Last week, the City Planning Commission unanimously rejected a request from a landowner who wanted to fill in a lake on his southern Dallas property. That property, at 8800 Julius Schepps Freeway, is a little over a mile north of where Shingle Mountain stood for three years.
The applicant needed permission in the form of a special use permit to fill in that lake, which covers most of the property. The landowner said it had to happen before he could use the land for its new purpose: “areas for dumping, crushing, and loading rock materials,” according to the land use statement he sent to the city.
There is a small neighborhood in this part of town called Floral Farms. It coexists with various legal and illegal industrial operations. Floral Farms organized and fought the special use permit. Residents’ testimony likely prevented the permit’s approval; city staff had recommended the Planning Commission approve the request.
That recommendation probably makes sense if you’re only thinking about the paperwork. The way the property is currently zoned allows for industrial and commercial uses, including things like auto repair. (So not exactly pharmacies or boutique shops.) Neighboring land is zoned industrial. Looking at the zoning map, it’s easy to forget that about 130 people live nearby.
That seems to be exactly what city staff did. You can see Five Mile Creek just south of the property and Joppa Preserve less than a mile east. But you don’t see the three families at the end of Bird Lane or the other three houses across Simpson Stuart Road. Marsha Jackson, whose agriculturally zoned property became neighbor to the massive and illegal dumping site known as Shingle Mountain, isn’t far. The question for Jackson, her neighbors, and the activists who helped them all organize against the permit, is whether this land should accommodate industrial uses at all.
The applicant is Bill Penz, a Plano resident who owns a company called North Texas Select Materials in Prosper. During last week’s meeting, he spoke of turning the land “into something the city of Dallas could be proud of.” Penz owns the land but admitted that he wasn’t actively maintaining it.
“We talk about the space just being useless for the city of Dallas from here and now on, and [with] people dumping over there without any kind of management, I don’t know which one’s worse,” he told the commissioners. “We would actually act as the manager.”
He bristled at being compared to Shingle Mountain. “We do not operate anything like Shingle Mountain,” Penz said. “We would like the ability to fill the site and put it back into production.”
But, as one of the commissioners discovered, that would mean draining the lake and stuffing it with 1.7 million cubic yards of excess soil from redevelopment jobs, particularly those in downtown that dig out land for parking garages. Those cubic yards of “fill,” as Penz calls it, have to get to the site somehow. That means 100 to 150 truckloads each day for the next three to five years, barreling down the streets near where these people live.
“Get industrial zoning out of neighborhoods,” said Evelyn Mayo, a paralegal, activist, and a fellow at Paul Quinn College’s newly formed Urban Research Initiative. “That’s the fundamental issue the city will not address. The only way to do it, we think, is through serious grassroots involvement.”
Those grassroots: Jonathan Socoup, a manager at nearby Southwest Perennials, who told commissioners that dust from the site could damage the plants growing inside the greenhouses. “This neighborhood has become a dumping ground for just about any and every unsavory project in Dallas,” he said.
Kathryn Bazan, a former staffer with the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality’s Environmental Assistance Division, told the commissioners about the “significant quantities of dust, particulate matter, and other emissions” that come from such developments. She said the proximity to Five Mile Creek, a main tributary to the Trinity River, was alarming. And the Joppa Preserve is fewer than 3,000 feet away.
“The proposed industrial activities are simply incompatible with the preservation and enjoyment of that space,” she said.
Then there were the residents. Marsha Jackson’s breaths sounded shorter after speaking for two minutes, the lingering effects of the dust and particulate matter from the shingles near her home. Sanjuana Rojas, speaking in Spanish, pleaded for her neighborhood to be treated with “dignity and respect.” Genaro Viniega Jr. told commissioners that there have been at least four applications for concrete crushing or infill in the neighborhood over the past three years.
“Luckily we’ve stopped them, but this is a concerning trend,” he said.
During his comments, Penz told the commissioners that “we have to have somewhere to go with this material.” The city has decided that “somewhere” is most likely in southern and West Dallas, mostly Black and Brown neighborhoods. This is exactly what Jackson is suing the city over: that its land use policies are racist.
With the way the land around Floral Farms is zoned, this is what the residents must do every time an industrial application comes up for approval. They gather together, strategize, and voice their concern to the planning commissioners and hope their voices are heard. Opponents sent the city over two dozen letters. Mayo and Floral Farms’ neighborhood association, called Neighbors United/Vecinos Unidos, have developed a new plan for the area that they want the city to adopt to put an end to these developments.
“We want Floral Farms to remain a safe, agricultural community without threat of further industrial encroachment,” reads its statement of purpose.
According to the city, the zoning hearing has been authorized but not yet scheduled. “This authorized hearing is currently on the waiting list with several other authorized hearings ahead of it,” read the statement. Mayo says the neighborhood has tried to get the city involved, “but they keep giving us the cold shoulder.” While the hearing may be authorized, there are nearly half a dozen more steps to come: public meetings, commission hearings, council briefings. It could take years to complete.
So the rezoning request is in a sort of purgatory. Too, the city is undergoing a change to its land use policy and has modified how rezoning requests are done. Previously, the Plan Commission had an Urban Design Advisory Committee that would review such requests. But that is suspended as staff seeks City Council approval for a new committee to guide land use decisions. (Council will vote on that matter on April 28.)
And so the neighborhood waits and stalks plan commission agendas, trying to stomp out new industrial applications.
In the long term, Floral Farms sees potential. The neighborhood wants the city to exercise its right to purchase the property that housed Shingle Mountain and turn it into a park. They could see connections to the nearby Joppa Preserve. But they really want what everyone in Dallas wants: to live in a safe place, without fearing industrial pollutants.
“Although the mountain is finally gone, the land has not been remediated, and our air continues to be polluted,” Jackson said. “I’m afraid for my neighbors, that they will suffer the same way I am suffering right now.”