Fort Worth’s journey toward creating an open space preservation program began with a question from City Manager David Cooke in 2019: If the city wanted to identify the top 20 parcels to preserve, how would staff go about doing it?
The inquiry came at a pivotal time for the city, which was losing an estimated 2,800 acres of natural prairie per year to development. The explosive growth hasn’t slowed down, with people moving to Fort Worth and North Texas in droves during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than two years later, City Council members are preparing to vote on a 137-page strategy report prepared by Fort Worth’s stormwater management department and the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization hired by the city to research the best paths forward for the Open Space Conservation program. The group also produced an online mapping tool displaying areas across Fort Worth that are high-priority for preservation.
The program, which was originally funded by about $11 million from the city’s oil and gas revenue fund, has nearly run out of money, said Brandi Kelp, a senior planner in Fort Worth’s transportation and public works department. City staff are seeking $15 million in the May 7 bond election to fund future acquisitions.
Kelp and Robert Kent, the Texas state director for the Trust for Public Land, presented initial recommendations for the program to council members at a December meeting. In April, Kelp will give another presentation followed by a council vote on the strategy report, which includes 35 proposed action steps but does not enact any policies.
Priorities for open space preservation
The city uses a set of seven criteria established by the Trust for Public Land when deciding which areas are high priority for conservation.
- Ecosystem preservation, such as prairies, wetlands and other wildlife habitats
- Stream, river, and lake health
- Community health
- Flood control
- Equitable access to open spaces
- Economic development, including raising property values
“We wanted this document to set the roadmap for the future so that even if there is staff turnover, this document is out there showing what our intentions are,” Kelp said. “We wanted to be very clear about that so that it doesn’t get corrupted or changed over time. Any funding that we do get is really going toward our mission and accomplishing these goals.”
Fort Worth has already purchased 24 acres of Eastern Cross Timbers – an ecological region native to North Central Texas – to provide a larger buffer between the Fort Worth Nature Center and Jacksboro Highway. In addition, the city acquired 40 acres to build the future Rock Creek Ranch Park near Lake Benbrook and another 50-plus acres of native prairie on east Fort Worth’s Broadcast Hill.
Now, Fort Worth must explore permanent funding sources for the program that would allow for more purchases and maintenance on natural areas. In a survey of more than 1,400 community members conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, 88% of respondents said they strongly support public funding for land conservation, and another 10% said they would somewhat support it.
“We all recognize that sustainable, long-term funding is very critical to our mission,” Kelp said. “I’m starting to identify sustainable funding and creating a permanent public stakeholder group or board. Once this report gets adopted, I think those are the first things that we’re going to be working on.”
How will Fort Worth fund open space conservation?
Funding options include raising the water and sewer utility fees, allocating money from Fort Worth’s general revenue fund, allocating money in bond votes or creating an endowment fund specifically for open space. Other options include partnering with nonprofit groups with funds to purchase land and establishing a public improvement district to fund maintenance.
The open space program could also partner with the parks department, but only in areas where their priorities overlap, Kelp said. While parks typically include playground equipment and other recreational facilities, open spaces are distinct because recreation is typically limited to “passive recreation,” like the creation of a trail system for hikers, according to the city’s report.
Another option is dedicating a portion of the city’s percentage of sales tax to the open space program. Reserving an eighth of the city’s 1% of sales tax would generate about $14.5 million per year without increasing taxes, but would also take money away from other city services, according to the report.
By law, Fort Worth’s percentage of sales tax is limited to 2%, and 1% is already dedicated to funding police and transit. The remaining 1% goes to Fort Worth’s general fund and is divided between many city departments.
As a leader of Scenic Fort Worth, a group dedicated to preserving “scenic beauty” in the city, Margaret DeMoss has been paying close attention to the progress of the Open Space Conservation program.
She favors another option for generating revenue, also included in Fort Worth’s strategy report: creating an open space dedication fee for developers, similar to the parks dedication fee already required of residential developments.
How do oil and gas revenues pay for open space?
Most of Fort Worth’s gas lease fund has no specific expenditures. City Council has to approve any spending, and the most current plan is to split royalties 50/50 between the open space program and an endowment fund.
The first open space expenditure from the fund came in March 2020, when council members approved $610,000 to purchase Broadcast Hill in east Fort Worth.
“One of the weaknesses of that is that not all zoning categories are included,” DeMoss said. “For example, mixed-use and urban residential, which need open space and parks more than any area, are not required to pay into that. The more high-density housing that we have, the more critical it is that those developers also pay into both the park dedication fee and any future open spaces program.”
