Newsletter 042 – July 14, 2023
A few of those “life’s little interruptions” I mentioned in some previous newsletters have appeared without warning, so I’m pushing the next “jobs” newsletter (#3 of 10) off for a couple of weeks so I can slip in this extra newsletter about a few things that happened recently. This is the Extremely Long, With Deleted Scenes, Extended Director’s Cut version of the newsletter I sent out to my subscribers last week. It got so long I just couldn’t send it all in an email. Yes, it’s really, really long.
In the previous newsletter, I mentioned the storm that blew through the Houston area on June 21st. One local radio station called it a “surprisingly strong storm”, with sustained winds of 60 mph and wind gusts up to 97 mph (up to 80 mph here in Spring). It caused lots of damage, and over 300,000 people lost power during the storm. The local power company, Centerpoint Energy, said they had cut that number in half by noon the next day. We got ours back around 10:00 the next morning.
Before the storm hit, Minay had been simmering a big pot of ratatouille most of the afternoon, and we were just about to have supper when the storm arrived and we lost power. The sun wasn’t down yet. We normally have a piece of home-baked toast with ratatouille so we can sop up all of the yummy juices, but without electricity our toaster wouldn’t work. We had crackers instead and sat and ate while watching our backyard trees do a vigorous rhumba. Fortunately they somehow managed to stay upright. We were lucky. Lots of homeowners in the area lost trees (and cars and parts of their houses when some of the trees fell on them). When I glanced outside later, though, I noticed that one eight-foot section of our back fence was gone, fallen into the ditch behind our house. This had happened once before (in 2016) to a different section of fence, but this time it set me off on a whole different set of “interruptions.”
Here’s a news article about the storm.
Minay and I have only owned two houses during our 41 years of marriage. We got married in 1982, and moved from an apartment into our first house in 1990. The back fence at that house was in horrible shape. The slats were badly weathered and overgrown with huge six-foot high stands of pampas grass. Honestly, I think the pampas grass was all that was holding most of the fence up. Minay and I both worked to rip up all of it up while simultaneously attempting to avoid the poison ivy that had taken up residence in every single clump of the grass, which took weeks. When it was finally done I was sure I had escaped damage from the poison ivy. I was wrong. Some had gotten down inside one of my work gloves, and before long I was covered nearly head to toe with blisters. It took a few weeks and lots of calamine lotion plus some hefty antibiotics before I felt human again. Once I had recovered I ordered all the materials I would need and rebuilt the fence myself. It was still standing when we moved to our new house in 2011.
I was in my early-40’s in 1990. I’m in my mid-70’s now. With my current back issues (no padding in any of my lower vertebrae and some degeneration of my thoracic vertebrae) there’s no way I could rebuild our current fence myself, but our street’s back fences also have another issue. Someone installed a storm drain next to our street. A long ditch feeds the drain and parallels our houses. The ditch, unfortunately, rises up to within a few inches of all of our fences and the ground underneath the fences is eroding, causing them to lean outward toward the ditch.
When we moved here in 2011 I never looked over our back fence, so I didn’t notice whether the ditch was already there or not, but a beautiful little forest grove extended outward from our back yards for several blocks. In 2015 a bulldozer showed up to tear down all of the trees and put up a fire station, which was soon followed by an RV parking lot, and a few other businesses. Does that remind you of a Joni Mitchell song? At some point after all of those businesses were opened, whenever I mowed, I noticed that small sections of ground near the fence were sinking, so I periodically bought some topsoil and filled in the sunken spots. After a while I stopped trying because the topsoil just migrated into the ditch.
In April 2016, during another not-quite-as-serious rainstorm, one section of my already slightly-leaning fence just fell into the ditch, snapping a crossbeam off as it fell. I asked our homeowner’s association (HOA) if they would fix it since our street is on the perimeter of the subdivision. They said they didn’t consider our street’s fences to be perimeter fences. I tried to explain to them what a perimeter was. They didn’t appreciate that, so we began a long adversarial relationship. I ended up having to hire a company to replace that section of fence.
When it happened again last month I thought I would try again. This time, though, after a number of phone calls, and gathering a lot of detail about the state of our fences, talking to neighbors, etc., I contacted the HOA again (which isn’t easy). I had to go through the HOA’s management company and leave lots of voice mails. One employee finally called me back. After I explained the situation she said, “Sure. I can help you.” I later found out that her idea of “help” wasn’t the same as mine. She had me fill out an Architectural Modification Request (AMR) form and had me email it to their office. An AMR is what a homeowner fills out if they want to make changes to their property, like installing solar panels on their roof or widening their driveway.
On the form I very clearly stated that I wanted the HOA to rebuild *all* of the back fences for *all* of the ten houses on the west side of our street. I knew that was a big ask, so I offered a lot of photographic evidence, showing that seven of the ten houses had at least some damage to their back fences. Replacing fences is something the HOA does regularly on houses that are on major streets (i.e., likely to be visible to the public). Ours, on the edge (clearly the perimeter) of the subdivision are less likely to be seen by potential buyers. I carefully explained that the ground is eroding under our fences because the ditch was dug too close to the property line.
Since I didn’t know who dug the ditch I decided to keep gathering evidence. Directly behind our houses, several things run parallel to our fences. First, of course, is the ditch. Then there’s a paved road which leads to an RV park and storage lot. On the far side of the road is an expanse of grass, then a wrought iron fence, then a fire station. Beyond the fire station are a couple of businesses, an event center and a pet groomer. The land they are on (except for the fire station) is owned by the owner of the RV Park, so I thought I would try there first. The manager told me he didn’t know who built the road or the ditch, but he would check into it and get back to me. After years of doing research for a variety of things (like my book, Aggravated), I knew that (over 90% of the time) that “I’ll get back to you” is doublespeak for “I’ll check into it if I feel like it, but I probably won’t call you back anyway.” I also found the owner’s email, and asked him if he had built the road or the ditch or if he knew who had. I didn’t get an answer back from either of them until I pestered the owner a few weeks later.
While taking the pictures I had submitted to my HOA I got a good look at the storm drain, and saw it had a City of Houston manhole cover, so I thought that would be something to investigate. Spring, where we live, is an unincorporated area. Since Houston had installed the storm drains, I thought maybe they had also dug the ditch. I started with the city’s basic information line explaining that I needed to talk to the department that did that sort of thing. They sent me to the Planning and Development Department who sent me to the city’s Permitting Center who sent me to their Open Records Office who sent me to the City Engineers Office (where I discovered they were part of the Permitting Center). The Engineers Office sent me to the Public Works Water/Wastewater Office. There I reached a voicemail recording, and asked to talk to someone about storm drains. No one called back. A few days later I went to their website and found an email address for the office and sent an email asking my basic question (If the city installs a storm drain, do they also dig the ditch or ditches that feed rainwater into it?). A simple question with a simple answer, right? Apparently not. Now, ten days later, they still haven’t responded to my email.
Finally, after a week, I got a letter from the HOA (apparently the only way they like to communicate) saying they had approved my request (but they hadn’t). They simply said they approved of my having my own fence rebuilt as long as the fence was reconstructed identically to the original, used treated pine slats, and was built on the same exact lines as the original (over the eroding earth, in other words). I replied to them in another email, saying that they had ignored the intent of my request (which was having them replace all of the fencing on our side of the block), and said I was unhappy with that decision but (since I had no other recourse) I would have my fence rebuilt to their specifications. I really hate HOA’s.
When I conveyed the HOA’s specifications to the company that repaired my fence in 2016, they told me that they now only used cedar slats (because it’s better material and lasts longer). Since my HOA insisted that everyone in the subdivision had to build their fences with pine slats (so we could all look like nice little clones of each other) they couldn’t do the job. I had to look for other contractors. More research. I located a dozen or so companies in my general area, did a quick assessment of their companies through reviews and looking at their websites. I narrowed the list down to five and emailed them, saying I needed my fence replaced, and briefly explained about the erosion and the HOA’s requirements. Three of them called or emailed me back. One came out and looked at my property that same day (a Friday). The other two said they would come the next Monday. Only two showed up. They both agreed they could do the work, and could probably stabilize the fence using extra-deep support posts, but the erosion would still occur unless I could find some way to secure the soil. I’m thinking of using some weed control fabric. I should be able to fasten it to the rot board at the base of the fence, and stake it onto the side of the ditch. That would create a pocket to trap the soil until grass roots could (maybe? possibly?) firm the area up. Another chore, but at least I could get that done in less than a day (after the fence has been replaced). The two companies sent me estimates that were very similar in price, so I picked one and sent them a down payment. They’ll start work on a full replacement in a week or so.
I got one other surprise. I sent another email to the owner of the RV storage lot a couple of days ago (worded a bit more strongly than the first one), and he called me, assuring me that his company had not dug the ditch, that it had been dug by the subdivision’s developer. He said that it was a requirement. According to him, a developer has to provide a drainage method for their properties so water runoff (from the houses?) won’t flood neighboring properties. I sent an email yesterday (7-18-2023) to the original developer (who moved on to other properties within a year of finishing our subdivision in 2011). I asked them whether the ditch was theirs, as I had been told, and said I needed to know whether that was true before I took other measures to resolve the problem. They haven’t answered the email yet, but I did instantly receive a boilerplate email telling me about all of the new houses they would love to sell me.
Also, shortly after the storm Minay reminded me of the two leaky bathroom faucets she had been asking me to take care of. The leaks were minor. One was dripping a little through the spout and the other pooled slightly at its base when the hot water was running. Both were only leaking into the sink, not underneath, but wasted water is wasted water. Unfortunately (fortunately?), I’m not allowed to do plumbing anymore. Partly because of the above-mentioned issue with my back, but also for a reason I won’t specify (except to say it involved an excess of water in areas where it wasn’t desired). So I also needed to hire a plumber. I did a search similar to the fence company search and had one plumber come and analyze our faucets. He recommended replacing the faucets and quoted us two sets of prices (a higher one if he supplied the replacements, and a lower one if we provided them). He also pointed out that our faucets (that came new with the house) were by Moen. Moen has lifetime warranties on their products and would probably send us new ones for free. We set a tentative date a couple of weeks into the future for him to do the work, and that gave me time to contact Moen. They agreed to replace the two leaky ones with newer models, and also gave me a coupon to buy up to five items from their lineup at a huge discount (very smart of them). We have five faucets in our house (four bathroom ones, and one kitchen one). Since they were all installed at the same time it was likely that the other three might also develop problems in the near future, and I’d have to go through the whole hiring a plumber process again. I used Moen’s coupon to order two more bathroom faucets (same model as the others they were going to send us) and one for the kitchen. The plumber will replace all five faucets on the same day (a few days after I post this on the website). He was more than happy to get the extra work, and we (hopefully) won’t have to worry about faucet issues for a couple of decades.
So, over the past few weeks I have spent hours every day making phone calls and sending emails to the city and the HOA and meeting with plumbers and fence construction companies. During that whole time we had a gaping hole in our back fence, accessible to anyone who wanted to just walk in. A little scary, but it should all be taken care of within the next few weeks. Of course, that also means I’ve done very little on the novella since mid-June, but I don’t think it will seriously delay the release date of it or Jagged Man much. I’m still looking at a potential late-summer/early-autumn release date for it, and a late-autumn/early-winter release for Jagged Man.
In the next newsletter (#43) I’ll get back to the jobs report, covering what I did in the 1970’s.
See you then,
[“Assault and battery of the wind…”
William Butler Yeats,
Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921.]
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