In his 75 years living in Fort Worth, Edward Justice watched the city transform as he helped raise kids, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren.
But, thanks to the industrial facilities that have popped up in his southeast Fort Worth neighborhood of Echo Heights, Justice fears for the future of young people in the community.
He’s especially concerned about a proposed zoning change that would turn a 57-acre agricultural property across the street from W.M. Green Elementary School into a light industrial “distribution and logistics facility” on 5125 Parker Henderson Road.
Parents often walk their kids to school on that same two-lane road, Justice said.
“As long as this gets regulated to ‘light industrial,’ they’re going to have trucks up there, and it’s going to affect traffic in this area for kids going to school there,” Justice said, pointing from a picnic table in nearby Prairie Dog Park. “We’re going to suffer the consequences if we don’t speak up now.”
This is not the first time the desires of developers have been in direct conflict with those of longtime residents.
Industrial and natural gas drilling facilities already surround Prairie Dog Park, whose namesake animals were removed from the area in the late 1970s to protect them from development, according to archival news footage. Homeowners remained as several trucking facilities, garbage collection sites and shipping centers were erected near the elementary school.
“What about the increase in air pollution for the school children surrounding the neighborhood caused by the changing of the open pasture land to light industrial?” asked Teena James, a member of the Echo Heights Environmental Coalition. “Rezoning another area from agricultural to light industrial will only make matters worse for the community and the kids that are in it.”
‘Child abuse, that’s what it is’
At a May 11 zoning commission hearing, leaders from the Echo Heights Environmental Coalition pleaded with commissioners to stop Leon Capital Group from turning one of the area’s last agricultural properties into a two-building complex that activists fear would bring more pollution and safety issues for students and homeowners.
“To put this this close to an elementary school is child abuse; that’s what it is,” Letitita Wilbourn, the coalition’s secretary and a retired Tarrant County sheriff’s deputy, told commissioners. “(Trucks) tear up the streets, and children and people have to duck these vehicles. There are no safe areas to walk.”
In his presentation to the commission, Ray Abraham, a development manager for Leon Capital Group, said the Dallas-based, minority-owned real estate company met with the neighborhood association and City Council staff for an “open roundtable” to discuss concerns about safety, sidewalk access and tree preservation.
The company vowed to limit traffic during peak school dropoff and pickup hours, as well as creating a $100,000 scholarship fund for local students and making a $50,000 donation to Fort Worth ISD for improvements at W.M. Green. The school serves a student population that is 62.6% Hispanic and 29.1% African-American, according to the latest Texas Education Agency data.
“We also plan to provide financial support for small business loans eligible to residents of the neighborhood community as well,” he said.
Lacy Jones, president of the Roadrunner Parent Teacher Association at W.M. Green, is skeptical that the money will solve anything.
“That money will last for a little while, but those trucks will be there for God knows how long,” she said. “Forever? Of course the school needs the money, but it doesn’t fix everything.”
Fort Worth ISD didn’t register opposition to the zoning change, Abraham said. On May 13, after this story was published, Fort Worth ISD spokesperson Claudia Garibay said the district does not believe it received the specific notification at its district offices and have not received any communication from Leon Capital Group.
“Over the course of the past two days, we have looked through all of our records and cannot find it,” Garibay wrote in an email. “Possibly the notification was sent to the wrong office, but we have not been able to determine if that is the case.”
But commissioner Jacob Wurman, who represents District 7, questioned if Leon Capital Group had done enough to engage school leadership or parents about the facility.
“Regardless of anybody’s business, political or local affiliations, when it comes to anything near or about children, you should be making every effort to track these people down,” Wurman said. “Do not wait for it to make its way to somebody. We’ve seen on the news: Parents from all walks of life, if it’s about their kids, they’re gonna come and get you.”
Jones said she didn’t know the construction was being proposed until The Report reached out to her. She’d seen signs near the site, but didn’t know what they were about.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh no, I hope not,’” she said.
Posting information around the school or in an email list about the proposed construction would have helped inform parents and get their feedback, she said. As it is, PTA members and parents are largely in the dark about what’s being proposed near the school.
