Saturday, June 22, 2024 Jun 22, 2024
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The Reality TV Twin Who Built Shingle Mountain

He saw an opportunity, and he had a plan. But then, right under the sleepy eyes of City Hall, the whole thing went to hell.
Joseph Haubert
More than 20 years ago, Marsha Jackson bought a home in southern Dallas with enough land that her daughters could stable horses and practice roping and barrel racing. Then, early last year, the shingles started piling up next door. They grew into a mountain that became infamous, even as a recycling company attempted to grind up the discarded roofing material, belching black dust that got into her vents. When she coughs, she says, the phlegm is black.

The 60-foot-tall asphalt mountain is an absurdist monument to slapdash city zoning, inadequate state oversight, and the plans of men eager to make a buck. Shingle Mountain wants to be seen. And you can see it if you drive north on Interstate 45 near Hutchins and look out your passenger window. You have plenty of time. Despite the city shutting down the recycling operation in March, it will stand there for at least another year. The company, Blue Star Recycling, has run out of money. Jackson, meanwhile, is trapped in a Kafkaesque limbo, attending court hearings only to hear that there isn’t much Blue Star can do with its empty bank account. The judge didn’t seem eager in June to hold the company’s manager in contempt for not complying with a city order to clean up the mess in 90 days. “[W]e don’t have debtor’s prison,” is how Judge Gena Slaughter put it.

Since late last year, Shingle Mountain has appeared regularly in the Dallas Morning News’ Metro section and on nightly TV news. It is a flashpoint in environmental justice in this city, an ugly monument to City Hall’s apathy toward the people who live in southern Dallas. It took the head of a scrappy environmental nonprofit and a News Metro columnist to get the city’s attention. But by then, it was too late. The pile was taller than the trees.

So who is responsible for this mess? In the stories published so far, the name Chris Ganter invariably pops up. He is the CEO of Blue Star—or was, until his recent ouster or retirement. His transition out of the company has never been explained, just as his background remains a mystery. I found that he lives in Collin County, and in the late 2000s, he and his twin brother, Ben, starred in a real estate reality TV show called PayDirt, which aired only on local television.

After I sent a few emails to lawyers I’d found in court documents, I heard from Ganter. Apparently word had found its way to him that I was asking questions. He emailed me late on a Saturday night, writing that he wanted to meet for some “windshield time.”

The Morning News let loose with a flood of bad press. Ganter says customers vanished once Blue Star started making headlines for the wrong reasons.

And so on a Friday afternoon in June, I climbed into Ganter’s white F-250 to tour some landfills. He is 45 and a few inches shy of 6 feet. He has a neat crop of brown hair and a graying goatee that extends into a point, not unlike that of Fast N’ Loud star Richard Rawlings. His permanent tan looks like the byproduct of working outside a lot at job sites.

Ganter apologized for smoking Marlboro Lights in his truck as we drove south from Northwest Dallas and he talked about his business plan for Blue Star Recycling. Typical roofing shingles are made with a fiberglass-based asphalt that can take 300 years to decompose in a landfill. But they can be recycled and used to build roads and in other products. As someone who’d remodeled and flipped houses, Ganter knew how many tons of shingles get dumped in landfills. The roof of a 3,000-square-foot house could have 6 tons of shingles on it.

During our windshield time together, he took me to the city of Dallas’ McCommas Bluff Landfill, in southern Dallas. I lost count at 30 of the number of dump trucks queued up at the gates. The wait for these drivers can stretch to three hours. Ganter figured he could use that inefficiency to his advantage.

Initially, he said, he had 200 acres lined up in Collin County, where he could basically build his own landfill. But Blue Star couldn’t get the financing. After failing to partner with landfills in Dallas and Melissa, he had to scale way down, settling on two adjacent tracts of land that totaled nearly 4 acres, just 300 yards from the entrance to McCommas Bluff. The lease was priced right to make it work.

