By LESLEE BASSMAN , Special to Four Points News
Volente faced a showdown with out-of-town short-term rental owners last week and, so far, the Village is ahead.
Following almost two hours of testimony during its May 16 meeting, city council members voted to deny a request by Odessa-based homeowners for a conditional use permit that would allow the operation of a short-term rental at 16601 Jackson Street. Councilmembers Kit Hopkins and Mark Metro, along with Mayor Pro Tem Tony Ruff, voted down the agenda item, with Councilmember Sean Brown being the lone vote to approve the measure. Councilmember Tim McMillan who lives across the street from the short-term rental, recused himself.
The Jackson Street home’s owners, Dr. Russell Subia and Michelle Villanueva, originally applied for a conditional use permit for a short-term rental last year. They’ve owned the property since 2018 per Travis County records. The five-bedroom, five-bath home includes 6,568 square feet of living space and lies within a single-family residential neighborhood. Speakers at the city council meeting stated the site includes a 10-person hot tub and two heated pools. Tax records for 2023 show the property appraised at more than $5.4 million.
Applying for STR permit
The couple’s application was denied as the rental was being operated without a permit in violation of local regulations and the application was incomplete. During its existence, many neighbors had filed complaints with the Village pertaining to the home, alleging partying at all hours of the night, loud music and trespassing.
Following a grace period, Subia and Villanueva reapplied for the permit on March 23.
Texas Monthly featured a May 15 article that first reported the couple hired attorney Brooks Landgraf to represent them in their second request for a short-term rental permit. Landgraf is also a state representative whose constituency, House District 81, includes Odessa, Subia and Villanueva’s hometown. Odessa, by the way, doesn’t allow short-term rentals.
Attorney, lawmaker files House bill on STRs
On March 1, during the 2023 Texas Legislative Session, Landgraf filed House Bill 3169 that not only prohibits a municipality from disallowing or limiting short-term rentals but provides that the municipality can’t apply its noise or parking restrictions to short-term rental units. The proposed bill was seemingly tailored to Volente: “This chapter applies only to a municipality that: (1) has a population of less than 1,000; and (2) borders Lake Travis.” Essentially, the bill thwarted any ability for Volente officials to enforce its ordinances governing short-term rentals.
Meanwhile, as the bill made its way partly through the legislative process, Landgraf continued to represent Subia and Villanueva before the Volente dais in their quest to operate a vacation rental.
The Volente Zoning and Planning Commission initially tabled the item on April 11; however, when it was brought back to the Commission on May 9, members recommended that city council approve the permit but with certain conditions including that no outside activity would occur between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.; law enforcement must be given the gate access code to enter the property should a complaint be made; and an agreement that the permit would be revoked if three substantiated complaints were filed against the homeowners.
Two days later, on May 11, Landgraf postponed his bill. Since the Texas Legislature meets every other year and won’t meet again until 2025, the matter can’t be revisited for two years.
However, the story doesn’t end there.
Planning and Zoning Commission’s stand
At the May 16 Volente City Council meeting set to pass or reject the Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendation to allow Subia and Villanueva’s permit, the couple declined to make any presentation. Subia stated that they’ve complied with everything officials asked of them with respect to the short-term rental and haven’t rented the home out for nine months, the waiting period before being allowed to refile for a permit.
Planning and Zoning Board Chair Judy Graci addressed council that at the prior hearing, neighbors Alex Brewer and Scott Atwood made allegations of constant noise, partying and drug use at the rental home as well as seeing party buses and individuals trespassing on adjacent properties. Graci said Volente’s community survey showed most residents view the Village not as a “tourist destination” but as a retirement community or residential/bedroom community.
“So that places what our values are here in our community,” Graci said.
Council probes, homeowner defends property
Subia told council that he installed noise monitoring devices and changed management companies to a national entity to ensure their home is not in violation of local ordinances. He said he wants to be in “a partnership with the city” concerning his rental.
“We do respect others and privacy rights,” Subia said. “But we also respect our property rights and our privacy rights as well.”
He addressed Council’s concerns over dock safety and initially said he didn’t allow any watercraft to dock at the home’s dock which could only be used for fishing. However, when questioned further by Councilmember Metro and Mayor Pro Tem Ruff, Subia clarified his response, saying guests would be permitted to load and unload passengers off their own boats from his dock and tie off jet skis but not day dock.
“I’m just trying to make it somewhat fun for the guests,” Subia said. “If that’s an issue, if it’s going to deter whether you vote yes or no, just say that’s an issue for you and we’ll just take the watercraft away.”
Councilmember Hopkins voiced concern over wakes in the cove for inexperienced boaters on vacation. For Ruff, the issue came down to multiple boats tying off in the space.
“The house is now a party destination for boaters and that’s the point of where I’m going with all of this,” Ruff said.
Subia ultimately agreed to not allow any boats or jet skis to tie off at the home’s dock. He also agreed to a 10-occupant maximum at the rental following some confusion between the number of occupants allowable as stated in his permit application of 12 and the January 6 required notice he sent to nearby neighbors that stated a maximum of 10 occupants. Subia consented to abide by the Village’s more restrictive 2023 ordinances governing vacation rentals even though his filing put him within the purview of the prior 2018 laws. As a negotiation point, he asked to be allowed a maximum of 13 occupants as provided for in the 2018 ordinances. With those compromises, the meeting looked to be leaning his way.
