HARLINGEN, Texas – The wife of the developer of a wealthy neighborhood in Harlingen says city commissioners got it wrong in their evaluation of the neighborhood’s architectural control committee.

When discussion on a special use permit application for a property on Nueces Park in July 2021, some Harlingen city commissioners appeared critical of the architectural control committee, saying it seemed to solely comprise the developer of the land, Frank Ferris and his wife.

Not so, says Becky Ferris.

“Regarding the statement about my husband and me, commissioners may have assumed if they viewed a copy of the deed restrictions for Nueces Park, that we are the sole members of the Architectural Control Committee,” Ferris told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“However, we have not been on the committee since 1997 when others were appointed.”

The special use permit application was made by Norma and Eric Sepulveda. They wanted to build a large metallic barn next to their home on Nueces Park. City commissioners approved their application, despite a petition signed by 21 local residents opposed to the barn’s construction.

Sepulveda declined to be interviewed for this story, telling two reporters that everything she said was off the record. 

Why a building permit?

Seeking a building permit is a routine that requires filing an application with the City of Harlingen Building Department. Once received, the city’s five-member Planning and Zoning Commission revises the application to either approve or reject it.

In most cases, a permit is granted before it goes to the city council where public hearings are held and a couple of readings follow for final approval.

According to the city’s web site, a building permit is “a license which grants legal permission to start construction of a building project.”

A permit is required for new buildings, additions, demolitions, temporary buildings, mobile homes, electrical and plumbing systems and other miscellaneous construction projects.

Most of these dealings aren’t out of the ordinary, except when seeking a permit to build a new structure measuring 145 or more square feet.

But in the upscale area of Nueces Park Lane in the west side of the city, neighbors were disturbed after they found out that a 2,000-square-foot structure was to be build next to a home  off the south lane of the street.

Nueces Park Lane is a horse shoe-shaped street off Stuart Place Road where homes in the $300,000 to $400,000-plus price range aren’t isolated cases. They immediately circulated a petition around opposing the project and gathered a total of 31 signatures while 20 others chose not to participate or were not available when the form was circulated.

The petition was prepared by Dr. Earl Wellington, a longtime resident of Nueces Park. 

Among those signing the document included some of the closest neighbors where the new structure, described by some as Taj Mahal.

The garage is actually a metal barn constructed next to Eric and Norma Sepulveda’s home.

For some of the neighbors from Nueces Road, having such a building violated a number of home owner statutes.

According to the Nueces Park Subdivision Restrictions filed Jan. 31, 1994 in the Cameron County’s Clerk Office, homeowners are required to follow a number of guidelines. Sepulveda says she followed all the rules in making an application for a special use permit.

Norma Sepulveda, a Harlingen immigration attorney who is trying to unseat longtime Mayor Chris Boswell, also a lawyer, in the upcoming May 7 elections, said she and her husband did everything correctly when filing their application for the special use permit. She pointed to another large building that has gone up in her subdivision. That application did not draw criticism or a petition in opposition.

In July and August of 2021, the city’s Planning and Zoning Department and the City Council, by a 4-to-1 vote, threw their support for the Sepulveda’s project.

The councilmen who voted in favor of the request were Richard Uribe, Frank Puentes, Frank Morales and Rene Perez, while Michael Mezmar voted against it. Nueces Park is in the jurisdiction of Perez’s District.

The approval took place despite the opposition by a number of residents who voiced their objections presenting a laundry list of problems, including potential flooding issues, home depreciation and lack of consideration for their neighbors.

“This is was special usage permit issue,” Hector Peña, a neighbor who still is fervently opposed to having a barn across from their home. “This is was special privilege permit.”

He said the picnic/barbecue place built behind his home resembles the front façade of the house, something which he did in accordance with homeowner association rules.

Other neighbors, some of whom have been there since the subdivision was built about 30 years ago, said they had never thought they were going to encounter something like this.

On March 28, Sepulveda faced Boswell during a mayoral debate sponsored by the Cameron County Conservatives. She repeatedly said that, if elected, she will be the people’s mayor and an advocate for better paying jobs, better infrastructure like drainage and better representation in city government.

She also said she wasn’t part of the status quo, wasn’t born in a wealthy family and came from a large family.

Boswell, who is seeking a sixth three-year term, said he will continue running because of his commitment to create job opportunities to area residents.

Asked how long he intends to be in office if he were elected to serve another term, he replied, “I take one election as a time. There is always something unfinished and new projects ahead.”

Boswell is now the city’s longest serving mayor. If elected in May, he will a total of 18 years at the end of his six terms.

Following the controversy, many residents of the Nueces park subdivision now have political signs in their yard supporting Boswell, while other yards have Sepulveda’s signs.

But the difference is contrasting as Boswell signs heavily outnumber Sepulveda’s signs. Several longtime neighbors said they have supported Boswell a number of times, while some newcomers like the Penas, said this is the first time they do so, saying they trust the mayor.

A resident said if the Sepulvedas had listened to their concerns they wouldn’t have problem.

“We have a homeowners association here,” a longtime resident said. “All they had to do was to follow our statutes, but they railroaded them.”

Commission meeting

The barn-like shed built by the Sepulveda’s measures 40 feet in width and 50 feet in length. It covers 2,000 square feet. Because of the size, the Sepulvedas had to get a special use permit.

Raul Peña, III, spoke against the special use permit being granted. He was also one of the 29 residents of Nueces Park that signed petition opposing the application. 

“I live within 200 feet of the proposed metal storage building,” Peña said at the city commission meeting.

“Clearly there is a majority that don’t want this, within the 200. There is only one neighbor that is okay with it. It is going to have a detrimental affect on the rest of the neighborhood. Especially if one gets allowed, it is going to open the door for whoever else wants to build a structure of this size.”

Peña said the storage shed measures 16 feet tall at the walls and is closer to 20 feet tall at the pitch. “It is going to be an obstruction for all the neighbors around there,” he said.

Peña said other residents that live in Nueces Park have always followed the deed restrictions. To go outside of the deed restrictions, Peña said, residents have to appear before Nueces Park’s architectural control committee.

“It is a beautiful neighborhood,” Peña added.

Sepulveda told the city commission she and her husband had not been given deed restrictions when they purchased their home seven years ago. 

“There are many homes that are in violation of the deeds,” Sepulveda said, claiming there are no minutes of this architectural control committee’s meetings.

Sepulveda’s husband, Eric, said the storage building would be situated “a long way from the street.” He said only one neighbor and the people living across the driveway would see the building. Trees would hide the building from everyone else. 

Sepulveda added that the only issue before the city commission was approval of the special use permit. She said the deed restrictions were not under the purview of the commissioners. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been amended from an earlier version to take into account new reporting and pictures.

Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian is hoping to meet with Norma Sepulveda to interview her about her vision for Harlingen, as part of our Meet the Candidate series.

Editor’s Note: Click here to watch the Harlingen City Commission meeting from July 2021 where the Sepulvedas requested a special use permit for their oversized barn project.

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