“That was the only place we found that had the zoning where we could rent the space,” he says. “If it could have been anywhere else, it would have been anywhere else.”

The key to Ganter’s plan, he told me, was that long line at McCommas. Eleven miles away sits the Skyline Security Landfill, in Ferris, where a line of just five dump trucks was moving smoothly. Why would an operator have his drivers wait three hours at McCommas when they could just head a few miles farther down the road and avoid a line? Ganter realized that Dallas was (and still is) charging operators about half as much as the second-cheapest landfill in North Texas.

“There is no other reason why there is a line of shingles being dumped out there when all the storms are in Collin County, Denton County, and Tarrant County,” Ganter told me.

His plan was to charge just a little more than the city of Dallas to dump shingles but eliminate the wait. Blue Star opened for business in January 2018. In August, a yellow sign along South Central Expressway advertised its shingle recycling. The mistake, according to Ganter, was that he didn’t charge enough. The shingles started to accumulate faster than he could process them.

In the summer of 2018, Ganter says, monthly revenue hit about $240,000. But his mistakes were catching up with him. The state requires operations like Blue Star’s to have enough money in the bank to remediate a site and vacate if need be. Blue Star’s mountain of shingles was growing too quickly for its bank account to keep up; it couldn’t process the material and sell it fast enough.

The state found the company’s cash reserves “grossly deficient.” Blue Star had received state approval to manage only 260 tons of material. The company also promised that “raw materials will sit for no longer than a month before processing.” By December, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found that Blue Star’s operation had almost 7,000 tons of processed shingles and nearly 50,000 tons of unprocessed shingles.

That’s when the Morning News and other media outlets let loose with the flood of bad press. Ganter says customers vanished once Blue Star started making headlines for the wrong reasons.
But there’s another way to view Ganter’s business.

Maybe it was set up to fail. Invoices sent to the state show that before Blue Star ran into trouble, it was taking in more than seven times the amount of shingles it was selling. Was it possible that Blue Star was established simply to collect dumping fees from the contractors who were tired of waiting in line at nearby McCommas Bluff? Processing shingles, after all, takes expensive equipment, which Blue Star had to rent. Piling them up is cheap.

There are some holes in Ganter’s story. Blue Star, remember, sat on two tracts of land. On one tract, Blue Star’s certificate of occupancy, the document needed from the city to do business, was denied six months after issuance. For the other tract, Ganter’s application stated that the property would be used as a “trailer repair shop.”

Under city code, Blue Star would also need a special use permit to process shingles on one of the tracts. The business never got one of those, the city alleges in a lawsuit. Code also requires a buffer zone of at least 30 feet between the shingles and the nearest property; Blue Star broke that barrier immediately, according to Jackson. And at one point, Shingle Mountain expanded to within just a few feet of her chain-link fence.

“I don’t have any ill will toward Ms. Jackson, none whatsoever,” Ganter says. “I mean, I agree with her. If I had to live next to that, I would be very upset, but I also choose not to live in an industrial zone. You know, if you put your house next to an industrial zone, that’s not a great place to be.”

Chris Ganter, seen here in a screenshot from a video uploaded to Vimeo in 2009 advertising his real estate investment trust. (Credit: Vimeo)

In southern Dallas, zoning is downright bizarre. Bermuda Road, half a mile away, is zoned industrial, just like part of the land on which Blue Star operated. And yet homes sit on some of that land. Jackson’s property, next door to Blue Star, is zoned agricultural; those properties don’t have the same rights as areas zoned single family. If you lived on a plot zoned single family, there would be a formal review before industrial operations could begin next door. That’s not the case where Jackson lives.

Now trucks periodically cart off shingles. TV cameras show up. Then the next day, the site is quiet.

