In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Wanda Conlin, vice chairwoman of the Zoning Commission, discusses the role of the commission and how residents can participate in the process.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For an unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
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Rachel Behrndt: Thank you so much for joining me. If you could just start off by explaining what the form and function of the Zoning Commission is and how it works.
Wanda Conlin: The Zoning Commission in the city of Fort Worth is not a final authority on anything. But what we do is look at areas where some person has bought a piece of property that is not zoned the way they want to use it, then they have to come to the Zoning Commission with an application for a rezone. We look at that and we determine what is the best use for that piece of property. If the best use is the zoning that’s already there, then we’re going to say no. If we see that it could be that that zoning is out of date, and that the area has developed in a different way, in the way that the developer wants to use it now, then that zoning change we will approve. But we are not the final word on that. It goes from us to the City Council. It gets pretty emotional there sometimes. Well, it does in the Zoning Commission, too.
Behrndt: So when you are evaluating an application, what are some of the things that form your decision? What are the factors that play into the Zoning Commission’s discussion over a given case?
Conlin: Well, where it is. The location for one thing, and what’s around it? Some of the things we think, ‘Well, that could fit there,’ but what look what’s around it and — no, it’s not compatible with what’s around it. Like if somebody wanted to come and put a duplex next to where I live, which is single-family, then that’s not compatible, because everything around it is single-family. That’s the things we would consider.
Behrndt: What are some ways that the Zoning Commission engages with the public? I think it’s a little bit different than a regular commission in that people get notices, for example, that a zoning case is coming before the Zoning Commission.
Conlin: We actually cannot be lobbied. We have been told repeatedly by our legal department you cannot get into the merits of the case with anybody unless you are sitting in that commission room. So we are very careful to avoid that. It doesn’t mean that things don’t come to us on our computer. They come. We see. Sometimes we see all of the opposition. But we cannot enter into a conversation with the people who are in opposition or apply.
Behrndt: So if someone wants to engage in the zoning process at the Zoning Commission level, how do you suggest that they get involved or make their comments or desires known?
Conlin: Supposedly, if they’re within 300 feet of where the zoning change is, then they get a written notification. We are supposed to always have a sign on that piece of property designating that it is up for a rezoning and there will be on that sign, a phone number for them to call. Many times the neighborhood people do not belong to their neighborhood associations. So they’re not aware until they see this sign then they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know. What is this?’ Well, it really behooves them to either be a part of their neighborhood association, or to make that phone call. That’s the way they have to do it, and find out what’s going on. And then, if they’re for it, we love to get those letters too. Mostly, we get opposition letters to everything, but then it’s up to them to get involved after they find out what’s going on.
Behrndt: When someone comes to address the Zoning Commission and makes a verbal comment at a meeting. Do you have any suggestions for maybe what best practices are to sort of get their point across?
Conlin: Oh, do I ever! We really don’t care how many years you’ve lived on that piece of property. Because we are supposed to care about that guy that’s been there for six months. If he’s there and interested, we’re just as concerned with his well-being as we are with the guy who has been there 50 years. So that’s one of the no no’s. I’d love it if they get up there and say to us, ‘Wanda Conlin, of 7055 Martel and this is the reason that I would like for you to deny or support this zoning case. Say it in three sentences and sit down. That never happens, but it can be done.
And it’s just as effective as someone that gets up there and rails at us. We are your neighbors and friends. We’re not your enemy. We’re trying to do the right thing, and we are volunteers. It would be great if everyone could state the way they feel about something without feeling hateful, mean and rude — and long-winded. Feel free to use that!
Behrndt: As someone who’s been a part of the Zoning Commission for a long time, what do you see is really the importance of being really thoughtful about zoning and being a participatory part of our city’s zoning process.
Conlin: I think it is one of the most important things that we do in the city of Fort Worth as far as development. You can literally wipe out a neighborhood with a bad zoning case. If you make a decision, and we’ve seen it over and over again, we look at areas where the zoning has been so bad. That neighborhood, that community can never ever be what it could be. So I just feel like zoning is one of the most important things we do.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter 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.