Miracle on Marilla Street

Someone at City Hall cares about community

Sometimes I bring a lot of bad news to you. Much of what I see makes me angry, and then I tell you about it, and maybe I make you angry too. So I owe you one. I need to tell you about something wonderful I watched at City Hall. I mean wonderful. A miracle on Marilla Street.

Last week the Dallas Plan Commission voted unanimously to save the Ash Creek Mobile Home Community, a ragtag little trailer park on the bottomlands along Highland Road, a mile southeast of the spillway on White Rock Lake. Had the commission voted the other way, 50 families would have been booted out of their homes, all because a fancy new gated community nearby didn't want to look at them.

The vote was an act of mercy and courage. The debate preceding it was heartfelt, difficult and prolonged. I was on the edge of my seat with my fingers dug in the cushion.

Ash Creek Mobile Home Community: Now all they'll have to worry about is tornados.
Tom Jenkins
Ash Creek Mobile Home Community: Now all they'll have to worry about is tornados.

The air was thick with legalese, of course, but the most powerful moments were speeches straight from the heart about the moral duty of a city toward its citizens. Carol Ann Brandon, vice chair of the plan commission, told the leaders of the group seeking to have the park shut down, "I say that it is a shame that anyone who has been there since 1952 should be outcast. Outcast!

"I could live in a mobile home park," she said. "I may be vice chair of the plan commission, but I could live in a mobile home park. I could live in an Ash Creek situation, and you would want me to get out like that?"

The people who want the mobile home residents tossed out come from a nearby, recently developed gated community and from the "Ferguson Road Initiative," a regional neighborhood improvement association that did great work in the '90s and now apparently has gone proto-fascist.

But a delegation of leaders from the immediately adjacent neighborhood, Little Forest Hills, also appeared before the plan commission and made emotional speeches in favor of the trailer park. Carol Lyons, who lives in one of the houses on huge wooded lots on Barbaree Boulevard, told the commission she and her neighbors want to help the city fix whatever may be wrong with the trailer park rather than toss poor and working families out of a viable community.

"Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater," she said. She called on the commission to treat the case as "an opportunity to put civics to a test." She urged them to "not turn a blind eye and take the easy way" by simply expunging the trailer park from the map.

Up until last week's proceeding, the opponents of the trailer park were on a roll. They had persuaded a lesser city board to yank the park's zoning entitlement--a move that would have forced it to cease operation had it not been able to persuade the plan commission to give it new zoning.

I wrote about this late last year ("Board of Scrooges," December 22). When the trailer park was established in the early 1940s, it was outside the city limits. Dallas annexed it in 1952, and the city granted it legal permission to continue operating as a grandfathered and legal "nonconforming use."

Things went fine for decades. The little park was sort of lost in the weeds along the creek in a remote corner of East Dallas that stayed remarkably rural until quite recently. That rural ambience began to erode when developers got interested in the area in the last 10 years.

A new gated community nearby, called "The Enclave at White Rock," literally looks down on the trailer park from a high bluff. An alliance of homeowners from the Enclave and other affluent and middle-class neighborhoods in the area appeared before the city's Board of Adjustment last year to talk it into removing the park's grandfathered status.

The only way out of the predicament for the trailer park was to ask the city for full-fledged zoning as a trailer park, instead of the grandfathered "nonconforming use" status it had before. It may seem like a fine distinction, but in fact it was a mountain no one believed the park could climb. Creating an island of permanent mobile home zoning would have been a real slap in the face to all the new development in the area. It just was not going to happen.

Enter two key players: Steve Crossett of Austin, who owns the park, and Jonathan G. Vinson, a zoning and transactions lawyer with Jackson Walker in Dallas. Vinson crafted an elegant solution that provided just the amount of wriggle room and face-saving the plan commission would need in order to show mercy.

He didn't ask for permanent zoning. He asked for a two-year temporary "special-use permit" for the park and offered along with it the owner's promise to screen the property from the view of the offended rich people on the hill. Vinson, a former Dallas plan commissioner himself for four years, knew it wasn't going to be easy to get the commission even to think about voting against the Enclave and the Ferguson Road Initiative, which now goes by the scary Sovietique name "F.R.I."

It's also one reason I was on the edge of my seat with my fingers dug in the cushion. Things don't fall to poor people very often at City Hall. I just wrote about another instance in which the city council, except for the mayor, voted to toss thousands of poor and working-class tenants out of an apartment complex on Northwest Highway to help a developer make a buck ("Looters," May 18).

I have come to know some of the trailer park people--Bill Ashe, for example, a wonderful East Dallas eccentric, smart as hell and open-hearted, and some of the families who live there.

Some of them pay less than $200 a month in rent. It's what they can afford. You know, where do we think people live if they work and earn less than $1,000 a month?

The other key player here is Crossett, the owner. All afternoon long before the plan commission, Crossett was called to the microphone again and again where he was verbally flayed by a succession of commissioners, who blamed him for allowing the trailer park to decay over the years.

Crossett stood with shoulders slumped and took it. A couple of times he spoke up, objecting that he had addressed every code complaint and citation of any kind the city had given him. Every time he spoke, I cringed, because I knew that if he told the truth, the whole deal might collapse. Luckily, he knew it too.

The commissioners were taking strips of hide off him because they needed a villain in this scenario, and the villain could not be the Enclave or the F.R.I. Crossett had to be the bad guy--the greedy absentee landlord from Austin who would go on forever exploiting his poor tenants if City Hall didn't whip him into shape.

What I knew was that Crossett doesn't make a dime off the trailer park. It was his father's business and then his mother's when she became a widow. Yeah, it's his on paper, but his mother runs it, and it is her sole source of income.

Is he blameless for allowing his mother's business to get down at the heel? No. He doesn't claim to be. But is he a greedy absentee bloodsucker? Hey, anybody who thinks that hasn't yet been in the position of trying to conduct a life, a business and a family while having elderly parents in another city.

The other thing was this: Crossett and his mother could make a killing right now by kicking out all the trailer park people and selling the land to a developer. Testimony before the Board of Adjustment last year showed that people were begging him to sell. But he and his mother feel loyalty to their tenants.

I asked him before last week's meeting why he was spending lawyer money, to say nothing of blood, sweat and tears, to keep this property as a trailer park, when he could just sell it, put the money in CDs and be better off.

"Why are we doing this?" he said. "We have 50 families there that they're trying to kick out on the street. These people have no place to go, no place to live. Our average rent in the mobile home park is $192 a month. You tell me what you can rent for $192 a month anywhere. These people can't afford to go anywhere else."

I said: "But you're a property owner. Why should you care at all what their problems are?"

Crossett said: "Why should I not care?"

Here was the dilemma and the source of my nail-biting suspense. Vinson, the lawyer, had given the commission a brilliantly crafted compromise. They could vote for the temporary-use permit and not create a big gaping precedent-setting hole in the surrounding zoning.

But politically, Crossett had to take a whipping. And if he did not take it--if he bit back one time--then it was my sense that the whole thing could collapse in a heartbeat. The commissioners would say to themselves, "We're not going to vote against the rich people and give this guy new zoning rights if he's not willing to eat some dirt over it."

He took it. Every lick. All afternoon.

They voted unanimously to grant the new permit.

This still must go to the city council. A simple majority vote of the council could knock it all apart.

But I don't think so. I think what we saw was a better face of our city. And, lo and behold, wonder of wonders...

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