Mayor Tom Blauvelt pressed Subia for some assurance that, from Subia’s Odessa home, he would be able to protect the property rights, and the health and safety of his surrounding neighbors when a complaint comes in at 2 a.m.
“I believe [Volente residents] when they tell me they lost work or they were up late at night,” Blauvelt said. “This is not something we take lightly. We want to protect their rights and we want to protect your rights too but, you know, there’s a history here and we can’t ignore it.”
Subia said that a lot of the issues surrounding the Jackson Street home “have been fabricated.”
“To prove you wrong, we have to be given an opportunity just like everyone else,” he said.
Volente citizens weighed in
Volente residents urged the council to deny the permit to Subia and Villanueva, referring to the Jackson Street home as “a party house” and stating the rental “doesn’t fit into the neighborhood.” One citizen whose property backs to the home reported a history of being disturbed by very loud music and noise coming from it late at night, even as recent as the May 13 weekend, but didn’t have Subia or Villanueva’s contact information to notify them.
As with the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, neighbor Atwood approached council and referred to the rental home as “a party house.” He focused on the number of guests that would be permitted on the large property and said the house is “a business” to Subia and Villanueva.
Jackson Street resident Matthew Lankenau lives two houses down from the vacation home, having moved in a couple of years ago. He said he could have bought a home anywhere on the lake but chose Jackson Street, near two board members and next door to “a wonderful neighbor.” Lankenau considers his idyllic site “a privilege.”
“When you live in a place like Jackson Street, … you have to be a good neighbor,” he said. Lankenau said he owns short-term rentals but doesn’t put them next to quiet, residential neighborhoods with multi-million-dollar homes.
Allison Thrash echoed Lankenau’s sentiments about the peaceful town culture and said she’s heard neighbors say their quality of life “has been severely disrupted, and that they’re unhappy and they’re not enjoying themselves in our town, in their home.”
“I don’t understand why you’re disregarding the citizens’ statements about their quality of life being so disrupted,” Thrash said to council members, adding that the group, along with the Planning and Zoning Commission are charged with representing the residents. “With this particular [STR], what I’m hearing tonight is that it has definitely been encroaching on the property rights of everyone around it, and two blocks down and perhaps more.”
For Mayor Blauvelt, the Jackson Street issue is larger than just one vacation rental application. Although the town’s ordinance was updated, there’s more work to be done, more data to collect and more input to obtain, he said. Other council members echoed his sentiments.
“This is a greater issue for our community to come together and figure out what are our options,” Blauvelt said. “We don’t want to hurt businesses, but we need to protect our neighbors’ rights to their property and their health and safety.”
He also said local government must have the ability to place restrictions on such properties.
“Whatever happened to the ‘good neighbor’ policy?” Hopkins asked rhetorically. “People have been impacted and I’m not sure that they want us to risk going forward.”
A motion to deny the permit was rescinded before Brown moved that council approve the measure. He said Subia was “willing to compromise and be a part of this community” and specified the permit include conditions that require the applicants follow the more restrictive 2023 ordinances, with some exceptions; not allow watercraft to dock; require no outside activity from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.; limit the occupants to a maximum of 12; provide adjacent neighbors within 500 feet with a complaint hotline number along with Subia and Villanueva’s cell phone numbers; and set the home’s noise monitor at a reasonable trigger level in accordance with the Village’s ordinance.
Following a long pause between the motion being made and Hopkins seconding the motion, the measure failed and the application was denied.
“We’ll see you guys in court,” responded Subia.
In a follow-up telephone interview, Subia said he is waiting on legal counsel to discuss plans to file a lawsuit against the Village and alleges its handling of the matter was discriminatory based on race. He is Hispanic.
“We want some justice, some fairness, an even playing field,” Subia said.
He hasn’t decided whether to retain Landgraf again in the potential lawsuit.
“From the vote of four to one, I don’t think the city is willing to work with us at any point,” Subia said. “We hadn’t rented for nine months. We followed all their standards, all the laws that they changed on us, all the ordinances they changed on us even up until the last meeting…It’s a witch hunt. It’s a vendetta. It’s personal.”
In an email to the Four Points News, Brown said he voted in favor of granting a conditional use permit for 16601 Jackson St. because the applicants met the criteria set out by the Village’s ordinances and “most important, the applicants were willing to accept ALL conditions proposed by the Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council.”
“In doing so, I was willing to give them a chance to prove themselves,” he said.
Councilmember Brown agrees with Blauvelt that, as with other Texas municipalities, Volente needs to “gain a better understanding of public opinion in order to properly govern short-term rentals” while considering property owner rights, community culture and respect for neighbors.
Although Councilmember Ruff told the Four Points News he viewed what was tantamount to Landgraf killing HB 3169 in the Texas Legislature as “a victory,” there are other bills coming down the pike that cover short-term rentals.
“This is a hot topic nationally, with Plano putting a moratorium on new [short-term rentals],” Ruff said. “Every city’s dealing with this in their own way. The fact of cities being able to have ordinances and enforce them based on their neighborhoods and what their neighborhoods are looking for I think is important. This is why I ran. This topic… I just think it’s going to be an ongoing battle.”
This story is far from over. Stay tuned.
City Administrator Lacie Hale told the Four Points News that, as of presstime, the Village of Volente had not been served with a lawsuit on behalf of Subia and Villanueva. Michelle Villanueva stated to the Four Points News that she had “no comment.” Attempts to contact Rep. Brooks Landgraf were not returned by presstime.