Sunday, July 31, 2011

Foundations, Part 2

FYI, book-ending this blog's entry of last week titled "No Firm Foundation", GCDN has published a slab-watering guide which seems pretty thorough.

And League City Blog delved into the issue of our chronic lack of water supply.  There, the buzz-word was again our highly-regulated practice of residential "irrigation", without reference to the potential un-regulated consumptive contribution of slab-watering.  If I had extra time on my hands today, I'd sit down and calculate my relative irrigation vs. slab watering needs.  Given that, in a drought, I'm willing to risk the integrity of my lawn via under-watering but I'm never willing to risk the integrity of my house foundation, my gut instinct is telling me that the two consumption numbers might be comparable, but I won't know until I can steal a bit of time to do the actual math.  
Walk softly and cast a long shadow:
You can cut your irrigation use dramatically by allowing your St. Augustine lawn to remain LONG during drought.   Legendarily (although I cannot find a web reference for it), Randy Lemmon explained why: because the pores in the grass must open to allow carbon dioxide to enter.  If the individual blades of grass are too short, the grass loses too much water as it is opening itself to absorb CO2.  If the grass blades are instead kept longer, they have more surface area and don't have to stay open as long, and therefore they lose less water.  In the process, the longer blades also shade themselves and the underlying soil, further reducing water loss.  Such is the oral tradition of Lemmonheads, at least.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Of pups and PR

It's a curious financial coincidence:  according to reports, the amount that League City's contentious Christmas party cost taxpayers is virtually the same as the amount that the League City Animal Shelter over-ran its budget last year:  about $30,000. 

And whereas the City exhibited no qualms about paying for that party (at least, not until the mainstream news media, legitimate bloggers, and rogue political upstarts all drew attention to it), the extra money consumed by the shelter was apparently seen as grounds for a re-alignment in ordinance enforcement priorities that is expected to result in fewer animal adoptions and increased euthanasia. 

If muni budgets were tight and all you could muster in the way of discretionary spending was thirty thousand bucks, would you rather blow it on a one-night materialistic employee orgy featuring forty-nine door prizes including computers, an iPod, electronic games, and a 42-inch flat-screen TV, or, would you rather spread that sum of money out over an entire year to maximize the humanity and compassion of an indispensible public service that impacts the entire community?

Well, yeah, that question is framed from a loaded perspective, so let's not discuss it rhetorically.  Instead, let's poll it, but before you click the poll at the end of this post, you may want to consider how animal management services do impact the entire community.  Even if you are not an animal lover, chances are good that the general issue will eventually affect you personally - for instance:
Exhibit A, animal management Poster Boy:
My child named him "Guava" because of
the translucent greenish cast to his eye color.
As best as any of us can determine, this dog was dumped in Centerpointe about ten days ago.  Could that have had anything to do with League City's announcement that it will enforce euthanasia of animals within five days of receiving them?  "We are not a rescue facility" ran the tag line in Houston Chronicle.   Guava can't tell us what transpired in his specific case, but with a public relations attitude like that, who wouldn't dump their unwanted animals in a prosperous subdivision like Centerpointe?  Better to let those animals loose in the streets where they have a chance at survival. 

Correspondingly, many of the neighbors on our side of the subdivision are distressed by the idea of taking Guava the canine dumpee to LCAS, because they fear that would mean swift and certain death for this wonderful, happy dog. 

And so we're working as individuals to get him medical attention and find him a home.  Essentially what this amounts to is that a public service function has been transferred in part to the public.  The city is not handling the situation the way many people see fit, and so it falls back on the people.  Meanwhile, it wouldn't surprise me if there were an increasing number of pet dumps in subdivisions like ours - that would be a predictable response to "we are not a rescue facility".  And who among us would want more dumped animals??

Hopefully some improvement in direction will come of the decision to increase the number of individuals on the shelter's Advisory Committee, and the upcoming meeting to further address this issue

And while I'm at it, let me issue this disclaimer:  I'm not affiliated with the Friends of League City Animal Shelter and I have no earthly idea why League City chose to cut ties with this local nonprofit which, in 2010, reportedly donated about $27,000 worth of supplies to the shelter (almost enough for a Christmas party!).  This severance is yet another in a long list of perplexing management and PR moves that the city seems to have made.   

