Bills making their way through the Texas Legislature could reshape neighborhoods in Fort Worth and other urban cities in Texas.
The bills would reduce a city’s ability to regulate land use and are part of a broader trend within the legislature to restrict local government’s power, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor.
“There have been a bunch of these efforts to kind of claw back local control on a piece by piece basis,” Rottinghaus said. “But the legislation this session has been much more sweeping, and definitely is more alarming to local governments.”
The legislation is advancing while another bill related to local control, House Bill 2127, is dominating conversations about the state’s ability to regulate local cities. But it’s the bills focused on regulating density in residential neighborhoods that are drawing the attention of Fort Worth officials.
Among the legislation is House Bill 3921 – sponsored by Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth – which would make it harder for a city to make decisions about the type of zoning allowed in neighborhoods.
Neighborhood advocates are strongly opposing the bill, sending letters to legislators and rallying their neighbors to do the same.
“I oppose philosophically the idea that the state legislature should try to micromanage or impose upon cities restrictions that just don’t meet their needs. They’re not competent to do that,” said Bill Schur, a retired lawyer.
Proposed bills could increase density in Fort Worth neighborhoods
HB 3921 is aimed at addressing housing affordability. The bill would prevent municipalities from adopting or enforcing an ordinance that requires a residential lot to be larger than 1,400 square feet.
The bill was updated after being initially introduced in the Land & Resource Management Committee. The bill received changes that would make it easier for planned communities with similar lot sizes to ward off any impacts from the bill. The bill also doesn’t apply to gated communities.
The updated bill also narrows who would be affected to municipalities with a minimum population of 85,000 in counties with a population of 1 million or more. There are six counties in Texas that meet that threshold – Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis and Collin.
The basic goal of HB 3921 and companion Senate Bill 1787, according to supporters, is to remove municipal limits and permit smaller lots, enabling the construction of smaller homes and multi-family townhouses to increase density and affordability.
According to a flyer urging support of SB 1787, the legislation “will enable more productive use of buildable land with a state preemption of minimum lot sizes, addressing counterproductive policies such as one city’s policy of 5,750 (square feet) minimum lot size. Not all homebuyers want to buy large lots, but with very few exceptions they are required to do so.”
Asked about the origins of the bill, Goldman said: “People came to us and said there are governments out there, they’re trying to restrict what people can do on their private property. So that’s really the purpose is to basically respond to cities who tell private property owners what they can and can’t do on their own private property.”
Goldman refuted opposition complaints that the bill would undermine zoning restrictions and increase neighborhood density by allowing developers to construct more houses on smaller lots.
“Then they haven’t read the bill,” he said, pointing out that the bill has since been revised through a “committee substitute” designed to ease some of the objections. “It doesn’t override zoning,” he said, explaining that his office is also “still working” on the committee substitute.
City of Fort Worth takes issue with Goldman’s bill
The city of Fort Worth opposes Goldman’s bill. DJ Harrell, Fort Worth’s director of Development Services, sent a letter to the Land & Resource Management Committee laying out the city’s concerns about the bill. The bill would limit the city’s ability to use a variety of zoning options to meet the desires of residents, and it is too rigid in its requirements for lot width and length, which could make platting in uneven terrain difficult.
Typically, when the city creates a new zoning ordinance, they solicit feedback from the community, Harrell said.
“Then we get to hear from the people of Fort Worth, about what Fort Worth wants to be,” Harrell said. “When it’s handed down from a legislator, it may not directly reflect the interests of the majority of our citizens.”
Goldman said he did not know of any lobbying groups or associations that are pressing for the bill. “We talked to private property owners who have come to us and said ‘this is a problem in our cities,” he said. “There are some cities and counties that restrict what they can do and I think that’s wrong.”
In letters sent to the Land & Resource Management Committee, residents living in other Texas cities expressed support for the bill, in hopes that it would increase housing affordability in urban areas such as Austin.
“I am a native Austinite, and it’s been sad to see the city’s affordability vanish. We need to allow a lot more housing on smaller lots, and this bill would be a big step in that direction,” Chris Riley said in a letter to the committee.
The bill has advanced out of committee and has a Senate companion bill, strengthening its chances for the bill to become a law. However, with less than a month remaining in this session and several big priorities for Republican leaders left unaddressed, the bill may die before being brought to the house floor.
David Schwarte, a retired attorney and co-founder of the Texas Neighborhood Coalition, said efforts to change the city’s zoning policies will destabilize single-family neighborhoods.
“Only the local officials know what works best in their community,” Schwarte said. “If you step back, my view of these statewide attempts to regulate land use is that some of the state legislators are trying to set themselves up to zoning czars who want to dictate how land is used across the state.”
House Bill 2789 would also impact the city’s ability to regulate land use through zoning, loosening restrictions on “accessory dwellings,” which are separate living spaces on the same lot as a primary residence.
The bill would limit Fort Worth’s ability to regulate and collect fees on these living spaces, which may have unintended consequences on the city’s ability to grow sustainably, Harrell said.
“When folks move into these areas, and they don’t have adequate parks, the citizens suffer,” he said. “It’s our job as a municipality to support and promote the interests of our citizens.”
A senate companion for HB 2789 has already passed. Schur is concerned that the bill does not take into account complex issues posed by a more urban environment.
“This is outside the scope of competence of these legislators,” Schur said. “Planners take those factors into consideration. Legislators cannot consider all those things in drafting legislation.”
Legislators increasingly work to assume local control
The Texas Legislature started tightening regulations for municipalities in 2015, after Denton voters approved a ban on fracking, Rottinghaus said. Legislators rolled back the city’s ban with more than two-thirds margin in both the House and Senate.
Since then, the legislature’s relationship with large cities has evolved, leading to more restrictions such as changes to local government’s ability to levy property taxes and creating penalties if city’s cut police budgets.
The difference is that larger cities have become more liberal, drawing ire from conservative legislators in Austin when the cities create policy they don’t like.
“That partisan change certainly prompted a lot of rethinking about who should be in charge of local regulations and policies,” Rottinghaus said.
Matt Rinaldi, who leads the state’s Republican party, wrote an op-ed titled “Liberty trumps local control” in 2017 when he was a state representative out of Irving. The piece argues that the state has an interest in preventing local governments from overreaching into the lives of residents.
“Local control is an important governing principle, but liberty is a more important governing principle. When the two are in conflict, liberty trumps local control,” Rinaldi wrote.
“The trend has been that the legislature wants to make Texas one big country and control it,” Rottinghais said. “That is a divergent way of governing from what was initially the design of the Texas government, the goal was to allow for significant local control.”
City’s play a role in countering these attempts to usurp local authority on certain issues, Rottinghaus said.
Mayor Mattie Parker has worked to dissuade legislators from pursuing bills that would limit the city’s ability to regulate itself, Reyne Telles, chief communications officer for the city said.
“To Fort Worth’s benefit, one of the things that we have been able to rely on when we need to is Mayor Parker’s connections,” Telles said. “I think, because of her political affiliation, being different from the mayors of the other four (major cities), it has provided entree into
offices and to be able to meet with staff that maybe the others are not.”
To express concern or support about legislation still being considered, residents can reach out to their state representative or senator, on the phone or through email. You can find out who represents you here.
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.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.