Public outcry over industrial development in southeast Fort Worth took center stage June 12 as top city officials filled the auditorium of W.M. Green Elementary School to promise change in the Echo Heights neighborhood.
For the first time, city staff detailed the steps they are taking to address concerns raised by the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition over the past year.
Residents and environmental activists filled council chambers in March to protest Fort Worth’s 2023 comprehensive plan, which projected further industrial growth near residential areas. Council members eventually decided to delay adoption of the comprehensive plan’s land use sections until city staff consulted with residents.
Neighbors have connected pollution from nearby industrial facilities to the rise of negative health outcomes in their community, including miscarriages and rare cancers, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage. Fort Worth officials have said they don’t have the necessary health documentation or air quality data to validate those claims.
What is the comprehensive plan?
The plan reflects Fort Worth’s goals, policies, strategies and programs that will help achieve the city’s stated mission of building strong and safe communities and develop a strong economy.
The plan helps city officials review zoning cases; identify budget priorities; prepare capital improvement programs; inform annexations; and establish development standards.
“The city knows about environmental justice. We need action,” said Patrina Newton, a retired planner for the city of Fort Worth who lives near Echo Heights. “We don’t need to let business run rampant. Business needs to be reined in. This is very much all overdue.”
Mayor Mattie Parker, City Manager David Cooke and newly elected District 11 councilmember Jeanette Martinez were on hand to hear how staff are responding to environmental concerns.
“We’ve seen many of you come to council meetings, advocate for your neighborhood at City Hall, and that was the impetus for the city to listen and react and make changes to the comprehensive plan,” Parker said.
The latest version of the comprehensive plan – slated for a council vote on Aug. 8 – will no longer forecast industrial zoning for three sections of Echo Heights, said Eric Fladager, Fort Worth’s assistant director of planning and data analytics. The neighborhood features about 750 homes and more than 200 businesses.
Agricultural land surrounding W.M. Green Elementary is no longer expected to transition into light industrial businesses, which can include warehouses, transportation centers, outside storage and some assembly plants.
Last August, residents successfully fought a zoning change that would have built a light industrial facility on a 57-acre farm across from the elementary school. City maps continue to project that property shifting from agricultural to industrial.
Two other areas on Parker Henderson Road, including vacant properties and a mobile home park, will remain residential rather than light industrial, according to the new maps.
Alongside those changes, Fort Worth is preparing to launch a citywide public input campaign – including virtual and in-person meetings – to significantly reshape the comprehensive plan for the first time since 2000. Meetings will likely begin this fall after the city hires a consultant to lead the process, Fladager said.
“This area will certainly be a target for public engagement and getting the community involved (in) what’s the next 20, 30 years going to look like? What are we aiming for?” Fladager said. “There may be content that moves over because it’s still applicable and the community still supports it, but there’s an opportunity for things to be different, too.”
How to comment on Echo Heights plans
The city of Fort Worth has set up a webpage for Echo Heights and the comprehensive plan. Submit comments and find more information here.
Several residents argued that the changes did not go far enough and left several parts of southeast Fort Worth vulnerable to further industrialization. While city staff attended a listening session and took a community-led “toxic tour” of the area prior to the March vote, residents say they have had little opportunity to give meaningful input since then.
Activists have repeatedly requested a sit-down meeting with the city’s planning department to mark up maps with ideas for open space and recreational amenities rather than industrial sites, said John MacFarlane, a leader of the environmentally-focused Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club. That meeting never materialized, MacFarlane said.
“You showed three instances where this comprehensive plan was revised,” he said. “There’s more to be done than those three slides. There’s a lot more to be done.”
City applies for EPA grant, but residents still wary
City officials pointed to the actions they’re already taking to address flooding issues, potholes and environmental issues in southeast Fort Worth. Staff handed out flyers showing how city funds will be spent to repave roads, install flood gauges and explore the possibility of a two-lane roadway along the western shore of Lake Arlington.
Assistant code compliance director Cody Whittenburg also revealed that the city applied for a $1 million Environmental Protection Agency grant in April. The grant would help Fort Worth address environmental justice issues in the 76119 zip code, which includes Echo Heights.
The application required a nonprofit organization partner. City staff worked with Community Frontline, a Fort Worth-based Black male empowerment group, because they had 501c(3) status unlike the environmental coalition, Parker said.
The application also features support letters from Tarrant County’s public health department, Texas Christian University, Southeast Fort Worth Inc. and the three major chambers of commerce that serve Fort Worth businesses.
It would be complicated for the city to partner with the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition on grants like this one, Parker clarified, because of the support the group receives from Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and the chance that the coalition could sue the city. Coalition members said they were not informed of the grant application until the June meeting.
The city should find out in August or September if it received EPA funding, Whittenburg said.
Whittenburg also displayed a timeline showing how code compliance staff have removed litter and ensured that property owners on Parker Henderson Road follow city regulations. Between April 12 and May 3, three staff members conducted an initial assessment of environmental issues due to commercial and industrial activity.
The initial assessment did not find any environmental issues that “were immediately dangerous to life or health,” according to Whittenburg’s presentation. Still, Whittenburg pointed to the steps the city is taking to address concerns, such as verifying that 93 sites in the area are meeting the permit requirements set by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“We’re going to continue to evaluate all of the options for environmental monitoring in the community,” Whittenburg said. “We’re working with our partners at TCEQ. We’ve had a couple of excellent conversations at this point.”
The city has come up with some new ideas, but ultimately Fort Worth’s future land use maps show further industrial activity in Echo Heights, said Letitia Wilbourn, who lives in the neighborhood and co-leads the environmental coalition.
“We specifically have asked them for no more industry,” Wilbourn said. “They didn’t listen. They’re trying to skip around what we asked them. They’re still trying to put industry here even though they know people are becoming sick, ill and losing babies.”
Newton, the former city planner, said more dialogue is needed to forge true change in the area, including a sit-down meeting with city staff.
“This is fine, but this is not a dialogue,” Newton said. “You need to hear from this community very clearly. Enough is enough.”
Parker vowed to take a walking tour of the neighborhood with Martinez to learn more about the challenges facing Echo Heights firsthand. To have so many department heads and the city manager in a room to listen, Parker said, is a testament to the city’s willingness to improve quality of life in southeast Fort Worth.
“I really appreciated all of your heartfelt concerns tonight,” Parker said. “All I can do is say, just be patient with me as your mayor and allow us to really work together to make a difference here in Echo Heights.”
Emily Wolf contributed reporting to this article.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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