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March 9, 2011     Hays Free Press
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t I~l~l Hays Free Press March 9, 2011 OPINION Page 5A Sassman's Last Stand: Uhland road project fuels small-town feud Continued from pg. 1A + black soil, and the creek wends past a few storefronts, mostly vacant, that stand in for downtown. Fading into the distance are gentle, green hills given over to mesquite. The sleepy setting belies some major changes under way. Uhland, which straddles the Hays-Caldwell county line about 30 miles south- east of Austin, is one of many rural communities that are being swal- lowed by Austin's suburban push outward. After a decade of growth, new residents in Ohland outnumber the old-timers by a margin of nearly three to one. The total population is up to 1,014, and neighborhoods of low-slung doublewides are begin- ning to crowd out some of the farm land. Another big residential devel- opment is in the works, and there's even talk of getting a gas station or tWO. In October, disaster struck. Uhland's legendary dancehall - the 117-year-old Club 21 - burned to the ground, severing one of the town's most enduring ties to its PaSt. When asked about Sassman and his gravel road, Mayor Dan- iel Heideman didn't sound overly concerned. "I don't know what the problem really is," Heideman said. A year or so earlier, he explained, a road crew had laid a new gravel base on Seeliger Drive, an unpaved street around the block from city hall. Seeliger Drive is about 200 yards long. The new base raised the road by about a foot and a half. Then the rainy season came, and town officials realized they'd ma'de a mistake. Rainwater that had always flowed downhill, draining into Plum Creek, was now being trapped by the freshly elevated roadway. The water was puddling and flooding in people's front yards. Residents said the puddles smelled like sewage. They blamed the effluent on leaky septic tanks from the big new neighborhoods BY ~ I:[Rfll~0N On Monday, Uhland alderman Gordan Sassman showed up at Uhland City Hall with two Caldwell County sheriff's deputies to con- fiscate a recording of a recent city council meeting dudng which Sassman said a resident threatened his life. The recording has been lost, the city secretary said. "I want to quit. I really do. But. what's gonna happen to the town when I qu t? It'sjust gonna get worse. At least I have a vote in it nolo." - Gordon Sassman, Uhland alderman farther uphill. . ' Drive have been confronted by Sass- Two years ago, Sassman allegedly glowered and pressed his nose into To fix the drainage problem, man over the past couple of years, gave a whooping to Ayala, the dis- the face of this reporter - and then, Heideman said, the town's engi- One of the confrontations led to a abled man who lives up the street, according to Sassman, Ayala shoved neers suggested a small section of fistfight. Schilhab had experienced After the fight, Ayala was hauled him. the road be lowered, returning it to his own run-in with Sassman just off in an ambulance. Sassman was Defending myself, I pinned him its original level. That way, water that week. charged with assault, a misdemean- to the ground and gave him every could flow over the road and into the creek. On Feb. 22, road crews removed the new gravel base from the last little bit of Seeliger Drive. In all, a length of less than 40 yards was af- fected. "I don't know what else to tell you," Heideman said. Surely there was more to the story. FIGHTING A BULLY Uhiand's city council met on March 2. The next day, when reached on his cell phone, Sassman said he was more stressed than ever. His heart was still pounding. His hands were still shaking. Two Uh- land residents had spoken against him during the public comment session of the meeting. "They stood up there in that pub- lic comment and told nothing but lies on me," Sassman said. "You'd of thought I was a monster, lust lies, lies, lies, lies, lies." One of the speakers had even threatened Sassman with violence, Sassman said. The man stood before "I saw first hand that the reports of him being a bully and harassing people were true just by the way he tried to handle his situation with me," Schilhab wrote in his letter. "He is an aggressive, combative per- son and does not represent Uhiand well at all." The other person who spoke against Sassman was a Uhland resi- dent named David Ayala. Ayala also lives on Seeliger Drive, in the house next door to Gallaher, Schilhab and their children. The aldermen record all of their meetings. The audio recording of Ayala's speech wasn't available at the moment, the city secretary said, but it would be made available a few days later, on Monday. Over at Seeliger Drive on Friday afternoon, Ayala was walking across the gravel street with the help of a metal cane. He declined to com- ment, saying only,that "around here, Gordon is the law.' Toward the end of the road, the gravel slopes downward about 18 inches before leveling off again on its way to the cattle guard at Sass- man's place. The decline is notice- able, but even so, it's less mountain than molehill. Acrossthe street from the house owned by the city secre- tary and her husband, a few cows were chewing on a couple of hay bales. A faint scent of hay, mingled with Rrine and dung, wafted over to the lawn where Schilhab was stand- ing. everybody- all the aldermen, mem- bers of a regional water-planning group, the president of the local economic development council, everybody- and said that Sassman's or, but the case was dismissed a few months later