When she arrived in east Fort Worth’s John T. White neighborhood in 2004, Dawn Dean was drawn to the area’s tall post oaks and lush green spaces.
For years, she and her husband, Mike, never experienced any significant flooding issues, even when the area received up to 17 inches of rain in 2012.
“Even with all that rain, and all of it coming down, we didn’t have anything coming across our property,” Dawn Dean said. “There were trees. There was grass. What was there naturally did a great job.”
Since 2012, the Deans’ dream home has transformed into a series of headaches caused by flash flooding. The Deans and their neighbors say the clear-cutting of trees for housing, lack of new stormwater infrastructure and lax city oversight of developers have created a deluge of flooding risks.
Their most recent example: a June 3 storm that required high-water rescue teams in some parts of east Fort Worth and brought a torrent of rainfall down a steep hill and into the Deans’ backyard. They blame LGI Homes, which is building the Oak Ridge subdivision at the top of the hill, for not doing enough to mitigate flooding. LGI did not respond to a request for comment.
“The retention pond was full and overflowing,” Dawn Dean said. “(The water) came into our backyard, and it looked like a major waterfall, the speed that it was coming off the top of that hill — it was more water than we had ever seen.”
The Deans are not alone. Water and mud flowed into the home of Todd Milburn on the evening of June 3, causing property damage and requiring weeks of cleanup. After filing a report with the city, staff told Milburn there likely was nothing to be done to prevent flooding on his property in the future, Milburn said.
The arrival of massive subdivisions on land formerly owned by farmers and ranchers is nothing new in Fort Worth, where residents frequently voice concerns over the lack of new roads, sewer lines and other infrastructure necessary to sustain growth.
The difference in John T. White, according to longtime residents and the area’s elected officials, is that large swaths of the neighborhood are considered “special flood hazard areas,” according to the floodplains mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That’s especially true along Randol Mill Road, which follows the curve of the West Fork of the Trinity River.
The city is investing about $10 million into flood mitigation at the intersection of Randol Mill Road and Williams Road, near an area where the city already has flood warning lights. Residents living in the area said the city is sinking dollars into road repairs without addressing the root cause of flooding.
Low lands, proximity to the Trinity River and older stormwater infrastructure makes the area prone to flooding, said Jennifer Dyke, Fort Worth’s stormwater program manager.
With about $24 million in federal funds available to spend, the city’s transportation and public works department asked the city for $2.3 million to supplement the overall project cost of about $10 million. City staff did not recommend the funding to City Council, and it likely won’t be allocated.
Still, the high-priority project will move forward, using PAYGO funds and revenues from increasing stormwater impact fees. The project will shift Randol Mill Road north from where it currently lies.
To reduce collisions, the city will also add a third turn-only lane to that section of the road. Staff hope to complete the design by the end of 2022.
“We’re trying to mitigate fatalities with this project,” Dyke said. “This will be so much safer for these people trying to access the highways and get out of this area.”
Four people died in 2018 during flash floods in southeast Fort Worth. The deaths occurred at channel crossings similar to the dips in Randol Mill Road.
Farther along Randol Mill Road, another bend in the road falls directly into a FEMA flood risk area. Flood mitigation would be much costlier there, costing the city at least $60 million, according to Dyke.
Residents fear neither project will prevent future issues stemming from development. The John T. White Neighborhood Association is considering a push for a City Council-approved moratorium on development until Fort Worth’s developer codes are updated to include more requirements to prevent flooding and other damage, said Dave Fulson, who serves on the association’s board of directors.
“The city is always telling us constantly, you guys need to adapt to change. We feel exactly the same way about the city,” Fulson said. “The city has to adapt the way it does business with just allowing these developments without looking at these long-term issues like flooding, rain, tree clearing.”
With developers meeting city standards, residents want changes
The planned Oak Ridge development will sit on the former home of Tarrant County’s second-highest point. Trees sitting atop the hill were key to soaking up excess water that runs from the top of the hill toward the Trinity River, preventing severe flooding, residents said.
