Inside the Eugene McCray Community Center on a drizzly April evening, Tilton Clark Sr. attended his first meeting with the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition. But the 74-year-old’s concerns, which center around health issues caused by air pollution from trucking yards, go back decades.
“The city will do whatever they want to you until they see that you’re going to fight them and you’re going to make it public, they back off,” Clark said.
For the past year, southeast Fort Worth residents have waged battle against further industrial development near neighborhoods, forcing a reckoning on Fort Worth’s 2023 comprehensive plan and placing their concerns at the center of a hotly contested race for the District 11 City Council seat.
Echo Heights is among the neighborhoods in the new district, which consists mostly of communities in south and east Fort Worth. Candidates Ricardo Avitia, Rick Herring, Tara Maldonado-Wilson, Christopher Johnson and Jeanette Martinez are running to represent the area.
From their first days in office, the District 11 council member will be immersed in conversations about Fort Worth’s comprehensive plan, which provides guidance for the city’s decisions on zoning cases, budget priorities and more.
In March, after residents protested forecasts for more industrial growth near residential areas, the council voted to delay adoption of the plan’s land use sections for 30 days.
Now, because of the May 6 election and a possible June runoff, council members will not vote on the comprehensive plan again until Aug. 8.
City staff are tentatively planning a neighborhood meeting for June 12 so that the new council member will have an opportunity to participate, said Eric Fladager, Fort Worth’s assistant director of planning and data analytics. Council members take a summer break in July, so there won’t be time for the council to evaluate any changes to the comprehensive plan before August, he said.
The neighborhood meeting will likely include discussions of the environment, land use, zoning, transportation, parks and open space in southeast Fort Worth, Fladager said.
“City staff anticipates providing updates to the neighborhood on work being done to help address the concerns expressed by the community at several recent meetings,” Fladager said by email. “Staff will be available to answer questions and provide additional information as requested.”
Letitia Wilbourn, a leader of the environmental coalition who has lived in Echo Heights since 1985, said community members have been left out of the loop as officials decide how to move forward. Neighbors have not met with city staff since the March meeting, Wilbourn said.
“I think that they’re just trying to wait for the new person to come in and for them to try to get that person on their side,” Wilbourn said. “I don’t have anything positive at this time to say about anything that the city do. As I always say, they’re actually big liars. They lie all the time. We can’t believe anything that they say.”
Herring, Avitia bring different perspectives to development fight
Herring and Avitia were among the attendees at the Eugene McCray Community Center meeting on April 24. Avitia, a construction manager and co-founder of neighborhood activism group Hemphill No Se Vende, drew comparisons between his fight against gentrification in south Fort Worth and the challenges facing people living in Echo Heights.
As a council member, Avitia said he would ensure that communities have access to information about the city’s zoning decisions and long-term plans for residential neighborhoods.
“It’s not just one area of the city that’s going through transition. It’s the whole city, and state really,” Avitia said. “That’s the reason it’s important that we continue collaboration amongst communities.”
As a former zoning commissioner, Herring understands there may be distrust from coalition members who believe the zoning commission has played a key role in bringing more industrial facilities to the area.
Echo Heights, home to more than 180 trucking and shipping centers, garbage collection sites and warehouses, is classified as an “industrial growth center” by the city’s comprehensive plan. The city’s definition notes that “residential uses are generally discouraged within” growth centers, though the definition does not rule out nearby neighborhoods.
Herring’s campaign filed an open records request for zoning dockets during his time on the commission to examine what role he may have played in cases affecting southeast Fort Worth, Herring, a longtime neighborhood association leader, said. To his knowledge, he never took any action that he thought would be harmful to neighborhoods. But without more analysis, he can’t say what each of his votes were with 100% certainty, Herring said.
If elected to council, Herring said he would “draw a line in the sand” and prevent any further industrial development from encroaching on residential neighborhoods.
“It’s going to be very difficult – and I know the coalition realizes this – to turn back the clock on 60 years of zoning,” Herring said. “There are going to be some challenges, but I would just like to be able to make sure they have access to anything they need in City Hall.”
Maldonado-Wilson, Johnson and Martinez urge action
Maldonado-Wilson, an emergency room nurse, has previously testified at council meetings to support Echo Heights residents, including the March meeting at which the comprehensive plan adoption was delayed. The community has been ignored for too long, as have other environmental issues that hurt Fort Worth, Maldonado-Wilson said.
“It’s always been on my radar, but now that I’m running to represent the district, it’s become a huge priority,” she said. “I’ve literally been on the ground, literally next to them, supporting them in a very tangible way that they can see and feel.”
The city needs to take ownership of its role in industrial development and consult with the Environmental Protection Agency and other groups to see what can be done to eradicate pollution, said Johnson, a small business owner.
“It’s not going to go away overnight, but there needs to be a start, a commitment, so that the community knows that the city is serious about trying to alleviate this problem,” he said. “People have to live in these communities, and everyone should have the right to breathe good quality air. That shouldn’t be an ‘option.’”
City staff can take action now to reduce neighbors’ complaints about chemical runoff entering their yards from trucks being washed nearby, Martinez said. If an industrial business wants to come to the area and wouldn’t be “creating pollutants,” Martinez said she doesn’t see where there would be an issue.
“Better communication would go a long way,” she said. “As long as the residents know what’s going on and have a voice throughout the process, I don’t know that you would have to slow it down. Just ensure that they’re part of the conversation.”
Awaiting meetings, residents fear code compliance violations
This summer will be a flurry of activity for the residents and activists working with the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition.
In addition to the council member’s election and a public meeting with city staff, Fort Worth officials are also planning to kick off a public input campaign for the 2025 comprehensive plan.
The city plans to hire a consultant who will conduct a community-wide public engagement effort across Fort Worth, including virtual and in-person meetings expected to begin this year.
At the same time, Wilbourn fears she and her neighbors will have to navigate a summer of increasing tension with the trucking companies that border their backyards.
Since April 17, the code compliance department has opened six investigations into potential violations at her home and others on Tahoe Drive, according to a city database. Meanwhile, code officers have investigated eight complaints at the businesses in the 4800 block of Parker Henderson Road, near where Wilbourn lives.
Brandon Bennett, the city’s code compliance director, said the department has a responsibility to investigate allegations on both the commercial and residential sides of the equation.
“It’s not unusual that when we start getting a number of complaints about different properties that the property owner will say to the code compliance folks: ‘Hey, I’ll fix this violation,’ and then they generally complete the sentence by saying, ‘but look at these other violations that are out here in the neighborhood,’” Bennett said.
The likelihood of these feuds decreases when land uses – residential, commercial or industrial – are compatible, Bennett said. Conversations about the 2025 comprehensive plan could address the issues that stem from zoning residential homes near industrial businesses, he said.
At zoning commission meetings last year, developers interested in bringing new industrial business to the area said their plans were compatible with the comprehensive plan and they were committed to being good neighbors.
After investigating the complaints at businesses on Parker Henderson Road, Bennett’s team did not find any air quality or land pollution violations as alleged by residents. Some minor code violations were found on both commercial and residential properties, including some cleanup and high grass issues, he said.
All investigations into the homes on Tahoe Drive were closed within 10 minutes of each other on April 28, according to the code compliance database. While Wilbourn is relieved she will not receive violations, she is concerned that more allegations could be on the horizon.
“It’s very chilling that these companies are not willing to come and work with the community,” Wilbourn said. “They want to act like bullies, and we were here before they were there. The community and the citizens were here before any of that was there.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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