The city of Fort Worth has relied mostly on its oil and gas revenue to buy about 114 acres of land to not only offset environmental downfalls of development but lure additional.
If a bond passes next year, the city will have another $15 million with which to buy more.
Earlier this month, the City Council got its first look at areas of Fort Worth that the Trust for Public Land identified as meeting residents’ priorities for open space conservation: ecosystem preservation; stream, river and lake health; community health; recreation; flood control; equitable access to natural spaces; and economic development.
The Trinity River/Eastern Cross Timbers area was one of 16 spotlighted as meeting those priorities, and Mayor Pro Tem Gyna Bivens said she’d fight “to get a fair share” of $15 million to be used there.
“Because what will happen is in areas that have been historically lived in by people of color, you see industry,” she said. “Now, I got you.”
But others are jockeying for that potential funding.
“All of us have geographical areas we represent and equity is a great pitch, but we’re also trying to pass a bond,” District 4 Councilman Cary Moon said.
Residents in the north and northwest are unlikely to support such a purchase as they are demanding more infrastructure to ease traffic congestion they are experiencing, he said.
The Fort Worth Report spent a few minutes with Brandi Kelp, a senior planner at the city, and Robert Kent, the Trust for Public Land’s Texas director, to better understand the Open Space Conservation Program. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio attached to this article.
Jessica Priest: Was there anything you learned during this process that surprised you? Is there anything that makes Fort Worth’s open spaces special or unique?
Robert Kent: I wouldn’t say this was surprising, but it was something that we were really pleased to see. As part of our work, we included a public opinion survey and we asked about 1,600 people what they thought about the need for open space conservation. We were so excited to see that over 90% of respondents said that conserving natural areas was very important. And 99% of respondents said that the city should establish a permanent program to conserve natural areas. I’m not surprised by that. I’m a Texan, so I know the Texans care about protecting their important natural places. But it was really gratifying to see that borne out with this survey in Fort Worth as well.
Brandi Kelp: It was a total of 1,429 respondents. Another thing that we found interesting is that even when we accounted for different demographics, like race and ethnicity and household income, the priorities for open space conservation remained the same among all groups in the city with the top choices being ecosystem preservation; stream, river and lake health; and community health. Our residents really are speaking with one voice when it comes to not just their support for the program, but the types of priorities that they have in the program.
Priest: Your presentation to the City Council on Dec. 7 included a list and a map of 16 areas worth conserving. Was the list in any particular order? Should No. 1 on the list be City Council’s top priority?
Kent: So what that list was doing is really illustrating the power of the tool to show those overlapping priorities. The numbering had no rank order at all.
Priest: OK. But if you had to choose which of these areas were your highest priority to conserve, if council put you under the gun on that, what would you tell them?
Kent: How can you choose a favorite child?
Kelp: Yeah, and we’ve actually been in the process of acquiring land, some of that in the spotlight areas and some outside of the spotlight areas.
A lot of it really comes down to opportunity and what’s available.
Kent: In my experience, successful conservation projects are usually where strategy and opportunity overlap.
Priest: Is there anything to prevent the city from selling this land for development in the future?
Kelp: Yes. Even before the purchase has happened, we write what’s called a mayor and council memorandum. That says, ‘This is being purchased for open space.’ There may be a space like the one we looked at that was on a very major intersection. The back half of the property was along a stream channel and had a beautiful forested area while the front half was mowed clear and in heavy use. We did look at that and say, ‘You know, we could purchase this in conjunction with economic development and take that back half of the property and preserve it as open space.’ But it would be written very clearly when we intend to purchase the property and utilize it for something like that. It would be well documented.
Priest: So you do not see open space and economic development as competing?
Kelp: No. As a matter of fact, a lot of our council members and others in the city have asked how we can incentivize the setting aside of open space in development, so we’re going to be looking into that more deeply. The development community was part of our stakeholder group and have actually been very supportive of the program as a whole.
Kent: We’ve done a lot of research of other cities in Texas on this very question. In Dallas, we were part of a study that was conducted by HR&A Advisors, and they found that for every dollar the city invests in its park system about $7 is returned to the local economy. And then we conducted a study of the city of Plano and found that something like 60 to 70% of businesses that relocated to Plano cited its park system as one of the reasons they made that move.
Priest: It’s been said that it’s a sellers market right now. Did the city have to aggressively bid for the properties it has acquired for open space conservation? How does the city compete for this land?
Kelp: So far, we’ve been quite lucky. Some of the land holders approached us first. Total Energy owned the parcel we just bought. That was Eastern Cross Timbers. And they sold it to us knowing that that wasn’t the highest dollar they were going to get but some positive impact would be had from that. Some of our sellers are interested in that. We’ve had a couple like the one I mentioned earlier where we were looking at a potential development, but we weren’t able to meet the price. We’re going to pay fair market value. We’re not going to get into bidding wars over properties. We’re never going to get all of it, but we can preserve what we can.
Priest: What is your favorite open space in Fort Worth?
Kelp: Again, it’s like Robert was saying. It’s like picking your favorite child. My husband and I really enjoy Marion Sansom Park. We like to go mountain biking and hiking, so it’s a great place to go. It has beautiful views of downtown and Lake Worth.
Kent: For me, I think it’s the overlook of Trinity River as it flows through downtown. Whenever I bring visitors to Fort Worth, that’s the place we stop to take in the lay of the land.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.