Commercial and industrial developments also do not pay into the parks dedication fund, which generated $5.5 million in 2020. Fort Worth could impose a new open spaces fee on residential developers and add commercial developers to the regulations to increase revenue directed toward preservation, according to the draft report.
“The city should consider revisiting its fees and dedication requirements at least every five years in order to keep pace with growth and acquisition and construction costs, and indexing costs for inflation in between review years,” the report reads.
Laurie Stelljes, an executive board member of the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club, sits on the board of Keep Fort Worth Beautiful. She is optimistic that the program could have a significant impact on preserving space for parts of Fort Worth that have traditionally had less access to parks and natural areas, including the eastern part of the city.
“I’d love to see it have a bigger impact, and that, of course, is going to come from having more money,” Stelljes said. “They have really good goals, they’ve got a good tool, and they’ve got lots of areas to focus on. The problem is they don’t have very much money.”
Kent, the Texas state leader, said permanent funding is the essential issue facing any open space program, including those in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas.
Fort Worth is already making significant investments in the program by including it in the upcoming bond and purchasing parcels of land, he said. The city is also planning to generate $1 million per year in oil and gas revenues that will fund open space acquisitions.
“I really commend the city for not just putting together a study and letting it sit on the shelf,” Kent said. “They are already looking for ways to implement its findings so that we can go beyond just words and maps on a page and actually go about the work of protecting these important natural places and setting them aside so that Fort Worth residents can enjoy them today and benefit from them today.”
Tree preservation ordinance, development code could change
In addition to evaluating different funding options, the Open Space report includes 16 spotlight areas highlighting the ecosystems that could be preserved. The most high-priority properties included large portions of east Fort Worth, specifically along the Trinity River and Lake Arlington, and in the development-heavy Alliance area of north Fort Worth.
After hearing initial findings from the report in December, Mayor Pro Tem Gyna Bivens said she would fight to “get a fair share” of the $15 million bond funding for District 5, which encompasses the highest priority areas.
“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.”
Parcels near Lake Arlington are the “No. 1” priority right now, Kelp confirmed, and the next target area will be potential acquisitions on the north side.
The report also points to more potential change on the horizon, recommending adjustments to Fort Worth’s tree preservation ordinance, which currently allows developers to remove trees by “simply paying a fee.”
Under current regulations, developers are also permitted to build in the floodplain – an area likely to experience flooding – after conducting a study. These policies are “widely seen as inadequate,” according to the report.
Recommendations include exploring new ways to incentivize developers to preserve open spaces on their properties and permitting higher density development near natural areas to provide access to a larger number of people. Developers have responded well to initial outreach from city staff encouraging them to preserve areas containing older trees, Kelp said.
“We’ve seen so many benefits come from this because we’re talking in a group about things related to open space, like our tree ordinance and our floodplains and how those are identified,” Kelp said. “Things that would normally be happening in just one department are now becoming collaborative efforts.”
DeMoss, a member of the environmental committee for the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County, also recommends more landowner participation in the program so that individuals can donate their undeveloped land to the program. Peggy Hendon, president of the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County, wrote in a letter to Kelp that Fort Worth should require developers to set aside or purchase a minimum percentage of land specifically for open space.
Don Young, leader of the Friends of Tandy Hills Natural Area and a member of the city’s Open Space stakeholder group, said he’s already noticed changes in how Fort Worth handles requests related to open space. In the past year, Fort Worth created a formal code violation for people who pose for pictures outside of designated areas and trample native grasses, Young said.
Enforcement of the policy has been difficult, especially since police officers have many priorities to balance, he added. But parks staff have listened to his concerns about allowing cars to park in the prairie land during July 4 celebrations, and the report includes the possibility of hiring park rangers specifically to enforce policies at open space properties.
“I was very happy to read about the potential for rangers, and they’re putting money in the budget to cover things involving maintenance, which is a big portion of what they should be doing,” Young said. “They made sure this was not just something for the ‘nice neighborhoods,’ they are going into the inner city and the low-income neighborhoods.”
There’s a lot left to sort out for the future of the Open Space Conservation Program, including the possibility of convincing other cities and nonprofits in North Texas to establish a land conservancy that would oversee agreements to preserve individual properties. The urgency of the mission is clear to everyone involved with the program, Kelp said.
“Even if we were going into a recession, even if things slow down, we’re still one of the hottest areas in the country,” she said. “As long as we’re going to keep developing out, this is going to be a hot topic. I don’t see this going away anytime soon.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email 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.