With all that said, here's the poll: 

If you were a League City manager with a discretionary $30,000 available, how would you spend it to best serve the public's interest?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

No firm foundation

In a recent post, I pondered the inevitable collision between suburban subdivision covenant boilerplate...
Excerpted from:
...and the unsustainable reality associated with the long-term effects of changing rainfall patterns and reduced water supply:
Excerpted from:

Once again, regarding those St. Augustine lawns, we're supposed to have 'em, but we're routinely not allowed to maintain 'em the way that they need.  Eventually, with rising population and decreasing water availability, the incompatibility between these two legal requirements will grow to become more than the supreme annoyance that it currently is, and something will have to be done to resolve the situation.  We are already at the point where we have those marquis signs up around League City warning about the $500 fine for unauthorized water use.  I personally know of one Centerpointe resident who was paid a visit by LCPD and told to turn off their irrigation system a week or so ago.

Who knows? Maybe it'll be resolved very simply and painlessly when some politician steps forward to do for those bloody St. Augustine lawns what Rick Perry recently did for backyard flag poles and rooftop solar cells: prohibit HOAs and POAs from preventing us from ripping the water-gobbling things out.  Given the increasing local focus on water conservation regardless of our prevailing drought status, that would not surprise me in the slightest.

But there's actually a more fundamental water needs issue in play here than St. Augustine lawns:  our residential foundations.  I'm reminded of this today because the Austin American Statesman ran a very succinct piece on how to help safeguard slabs against breakage by consistently watering them:
Nice graphic.
Austin American Statesman 
If you're a new homeowner and don't yet understand the importance of watering, that quote above explains the gist of it.  Concrete doesn't bend very well, and so if it sags, it can break.  And once it's broken, your house will never be quite the same again, even if you spend tens of thousands of dollars on slab repairs.  
Both the League City Water Conservation Plan and its Drought Contingency Plan restrict landscape watering, but they appear to be silent on the issue of foundation watering: they don't authorize it, but neither do they prohibit it.  It's easy to imagine why: how might the splash hit the political fan if residents were told that they weren't allowed to water their slabs?!  And who would be liable for damages if such a prohibition were imposed?  I'm not going to comb through the mountains of contractual paperwork I have on our house to see if it says anything explicitly about that issue, but in general, I note that actions construed as negligent can sometimes void a homeowner warranty.  I'm not sure if failure to water a slab in one of the worst droughts in recorded history would be considered negligence, but nothing would surprise me.

Our slab, like many, is a pain in the butt to water.  We have one of those larger one-story house plans that are increasingly coveted by baby-boomer downsizers and empty-nesters.  As a result of the design, our slab perimeter is the better part of 300 feet!  An hours-long soaker-hose drag-a-thon is required to even make a dent in the water that it needs.  The effort required to water our St. Augustine grass pales in comparison.

Things to think about: if you only had so much water to use, would you rather save your house foundation, or would you rather save a bunch of St. Augustine that's going to look like crap in a drought anyway?

For that matter, if we made it into Stage 4 or 5 (the most restrictive stages) of our local Drought Contingency Plan, realistically, how much water do you suppose people could be convinced to stop using?  When it comes right down to it, do you suppose there would EVER come a time, short of completely disconnecting municipal supply, when local residents would stop using what is needed to safeguard the largest investment of their lives?

Yup.  I vote for xeriscape.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beagle available

There's a beagle mix currently hanging around Section 9.  He is not neutered, has no collar, and apparently has no owner. At first he was so skittish that he appeared to be feral, but obviously he's a quick study:

I called the Shelter yesterday, but they are closed on Mondays and so the best I could do was leave a message reporting him as being at large.  

We already have a dog, so we can't keep him.  But if you're looking for a pet, he could be a good candidate.  Obviously he's mild-mannered, trainable, and good with older children at a minimum, such as the affectionate child pictured above.  He appears healthy and he's probably only about 20 pounds, so a good house-sized animal.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

HOA-ly grails

What do a couple of recent Texas legislative changes intended to circumvent home owners associations' (HOAs') enforcement powers and an organic gardener's impending jury in a small Michigan town have in common?

