Metropolis: Wednesday, October 31, 2002
Maker’s Mark

Century-old deed restrictions could affect West 7th Street bars.


Ask any mover and shaker what he thinks about the area along West Seventh Street, and he’ll tell you that there’s no place in town better suited for commercial development. The real estate is relatively cheap, the crime rate is low, and, most importantly, the street itself is a bridge between two highly popular destinations, Sundance Square and the Cultural District. Many believe this stretch has the potential to become something like Dallas’ Deep Ellum, a clean-but-grungy locale where young folks can hang out, grub on cheap food, get tattoos, and browse funky, independently owned shops. There’s already a lot of nightlife happening in this part of town, and, with the eventual redevelopment of the Montgomery Ward complex and the opening of the new Modern Art Museum, the nightlife along West Seventh Street stands to increase healthily over the next few years.

But developing this stretch of property into an “alternative” entertainment corridor won’t happen without a certain amount of finesse on the part of developers. For one thing, folks who want West Seventh to have a funky feel may run smack up against powerful figures looking to turn the Camp Bowie Boulevard-University Drive intersection area into a quaint, pedestrian-friendly “village,” with trees and antique-y facades on buildings — perfect for families and tourists but not great for local music fans and bar patrons.

And for another thing, there’s the ghost of Khleber Miller Van Zandt to contend with.

K.M. Van Zandt was an early settler here. The native Tennessean was discharged from the Confederate military with the rank of major after the Civil War and ended up in Fort Worth in 1865. Once here, the man who would later be known as “Mr. Fort Worth” opened a dry goods store that made enough money to allow him to branch into other areas of entrepreneurship, such as transportation, banking, publishing (Van Zandt founded The Democrat, Fort Worth’s first newspaper), and land development.

Look on more than a dozen land deeds in the West Seventh area and you’ll see the Van Zandt name. On some of these documents you’ll also see something else: deed restrictions. One particular restriction reads: “No intoxicating liquor shall ever be sold upon the hereinafter described premises, or any part thereof.” In other words, no alcohol.

Most of these deeds were drafted in the early 1900s. And while some of the other restrictions in these deeds are clearly void, like the one that would proscribe selling land to a “Negro,” the stipulation against alcohol may have some teeth, according to several local real estate lawyers. “I’m not aware of [any alcohol deed-restriction] case that was not enforceable,” said Tim Harvard of Bishop, Payne, Harvard, and Kaitcer, LLP. And local real estate attorney Tim Scheill said that he believes such a restriction is still viable. “Unless there’s a termination date, it’s what we call a ‘hand from the grave.’ ”

A local real estate agent who asked not to be named said that he was advised by a local real estate lawyer to warn clients — potential developers and would-be bar owners — of the no-alcohol deed restriction. The agent said that all of the handful of clients he talked to were seriously concerned about the prohibition.

Still, some potential bar owners blow off the threat. “That ‘hand from the grave’ is, in my opinion, a dead issue,” said Arlington-area bar owner Joe Gallant, who will be opening a new restaurant-bar where the Red Star used to be, in partnership with West Seventh bar owner Brian Forella. “I want to take care of the people around me, the people working for me. I can’t worry about dead people.”

There is a penalty for violating the deed restriction — and some would say this price is pretty steep. People who sell alcohol on restricted properties could end up forfeiting their property to the original landowner or his heirs, in this case, the Van Zandt family.

The 80-plus living descendents of K.M. Van Zandt are not as disorganized as rumored. In the opinion of Lee Christie, the family’s lawyer, Van Zandt’s heirs are tight-knit and dedicated to preserving what they believe their forefather was trying to accomplish through the language he used in business documents. The Van Zandt clan is also intent on upholding the letter of the no-alcohol deed restriction. “We’re aware of the restrictions and we do care about them,” said Christie.

The popular Mexican restaurant La Familia had already found itself a prime piece of West Seventh real estate when the restaurant’s owner realized alcohol couldn’t be served on the premises. La Familia representatives approached the Van Zandt family, and an agreement was reached in which the Van Zandts allowed the restaurant to serve alcohol in return for a fee that Christie said was earmarked to help renovate the Van Zandt Cottage on Crestline Road, west of downtown.

There’s a strong possibility that an existing business or two in the West Seventh area might be in violation of the no-alcohol restriction. The original land survey belonging to K.M. Van Zandt covers a lot of ground. It runs from Penn Street to Montgomery Street and is bound by Lancaster Avenue and Trinity Park. Trying to figure out whether current sites are covered by the old deeds is difficult in some cases, and Christie is not familiar with every Van Zandt deed in the area.

Stephen Alton, law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, said that reversionary rights might not hold up in court if a business has been operating and serving alcohol for several years or at least for a long enough period of time to satisfy the statute of limitations for recovery of possession of land. (Alton is not sure which Texas statute would apply — there is a 25-year “catch-all” statute and a 10-year one.) A court, in Alton’s opinion, could hold that the Van Zandt family had its chance to enforce the deed restriction when the bar or restaurant opened. By neglecting to enforce the restriction, he said, Van Zandt’s heirs may have forfeited their rights — good news for any existing business that’s in violation of the restriction.

K.M. Van Zandt and the people with whom he ran his development business were adamant about upholding the no-alcohol deed restriction. Van Zandt himself, though known to have an afternoon toddy occasionally, was basically a “dry,” a supporter of the temperance movement. Van Zandt’s paper, The Democrat, often railed against saloons and especially against Fort Worth’s infamous Hell’s Half Acre, a lawless area of bars, gambling houses, and dancehalls that once flourished downtown along Calhoun and Jones streets. The Van Zandts, according to Christie, are “still committed to the development of the [survey] area in a way they think is appropriate for current needs and to also keep what the Major wanted.”

The family’s determination to stick with “what the Major wanted” was made clear almost 60 years ago during a meeting of stockholders of the K.M. Van Zandt Land Company. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Tarrant Realty Company seeking to break the no-alcohol restriction, Van Zandt Land officials, according to the minutes of the March 16, 1945, meeting, declared that the company would “make no agreement of any character not to vigorously prosecute the defense of said suit; [and] that henceforth the company shall continue to insert the liquor clause in all deeds and shall refuse all requests and demands to waive same.”

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