The fate of 19 vacant houses on Lynn Drive in far northwest Harker Heights is in limbo.
The city once again ordered the demolition of the houses after postponing the project late last month. But that move led the property owner, David Buttross, to file an asbestos complaint against the city with the Texas Department of State Health Services.
“I called the state regulators because we didn’t want to lose our houses,” Buttross said Monday afternoon.
The Harker Heights City Council approved a contract for the demolition work Dec. 18, after the building and planning department worked for nearly a year to get Buttross Properties to bring the Lynn Drive houses up to health and safety standards, said Fred Morris, planning and development director. The houses were set to be demolished before Christmas, but the city gave Buttross extra time to submit a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for the properties that it had requested and never received.
Morris said Buttross submitted the plan after Christmas, but it was not “accurate enough or specific enough” to meet the city’s needs.
“The floor plan was for some property in Killeen,” Morris said. “We wanted a plan that addressed specific items that were necessary to bring items up to code — mechanical, plumbing, electrical, not a general, broad brush approach at it. (The plan) wasn’t a real heart-felt effort.”
Buttross said Monday that the plan he submitted was indeed comprehensive and that an engineer error caused the floor plans to be labeled Killeen instead of Harker Heights.
He also said the plan included details on electrical and plumbing upgrades, as well as paint, floor coverings, fixtures, countertops and windows.
“I don’t know what else they want,” Buttross said. “All I want to do is save our houses and fix them up.”
The city was set to start the demolitions Tuesday, but City Manager Steve Carpenter received a call Monday from the state health department informing him that the city needed to do asbestos surveys on the properties before moving forward with the demolition.
“Basically, if it was just one house we were tearing down we would not have to have an asbestos survey,” Carpenter said. “But since the houses are within 660 feet of one another, we have to do (the survey), according to Environmental Protection Agency regulations.”
Carpenter also learned that the city is required to give a 10-day notice of demolition to the health department. “We’ve given the notice ... the company that’s doing the asbestos survey filed it for us,” he said Wednesday.
Carrie Williams, spokesperson for the health department, confirmed that the agency was investigating an anonymous complaint made against the city but had no additional details to offer.
“At this point, we don’t have a complete picture of the situation. … We did receive a complaint about this project, so we’re looking into that complaint,” Williams said. “And we did reach out to the city of Harker Heights and talked to them about procedures that are in place before demolition can occur.”
As of Monday, the city was corresponding with Buttross only through his attorney, the Ted Smith Law Group in Harker Heights, Morris said.
But Buttross said the law firm had recommended he find another lawyer.
“He called me at 4 p.m. on Friday and said he couldn’t handle it, and he said I needed to hire another attorney,” Buttross said, referring to Ted Smith. “The problem is, he’s buddies with the city. He hired the city manager.”
Attempts made to reach the Ted Smith Law Group for comment were unsuccessful.
While the EPA regulations will postpone the project a few more weeks, Carpenter doesn’t think the results of the asbestos survey will stop the city from tearing down the houses.
“We’ll just have to do it in a different way,” he said.
In the meantime, Buttross will push to keep the Lynn Drive houses from being demolished.
“I don’t want to fight with the city … if they don’t like foreigners in their city, that’s fine,” Buttross said, referring to his status as an Austin resident. “I just want to save my houses.”