A Dallas-based developer was allowed to clear a large tract of forest area in East Fort Worth before meeting all legal requirements to start developing the land.

Huffines Communities is building a residential development, Mockingbird Estates, on 61 acres of previously heavily wooded land in Randol Mill Road. The developer has razed almost all the old-growth trees that existed for hundreds of years in this part of the Cross Timbers ecological region.

The development’s urban forestry permit, obtained by Fort Worth Report through an open records request, indicates the plan is still pending approval. The current record status shows the permit received only “partial approval” from the Development Services Department.

Sue Blankenship, a senior vice president who’s heading the Huffines project, filed the permit with the city of Fort Worth on Dec. 17.

In a phone call, Blankenship said neither she nor Huffines Communities would comment on the permits or the development. 

“You need to contact the city of Fort Worth for any permits that have been issued to us by the city,” she said.

In an email response, D.J. Harrell, Fort Worth’s Development Services Department director, said the city does not have regular communications with the developer, other than periodic inspections of the property by the Urban Forestry Management Section staff.

“The property in question is not in violation of the Urban Forestry portion of the Zoning Ordinance,” Harrell wrote, but he did not explain the partial approval or why the urban forestry permit is yet to be approved. 

Council member Gyna Bivens, who represents the East Fort Worth district, said the Development Services Department told her the permit application is incomplete because of “some administrative work that has to take place.” The tree cutting in the property is legal, she added.

“The tree clearing that has taken place at that property so far was done within the guidelines laid out by the City of Fort Worth,” Bivens said in an interview. “We are hoping to get further information from the developers about the plans for this property.”

The Report did not receive clarification from the Development Services Department on how an administrative or building construction-related issue affected the urban forestry requirement.

Fort Worth tree ordinance, created in 2007, requires developers to preserve 25% of the existing tree canopy. The urban forestry permit requirement is a part of the tree ordinance. According to Mockingbird Estates’ forestry permit, the developer had agreed to preserve at least 2.2 acres of the significant trees canopy, aside from other preservation requirements.

“I don’t see any evidence” of the forestry requirement being followed, said James Hook, vice president of the John T. White Neighborhood Association, which was against the development and had expressed concerns to the city about the cutting of the trees when the development first started.

“There is nothing out there, at least in the middle,” he added. “There are no big trees out there. To say that there is, that doesn’t make any sense.”

The neighborhood association estimates the developer leveled at least 80% of the land. 

Failure to meet minimum preservation requirements can result in civil and criminal penalties to the developer, the tree ordinance states.

In May, the City Council approved an amendment to the ordinance that city staff said would strengthen the city’s ability to levy civil penalties for violations. The city can penalize developers found in violation or noncompliance of forestry plans with a fine of up to $500. The removal of each tree constitutes a separate offense, according to the ordinance.

“Well, they’ll happily pay that fine,” Hook said. “They’ll make that money back just from selling doorknobs to people.”

Hook said the cost of deforestation to the neighbors who enjoyed having the forest and the environment is more severe than the fines the developer could receive, if it has to pay any at all.

“This makes us feel powerless,” Hook said after learning the forestry permit was not approved and still the tree clearing started. “You know when big developers come in and can push their weight around, it hurts us badly.”

Council member Bivens had worked with the neighborhood association on a council-initiated zoning change to the entire area that reflected the neighborhood’s desire for lower density land uses and preservation of trees. 

The zoning change ordinance, passed in 2019, affected about 465 existing developments and vacant properties in the John T. White area. The Huffines development, however, was planned and approved before the passing of the ordinance.

“So that’s what made that property vulnerable,” Bivens said about Mockingbird Estates. 

In a plan review document submitted in December, urban forestry staff noted the Mockingbird Estates development plans were not meeting the minimum canopy coverage requirement. 

The staff report also recommended that the developer preserve additional trees. Huffines responded to the staff: “We meet the 25%” – referring to the urban forestry requirement.

Cheri Cuellar, senior plans examiner at the Urban Forestry Management Section, said she could not share any details on the permit and the reason for its partial approval. She said she was not authorized to comment on the issue. 

“It’s not that there was anything wrong. Mainly that their plat hasn’t been approved,” she said. 

Huffines plans to build hundreds of single-family and townhome-style homes that will cover about 28 acres of the total development land. Open space and easements will cover the rest of the property.

Huffines Communities was founded by twin brothers Phillip and Don Huffines. Don Huffines is a former state senator who, in May, announced he’ll be running for governor.

“We’re kind of in a bad position as homeowners and neighbors,” Hook said, “because the city doesn’t seem to have enough power to just stop the developers from doing what they want to do.”

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 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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