Months of debate over a southeast Fort Worth neighborhood’s outcry against industrial development came to a head Aug. 8, as City Council members vowed to take action while also allowing more industrial businesses in the Echo Heights area.
District 11 council member Jeanette Martinez, who represents the area, said she has instructed city staff to recommend denial of any request to create more industrial zoning in Echo Heights, a neighborhood southeast of U.S. 287.
However, that policy won’t apply to properties within the Sun Valley Public Improvement District, an existing industrial zone that has attracted companies like UPS, Dish Network and Stanley Steamer. The 24.2-acre Sun Valley Industrial Park sits just east of W.M. Green Elementary School and a mobile home park in Echo Heights.
Council members voted unanimously to give Empire Holdings — the founder of Sun Valley Industrial Park and a major force behind the public improvement district — permission to build four new light industrial lots on land previously zoned for residential use.
Martinez approved the request under the condition that the lots are not used for bars, smoke shops, outdoor storage for trucks, truck terminals, warehouses or distribution centers greater than 75,000 square feet, among other uses.
“Echo Heights does not want development that increases environmental pollution, no more big trucks that tear up the roads,” Martinez said. “This (public improvement district) has contributed to increased security and road improvements that are in place today.”
About 96% of the public improvement district was already zoned for light industrial use, according to a presentation by Empire Holdings representatives. Assistant city manager Dana Burghdoff said in an interview last week that the city doesn’t want to encourage residential development on small lots surrounded by commercial and industrial uses.
“It’s better to allow them to change zoning to industrial so it’s a coherent district,” Burghdoff said.
Residents call council decision ‘perfect example’ of injustice
Members of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition said the council’s approval worked against their goal of stopping, or at least reducing, industrial development near homes.
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.
Timeline of comprehensive plan changes
March 2023: City Council delays adoption of land use sections of 2023 comprehensive plan. Delay extends until August.
June 2023: City staff host first public meeting with Echo Heights residents and activists.
July 2023: City staff host second meeting with Echo Heights residents and determine policy pausing industrial zoning outside of Sun Valley Public Improvement District.
August 2023: City Council adopts remaining sections of 2023 plan with exception of southeastern sector.
November 2023: City Council expected to vote on finalized southeastern sector plan.
Early 2024: City expects to kick off public engagement for 2050 comprehensive plan with help of consultant.
Leaders of the Echo Heights coalition and Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club asked the city to impose a permanent restriction on all future industrial zoning requests, including those sought by Empire Holdings.
Letitia Wilbourn, who has lived in Echo Heights since 1985, said there is no separation between the Sun Valley Industrial Park and the residents who live in the neighborhood.
“This is the perfect example of what redlining and industrial racism is, and environmental injustice as well,” Wilbourn said. “This is a Black and brown community — we’ve got all of these white people telling us what’s good for our community. Not a one of them live over there. I live over there.”
Several business owners and Echo Heights Neighborhood Association president Sherry Dukes spoke in support of Empire Holdings’ request to expand its footprint in the area, citing job growth and increased property values over the past decade.
Bowie Holland, president of Empire Holdings, and other company leaders said their properties — which typically offer a combination of office space, warehouses and fenced concrete yards — do not generate the same issues as heavy industrial businesses, such as trucking centers. He acknowledged community concerns about pollution.
“It’s something we take very seriously,” Holland said. “Our leases do not allow for pollution.”
Activists have cited life expectancy disparities as evidence that industrial pollution has led to dire community health problems. Residents of the 76119 ZIP code, where Echo Heights is located, live to be an average age of 73.4 years old — 5.3 years less than the Tarrant County average of 78.7, according to UT Southwestern data published in 2019.
The city must take responsibility for its decision to allow industry to move in next to homes, said Laurie Stelljes, vice chair of the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club.
“It should be a top priority to fund a department to examine environmental justice in our city,” Stelljes said. “It is time to focus on those communities which have historically been seen as expendable sacrifice zones and work instead towards finding fair solutions.”
Final comprehensive plan approval delayed until November
Earlier in the night, City Council members voted unanimously to approve the rest of the city’s 2023 comprehensive plan with the exception of land use policies and maps that affect Fort Worth’s southeastern sector.
In March, members of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition successfully convinced City Council members to delay adopting the comprehensive plan. The plan shapes zoning decisions in Fort Worth and features maps projecting more industrial growth in the area, including around W.M. Green Elementary School.
Since the spring, city officials have hosted two contentious meetings with residents to discuss how to ease environmental issues. City staff expect to have more conversations with the community about potential policy changes before the plan comes back up for a council vote Nov. 14, said Eric Fladager, Fort Worth’s assistant planning and analytics director.
The city is also gearing up for its first significant revamp of its comprehensive plan since 2000, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage. Public meetings and community engagement for the 2050 comprehensive plan should begin in early 2024, Fladager said.
The point of postponing the comprehensive plan vote, Mayor Mattie Parker said, is to keep working with southeast Fort Worth residents. City officials are already working with landowners and residents to figure out how to create the buffer between residential and industrial that all good zoning practices recommend, she said.
Alluding to high tensions at public meetings in June and July, Parker asked residents to treat city staff members with “special consideration” as the process moves forward.
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.
“When meetings devolve and when they become really personal, what do we do as humans?” Parker said. “We give up, and this area, Echo Heights in particular, deserves all of our full attention and detail, and we have committed to do that.”
Mar’Tayshia James, a leader of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition, is among the residents who have been frustrated during interactions with city staff. During a July public meeting, residents wanted to discuss proposed changes to the 2023 comprehensive plan, but city staff tried to focus their attention on the 2050 plan instead, James said.
“You bring something that’s for years later for us to address when we’re trying to address to you what’s going on right here and right now. But yet you’re choosing to ignore it,” she said, adding: “A tongue is a two-edged sword. We’ll be nice to y’all if y’all are nice to us.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at email@example.com.
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