Colorful stickers and Crayola markers covered the tables inside a meeting room at southeast Fort Worth’s Eugene McCray Community Center. Sprawling maps of the Echo Heights neighborhood sat next to a color code: Orange dots for “love it,” green dots for “change it” and blue dots for “dream it.”
“You’re going to be able to convey information and your perspective, your vision of the future for this neighborhood in a way that we can then capture and document,” Eric Fladager, the city’s assistant planning and analytics director, told residents during a July 25 public meeting.
Within minutes, it became clear that the focus of the meeting wouldn’t be the maps and Post-It notes.
Tilton Clark Sr., a longtime property owner in Echo Heights, circled the room to show city staff a Bull Durham tobacco advertisement depicting racist stereotypes of African-Americans. Letitia Wilbourn, a leader of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition, held up two Black girl dolls dressed in outfits reminiscent of the slavery period.
“This is how y’all are seeing us. Y’all are not seeing us as real people,” Wilbourn told the room of 40 attendees. “This is how y’all view this community. This is how this happened. Y’all would have never have done this if this had been a white affluent neighborhood.”
The public meeting was the latest chapter in a battle between city staff and residents concerned about the impact of industrial facilities — especially trucking centers, garbage collection sites and warehouses — on quality of life in Echo Heights, a majority Hispanic and Black neighborhood. Neighbors have connected pollution from nearby industrial facilities to the rise of negative health outcomes in their community, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage.
Home to more than 180 industrial facilities, the southeast Fort Worth community 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.
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.
Environmental activists and residents successfully delayed adoption of Fort Worth’s 2023 comprehensive plan back in March, urging city officials to reconsider projections that would place more industrial businesses near homes.
Five months later, an amended version of the plan will head back to City Council Aug. 8. Assistant city manager Dana Burghdoff said the plan could come with a moratorium, or temporary hold, on industrial zoning in Echo Heights, effectively pausing the ability for city officials to approve any zoning change that would bring another industrial business to the neighborhood.
For the residents and activists concerned about the future of Echo Heights, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Patrina Newton, a retired city staffer who lives in southeast Fort Worth, cited the health risks and air quality concerns facing residents. Wilbarger Street is often filled with trucks that cause safety hazards, she said.
“You see these 18-wheelers that are just coming. There are children who are running across the street into this community center. Somebody is going to get hurt, somebody is going to get killed,” Newton said. “We need to stop the industrial from happening. Let’s put a pause on it, let’s talk about that moratorium. That’s an actionable step.”
Distrust affects EPA grant application, comprehensive plan revamp
Members of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition say they’ve been frustrated by the city’s lack of communication about proposed changes to the 2023 plan.
A June public meeting only further inflamed resentment when city staff revealed they applied for a $1 million environmental justice grant from the Environmental Protection Agency without informing Echo Heights residents. The grant would fund research, community engagement and planning efforts aimed at resolving environmental, land use and health concerns in the area, according to the city’s application filed in April.
Rather than working with the coalition, the city listed Black empowerment nonprofit Community Frontline as its partner. Mayor Mattie Parker previously said this decision was because of concerns that the Echo Heights coalition could pursue legal action against the city of Fort Worth. Other organizations around Fort Worth, including Southeast Fort Worth Inc. and Texas Christian University, also submitted letters supporting the city’s bid for the EPA grant.
“The saddest thing is y’all don’t respond to us,” Teena James, a leader of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition, said on July 25. “And then you go out and submit outside groups and ask them to speak on our behalf.”
Residents were also critical of the city’s changes to proposed future land use maps, which guide the city’s zoning decisions. New maps show three properties in Echo Heights are no longer projected to become industrial businesses, reducing the neighborhood’s industrial area from 671 acres to 629 acres. Activists say the plan doesn’t go far enough to remove industrial businesses near homes and W.M. Green Elementary School.
Fladager said more input and changes to the comprehensive plan will happen after the 2023 plan is adopted. 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.
During their June 27 meeting, City Council members approved a $300,000 contract with Public Information Associates to provide community engagement services for the 2050 comprehensive plan. Meetings are expected to begin as soon as this fall.
Activism around the issue has already begun, with a yet-to-be-named coalition of environmental groups, including Downwinders at Risk, the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club and the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition, kicking off meetings to discuss their approach to the comprehensive plan process.
Moratorium on the way?
In the meantime, the city should agree to a moratorium on industrial growth through the next year as the 2050 plan is developed, said John MacFarlane, a member of the Echo Heights coalition and a leader of the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club. Council members should also delay adoption of the 2023 plan past Aug. 8 to ensure it addresses resident concerns, MacFarlane said.
“This neighborhood is barely staying above water — or maybe not above water. It’s drowning,” MacFarlane said.
Jeanette Martinez, the newly elected council member representing Echo Heights, said she would be amenable to considering a zoning moratorium. The city is awaiting legal advice to ensure its approach follows state law, she said.
Burghdoff, the assistant city manager, said the council could delay the 2023 plan adoption if it so chooses. Per the city’s legal department, City Council members could also extend a moratorium on industrial rezoning until the 2050 comprehensive plan is ready to be adopted, she said.
“I think we’re going to have the flexibility to make the moratorium longer in time than 120 days,” Burghdoff said. “I’m hoping that holds true.”
Find documents, meetings on Echo Heights
The city of Fort Worth has set up a webpage for Echo Heights and the comprehensive plan. Submit comments and find more information here.
City Council members privately discussed legal issues concerning a moratorium on industrial zoning during their Aug. 1 executive session, according to a council agenda.
To move forward with the moratorium, Fort Worth will have to justify it in writing by explaining how existing ordinances are inadequate to prevent the “new development from being detrimental to the public health, safety or welfare” of residents, according to Texas local government code.
Newton, who formerly worked for the city’s planning department, urged city officials to look at best practices in other cities. Austin has had success in stopping industrial encroachment near neighborhoods, she said.
“You don’t have to recreate the wheel,” Newton said. “Folks are suffering and it’s well documented. Action is needed.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at email@example.com.
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