They're all examples of the changing relationship between homeowners and those who seek to regulate them, and that list includes neighbors as well as HOAs (in our case, POA) and municipalities.

And as the old saying goes, one man's meat is another neighbor's poison.  

First up there's the story of the military guy who erected a flag in his back yard only to be sued by his HOA, which was then circumvented by Rick Perry, who signed into law a provision stating that HOAs could not prohibit proper displays of the American flag with, of course, this new regulatory action being carefully timed to make Mr. Perry look maximally good on Memorial Day.

Personally I have no aesthetic objections whatsoever to the flag, but I'm one of those rare homeowners who spends over an hour per day outside in my yard, rain, shine, or scorch (with the latter being the current condition-du-jour).  And I would take hot exception to the incessant aural Chinese water torture CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG of the flag cords slapping against the pole in the prevailing wind.  We DO have a noise ordinance in League City, as was recently debated somewhat out-of-context in The League City Blog.  Anyone who makes, or causes the making of, constant unnecessary noise for any reason will hear from me personally.

Then there's another bit that Rick Perry did - signed a bill prohibiting HOAs from prohibiting most residential solar power installations.  That one I have no problem with, given that those things don't make any noise.  And I think they look cool, but some folks think they're ugly.

And then there's the granddaddy conflict of them all, which is getting national attention - Oak Park Michigan is prosecuting a woman for growing organic vegetables in raised beds installed in her front yard, on the grounds that vegetables are not "suitable plant material" as defined in municipal ordinance.  To date, about ten thousand people (and counting rapidly) have signed the going-viral petition against the regulator who brought suit against her.
To look at it, her gardens are very spartan but her yard is neat and tidy.  It's not a high-end residential appearance she's created, but neither does it look like a particularly high-end neighborhood she's in.  I personally would not object to ANY style of front-yard garden as long as it were kept-up.  However, in Centerpointe, most people would probably object to a dirt-box garden in a front yard.  It would have to be something more in keeping with the overall financial investment in the private properties and public spaces.  Perhaps something more like this??
This is in our BACK yard, not front, and it looks fairly innocent, like over-sized contemporary landscaping  containers.   But they're actually full of vegetables and we've had wonderful organic harvests this year in spite of the incredible drought.   
I personally think that the sight of house after house after house with nothing but a few one-gallon withering foundation shrubs plus a matched pair of builder-grade "titty trees" (nicknamed that because they're planted side-by-side, front and center, on the front lawn making the house look like the residential equivalent of a mid-century lady in one of those severe old cone bras)... I personally think that this kind of sight, while it may be accepted, is aesthetically questionable.
This is supposed to constitute superior landscaping??
I'd favor a well-presented vegetable garden any day of the week!
Whenever I see yet another house with a front yard configured like this, which is every time I step out my front door, it reminds me of the landscape-equivalent of THIS:
If your front yard were a garment...
Anyway, I anticipate that additional homeowner clashes will continue to occur in the future as we negotiate individual vs. collective rights, and as we run up against natural resource limitations.  The as-yet unexplored conflict that comes immediately to mind is St. Augustine lawns:  we're all supposed to have 'em, but year after year, we're not allowed to properly water 'em.  Look around Centerpointe - most front lawns look like absolute crap, and have for months now.  Eventually, SOMETHING has to give in a situation like that.  Our current drought may be more severe this year, but much of Texas has actually been in a snowballing drought for about a decade now.  When I find the time to re-design our front yard, I'm seriously thinking of going xeriscape.  Our water bills have been so high this year that ripping out the St. Augustine and putting in a nice xeriscape would almost pay for itself.  ACU on the corner of West Walker and SH 96 put in a nice drought-tolerant landscape and I think it looks absolutely wonderful.  Time will tell whether or not I can get our POA to agree with me on the virtues of that kind of option.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dash cam, Part 11: The bravest Leaguer

Houston is home to Houstonians.  St. Louis boasts about two million St. Louisans.  Florida is home to Floridians (many of them old), and Vancouver to Vancouverites (some of them highly upsettable, but you know what a big deal hockey is there).  But people from Liverpool are Liverpudlians and those from Halifax are Haligonians.  Who the heck decides these things?!  I don't know if there is an accepted convention to describe us folks who are "from" League City, but people from New York City are New Yorkers so maybe we should be Leaguers.  It's certainly easier and more elegant than "League City-ians".

