After residents and environmental activists voiced opposition to a proposed industrial facility across the street from a southeast Fort Worth elementary school, zoning commissioners sent the prospective developers packing.

At a July 13 zoning commission hearing, commissioners voted 4-2 to recommend denial of the proposal with prejudice. If finalized by City Council, the denial with prejudice means Leon Capital Group will have to wait a year before re-submitting the application, which sought to rezone the property on 5100 Parker Henderson Road from “agricultural” to “light industrial.”

District 5 Councilmember Gyna Bivens, who represents the Echo Heights neighborhood, and her colleagues will make the final decision on the project’s fate at an Aug. 9 council hearing. 

Willie Rankin, who chairs the zoning commission and voted against the proposal, pointed to a 2019 UT-Southwestern study mapping life expectancy across Texas. The state’s shortest life expectancy was found in Fort Worth’s 76104 ZIP code, where residents live an average of 66.7 years. 

While Echo Heights is located southeast of the 76104 ZIP code, members of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition have counted more than 180 industrial facilities in the vicinity of about 750 homes. Several residents claim the associated air pollution has led to illnesses and early deaths for their neighbors. 

“I would not like to see agriculture go to an industrial zone, especially because that entire industrial corridor has led to a stain in the state of Texas when it came to life expectancy for this particular community,” Rankin said, with audience members breaking into applause. “And we do know some of the historic reasons why industrial zones have been located in communities like this.”

City staff recommended denial of the zoning request before the meeting, citing a portion of the property west of David Strickland Road that is designated for “open space” in Fort Worth’s comprehensive plan. Building an industrial “distribution and logistics” facility on the land would be inconsistent with the plan, according to staff.

The denial was a change from city staff’s previous stance, when it recommended passage at the initial May meeting. J. Ray Oujesky, an attorney representing Leon Capital, told the commission that the change made little sense, especially because the city hasn’t announced plans to buy the property.

“I would argue it is improper to designate a privately owned piece of property as open space, and tell the property owner there is no future use of your space available except to leave it as undeveloped land,” Oujesky said. 

Oujesky said there was no way to know if the industrial facility would cause air quality problems until years later after it has existed in the community for some time. Wanda Conlin, vice chair of the commission, pushed back on the wisdom of approving something without knowing its impact.

“The zoning commission has to look at not just what’s good for a community tomorrow,” Conlin said. “We have to look at 20 years from now. I heard Mr. Oujesky say: ‘Well, test the air.’ Well, why would we test the air after we’ve already made a mistake? We can’t do that.”

Fort Worth’s zoning commission discusses a proposal for an industrial facility in southeast Fort Worth on July 13, 2022. (Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report)

Developer made changes, but Fort Worth ISD still opposes

Leon Capital Group made several site plan revisions in the two months since Fort Worth zoning officials delayed a decision on the zoning application during a May meeting. 

Included in the revisions are an increased buffer area between a planned building and W.M. Green Elementary; the elimination of 52 trailer storage spaces adjacent to David Strickland Road; a reduction in the size of the building closest to the school; eliminating access to David Strickland Road for truckers; and adding a sidewalk along the road for pedestrian safety. No sidewalk currently exists on the property across the street from the elementary school. 

Zoning commissioners previously told Leon Capital Group that the company needed to conduct more community outreach, including conversations with parents of W. M. Green Elementary School students. With the help of real estate services firm Masterplan Texas, Leon Capital held two community meetings, on June 23 and July 7, at Eugene McCray Recreation Center.

During the June 23 meeting, Leon Capital Group development manager Ray Abraham said residents should support the proposal because future developers could bring industrial activity that would cause more negative impact than a warehouse or distribution center.

“Everything to the east or northeast of us – I’m sure everybody who are residents know this – is commercial or industrial use,” Abraham told the small group gathered on June 23, according to a recording obtained by the Report. “We build industrial buildings for warehouse distribution. We’re not a concrete batch plant … We’re not any of those noxious, heavy industrial uses.” 

Fort Worth ISD did not formally oppose the zoning change, but a spokesperson confirmed that the district communicated with Leon Capital Group and determined the development would “not be in the best interest” of W.M. Green Elementary. 

“While we support economic development efforts in our city, the district shares many of the concerns raised by the community regarding this particular project, including a substantial increase in traffic and the resultant impact on student safety,” spokeswoman Claudia Garibay told the Report. 

More than a dozen community members and activists from the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club and Dallas environmental justice group Downwinders at Risk piled into the meeting room Wednesday. Thirteen people signed up to speak in opposition; they were given nine minutes total to detail their concerns about air quality and the impact of pollution on public health. 

“There are so many things to be concerned about,” Letitia Wilbourn, a leader of the Echo Heights environmental coalition, told the zoning commission. “This company is ruthless. It does not care about the children. It does not care about the community. This community is already sick and dying.” 

A sign near 5125 Parker Henderson Road in southeast Fort Worth advertises a proposed zoning change from agricultural to light industrial. Neighborhood groups in Echo Heights oppose the change. (Haley Samsel | Fort Worth Report)

Echo Heights neighborhood leaders at odds over proposal

The president and vice president of the Echo Heights Neighborhood Association were sharply at odds over the zoning proposal. Lucretia Powell, the vice president, expressed support for the proposal, given that Leon Capital Group’s promised community investments are part of a contract agreement. 

In a community meeting presentation available online, Leon Capital vowed to provide $100,000 in scholarships for students in the community, an additional $100,000 in small business loans for residents of the community, and $50,000 for improvements to the elementary school.

“I am aware even from the last meeting, on the 11th, we had other organizations that are opposing this,” Powell told commissioners. “But they do not represent the Echo Heights Neighborhood Association.”

Powell said she is a cancer survivor, and has been in remission for the past nine years. She’s lived in Echo Heights since she was 2 years old, and she said there’s no proof her cancer was caused by the industrial facilities in the area.

“I do not see (the development) as a threat to the community, or even the environment,” Powell said in an interview. “I’m a living, walking, testimony myself. I’m a cancer survivor, and I will continue to be.”

Sherry Dukes, president of the association, registered opposition and said that, although it was unfortunate that she and Powell could not agree, it was important to recognize that many people in the neighborhood also oppose the proposal.

“I hope she will reconsider, as all of our families have grown up in the area,” Dukes said.  

Raisch Tomlanovich of Legal Aid of Northwest Texas, right, talks with members of the Echo Heights Environmental Coalition near a construction site in southeast Fort Worth. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Activists prepare for August hearing: ‘It’s a win for today’

Following the meeting, environmental activists and residents of Echo Heights past and present celebrated on the second floor of City Hall. But several members of the environmental coalition said they remain cautious ahead of another public hearing on Aug. 9, this time before the City Council. 

“We already know that (industrial zoning of Echo Heights) is in the city’s plan, so unless people make havoc about it, it’s going to go through,” said Mar’Tayshia James, president of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition. “I feel like, overall, it’s a win for today. It’s a small win, but it’s all building up to when we go to the council hearing.” 

Masterplan Texas employees listed as representatives for the Parker Henderson Road case did not respond to multiple interview requests before the zoning hearing. Abraham declined to comment on the decision after the meeting. 

In an email following the commission vote, Oujesky said he continues to believe city staff’s basis for denying the application is a mistake. 

“Unless the designation of the property is changed, city staff will always have a basis to deny a request to rezone the property to something other than Open Space, which means it will always stay undeveloped,” Oujesky said. “I think that is wrong.”

In order to prevent future industrial development from coming to Echo Heights, the city will have to make major changes to its comprehensive plan, said Teena James, a member of the environmental coalition and Mar’Tayshia’s mother. 

“Even when we knock this down, there’s going to be another one,” James told residents after the meeting. “We’re going to have to continue to keep fighting. So let’s see if we can be proactive rather than reactive.” 

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.

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...

Emily Wolf

Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She grew up in Round Rock, Texas, and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in investigative...