for lack of evidence. (The Hays Free Press has requested a copy of the sheriff's investigation report.) "He's been bullying people on this street for years now," Schilhab said. "People are afraid of him." If Sassman lived there, he wouldn't want his lawn to be flood- ed every time it rains. "My kids play here," Schilhab said. "You wouldn't want your kids playing in other people's water. Why do we gotta live in pee and poop?" "I'm a peaceful man," he said, "and I can't understand why he's acting this way." It was time to go ask Sassman that. SASSMAN SPEAKS He was sitting at a cluttered desk in the office of his shop where he sells and repairs air compressors and hydraulic equipment, a few buildings down from city hall. He wore a silver beard and bifocals. Embroidered above the pockets of his blue denim shirt were his first name, Gordon, and the name of his business, Gordon's Equipment. "Look at this," he said, lifting a stack of work orders. 'Tm a busy person. I go seven days a week." In addition to his 22 years as an alderman, Sassman was a volunteer firefighter for 25. He mows the grass around the community center and in the past has organized roadside cleanup events, There's no police officer on the payroll, so Sassman days were numbered. The man said he was prepared to die in his fight against the alderman. "He made some serious threats on me," Sassman said. "I gotta do something for protection right now." opportunity to stop fighting," Sass- man said. "I was restraining him to keep him from hitting me, and his (adult) daughter ran up and plowed into me from behind." When the scuffle was over, Sass- man and Ayala shook hands, and Sassman thought the matter had been resolved. Instead, Ayala called the sheriff's department. "They believed him because he can lie really good," Sassman said. "So I was arrested." As noted earlier, the charges against Sassman were eventually dropped. Ayala lost his job. Accord- ing to Sassman, Ayala now flips him the bird every time Sassman drives down the street. And whenever Ayala flips him off, Sassman makes note of it and reports the incident to the Caldweil County Sheriff's Office. "Just last week I called two times," Sassman said. "He does this all the time." Now, in response to Ayaia's threats during the public comment period, Sassman was taking legal precautions against the "madman," as Sassman called him. He had to protect himself and his fellow residents. Sassman also wanted to get a copy of the audio recording from Wednesday's council meet- hag, before anything happened to it. He said he wouldn't be surprised if the recording was somehow lost or destroyed over the weekend. The audio was at the city hall, with the city secretary. And accord- ing to Sassman, the city secretary and her husband were aligned with Ayala- against Sassman. All of this could have been That said, he still wasn't ready to 'Tff-ter the road gets lowered, he sit down and talk about it. Too busy. drops off this hay in front of my Too much stress, house," Schilhab said. "He had Since Club 21 burned to the never fed the cows there till now." keeps watch for wrongdo.ing as well. has taken some measures to control the runoff. Huge drainage ditches around the city's newer neighbor- hoods diverts the effluent onto Sass- man's property. "Can you blame me for not want- ing a little bit more on me?" he said. What's more, the ditches are be- ing eroded so quickly that Sassman calls them "Grand Canyon No. 2." On Friday afternoon, he drove over to the neighborhood and stood at the bottom of one of the biggest ditches, waving his hat in the air to show how deep it was. If only the city had heeded Sassman's advice, the erosion could have been con- trolled. "You might think I'm an idiot," Sassman said. "But if you do, then you're an idiot. Because what I say is a fact. It's a proven fact." The problem is, people just won't listen. Sassman is trying to clean up Ohland and do something with the town, but it's a tough battle when people won't work with him. The unfolding drama on Seeliger Drive is a case in point. And to think, he added, "I pay more taxes than any- one else on the street." Everywhere he looks, Sassman sees trash. His neighbors' yards are a filthy mess. People throw out their garbage, and it blows onto his property. Every mesquite bush on his ranch has a dang plastic bag in it. Nobody cares. __ In his old age Sass~an has de- veloped into something of a "~erm freak, he said. He takes two snow: ers a day and only drinks bottled ~ - -. water- nothing from the faucet. It's - a far cry from the stuff he used to drink when he was a boy. In those days he would draw the water from a well, then pour it from one bucket into another, using cheesecloth to strain off the grasshoppers and other bugs. "Dad died when I was 14 years old," he said. "We lived in a shack with no running water." He paused for a moment, reflecting. Then he said: "I came a long way. I came a long way on my own." Now he's 61 years old, a success- ful businessman and community leader. But he can't sleep. His hands are shaking. His heart is in no con- dition for all this strain. "I want to quit," he said, "I really do. But what's gonna happen to the town when I quit? It's just gonna get worse. At least I have a vote in it now." THE LAST STAND On Monday morning, Sassman marched into city hall with a couple of gun-toting sheriff's deputies. They had come to confiscate the au- dio recording of Ayala's rant during the public comment session. It was the same audio recording the Hays F~ee Press was scheduled to hear later that morning. But when