With 48 days to spare, Fort Worth City Council members approved a revised version of the city’s 2023 comprehensive plan — a document with wide repercussions for southeast Fort Worth neighborhoods pushing to increase the distance between homes and industrial businesses. 

The moment was eight months, five community meetings and three City Council votes in the making. For Letitia Wilbourn, a leader of the Echo Heights Stop Six Environmental Coalition, the battle began long before. 

In the 37 years since Wilbourn bought her house in the majority Black and Hispanic community of Echo Heights, she has watched neighbors suffer from kidney disease, miscarriages, cancer and high blood pressure. Wilbourn and environmental activists say those health issues are connected to air pollution from more than 180 nearby industrial businesses, including trucking centers and natural gas drilling sites. 

Her emotions sit close to the surface when she tells her story to city officials. The Nov. 14 council meeting was no different. While Wilbourn acknowledged the city’s efforts to address neighborhood concerns, she accused officials of “apartheid” and “segregation” zoning for recently allowing new industrial facilities into the Sun Valley Public Improvement District, a business area down the street from an elementary school

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Video by Haley Samsel and Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report

“For y’all, PID (stands for) public improvement district. For us, it’s pollution, illness and death,” Wilbourn said. “The only thing y’all see is Black and brown people that y’all don’t consider human, and y’all see green that y’all consider money. But we matter.”

The criticism didn’t sit well with Mayor Mattie Parker, who faced a protest by Wilbourn and other members of the Fort Worth Environmental Coalition of Communities before her October State of the City speech. She told fellow council members that sometimes the rhetoric they face is “very unfair.” 

“Unfortunately some of the rhetoric included ‘zoning apartheid,’ ‘the return of Jim Crow,’ and ‘a racist City Council,’” Parker said. “I’m here to tell you that is very far from the truth, and I’m very proud of this council for making very significant changes.”

The city’s actions may be imperfect, Parker said, but officials have taken important steps forward. 

“Most of the decisions that created the problems we have in Echo Heights were created before I was born,” she said. “It will take time and a careful partnership not just by this council, but also by the private sector, the private businesses that own land in this area, as we continue to downzone appropriately and create buffers in our residential areas.”

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker delivers her State of the City speech at the Fort Worth Convention Center on Oct. 6, 2023. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Changes coming to southeast Fort Worth 

The tense back and forth was familiar to city staff and activists who have attended workshops and open houses focused on how Fort Worth can best address environmental and infrastructure concerns in Echo Heights, located southeast of U.S. Highway 287. 

Residents successfully convinced City Council members to delay adopting the comprehensive plan in March, protesting maps projecting further industrial growth near homes and around W.M. Green Elementary School

Under the new plan, seven properties in Echo Heights are no longer slated for industrial use, paving the way for further residential and agricultural development. Council member Jeanette Martinez, who represents Echo Heights, is seeking to rezone another property at 4550 Village Creek Road from industrial park to medium-density multifamily, allowing for apartment development. 

Overall, the new land use plan will reduce southeast Fort Worth’s industrial growth center zoning from 671 acres to 562 acres, said Eric Fladager, Fort Worth’s assistant planning and analytics director. Several council members thanked Fladager’s team for listening to residents. 

Jim Schermbeck, director of environmental advocacy organization Downwinders at Risk, thanked city staff for its efforts on Echo Heights, while requesting further action during a Fort Worth City Council meeting on Nov. 14, 2023. “These are good starting points but they are the edges of the problem and do not address the fundamentals of the problem,” he said. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)

“That engagement and that communication over that extended period was very helpful,” Fladager said. “That set us to work looking for ways that we could address those concerns.” 

City staff has put into place other changes, including new “NO TRUCK” signs forbidding commercial vehicles from using neighborhood roads to haul cargo and empowering police to issue tickets. The city also unsuccessfully applied for a $1 million Environmental Protection Agency grant to fund research and planning in Echo Heights. 

Will city’s 2050 plan address environmental concerns? 

Several speakers, including Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club executive committee member John MacFarlane, said city officials have made significant progress but could do more to cement their commitment to environmental improvements.

He and other activists want Fort Worth to make environmental justice a priority as the city significantly revamps its comprehensive plan for the first time since 2000. Public meetings for the 2050 plan are expected to begin early next year. 

“Environmental justice must be integrated into the 2050 plan, recognizing that communities of color are disproportionately affected by industrial development, air and water pollution and damage to infrastructure, such as crumbling streets,” MacFarlane said.

Residents hold signs demanding environmental justice in Fort Worth during a Nov. 14, 2023, City Council meeting. Nine speakers addressed Council members about the city’s comprehensive plan and its impact on environmental issues. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)

If council members didn’t care about environmental justice or Echo Heights, they would have voted for the original plan in March and “moved on with our business,” council member Chris Nettles said. The council’s creation of an environmental services department in the 2024 budget demonstrates its dedication, Parker said. 

“Whether you call it environmental justice, environmental stewardship, I don’t really care,” Parker said. “It’s imperative that the largest fastest growing city in the entire country focus on these issues.” 

The debate is likely to bleed over into 2024, as MacFarlane and other activists plan to hold the city’s “feet to the fire” on creating buffer zones between residential areas and industrial businesses. 

“I look forward to all the public engagement that’s been promised next year for the 2050 plan,” he said. “We’ll be at every meeting.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

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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...