Aerial view of the Mockingbird Estates development after most trees were cut down. (Daniel Serralde)

The peacefulness attracted Deborah Withrow to her new house in the John T. White neighborhood in east Fort Worth. 

The area has several ranch-style houses and stables. Horses and cattle are a regular sight in this neighborhood, while wildlife can be spotted in the vastness of a nearby forest that used to coexist with the residents.

Withrow moved into a small, wooden cabin located at the end of a quiet residential street. Where that street ends, the forest began. It used to, at least, when she first moved in.

Large sections of the wooden area have recently been chopped down. A continuous barrage of noises from bulldozers and other construction machinery has replaced the stillness and nature Withrow once enjoyed.

“They start working at 6 or 7 in the morning. Even on Sunday,” Withrow said. “Seven days a week. Not a day off? Come on, people.”

Dallas-based Huffines Communities is building a 465-unit residential development in an area that was previously covered by a thick forest. The new development, named Mockingbird Estates, spans 61 acres where almost all the trees have been mowed down.

According to several residents, Huffines had given assurance that some of the bigger legacy trees would be preserved. The trees were a part of the Cross Timbers ecological region, a narrow mosaic of forest systems that stretches from Kansas to Central Texas. University of Arkansas’ Tree Ring Laboratory estimates the Cross Timbers contain 200- to 400-year-old post oaks, similar to what used to live at the John T. White site.

Huffines Communities and its owner Don Huffines, a former Texas state senator, did not respond to The Report’s repeated inquiries for comments.

Deborah Withrow plays with her dog on the porch of her house. (Neetish Basnet)

Dust and debris from all the trees chopping next door, to clear the way for a housing development, infiltrated her house’s AC unit, Withrow said. She had to buy a new one. Two weeks ago, she found a wild hog running around in her backyard.

“All kinds of animals. Hogs, jackrabbits, they were all out here,” Withrow said. “I don’t see any now. There’s none. Not sure where they went. I mean, they just took their houses away from them.”

Along with the noise nuisance and disturbances the start of the development has caused, the neighborhood’s residents are concerned about the large-scale deforestation. 

“This is a natural forest. This is like going and cutting down sequoias in California, or cutting down redwoods in Northern California and then planting pine trees,” said James Hook, vice president of the John T. White Neighborhood Association.

As the population continues to grow and spread out to absorb the density in Fort Worth, new development plans have gobbled up land in the neighborhood that sits at the fringes of the city. The residents are now banding together to save the trees and stop future developments like Mockingbird Estates from happening.

“Speak for the trees”

Off the beaten path, Daniel Serralde spent many days in the last month behind bushes watching over the trees and its destruction. He has been told off by the construction workers several times for attempting to trespass.

Yet, he kept coming back to check on the trees until a couple weeks ago when there were none left to look at at the Mockingbird Estates site.

“I speak for the trees. That’s what I’m doing,” said Serralde, a neighborhood resident and environment advocate. “The trees are silent, but right now these trees need our help.”

The Fort Worth Urban Forestry Management Section had told the neighbors the site was permitted to be cleared. A pre-grading inspection was conducted in March. and the site was found in compliance with tree protection requirements, according to the neighborhood association.

Serralde said the city does not do enough to protect the trees and developers usually can pay their way to clear out forests.

“I’m a cold-heart capitalist by all means. You own your property, do with it whatever you can to maximize profit,” Serralde said. “There is a good and healthy way of generating profit in this case by building around the trees. It is possible to do it responsibly, and still maximize profit. So, it angers me.”

Daniel Serralde, a John T. White neighborhood resident, surveys the Mockingbird Estates development land, where until a few months earlier a lush forest existed. (Neetish Basnet)

An Urban Forestry permit is required for new construction identifying all “significant trees” – trees larger than 18 inches in diameter – in the area. The Fort Worth tree ordinance was created in 2007 with the aim of preserving and protecting significant trees. The ordinance also requires a 30% tree canopy coverage citywide.

Urban Forestry issues penalties of $300 per diameter inch for non-significant trees removal and $600 per diameter inch for significant trees removal.