So the city’s zoning patchwork is partly to blame for Shingle Mountain—as is its approval process and oversight. Questions about Blue Star’s certificate of occupancy aside, the city didn’t document an inspection of the site until August 2018, eight months after Blue Star began operations. The owner of the land, an Irving-based LLC called Almira Industrial and Trading Corp., wasn’t notified until November of the inappropriate use and given a two-week warning. The News started publishing stories about Shingle Mountain in December.

Jim Schermbeck is the director of the environmental watchdog group Downwinders at Risk. He helped bring attention to Jackson’s plight. “The whole philosophy within the Dallas City Hall Department of Environmental Quality and Sustainability,” he says, “is that when you bring something to our attention we might do something about it, but we’re not proactively going out and trying to solve environmental problems. It’s totally reactive. When you’re always playing catch-up, you’re not ever out in front of it.”

As it turns out, this isn’t the first business whose troubles Ganter has blamed on forces beyond his control. After his show PayDirt ended, he started a company called Heritage Pacific. For pennies on the dollar, he bought second mortgages that had gone into default. He’d then pursue those borrowers, threatening lawsuits if they didn’t settle their debts. Ganter maintains that he targeted only people who had committed fraud on their loan applications.

In court records, though, three plaintiffs allege that Ganter “made false claims and promises” in seminars in Nevada and California, luring investors into bad deals that never paid off. Ganter says Heritage Pacific’s portfolio grew to about 88,000 defaulted mortgages at the company’s peak. One plaintiff I reached wrote in an email, “I am stunned he is not in jail, where he belongs. I and a mass of other people that I know of or have since heard from were taken in by his prior scam.”

It’s important to note that Ganter was never charged with a crime. The lawsuit in question was dismissed after he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. (Previous business deals involving Ganter had also led to lawsuits, one of which ended in a $1.67 million judgment against him.)

Ganter says that Heritage Pacific’s failure is easy to explain. New laws passed in California, Arizona, and Nevada barred companies like his from collecting on loans under $150,000. After that, the business was dead. That’s why investors didn’t get paid. The lawsuits meandered through the courts for years, stalled by a litany of motions and delays. One attorney who represented a person who sued Ganter says his court strategy is “a battle of attrition.” Ganter denies this. “Courts take forever. Period,” he says. “There is no such thing as a fast court case.”

The Shingle Mountain case seems to be following a similar pattern. In court, Carl Orrell, one of the founders of Blue Star who basically got a promotion after Ganter left the company, blamed past management for the company’s financial troubles. The city and the state took action too late. Now there’s a 60-foot-tall problem towering over the trees. Not to mention a wall of shingles that has dammed up a creek running through the Blue Star operation, the violation that led Judge Slaughter to shut it down. Orrell says he can remove the shingles a truckload at a time. That will take months. Maybe a year. In early July, the judge visited the site and decided Orrell was doing all he could; she said she’d check on his progress in 120 days.

Meanwhile, Marsha Jackson has to live next door. When the operation was going full bore, the excavators would start at 5 am and quit at 10 pm. Schermbeck is the only one doing any air monitoring on the site; he set his measuring device outside Jackson’s home. Several days later, it was covered in so much dust that he couldn’t see the readout. Now trucks periodically cart off shingles. TV cameras show up. Then the next day, the site is quiet. Jackson is too embarrassed to invite people over. She says she feels like she lives on a landfill.

Once upon a time, her daughters rode horses on the property. That’s why they moved to southern Dallas in the first place. Councilman Tennell Atkins has suggested she try to sell her property, but she doesn’t want to do that. And it’s too late now anyway. Atkins now says he’s lobbying City Manager T.C. Broadnax to get city money to help remove the mountain, and his plan commissioner has begun the process to rezone the property. For now, everything is up in the air.

“I just can’t believe how they came through and disrupted our life like this,” Jackson says. “They don’t understand.”

Dallas was built by hustlers who saw an opportunity and had a plan. At least in some parts of town, City Hall doesn’t do much to keep those hustlers in check until it’s too late. As Jackson says, it’s hard to believe.