Eventually, the zoning commission granted Abraham and Leon Capital Group 60 more days to engage with community members. Abraham initially expressed skepticism that a continuance would help, but agreed to do more outreach before the July 13 meeting.
“They probably don’t want (to reach out),” Jones said. “They know what they’re gonna hear, I’m sure.”
Garibay, the district spokeswoman, said Fort Worth ISD welcomes the zoning commission’s continuance and will study the particulars of the development.
“However, student safety will always be our number-one concern,” Garibay said.
‘Lines that go all the way down the street’
During the continuance, the city will commission a traffic study examining the potential ramifications of the development. Commissioner Rafael McDonnell, who represents District 5, originally suggested an environmental study, but a city staffer said that such a study was outside of the zoning commission’s purview.
The two-lane road leading to W.M. Green is frequently clogged with traffic, particularly during drop-off and pickup times. Adding large industrial trucks to the mix could worsen the problem, Jones said.
“It’s already crazy now with just the school and the parents dropping off and all that stuff,” she said. “There are lines that go all the way down the street, and I just can’t imagine what it would be like if (the construction) was right there too across the street.”
Abraham said the developer has committed to directing trucks away from the school during ‘peak hours’, which he described as 7 to 9 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m.
Several commissioners questioned whether widening the road into four lanes would be necessary if the zoning was approved. That would ultimately be up to city staff, Abraham said.
Another commissioner asked city staff if air pollution monitoring could be included as part of the traffic study, but city staff said traffic studies are limited specifically to issues of congestion and accidents, not any environmental issues.
The group has not yet found a client to lease the theoretical facility, but it would do due diligence to ensure any lessee is respectful of the neighborhood, Abraham said.
“When we do have a tenant, we will still own the building,” he said. “So we will be the direct contact for any concerns, questions with the community and they will have direct access to us.”
‘Do y’all know what light industrial means?’
Under the city’s comprehensive plan, the Parker Henderson Road property is projected to become part of the larger Echo Heights “industrial growth center,” defined as having a high concentration of 10,000-plus employees per square mile. The city’s definition notes that “residential uses are generally discouraged within” growth centers, though the definition does not rule out nearby neighborhoods.
Future land use maps in Echo Heights have planned for the industrial growth center since 2000, due in large part to its proximity to Highways 287 and East Loop 820, and vacant land in the area the city envisions as the future home for various businesses, city spokesperson Michelle Gutt previously told the Fort Worth Report.
J. Ray Oujesky, an attorney representing the Leon Capital Group, pointed to the comprehensive plan as evidence the zoning change would be consistent with the city’s plan for the area.
“The west portion of the property is in an industrial growth zone in the future land use plan,” he said. “The applicant has complete respect for Echo Heights, we wanted to create and send a plan to show they are committed to being a good neighbor.”
Activists have counted at least 186 light industrial businesses in Echo Heights, which can include warehouses, transportation centers, outside storage and some assembly plants, according to a city definition.
“Do y’all know what light industrial means? It’s basically another word for 18-wheelers and commercial vehicles to come through,” James said.
Members of the coalition and the Echo Heights Neighborhood Association, which was formally re-established with the city in 2021, have vowed to oppose new applications to place more industrial activity near their community.
In March of last year, Echo Heights neighbors convinced City Council members to vote against a proposed crane storage facility over concerns about air pollution and public health. The environmental coalition was formed shortly after, with support from Fort Worth’s NAACP chapter. Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas has also been researching environmental justice issues affecting the neighborhood.
Justice, the 75-year-old Echo Heights homeowner, attended his first-ever neighborhood meeting on May 7 after hearing about the permit application. The fight against industrial zoning will continue long after he and his elderly neighbors are gone, Justice said.
“Whatever they turn it into besides light industrial, I don’t care,” Justice said. “But light industrial means they’re going to change it when they get ready to change it. You make it industrial – that’s inviting trouble.”
This story has been updated with a statement from Fort Worth ISD.
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.