Urban Forestry and Fort Worth Development Services could not be reached to collect information on the urban forestry permit Mockingbird Estates had to file. A spokesperson cited “several leadership roles that are vacant right now” for department director D.J. Harrell’s inability to respond in a timely manner.

About 130 Fort Worth residents signed a petition Serralde started to persuade city leadership to enact stronger regulations for environmental protection. He spoke and presented the petition at Tuesday’s Fort Worth City Council meeting.

“There is a better way, there is a smarter way in which we can take care of our big old trees,” Serralde said. “And sure, it might cost Don and Phil Huffines an extra 20 or 30 houses. But to build around the trees for a little bit larger lots where they can preserve the trees, I don’t think it’s completely unreasonable to ask.”

In 2019, Huffines had asked and received approval for a zoning change to its property. The zoning change allowed the building of 5,000-square-feet lots. Previously, the zoning was set for one-acre lots.

The smaller lots mean less room for trees to be preserved.

A similar rezoning request is going in front of the Fort Worth Planning and Zoning Commission meeting May 12. A developer is seeking to rezone property, located at 7201 John T. White Road, from one-acre home site to 7,500-square-feet sites.

At the same meeting, Huffines Communities’ will be requesting a zoning change for a different property near the Mockingbird Estates project. That plan calls for construction of a multifamily condominium project.

Several members of the neighborhood association are planning to attend the meeting and speak in opposition to the change. They are also urging residents to write emails or letters to the city council citing their discontent about new large developments.

James Hook, vice president of John T. White Neighborhood Association, stands in front of a pile of recently cut trees at the Mockingbird Estates developement. (Daniel Serralde)

“The trees are a treasure for us,” Hook said. “Developers can buy fairly cheap, and they’re just out to make a buck. But they’re not looking at the historical value of this area. And every time they do this large development, they’re changing the historical value.”

Developers LGI Homes and DR Horton recently finished building large housing developments in the John T. White neighborhood. Both projects chopped down trees on site. The LGI development levelled off about 20 inches of soil as well.

Real estate firm JLL recently listed 14.28 acres of land for sale near the Huffines project.

Hook said the neighborhood association plans to fight new development and any new zoning changes through engagement in the city governance.

“We would prefer to try to hang on to as much of that natural forest as possible,” he said.

Up a tree

The census tract that covers the John T. White neighborhood had a population of 9,178 and 3,489 housing units in 2019, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The bureau regards 4,000 people as the optimum size for a census tract.

The population would get denser in the area with new housing developments recently coming online and after  the Huffines project is completed.

Lauren Ames Fischer, assistant professor of Urban Planning and Public Administration at University of North Texas, said Fort Worth faces the challenge of keeping the balance between its environmental and economic goals.

“I do think it’s a systemic issue. I don’t think it has to do with people not necessarily wanting to be sustainable,” Fischer said. “I think there’s issues in how we govern land and development and the incentives we set up in the private market that make it even harder to achieve sustainability sometimes.”

The city of Fort Worth, in partnership with The Trust for Public Land, established the Open Space Conservation Program in 2019. The program intends to conserve natural lands in the city and support sustainable development. Last year, the city purchased Broadcast Hill, a 50 acres prairie in east Fort Worth, as part of the program’s commitment to protect natural spaces.

The program has outlined parts of the forest in the John T. White neighborhood in its ecosystem preservation priority list.

A policy report that will include recommendations to the city will be released in June.

Fischer said municipality governments, local communities and private organizations need to develop a strategic plan for nature conservation in the city.

“There’s a lot of people moving to North Texas. And this is an excellent opportunity to start to do things maybe a little bit differently in response to some of the things that are changing in terms of our global ecology, our economics and also in terms of our social inequality,” Fischer said. “Some of those issues is a real moment of opportunity.”

Neetish Basnet is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at neetish.basnet@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Neetish Basnet

Neetish Basnet is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He has previously worked as a business reporter at Fort Worth Business Press and Dallas Business Journal. He graduated from University...

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