Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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DART’s Silver Line Is Coming, and Far North Dallas Is in the Way

DART promised its member cities a track to DFW Airport 40 years ago. Now a few people have to move.
| |Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Buzz Deitchman
Hearth Attack: Buzz Deitchman built his Far North Dallas dream home in 1984. DART bought it for its railroad nearly 40 years later. Elizabeth Lavin

This year, Buzz Deitchman was forced to sell his dream home to an unusual buyer, and he’s still not happy about it. The house sits on a cul-de-sac on Wester Way Court in Far North Dallas, about as far north as you can go without hitting Plano. Deitchman says it was “the last piece of dirt available” in 1984, when he bought the land. 

Deitchman is a stout man with a smile that beams through a white beard that frames his circle of a face. When he’s not litigating in court, he’s acting in community theater productions. So many that he has forgotten which roles he has played. He does remember playing Ernst Ludwig, a secret Nazi who befriends the protagonist under false pretenses in Cabaret. He was so convincing that two elderly women approached him afterward and got in his face because their husbands had fought the Nazis in World War II. 

Over the years, his two-story brick house on Wester Way saw two marriages, four kids, graduations, and grandchildren. In 2012, Deitchman undertook a major remodel. He and his wife figured they’d downsize at some point and pass down the house to one of their children. The original foundation had been set in soil that had shifted significantly. This time, they sunk 42 steel piers into the bedrock, 32 under the home and 10 under the swimming pool. The work wasn’t cheap, but Deitchman and his wife wanted it to last. 

“It’s exactly like what we designed,” he says, describing their home’s new Italianate design, modeled after vacation villas they’d rented in Tuscany. “It may not be to your taste or that person’s taste, but it was exactly what we wanted. We loved it. And DART took the house under duress.”

His problems with Dallas Area Rapid Transit started when Deitchman learned that the agency planned to drill into the bedrock next to his house in order to update old drainage pipes leading to a new pump station it was building. Deitchman hired a structural engineer who told him to get out. DART’s work would cause his piers to vibrate, which would likely create fissures in his foundation. “And then you’ll find your ceiling caving in or your walls breaking,” Deitchman says. 

If it sounds odd that a transportation agency has gotten into the plumbing business, then you haven’t heard about what DART is doing to Hillcrest Road. The agency is laying 26 miles of commuter rail called the Silver Line, at a cost of $1.9 billion, that will run from Plano to DFW Airport. There will be two stops in a part of Dallas that sticks up into the northern burbs like an isthmus, meaning those stops won’t serve Dallas; they’ll serve Addison and Coppell. Dozens of trains per day will rumble through 3 miles of densely populated Dallas, much of it at-grade. It won’t be light rail. The trains more closely resemble the taller, wider commuter trains that Trinity Metro’s TEXRail runs between Fort Worth and the airport. By 2040, DART expects, the Silver Line will carry 11,200 daily riders who will roll over the Preston Ridge Trail and cut across busy streets. 

One of those streets is Hillcrest, and that intersection of the road with DART’s tracks is what put Deitchman in duress. Dallas’ city manager told DART it would need to rebuild the six-lane road, lowering it about 18 feet, so that the trains won’t interfere with vehicular traffic. That’s where rainwater would create a lake if DART didn’t redo the drainage pipes and build a new pump station right behind Deitchman’s house. His engineer argued that DART should buy three houses on the cul-de-sac, and the agency’s board approved the acquisition this spring. (The purchase prices of Deitchman’s house and the others are confidential, but he says it was market rate.) 

To be fair, this train situation shouldn’t have come as a total surprise to Deitchman. When he bought his land, he noticed a patch of weeds in an easement behind the alley next to his backyard. The overgrowth hid the old Cotton Belt Railroad, which once was an important piece of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. In the early 1900s, it shuttled cotton over 1,500 miles from Missouri to Texas. DART acquired the easement under the old tracks many years ago, and the Silver Line has been in the works for a long time. 

Now the two parallel tracks will carry trains behind single-family homes on residential streets, past condos off Campbell, and alongside apartments on Keller Springs. Deitchman, who happens to be a tort lawyer, represents close to 100 of these residents. He has forced DART to buy 88 square feet of one person’s lawn; the agency had tried to put in a 30-foot-tall light pole in his front yard without permission.  

There have been other strange issues in the neighborhood, though, that haven’t led to compensation. In order to relocate an existing jet fuel pipe, excavation was required near Guillermo Leija’s property. For 12 hours a day for more than a month, he says, his house shook so much that picture frames vibrated on his walls. DART says Leija never said anything about this, which he denies.

Silverline dart map
Troy Oxford

There was a bizarre wire that originated in an alley easement and stretched for blocks along curbs, alarming folks who lived adjacent to it. The wire carried no electricity and was used for surveying, but the residents say they weren’t notified. 

Slushy foam oozed from an alley near where crews were working to move a pipeline. The city had to dispatch its hazardous materials team to clean it up and ensure the fluid was not harmful. It wasn’t. 

DART’s subcontractors have cut down mature trees near Preston Green Park. Homeowners say they’ve left stumps close to their property lines. 

But no incident better illustrates the frustration felt by residents of the Far North Dallas neighborhood than the penis on the port-a-potty. Last May, an aspiring R. Crumb spray-painted a large schwantz on a yellow portable toilet that had been placed near Davenport Road for the agency’s contractors to use, near houses owned by outspoken critics of the rail line. They say the graffito stayed put for days, despite complaints. Cara Mendelsohn, the councilwoman for Far North Dallas’ District 12, tweeted an image of the port-a-potty and accused DART of putting it there to harass the neighbors. DART and its subcontractors, she tweeted, “think it is funny.” DART covered the offending phallus with a tarp the next day. (The agency denies Mendelsohn’s allegation, for the record.) 

Mendelsohn and her constituents can only work the margins. The federal government has given its OK, design is 95 percent complete, work has begun. DART expects trains to run in 2024. 

But Mendelsohn isn’t giving up the fight. “DART had the wrong alignment from the beginning,” she says. Since being elected in 2019, she has spent hundreds of hours grilling DART officials, listening to residents, and giving tours to reporters, public officials, and city transportation staffers. She doesn’t think trains should run through her community to serve other cities. Her predecessors representing District 12 have passed down this project like a family curse since the mid-2000s. They’ve all tried to answer the same question: what can they do to limit the impact of a regional rail project on a neighborhood? “I’m not trying to stop the Cotton Belt. I have not tried to stop the Cotton Belt,” Mendelsohn says, using the old name for the project. “What I’ve tried to do is make sure it’s as safe as possible and that it inflicts as little quality-of-life damage to the community as possible.”

Ron Natinsky, who represented the district from 2005 to 2011, got the City Council to back a plan in 2006 that asked DART to place the train in a trench, about 12 to 16 feet below ground, to dampen the noise and eliminate at-grade train crossings. DART said thanks but no thanks. The agency says it researched the possibility of a shallow trench. It was expensive and would require streets to be raised; otherwise, they’d have to dig deep into the flood plain. DART says raising the streets would mean driveways and other access points would have to come up, too. Natinsky did eke out a few wins: no freight on the line, more sound walls, and a hike-and-bike trail that will run adjacent to the right of way through the entire 26 miles.

The residents are demanding that DART adhere to what is now called the Natinsky Plan. They say they’re concerned about the safety of at-grade crossings and the construction disruption, which will likely last over a year in some form. But it’s a futile fight; DART is in control. 

For now, Far North Dallas residents are focused on that Hillcrest pump station, asking why it wasn’t included in the original environmental impact statement. They’re calling for a new environmental study that would analyze the size of the pump, potential for flooding, and interference in emergency routes. But Deanna Leggett, DART’s executive vice president of growth and regional development, makes a point that’s implied by her job title: “The Silver Line has always been a regional priority project.” In other words, while the work on Hillcrest might inconvenience a few people, this thing is bigger than Deitchman’s 100 or so clients and their neighbors.

Even though Dallas accounts for more than half of DART’s revenue from sales tax, the agency serves 13 cities. The agreement that created DART in 1983 promised its suburban member cities an east-west commuter rail line. Seven years later, it bought 54 miles of the old Cotton Belt, including the portion that ran behind Deitchman’s house. It’s living up to its word to build. Far North Dallas just happens to be in the way.

“I never intended to stop their building a railroad,” Deitchman says. “I just wanted them to avoid destroying the neighborhood. That was my intention. Not quite sure I got there, but we’re still trying.”  

This story originally ran in the October issue of D Magazine with the headline, “The Railroad Took His House.” Write to [email protected].


Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…