the city secretary tried to locate the audio file, on the com- puter next to the aldermen's dais, she couldn't find it. Just as Sassman had predicted, the audio file had disappeared, and the deputies even- tuaily left empty-handed. Sassman led the lawmen over to his pasture, and they walked around for a while in the dry grass, looking at the backs of his neighbors' houses. Sassman handed a letter to the deputies asking them to file charges against Ayala for making a terroristic threat againsthim during the coun- cil meeting. The letter also asked the sheriff's office to issue a restraining order against the neighbor. The deputies told him it would take about l0 days to process. Then they left. "I have to get to work," Sassman said, climbing into his pickup. The Friday before, he had sat in the same pickup and talked about his heart condition and the arthri- tis clenching up his joints: He also ground, the most notable building That wasn't the only retribution, "I'm constantly observing every- avoided, he said, if the city had just talked of becoming a grandpa. The in town is the old schoolhouse. The according to Schilhab. Gray water body and looking for problems," he listened to him in the first place, other day, Sassman was cradling his from Schilhab and Gallaher's house said. school was converted into a com- Rather than tearing up Seeliger newborn grandson in his arms and munity center after the local chil- had always been released through In the spring of 2009, Sassman Drive, Sassman had suggested the trying to get the baby's attention. dren began attending class in Kyle, the fence onto Sassman's pasture, noticed a problem that he found city dig a ditch along the uphill side He wanted to make eye contact with about eight miles to the west. but after the road was lowered, Sass- particularly galling. He'd be cruis- of the road. That way, the runoff him, but the baby was too mesmer- City Hall occupies the north endman told them to get their sewer hag along Seeliger Drive - the gravel water would have flowed through a ized by the wildlife mounted on the culvert at the beginning of the street wall - a mule deer shot in Colorado of the community center. On Friday water off his land. One day Schilhab road in question- and he'd notice morning, the town's only paid noticed Sassman taking photos of a federal vehicle parked in front of employee, city secretary Karen Gal- the gray water being discharged David Ayala's house. Ayala had been laher, was answering phones at her there, driving a work-issued vehicle home desk in a comer of the room. Faded "Gordon, what are you doing?" Schilhab asked him. "He sees me and takes offmnning for his tractor. Because he's embar- rassed," Schilhab recalled. "Then he gets back into his fighting stance." "What are you gonna do about it?" Sassman asked, according to Schilhab. during lunch breaks. He worked for the Gary Job Corps, a federai job- training facility in San Marcos, nine miles down the road. "I'm a taxpayer. You're a taxpayer," Sassman said. "Do you think that's right?You and I are paying taxes on that." Sassman waited until Ayala was "He was stepping toward me, try- ing to egg me on to have a fistflght," Schilhab continued. "He's a big dude. He's got hands like mallets. He might be 60-something, but he can still put an ass-whooping on you." portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hung on the wall. Gallaher said she lives in the last house on Seeliger Drive, the gravel road at the center of the controversy. Gallaher's husband, Chuck Schilhab, had intended to speak against Sass- man at the meeting, but his son had ;occer practice that day. So instead, ?re wrote a one-page letter. Another Llhiand resident then read the letter :o the aldermen. in the letter, Schilhab claimed hat different people on Seeliger and into Plum Creek. and a good white-tail buck taken on Now, more water than ever the family land in Uhland. has been flowing onto Sassman's "That's all he would look at," Sass- property. Meanwhile, all that run- man said. ning water has been weakening the Sassman wants to live long road's foundation, enough, and remain fit enough, to What really upsets me," he said, teach his grandson to ride a horse "is that taxpayers paid for that base. someday. With his heart the way it It doesn't benefit anyone on the is, and all the stress he's been under, street but (the city secretary). A lot that's no sure bet. Sassman was of people have got drainage issues, fortunate to have survived the last but this is the only one where any- heart attack. nowhere in sight. Then he started thing is done about it." "I coulda died in January," he snapping pictures of the car and its Since the older part of Uhiand is said, "but the good Lord looks after federal license plate. Ayala was evi- situated in the creek's floodplain, good people." dently peeping around the comer, where all the runoff water flows, And in Uhiand, for better or He got right up in Sassman's face drainage is becoming a more seri- worse, Gordon Sassman looks after - here, to demonstrate, Sassman ous issue than ever. Uhland, though, everyone else. Auto, home and life insurance... Rob White, Agent (512) 504-9484 Auto- Home. Life Let's Compare Rates and Service. 5500 FM 2770, Ste. 101 Kyle, TX 78640 rwhite@txfb-ins.com ADWARE SPYWARE MALWARE VIRUSES On-Site Removal (requires broadband interact access) Norton Internet Security and Anti-Virus 2010 Mfr. Rebates Available to Previous Owners LAW OFFICE OF Family law Medi.tor Colhbor.tive I.aw Attora~ (512) 312-090 906 CanyonWren Drive Bu~, Tex~ r .yourtexasattorney.com +