And here's one of our littlest Leaguers, as seen a few days ago in Old Town:
Those handlebars are up to her chin.
She could not have been more than four years old, a speck of a human being in a cute pink dress.  Was she daunted by the fact that it was exactly 97 degrees outside when this picture was taken?  Was she discouraged by her environment, which doesn't afford her a single square foot of space, not even a crude sidewalk, in which to safely master that 2-wheeler bicycle about which she was so obviously excited?
And she's vertical!  Look at her go!
Sorry for the poor pic quality - bad sun glare.
And no, I wasn't stalking her.  These were shots taken as I was going to and coming from an errand in this part of town.
When I see things like this, I wonder: where was the heart of the community that built so many neighborhoods that denied children even the most basic safe accessibility?  Land was unbelievably cheap back when this subdivision was built, but did anybody set aside so much as a meager patch of dirt for recreational use by a kid like this and her family, who were watching attentively from their front yard as these pics were taken?

Why must a 35-pound child compete directly with 3,500-pound motor vehicles for access to the only available public right of way?  Some of you will want to respond, "Huh, that's dangerous - she shouldn't have been on that road in the first place."  Well, what the hell is she supposed to do instead of riding her bike?  Spend the remaining 14 years of her childhood inside her house playing video games?!  There are no parks or other recreational areas accessible to this neighborhood.  This is pretty much the only choice available to her for outdoor physical activity.  For argument's sake we can assume that she can only run in tight circles on her own front lawn for so long before getting profoundly bored with that.  And for perspective, please note that zoo animals are often provided with more space in which to recreate than our own children are.    

At some point in our imperfect society, outdoor accessibility became a "green" issue with all of the attendant "green" moral baggage and partisanship.  But it's not a green issue - that's just another example of people leveraging derogatory polarization in order to achieve some specific ends in which they are personally vested.  This isn't a green issue - it's a human issue.  Children need reasonable and accessible recreational spaces in order to properly develop.  This is equally true irrespective of whether their parents are Democrat or Republican.  Or Libertarian.

"Oh, it's just an old poorly-planned residential area and we don't make mistakes like that any more," some of you will think.

Wrong again.  While certain local codes now dictate better minimum standards in isolated areas, those do nothing to promote connectivity of the type that would be necessary for bona fide mobility and access (e.g., it's only of so much value that Centerpointe has sidewalks, because there's nothing to connect us to other parts of League City, so we can't really go anywhere safely except by car).  The "complete streets" legislation, which would have mandated that rights of way accommodate ALL types of travelers and not just motor vehicles, died in the last Texas legislative session for lack of vote.  None of the politicians had the 'nads to push it through.  I wonder... what would the outcome have been if instead those politicians had even half the determination and courage demonstrated by the littlest Leaguer pictured above?

Monday, July 4, 2011

West end wackiness

Happy July 4th, and no doubt many of you are heading to the beach to celebrate (good luck with that traffic).

No doubt as well that many of you have heard of the ominous-sounding legal battle for control of the Gulf of Mexico's beaches - those beaches on the west end of Galveston Island in particular.  I sure as heck am not an attorney so the usual disclaimers apply, but I'll recap with a very short and incomplete list of notable developments pertaining to this issue.  Then below this summary, I'll follow up with some observations regarding some head-scratching circumstances that are manifesting in the proverbial Real World:

Screengrab from: 
So what's the bottom line?  Does a public beach exist west of Galveston's seawall or not?

I can't even begin to speculate, but here's the question that I find most interesting at this point:  in the midst of all this ongoing legal wrangling, is anybody actually looking at what's happening with the beach?

