. I am the only Democratic candidate in this race with any experience in this court. I also have worked on litigation involving issues of eminent domain, which is an important aspect of the work of the county civil court at law judge.

5. Why is this race important?

For too long these courts have been given little thought and too many of the judges lacked relevant experience before taking the bench. As a result frustrated lawyers have turned to the district courts to resolve disputes that would be more appropriately handled in the county civil courts. We need judges with experience who can directly address the problems in the county civil court system including the high cost of litigating even modest-sized cases, administrative inefficiencies, and the lack of transparency in court’s procedures, rulings, and appointments.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

Voters should support me in the primary because I have the right experience and the right ideas for improving this court. I know this court and have a plan to restore trust in this court by making it efficient, transparent, and fair. We need to nominate experienced Democrats, and I am the candidate with the appropriate experience in this race. I also am the only candidate with any demonstrated involvement with the Democratic Party including voting in primaries, volunteering on campaigns, and serving as a delegate to the State Democratic Convention.

Based on my experience, my plans for improving this court, and my involvement in the party, I have been honored to receive the endorsements of nearly every Democratic and nonpartisan endorsing organization to date, including: The Coalition of Elected Democrats, Harris County Democrats, Harris County Tejano Democrats, Houston Black American Democrats (H-BAD), The AFL-CIO, The GLBT Political Caucus, Democracy for Houston, Area V Democrats, The Association of Women Attorneys, The Mexican American Bar Association of Houston (MABAH), the Latino Labor Leadership Council of Southeast Texas, and the Houston Young Stonewall Democrats.

To learn more about my candidacy or to join my campaign to reform Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1, please visit www.ReilleyforJudge.com.