In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Don Boren, chairman of the City Plan Commission, discusses the role of the commission and how it helps the city shape its development.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For an unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Rachel Behrndt: Thank you so much for joining me today. If you could start by explaining sort of what the City Plan Commission does, the ins and outs and how it functions.
Don Boren: The City Plan Commission is governed by a series of documents called the subdivision ordinance that outlines the rules for developing property. Subdivision ordinance is our responsibility for putting that forward, along with a comprehensive plan, that dictates zoning and development. The actual aspects of development have gotta be checked to make sure that certain things are adhered to: Easements, access and connectivity. There are studies that are required by the applicants for stormwater, for traffic, for trees — in addition to all of the other normal things, the easements for utilities, etc. So those are the things that the subdivision ordinance requires, and it’s a massive document that covers everything from plumbing, to electrical, to sewer. That’s our Bible basically.
An applicant will submit a development request. The first thing that happens is that the developer will meet with a committee of city employees from the different departments called the Development Review Committee, or DRC. It is a meeting between the developer and the department officials who review the developer’s plans for appropriateness. Then they issue their comments and the developer comes back and makes changes.
Once that is done and the Development Review Committee makes the recommendations, it goes to the staff. City staff set it on the agenda for the Plan Commission. If the development meets all of the requirements for the subdivision ordinance, the planning commission will not see it; it’s automatic. We are governed very, very much by state law. The state laws that govern the plan process are a lot more stringent than even zoning. Because you’ve got other issues involved, safety and security, etc. If the developer is asking for things outside the norm, they have to request a waiver to the subdivision ordinance and come to the commission and explain why they want that waiver. Sometimes they’re granted and sometimes they’re not. Most of the time, waivers are fairly straightforward. I know a lot of this is very technical … But it’s extremely important.
Developers work with the staff very carefully to make sure that all the issues are addressed. They do not want to have to come to the planning commission and say, “we’ve got five waivers we need to develop this piece of property,” because that raises all kinds of red flags. Why? Why did they need five waivers? That generally indicates some type of less than ideal development for that property.
We do not address any zoning. We strictly adhere to the subdivision ordinance. We are the final authority on planning. So we cannot talk to people about the cases at all, nor we can’t talk to other commissioners. We all have to hear the same thing at the same time, state law, it regulates the plan commission very dramatically. Four years ago, there was a controversy about the timing of planning. So the Legislature required what they call a 15-day deadline for plat review and approval or denial, which means that we have to meet twice a month. So the Plan Commission actually has two meetings every month.
If you go:
The City Plan Commission holds meetings twice a month. The next meeting is at noon Wednesday, June 22, in City Council Chambers, 200 Texas St. You can get information about the next meeting here.
Behrndt: What are the conditions that would typically merit the approval of a waiver versus the denial.
Boren: Timing issues, because the platts have to have all of their waivers in place for their access to the easements, water, sewer and because these large developments have got to enter into agreements with sometimes multiple municipalities and things, and they want to move forward on their plants. So they’re requesting the ability to, because it cannot get a building permit until we approve it, waive a certain thing because they’re waiting to get approval from Texas Department of Transportation if you’re building on a freeway, which can take months and months and months and months.
We recognize that so we try not to hold them up, because we know that they cannot do anything without that easement approval. So that’s the most common. So many of these new developments are coming in with private streets and they want to go 25 or 23 feet in width instead of 30 feet, which raises the issues of fire and safety and then there’s no on street parking. My bugaboo, the one thing that I’m very, very interested in is connectivity. So many of our neighborhoods have been built with little thought about how they connect to the adjacent neighborhoods. Movement within an area is critical, so we require that things be connected. We have a connectivity index that we weigh all of these applications, and we make sure that it meets a certain connectivity above a minimum standard.
We also look at all of the staff notes from the studies, making sure that all the requirements have been met. We ask about the studies that are being completed, the traffic impact studies. We ask about stormwater; you can’t flood your neighbor. Many areas of our city now have stormwater issues. That is very, very important. We don’t determine the value of the studies. We have professional staff that does that. OK, but we make sure that they’re done.
One thing that is probably the most important aspect of the Plan Commission, we have a lot of inner city and then a lot of external (development). Our subdivision ordinance was developed for what’s called greenfield development, where you have a pasture and you go build houses. The requirements in the subdivision ordinance that are designed for greenfield development do not necessarily benefit internal development. When you’re trying to rehab an existing neighborhood, upgrading a certain area — Near Southside is a prime example.
We have been pushing the city to develop a separate section of our subdivision ordinance specifically for in-fill development. That is in the works now. We are sending out a request for quotes to professional firms that help develop those standards. Then we’ll look at that and choose someone, then get a request for proposals. The amount of money that has been talked about on this has been anywhere from probably $200,000 up to half a million dollars to develop this specific chapter in our subdivision ordinance to facilitate in-fill development.
Behrndt: That sounds very key to our city’s future.
Boren: Because we can’t just keep going out and out and out. The members of the Plan Commission are also commissioners on the committee for impact fees. When you have a development, the developer has to pay fees to build the roadways. It can be millions of dollars from the developer for these things.
Behrndt: For somebody who wanted to get involved, these are some technical things that you’re mentioning. But do you have any suggestions for ways that concerned citizens might get involved? Maybe there’s a specific case that they’re interested in or how can people get involved in the process?
Boren: We post an agenda every other Friday. I would love to see community organizations, neighborhood groups, or neighborhood alliances go through and look at those agendas, and see what’s in their area and see what might be of interest. If there is something of interest, make the phone call to staff and say what is happening with this case? Should I be interested here? I don’t think there’s enough people that will take the time to do that, to really make a substantial difference. I wish I was wrong. I would love to see more and more people look at the agendas because the requirements for speaking, you have to pre-register to speak at these commission’s and at council (meetings). I think the city does what they can to publicize that to get the word out. But it’s difficult.
Behrndt: Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to get people out. I know that very well.
Boren: In all fairness, I think that COVID has done us a terrible disservice, particularly in the areas that we’re talking about, in zoning and planning. Because we have relied historically on neighborhood involvement. And the neighborhood involvement has just gone away. I don’t know how we get it back to being as robust as it was in past years. We need engaged leadership at the council level and at the neighborhood level.
Why do you think that this is an especially important function of the city? What does the Plan Commission add to the future of Fort Worth and why is it important?
Boren: We try to ensure that every development is going to stand the test of time. We have a certain set of standards that we adhere to, and we try to enforce those standards. That’s pretty much it.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com 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.