Most of this stuff hinges upon the high tide line and the natural vegetation line in particular.
July 2, 2011
Line in the sand: west end roughly south of Isla Del Sol Drive.
There appears to be a high tide line visible.
And even though this may legally be private property, people were using the beach in the normal fashion during this holiday weekend.  I reckon there would be some gunfire involved somewhere if anybody attempted to interfere with their right to do so.
Here's where things get interesting:
the natural vegetation line appears to be trying to re-establish itself in areas considerably south of the current line of beach front homes,
...despite the fact that billions of dollars of potentially-private property hinges on the location of this line of natural vegetation and the legalities surrounding it, people are driving vehicles and heavy equipment through it, inhibiting its growth and generally weakening the stability of the beach which is still recovering from Hurricane Ike and earlier events such as Hurricane Rita.  Vegetation roots are critically important in holding sand in place, but they can't do that if they are torn up by motor vehicles, which is what's happening here, where a make-shift road divides and fragments the newly-growing clumps of plants.
Apparently the directive "Don't Tread On Me" does not apply here.  Where is that "Don't Mess with Texas" spirit when it's needed? 
Am I missing something here??

Are there some fundamental considerations that I just don't grasp, or is this situation a little bit bonkers?!

Some vegetation appears to be trying to recover on Galveston's west end.  Specifically it appears to be trying to extend itself seaward, which is the one desirable result that EVERYBODY can agree upon, and yet it's being jeopardized like this, to the apparent peril of the public and private landowners alike.

Is anybody even noticing that it's happening?  Not that I could tell from looking at the scene two days ago.  But of course, if this truly is private property, at this point maybe it's questionable as to whether the state or local governments could intervene to inhibit this type of damage.

Yes, the Texas Open Beaches Act and its attendant regulatory instruments (including Galveston's Beach Access Plan) do guarantee motor vehicle access to the beach, especially west of the seawall.  But at the same time, the destruction of dunes, dune vegetation, and wildlife is generally prohibited.
Excerpted from the City ordinances presented at 
Excerpted from the Galveston County Dune Protection and Beach Access Plan.
Bright lights, no big city:
Here comes another vehicle down the beach face.
I shake my head and wonder about the priorities and precedents being set here.  It's yet another example of the tangled web we weave, or, in this case, appear to be failing to protect the natural weaving of.
Is this ours, or is it theirs?
Was I trespassing two days ago when I took this photo,
or was I exercising my rights as a Texan?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Foreseeable

Heber Taylor has a great editorial in today's Daily News.  Titled "What does it take to solve the big problems?", it lays out what he alleges as the following Perfect Storm-style factors that are conspiring to put League City at increased risk of future water shortages:

  • Water is a finite resource.
  • Every political entity in Texas wants its share.
  • League City does not have sufficient inflow to meet demand projections.
  • Neither do we have sufficient interim storage.
  • We can't afford to issue bonds at high enough levels to participate in regional water infrastructure.
  • The resolutional momentum that finally commenced under Jahns and Oller is now at risk due to their near-simultaneous departure and resultant uncertainty regarding our ability to attract the kind of engineering talent that it takes to really work this kind of problem. 

It is the unfortunate downside of editorial commentary that one must take assertions at face value.  For instance, based on the information provided, I can't evaluate how much merit there is to the suggestion that we cannot finance sufficient bonds.  But even with these potentially-debatable points, Heber's message merits consideration, and the situation is worth monitoring both politically and technically.  My ears are open to hear what newly-elected Councilman Dennis OKeeffe in particular will have to say about this issue.  He's a geoscientist, so he should be capable of understanding the types of big pictures that may prove elusive to persons whose education is less technically-oriented.

In reading Heber's manifesto this morning, I could not help but experience the words of controversial Austin mega-developer Gary Bradley echoing in my head (paraphrased):

"[Every other challenge that arises during suburban development] I can handle, but I can't make water.  Water is a God thing."

That quote is from the film "The Unforeseen", Laura Dunn's stunning achievement in balanced investigative journalism.   Most documentaries are pure propaganda pieces intentionally developed to cement opinion on one side of an issue or the other, usually according to the tired old American stereotypes of "liberal" and "conservative".  Such films very predictably martyr their own while vilifying the opposition.  Far more meaningful and instructive is the unexpected and profound gut-wrench that one experiences when one realizes that opposing viewpoints are BOTH valid.  That's what Ms. Dunn achieved with "The Unforeseen", which I consider to be by far the finest film of its type that I've ever witnessed.  If you're interested, you can watch its trailer here: