Don’t like the nasty, rundown apartment building in your neighborhood?

Getting a little tired of the neighbor who hasn’t painted his duplex (formerly a single-family home) during the past 30 years and whose air-conditioning consists of missing windows and see-through siding?

Just plain sick and tired of the neighborhood convenience store that specializes in beer and beatings?

The City of Dallas has just the tonic for you: The Terminator, a little-known, 40-year-old ordinance designed to help residents clean up their neighborhoods of uses that, quite simply, don’t fit in.

All you need is a $500 check, a poorly operated or maintained neighboring property that isn’t properly zoned, and the patience and intestinal fortitude of Job

And someday, if you’re lucky, you’ll have survived the name-calling, not-so-subtle intimidation and downright threats that come with hitting a lazy property owner where it hurts most – in the pocketbook.

Whatever the result, someone loses – either the property owner loses an asset or the residents lose the fight to reclaim their neighborhood.

Many Lake Highlands residents are learning first-hand how complicated, but at the same time beneficial, this ordinance can be. Last month, the Lake Highlands Homeowners Association filed a complaint seeking to close the Kingsley Park North Apartments at Kingsley and Audelia.

“It’s a tool that neighborhood associations and individual citizens can use to reclaim their neighborhoods from the slum-lords,” says Bill Blaydes, president of the Lake Highlands Homeowners Association.

When Lynda Sparks and her neighbors decided to clean up an apartment complex in their neighborhood, they thought the process would take less than two years.

Four years, eight hearings and several City departments later, the battle continues.

“If they have to take me out of the nursing home to go fight them, I will go,” Sparks says.

Sparks’ artillery to rid her neighborhood of the Lake Highlands Apartments, at the intersection of Kingsley and Plano, is a City ordinance often referred to as the “termination” ordinance.

(You may also associate the ordinance with the well-publicized, recent travails of City Councilman Craig McDaniel, whose East Dallas apartment building was shut down by a group of neighbors wielding the ordinance like a sharp machete.)

Sparks has lived next door to the Lake Highlands Apartments for 23 years. She says for many years, there were no problems with the apartments. But over time, the buildings deteriorated, and crime in the area increased.

In the winter of 1990, the complex’s southern-most buildings, located at 10602 Kingsley, were boarded up. After a period of “abandonment,” Sparks says she and other neighborhood residents decided to try and get the buildings torn down.

In the process, they discovered the buildings on the north side of the complex, still operating and located at 9725 Plano, were a nonconforming use for the area.

A neighborhood resident wrote a $500 check, and the group was on its way to getting the property’s use terminated in spring 1991. The following fall, the Board of Adjustment reviewed the case and set a termination date of Dec. 31, 1992.

The apartment’s owner appealed the decision and tried to get proper zoning through the Plan Commission and City Council, but the zoning was denied. The termination decisions is being appealed in the courts, and the property owner has applied again for proper zoning. A zoning hearing is set for Jan. 13.

Meanwhile, the property sits boarded up and corralled by a chain-link fence, awaiting its fate.

Will Fulton, vice-president of National Income Realty Trust, the company that owns the property, declined to comment since the appeals process is still going on.

But Fulton says the company has plans to renovate the property if proper zoning is granted, and he anticipates meeting with neighborhood residents to try to work out some solution.

Despite all the hard work and lengthy, complex process, Sparks says she doesn’t regret filing the complaint.

“I don’t know if there is any easier way,” Sparks says. “I don’t think these property owners are going to let go of their properties easy. These have been big money makers.”

Beware the Pitfalls

Even though the process of using the ordinance is long and difficult, it is effective, says Elias Martinez, senior planner with the City of Dallas Planning & Development Services. He is the city administrator who works with the ordinance.

But Martinez says it’s important to understand the ordinance because its results are harsh.

“It behooves you and everyone else that you know what you’re doing,” Martinez says. “Normally, the $500 hammer is hard. It also comes down that you could lose your $500.”

It is possible that through the process of using the ordinance, the property owner could get proper zoning, the City keeps the $500, and the structure stays.

Sparks says many neighborhoods probably don’t realize what they’re getting into when they instigate the process. Step-by-step she has learned how it works, and her neighborhood has rallied to the cause.

“I had no idea. I own a day-care center,” Sparks says. “It’s really neat, though. Your neighborhood has to pull together.”

Tool of the Homeowners

The ordinance has a history of getting rid of noxious uses throughout the City – such as the lead smelters in West Dallas, says Chris Bowers, an assistant city attorney.

The ordinance has existed since the early 1950s and has long been touted by homeowners as one of the few ways to can clean-up neighborhoods. Whenever the ordinance is changed, Bowers says homeowners associations rally to keep the power of the ordinance intact.

“I think property owners have always wanted the ability to get rid of a use that is not compatible,” Bowers says.

However, many nonconforming property owners and some residents are cautious about the use of the ordinance because it can be abused and used for personal vendettas, unnecessarily pitting neighbor against neighbor.

But, Bowers says the safeguards in the process make it difficult to terminate a structure on a personal vendetta.

The $500 fee in itself is a big deterrent to keeping non-serious complainers from filing. Not to mention the process, which takes at least several months, up to several years, and entails constant surveillance and participation on behalf of both parties.

Plus, Bowers says even if a complaint was filed as a personal vendetta, if the structure is in good shape and not causing problems, the owners can apply for rezoning. Basically, if a nonconforming use is a good neighbor and well-maintained, the owner has nothing to worry about.

Blaydes says it’s not that Lake Highlands homeowners are against apartments, they just want good neighbors.

There are not many nonconforming properties in Lake Highlands, but the few times the ordinance has been used, the results have been good, he says.

The Lake Highlands neighborhood used the ordinance to get the Audelia Heights complex, located at 9842 Audelia, cleaned up. The south side of the apartments was nonconforming, so the neighborhood filed on it.

To prevent closing the complex, the owner and the neighborhood negotiated for improvements to the property. The conditions became deed restrictions, so when the property changes owners, the conditions must be carried out. The property, which is under new ownership, is called Highland Crest and is being massively renovated.

Blaydes recently filed a complaint, on behalf of the Lake Highlands Homeowners Association, on the Kingsley Park North Apartments at 9747 and 9749 Audelia at Kingsley.

If it wasn’t for the ordinance, Blaydes says neighborhoods would not have a way to clean-up these properties except through harassment from the City’s Neighborhood Services department.

Sparks agrees. She says use of the ordinance has caused other complexes to take note and clean up.

“If they had been good neighbors, the neighborhood wouldn’t have objected to them being here,” Sparks says. “It is a way to make the present owners or any owners who come in the future to maintain their property.”