Big Plans Made for the Old Central Firehouse Downtown, but the City Stands in the Way
SAN ANGELO, TX — A San Angelo couple is embarking upon renovating the old City Central Fire Station downtown at 200 S. Magdalen St. The couple proposes to turn the old firehouse, built in 1929, into a bed and breakfast with a twist. Once complete, the property will be called the Old Central Firehouse Bed and Brew.
The purchase of the property and remodeling will require about $650,000 to $700,000, and when finished, will be a welcome addition to the tax rolls. The building currently is not on the tax rolls and never has been. Since 1998, it was owned and operated as a non-profit, Healthy Families. Before that, the old station was headquarters for City Recreation and a City Senior Citizens Center since the fire department moved to the newer Central Fire Station #1 on 1st St. in 1976. Today the old building is on the market for sale.
Above: What the City of San Angelo Central Fire Station looked like the early 1970s. (Contributed/West Texas Collection at ASU)
Jody and Michele Babiash have a contract to buy the old building, and they were hoping to supplement their income, and ability to afford embarking on the firehouse B&B project, by renting their home on the lake as a Short-Term Rental (STR) via Homeaway.com or AirBnB.com.
Above: The Central Fire Station today. (Contributed/Jody and Michele Babiash)
Making their lake home an STR was not the original plan. The sale of their lake home fell through earlier this year when they were putting this deal together, so the couple is adjusting.
“Expensive homes on the lake aren’t exactly selling quickly right now (in the winter months), and we can use the cash flow,” Jody said.
Above: The rendering of The Old Firehouse Bed and Brew. (Contributed/Jody and Michele Babiash)
Jody said he followed all of the steps required by the new City STR ordinance, to include paying a $500 application fee.
“Owning the old firehouse is going to cost us between $2500 and $3000 per month in note payment, utilities, and taxes,” explained Jody. “We were hoping to make some of that up by putting our lake home on AirBnB.com.”
Above: The backyard of the Babiash lake home at 2045 American Legion Road. (Contributed/Jody Babiash)
That plan came crashing down via a City of San Angelo Planning Commission decision made on Oct. 16. The Commission seemed pegged against the couple who have never dealt with a City entity before. A group of neighbors organized strong opposition to the Babiashs’ plan. In all, 16 letters of disapproval were submitted against the couple’s STR application.
The chair of the Planning Commission appeared prepared to render the request dead on arrival. Her tone and statements made it clear the Babiashs didn’t stand a chance.
Above: The proposed STR at 2045 American Legion Road. (Contributed/Jody Babiash)
Stating that she knew the property was for sale, Chairwoman Valerie Priess openly mused whether or not it was “appropriate” for her commission to approve the application. Besides, she said, “You’ve got pretty narrow streets there, they’re going to park on the street. I mean, I just want us to take everything into consideration.”
Commissioner Ryan Smith was in favor of approving the STR. He repeatedly stated that the City staff recommended approval and that the request was complete and above the board.
Above: The living room inside of the home wanted to be an STR at 2045 American Legion Road. (Contributed/Jody Babiash)
Of the 16 letters of opposition, one was a letter from the Lake Nasworthy Homeowners’ Association. As we learned in the STR fight earlier this year, the homeowners’ association is supposed to remain neutral.
That was not the case for the Babiashs.
Only one of the letter writers lived within 200 feet of the property. The distance is important because the STR ordinance only asks for statements of opposition (or support) from residents next door, or within 200 feet of the proposed STR site. Many of the opposition letters looked like form letters from an organized opposition effort.
Now Jody and Michele are appealing the Planning Commission’s denial to the City Council on Tuesday. Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, however, the couple took the chance and had signed the purchase agreement for the old firehouse already.
Michele said their decision was based upon much prayer and worry. Jody said if their home at the lake is not approved for STR, it will delay their project downtown and make it more difficult, but he said they will persevere.
In general, those in opposition who actually wrote letters or emails, not merely signed pre-written form letters, were worried about:
- Reduced property valuation
- Inadequate parking
Josh Issac, a neighbor who is also an insurance agent, said STRs, like all rentals, are a proven risk. But, he said, short-term rentals are viewed by insurance companies in the same risk category as hourly-rate motels.
He didn’t want an STR anywhere near him.
Others echoed Issac’s remarks, homing in on parking, traffic congestion because of Glen Meadows Baptist Church, and wild parties.
Michele was adamant that there would be no parties. She said their plan is to rent both the home and adjacent apartment on the property to one family at a time, and to allow up to four adults and six children total on the property when rented.
“We’ve had family get-togethers with 10 to 16 people at our house, and no one has complained about them,” she said.
Commissioner Smith attempted to debunk that “wild parties at STRs” assumption. “You’re generalizing; not all people who use STRs are party people,” he said.
Michele stressed that the property is still their home, and will remain so even as an STR, with their belongings and furniture inside. Through screening tools available at STR websites and by requiring a large deposit, she said she would be selective about who rents their home. “We use STRs all the time when we go on vacations,” she said. The Babiashs don’t look like the kind of people who throw wild parties when they rent an STR.
The Babiash’s lake home is still for sale, and that gave at least two commissioners a pause. “What scares me the most is that it’s for sale!” said Commissioner Sammy Farmer. Commissioner Mark Crisp agreed as he made the motion to deny the STR.
In San Angelo, the STR permit transfers with the property when sold. But, the City requires a new permit to be renewed after the first year, and then every two years afterwards. The ordinance uses the renewal process as a safeguard to prevent the permanent transfer of STR permits to bad actors.
At the meeting, none of the commissioners were aware of why the Babiashs were selling their property. That they planned to use the proceeds of the equity in their $420,000 lake home to finance their B&B project at the old firehouse was never brought up.
The seven-member panel had just five in attendance on Oct. 16 when it voted 3-2 to deny the Babiashs’ request for an STR permit. Commissioners Ryan Smith and Joe Spano voted in favor of allowing the STR; Chairwoman Priess, Sammy Farmer and Mark Crisp voted against.
Before the vote, Priess noted that this was the first STR applicant to come before the commission that wasn’t already operating as an STR prior to the City Council’s Jan. 17 passage of the STR ordinance.
Above: Jody and Michele Babiash plan to renovate the old Central Fire Station downtown. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
Jody said when the couple moved to San Angelo about 10 years ago, they purchased a home in Paul Ann for just $104,000. Over the years, through hard work and saving, they have managed to move up to the lake house. Jody is a pilot for Shannon’s Airmed 1 helicopter ambulance.
The B&B is their big dream. Jody and Michele think one is needed downtown, and the building and location are perfect.
The question is, will the City Council overrule the City Planning Commission and allow the City to actually help local entrepreneurs improve downtown by awarding them an STR permit for the property they own? And if not, why have an STR ordinance at all?