Developers like LGI Homes are required to comply with the city’s tree ordinance by retaining 30% of the site’s overall canopy cover. The city’s stormwater ordinance requires developers to reduce any adverse impacts on surrounding properties when the project is complete.
Developers in the Randol Mill area are within the stormwater and tree requirements set by city ordinance, Dyke said. That’s precisely the problem, residents answer.
“We get told that the city can’t do anything because they’re meeting minimum standards,” said Mary Kelleher, a longtime resident and Tarrant Regional Water District board member.
Kelleher’s property has been flooded several times, but the problem has worsened since 2015 when massive housing development began in the neighborhood. After researching the issue over several years, Kelleher believes the city has room to strengthen its ordinance by forcing developers to take the potential added volume of rainwater into account.
The city measures the flooding impact of a development by overall added velocity, without accounting for potential volume of flood water. The city has been studying adding water volume to the city’s ordinance since 2018, Kelleher said.
“How can you not take into consideration volume?” Kelleher asked. “Because if they had to take volume into consideration, nothing would get permitted. That’s probably why.”
Fort Worth created its ordinance based on recommendations from the North Central Texas Council of Governments. The city acknowledges that developers clear-cutting trees and adding more concrete to the area likely cause more flooding to surrounding houses.
“This is a good example of a development that can meet the city’s standards … yet they can still change the drainage pattern and at least have the perception, and in some cases maybe the reality, that there’s some level of impact associated with the properties downstream,” Dyke said during an Aug. 2 council work session.
Moratorium on the table as possible solution
While city officials continue studying the impact of flooding, residents say their properties have been destroyed in the meantime. While some homeowners say a moratorium, or pause, on development now will do little to stop currently permitted construction, the neighborhood association is still considering the possibility of taking the issue to the City Council.
Developers should know where flood water is going to end up and ensure the water doesn’t disrupt other neighborhoods on its way to the Trinity River before starting development, said James Hook, president of the John T. White Neighborhood Association.
“That’s why we need a moratorium,” Hook said. “Right now they’re just responsible for dealing with their own water retention ponds that slowly let the water out. But they’re just trying to slow the flow.”
Residents feel they have a powerful ally in District 5 council member Gyna Bivens, who represents east Fort Worth. Bivens publicly supports a moratorium on development but needs the support of other council members to move forward.
“It would result in a screeching corporate halt,” Bivens said. “Until we can get developers to really do best practices, I can’t live with anything else but a moratorium … But I also know it would take quite a bit of muscle to get the four additional votes I still need.”
The moratorium would also give the city time to evaluate best practices, Bivens said. She is pushing for new penalties for developers who negatively impact surrounding neighborhoods and wants residents to be involved in discussions about updating standards to ensure that developers aren’t the only ones participating in policy making.
City staff propose a variety of other solutions, including purchasing nearby plots for water retention, educating developers about integrating drainage systems earlier on in projects, raising stormwater impact fees or including a capital project to address flooding in upcoming city bonds, Dyke said.
Solutions to stormwater flooding must involve detention or conveyance, Dyke said at an Aug. 2 council work session. Detention would hold water in ponds until it can slowly drain away without overwhelming antiquated drainage systems. Conveyance would update drainage systems by introducing longer and larger pipes leading to creeks and rivers.
The transportation and public works department recently increased its stormwater utility fee, which is levied on residents to pay for improvements to the stormwater drainage system. The increase will likely add $100 million to the department’s available funding over the next five years, Dyke said.
“We were able to prioritize all these hazardous crossings and that’s where Randol Mill Road bubbled up as one of the top priorities,” Dyke said.
During the past decade, residents have grown only more frustrated with city staff who say there is nothing more they can do to prevent the flooding from growing worse. But the John T. White Neighborhood Association doesn’t plan to stop making noise about the issue any time soon, said Fulson, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years.
“We really look at this as kind of a big family. Our combined voices get bigger attention from the city than just individual bewildered people not knowing really what to do,” Fulson said. “One of the advantages of a strong neighborhood association is that it brings people that would probably never meet together, and it’s more difficult for the city to pick off any individual.”
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.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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