By Kim Hilsenbeck
Two years after lodging complaints with the city about a local business not following the rules, some Amberwood neighbors say they are fed up and want issues resolved sooner than later.
Complaints against Hi Tech Automotive include oil and gas from salvaged cars going directly on the ground, misuse of zoned land, noise nuisances, multiple alarm activations, not having a proper fence or screen around the property and storing used tires improperly.
Hi Tech Automotive, owned by THFC Corporation, is located in northeast Kyle on Windy Hill Road. Three businesses operate from the property: an auto repair shop, a salvage yard and an auto sales lot. All are owned and operated by THFC, which has two other Hi Tech Automotive locations, both in Austin. According to Ali Chmeis, his father Hussein Chmeis started the business more than 25 years ago.
In an interview Tuesday Ali said the complaints against the business by Amberwood neighbors are, in his words, “Beyond silly. We care for our property.”
Craig Wiseman, the unofficial spokesperson for the neighborhood, disagrees.
“This has been dragging on for quite some time,” he wrote in an email to city leaders on Feb. 5. “It has been over two years since I started complaints to Lupe Gil in Code Enforcement.”
In a Feb. 24, 2015, email, former city attorney Ken Johnson told Wiseman, “I’ve prepared notifications to abate the nuisance. After I visit with the chief of police and the city manager, I’m anticipating that the notifications will be sent to Hi Tech. Shouldn’t be long now.”
Four months later, Wiseman and his neighbors are still waiting. Johnson resigned earlier this year.
City spokesperson Jerry Hendrix said part of the reason for the perceived lag is the city wants to strive for voluntary code compliance whenever they deal with issues of this nature.
“The problem certainly didn’t pop up overnight. We just want to be fair to everyone as we move forward,” Hendrix said. “If the role was reversed and somebody was complaining about Mr. Wiseman’s property, we would want to take the same cautious approach.”
But how long is too long?
Kyle City council member Diane Hervol, who is also on Amberwood’s HOA board, said, “This has been a laborious process for the residents along Amberwood Loop and the neighborhood as a whole. I do know city staff is doing everything they can to bring resolution to this issue, and hope that it will be a win-win situation for the business and the neighborhood.”
According to Hays CAD tax records, Hussein Chmeis purchased the property in Hays County in 1999. Kyle annexed the land in 2002. Chmeis’ land, according to Ali, is technically three separate lots, with two zoned something different than the third. Part of the property is zoned retail services, while the other is zoned warehouse. According to Ali, his father was going to sell one tract of land to a firm to build storage units. The zoning for that land, he said, changed to warehouse. But when that deal fell through, the zoning designation remained the same.
As Hi Tech grew, the land zoned warehouse was used for storing cars and other items. And therein lies some of the Amberwood neighbors’ issues: the warehouse-zoned land, which is closest to their neighborhood, can’t have debris, used tires or scrap cars on it.
There is also some confusion about whether Chmeis’s businesses are violating any city ordinances. Wiseman said the city told him in January that Chmeis has no permits from Kyle to operate the businesses on the property. Ali and his sister, Mona Chmeis, said they have all the proper permits and certifications.
Part of the issue seems to be whether the businesses should be grandfathered since the land purchase came before the city’s annexation. Wiseman said Assistant City Manager James Earp told him that Chmeis’ businesses were grandfathered in after the annexation.
Earp and Barnett believe there was an auto parts and repair shop on the property prior to annexation.
“As long as you continue that use your grandfathering stays,” Earp said.
He also said he doesn’t think auto salvaging is allowed under Kyle’s Retail Services zoning, but added, “It can stay because of the grandfathering.”
But Wiseman, who bought a home in Amberwood in 2005, disputes that contention.
“Hi Tech Auto repair opened 2006, Hi Tech Auto Sales opened 2009, Hi Tech Auto Salvage opened 2012. So all the Hi Tech’s businesses opened after the City Annexed. Based on records I requested from the City,” Wiseman wrote in a May 8 email, “[the property owner] has no permits from the City to do anything.”
Earp said it’s difficult to trace back to 1999.
“The business was there [when Amberwood was built] – it has scaled in size,” Earp said. “I believe [Chmeis] bought the business from someone else. We don’t have a record of this business prior to 1999.”
Wiseman said satellite imagery going back about a decade tells the story visually.
“Google Earth Timeline Satellite photos show [Chmeis] had nothing there but three buildings and 10-12 cars … at the rear of the property (right behind La Quinta] when we purchased our home 2004-2006,” he wrote. “So there is no question he WAS NOT there when we bought. So we need help to get this guy under control.”
Wiseman also took hundreds of photos over the past two years documenting the issues violating city and state rules. One big issue for Wiseman is that salvaged cars had their oil and gas tanks punctured prior to being crushed but the spillage ran right into the ground, though that is a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issue.
Police Chief Jeff Barnett and Assistant City Manager James Earp say Hi Tech is working to comply with the rules. Those rules include city ordinances, state transportation code and state environmental law per Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
With code compliance now falling under the Kyle Police Department’s realm, a change that happened in January, Police Chief Jeff Barnett has walked the Hi Tech Auto property and met with Mona Chmeis several times.
According to Barnett said Hi Tech is making progress on meeting the city’s compliance standards, including proper fencing and removal of grass and debris.
“They have been extremely open to making sure they’re in compliance,” Barnett said.
He said Code Enforcement sent a certified letter out on Tuesday explaining the issues to be resolved.
Ali and Mona Chmeis said they are working with the police to comply.
“We’re trying to be great neighbors,” Ali said.