Teena James was fighting to be heard.
Sitting in the passenger seat of a city-owned all-terrain vehicle, James pointed her cell phone camera toward the mobile home parks and trucking centers that line the streets of Echo Heights, a Fort Worth neighborhood southeast of U.S. 287.
A caravan of city staff members and residents were taking what activists call a “toxic tour” of the community, which includes an elementary school, homes and more than 180 industrial facilities. James wanted friends tuning into her March 21 Facebook livestream to know about the tour and an important city council vote that evening. But the ATV’s roaring engine threatened to drown out her message.
“As you can see, the Echo Heights Stop Six Coalition, we’re pushing for a difference in our community – a healthier community, a safer community,” James said as the vehicle rumbled down Parker Henderson Road. “We finally have gotten the city to come out, and here’s what we’re seeing.”
Just a few hours later, at Fort Worth City Hall, James and her neighbors were heard loud and clear.
Following passionate testimonies from residents, environmental activists and Texas A&M civil rights clinic students, City Council members voted to delay, for 30 days, adoption of the land use sections of Fort Worth’s 2023 comprehensive plan.
Activists want the plan revised so that it doesn’t forecast further industrial development in southeast Fort Worth, an area thick with industrial pollution. The plan is updated annually and provides guidance for the city’s decisions on zoning cases, budget priorities, annexations and more.
Mayor Mattie Parker was among the officials who instructed city staff to meet with Echo Heights residents about their concerns before the plan comes back to council in April.
“I believe strongly that on this dais, we have an obligation to remedy the sins of our past,” Parker said. “Oftentimes those sins may not have been intentional, but as council members in a very fast growing city, we have a responsibility to try to remedy that together. It’s something all of us have had a commitment to.”
She complimented the work of the city’s planning and analytics team, but added that every council member expressed issues with the comprehensive plan. Council members must be more involved in the process so they can better communicate their priorities to city staff, Parker said.
“I would like our residents to be excited about the comprehensive plan and the story that it’s telling, and it’s evident to me tonight that there are certain pieces of it we’re excited about and on board with, and there are other pieces that we still need to work on together,” she said.
Minor changes to comp plan, but residents say problems go deeper
Eric Fladager, Fort Worth’s assistant director of planning and data analytics, pointed to the efforts city staff are already taking to engage Echo Heights residents. In addition to the toxic tour, staff members attended a March 10 listening session with residents and Legal Aid of Northwest Texas staff working with the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition.
For the first time since the late 1990s, Fladager’s team soon will launch a year-long public input campaign to significantly reshape the city’s comprehensive plan. Meetings are expected to begin as soon as this summer, but major changes won’t be included until the 2025 comprehensive plan, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage.
In the meantime, city staff adjusted future land use maps near W.M. Green Elementary School. The campus serves a student population that is 62% Hispanic and 29% African-American, according to Texas Education Agency data. Land directly surrounding the school is now projected to be vacant or agricultural rather than light industrial.
Last August, residents successfully fought a zoning change that would have built a light industrial facility on a 57-acre farm across from W.M. Green. City maps, however, continue to project that property shifting from agricultural to industrial.
Speakers opposing the comprehensive plan said the city’s changes don’t go far enough to address the industrial zoning that permeates southeast Fort Worth.
They cited life expectancy disparities as evidence that industrial pollution has led to dire community health problems. Residents of the 76119 ZIP code, where Echo Heights is located, live to be an average age of 73.4 years old — 5.3 years less than the Tarrant County average of 78.7, according to UT Southwestern data published in 2019.
“Our lives are worth just as much as y’all’s lives,” said Letitia Wilbourn, a leader of the environmental coalition. “Just because we’re Black and brown people don’t mean that y’all can cut our lives short.”
The plan bakes in an environment where communities of color are forced to breathe in dangerous toxins and suffer from early deaths, cancers, birth defects and other health conditions, said Jim Schermbeck, a Fort Worth native who serves as director of the North Texas air quality activism group Downwinders at Risk. Black Americans are exposed to 21 percent more particle pollution, or soot, compared to the average American, according to a 2021 study.
Schermbeck, who spoke at the meeting, called the vote to delay approval a “remarkable victory” for residents and environmental activists, led by the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club.
“This is one of those times – I’ve seen it happen before – where it’s a done deal when you come into the room, but because of the speeches that go on and the vibe in the room itself that builds up over those speeches, (leaders) start having second thoughts about doing this,” Schermbeck said. “I believe that’s what the mayor was going through, and many other people on that council were going through.”
City vows action. ‘Once I see it in writing, I will believe them’
District 5 Councilmember Gyna Bivens, who currently represents Echo Heights, instructed assistant city managers to take immediate action on code compliance violations near homes. The neighborhood will be part of the newly created District 11, which will get its first council member in May.
Code compliance officers can make truck operators stop washing their vehicles to prevent chemical runoff from landing in neighbors’ backyards, Bivens said. The city can also install sound monitors to track the after-hours noise that causes “kitchen cabinetry to shake,” she added.
“We can do that right now. We don’t have to wait for a vote,” Bivens said. “We don’t need another cancer alley … This is a way to avoid that, or at least slow it down, and make some corrective changes.”
City staff members are also working behind the scenes to come up with an approach that will involve multiple departments, according to Christina Brooks, Fort Worth’s chief equity officer. She facilitated the March 10 listening session with Echo Heights residents, which Brooks acknowledged wasn’t “business as usual.”
“We weren’t there to tell anybody what we’re doing or boxes that we may have checked. We were just there to listen,” Brooks said. “That meeting did elicit a lot of emotion, and I think it was really beneficial for some of the city staff to hear just how deep and problematic some of the issues have been from the residents’ perspective.”
Solutions won’t be developed overnight, and action plans may require input from agencies on the county and state level, Brooks said.
Many of the same department staff who attended the listening session visited Echo Heights for the “toxic tour” on March 21. Cody Whittenburg, Fort Worth’s assistant code compliance director, snapped photos of trucks behind Wilbourn’s home.
“The last thing we would ever want is for anyone to feel not supported,” Whittenburg said. “We want to make sure that they have the right avenues with the right individuals to help make those positive changes.”
As the city turns its focus to Echo Heights, members of the environmental coalition are working to get more residents involved.
Mar’Tayshia James, president of the coalition, said the area is full of single and working parents who may not have time to educate themselves about the comprehensive plan and industrial zoning. She and other activists have gone door to door and tabled at community events to spread the word, she said.
“Now, since they were able to delay it, we have a month to prepare,” she said. “We need to get more of our neighborhood association involved and see exactly what it is we’re wanting, like parks. You can’t force anybody out, but there’s ways to try to think about what we can do in the area.”
Wilbourn, a retired Tarrant County sheriff’s deputy who has lived in Echo Heights since 1985, said she was ecstatic – and surprised – after city council members voted in their favor. But Wilbourn is waiting for results, especially in areas of Echo Heights that are not directly adjacent to the elementary school.
“As I always say: I don’t trust them. They’ve lied to us repeatedly,” Wilbourn said. “Once I see it in writing, I will believe them. Until then, I don’t trust them. I don’t believe.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at email@example.com.
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.