During the past two years, Echo Heights residents have made one thing clear: They don’t want any more industrial development in their southeast Fort Worth neighborhood.

Following a visible activism campaign and two meetings with residents concerned about the area’s future, city officials are beginning to take action. In an Aug. 3 email to area residents, assistant city manager Dana Burghdoff said city staff will recommend denial of future requests to change the zoning of property in the Echo Heights area to industrial use. 

Staff will also ask the zoning commission and City Council to deny industrial zoning requests, Burghdoff said in an interview. The policy changes are supported by District 11 council member Jeanette Martinez, who represents the area, Burghdoff said.

“Now, theoretically going to the commission and City Council, they don’t have to follow staff’s recommendation, but I expect they will prefer to refer to Councilmember Martinez since all of this area is within her district, as they tend to do for other zoning cases,” she said.

However, the policy won’t apply to the Sun Valley Public Improvement District, an existing industrial zone east of W.M. Green Elementary School where there are “scattered residentially zoned lots surrounded by industrial uses,” Burghdoff wrote.

That’s because the PID was created in order to foster the existing industrial development in the area, and encouraging residential uses in the PID doesn’t match its purpose, Burghdoff said.

“We don’t want to encourage residential development on those small lots that are surrounded by commercial and industrial uses,” Burghdoff said in an interview. “So it’s better to allow them to change zoning to industrial so it’s a coherent district.”

The policy will remain in place until Fort Worth finishes significantly revamping its comprehensive plan, which shapes zoning decisions across the city, for the first time since 2000. Public meetings for the 2050 comprehensive plan are expected to begin in spring 2024, with an expected completion date of spring 2025.

“I’m happy that they’re finally taking some steps toward working with the community,” said Letitia Wilbourn, a leader of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition who has lived in the neighborhood since 1985. “What I’m unhappy about is that they’re still trying to put industry over there.”

A zoning change sign sits in the Sun Valley Public Improvement District on Aug. 4, 2023. (Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report)

Under the current comprehensive plan, Echo Heights is designated as an industrial growth center, a label that discourages residential uses in favor of industrial and commercial development. The community is home to more than 180 industrial facilities that neighbors say has led to air pollution, health concerns and roads in disrepair, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage

Alongside other environmental activists, the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition successfully convinced City Council members to push back adoption of the city’s 2023 comprehensive plan in March. Council members are expected to vote on the plan Aug. 8. 

City staff will now recommend that council members delay passing land use maps affecting southeast Fort Worth until Nov. 14, Burghdoff wrote. Meanwhile, other land use policies are expected to be adopted during the Aug. 8 meeting. 

“This will provide time for one or more community meetings to discuss additional changes to the future land use map and policies, particularly for undeveloped property,” Burghdoff wrote in the email. “One example is the property north of W.M. Green Elementary School, where the future land use designation could change from industrial to another use.”

The exclusion of the Sun Valley Public Improvement District rubs Wilbourn the wrong way. The public improvement district is bordered by David Strickland Road to the north, East Loop 820 South to the east, East Willow Drive to the west and Mosson Road to the south.

Businesses in the district sit just down the road from W.M. Green Elementary School. Residents successfully stopped an industrial facility from being built across the street from the school last year.

A sign in the Sun Valley Public Improvement District warns passersby that a crime watch operates in the area. (Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report)

If the city wants to meet residents’ demands, there should be no exemptions to the new industrial zoning policy, Wilbourn said.

“I’m disappointed with that,” she said. “Usually if it smells like a skunk, there’s a skunk close by. They’ve seen all the impacts. They know it’s harmful.”

At a July 25 community meeting, tensions mounted between Bowie Holland, president of Empire Holdings, and opponents of industrial development. Holland’s company owns parcels in the PID, which are interspersed with properties zoned for residential use. 

Empire Holdings is seeking industrial zoning on four residential lots within the limits of the public improvement district, Holland said during the meeting. One would become a parking lot, while the other three would become “flex buildings,” or lots dedicated to a mix of office and storage space, he said. 

Holland made the distinction between the trucking centers causing damage to roads in Echo Heights and the companies who rent space from Empire Holdings. His company is committed to light industrial projects, he said, which don’t have the same negative environmental impacts as heavy industry. Light industrial zoning can include warehouses, transportation, outside storage and some assembly plants, according to a city definition. 

“We are not looking to pollute on our own properties or any surrounding properties,” Holland told residents. “The trucking companies, they’re the bane of our existence. They’re tearing up our roads. We’ve strongly encouraged them to join the property improvement district … They are utilizing the roads and not being part of the community.” 

Bowie Holland, president of Empire Holdings, stands in front of a future land use map for the Echo Heights area during a July 25, 2023 public meeting. (Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report)

Over 100 lots in the public improvement district have restrictions on what kind of light industrial uses they can have on the property, Holland said. He welcomed environmental groups to submit other industrial uses they would like to be restricted. 

The founder of Empire Holdings, Sandra McGlothlin, sits on the public improvement district’s board of directors. Empire Holdings has previously worked closely with the city in opening a new Fort Worth Police Department facility within its borders. The company donated the space and furniture for the facility. 

Holland did not immediately answer further questions about the city’s new policy on industrial zoning in Echo Heights.

At the end of her message to residents, Burghdoff said Martinez is also considering council-initiated rezoning of some properties in Echo Heights. Council-initiated rezoning allows council members to propose changes, and then send those changes to the zoning commission for further consideration. District 9 council member Elizabeth Beck championed a council-initiated rezoning initiative for Ryan Place earlier this summer.

Council-initiated rezoning in Echo Heights would focus on undeveloped properties that are currently zoned for industrial use. Rezoning could change properties to zoning designations like single-family residential, multifamily or neighborhood commercial. Burghdoff pointed to a property immediately south of Eugene McCray Community Center property on Village Creek Road.

“Depending on where the property is, that would help inform what we recommend,” she said. “The primary goal would be to try to lessen the opportunity for more industrial construction by right.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Round Rock, Texas, she spent several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia majoring in investigative...

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. Her coverage is made possible by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman...