By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
On a windswept rise in southwest Dallas, Frank Bracken squints into the late-afternoon sun and sweeps his wiry, flannel-clad arm across the empty expanse of chalky white caliche. This ridge used to be thick with 30-foot jade-green cedar and oak trees, the only species tenacious enough to cling to the rocky ground, their roots holding the soil in place. Today, it resembles the nihilistic work of some profiteering strip miner. Bracken, who owns a farm just south of here, and his neighbors call this land "the moonscape" for its lack of vegetation and stark, white rock. The developer's Web site, though, calls it Grady Niblo Estates—"a peaceful and serene family retreat."
Four years ago, development company Marlin Atlantis bought this land, a verdant hill near Duncanville, planning to build a high-end subdivision with homes priced between $250,000 and $500,000. In a series of community meetings in late 2004, Bracken and his neighbors heard promises about preserving old-growth trees and directed the developer to a nearby subdivision—gorgeous, winding streets shaded with ancient oak and pecan trees—that neighbors hoped would be the model for Grady Niblo.
But in the summer of 2005, a plume of ominous white dust rose from the Grady Niblo site, and before long, every tree was gone. The last to go, says Bracken, was a row of cedar trees that blocked the view from the street; no one could tell what was happening until it was too late. Hundreds of semi trucks carted away the mulched trees. The developer did not return Dallas Observer calls seeking comment.
For three years, the land stood empty. Erosion washed silt and rocks into ruts left by the bulldozers, carving deep furrows in the land and choking storm sewers. Today, Phase I of Grady Niblo Estates remains unfinished, with only a handful of imposing brick houses rising from the apocalyptic landscape. There are no sidewalks, just streets and a few driveways. A lone metal street sign, oblivious to its own irony, marks the corner of "Nature's Way" and "Preservation Lane."
After the bulldozers left, Marlin Atlantis could hardly make good on its promise to preserve old-growth trees, and Bracken and his neighbors were relegated to demanding that the developer at least fulfill its city-mandated obligation to replant trees equivalent to what it had cut down.
The city of Dallas' tree ordinance requires that when a landowner cuts down protected trees—trees of certain species that are more than 8 inches thick—he or she has must "mitigate" for the cut trees in one of three ways: replanting, paying into a reforestation fund or donating trees to the city. The landowner, however, can claim a "special exception" to mitigation if he or she can prove to the city that replanting "will unreasonably burden" the property's use and that taking the exception won't harm neighboring property.
Marlin Atlantis sought an exception based on what it said was a prior agreement it had reached with the Dallas city attorney to satisfy its mitigation obligation by donating to the city as parkland a wooded ravine on the western edge of Grady Niblo.
Bracken and his neighbors, sick of dealing with silt in their sewer system and the dust rising from the empty land next door, hoped the city would see it their way and deny the developer an exception.
In November 2007, the Dallas Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected Marlin Atlantis' bid for an exception from the replanting requirement. In 2008, Marlin Atlantis' lender, Graham Investments Inc., foreclosed on the property, and that August, Graham brought a similar case before the board, whose ruling created a unique mitigation arrangement that attempted to satisfy the residents and the lender. According to Joe Graham, president of Graham Investments, his company has "spent a tremendous amount of time and money trying to do the right thing," including paying out "over $450,000 so far" to bring the property into compliance.
The tangible effects of that half-million seem scant: a thin layer of black dirt seeded with grass has been spread to cover the white caliche and slow erosion, and a pitiful line of oak and ash trees has been planted atop a levee at the far end of the property. Several of these trees tremble at rakish angles, their thin trunks no match for the wind that now buffets this treeless plain. Their roots—some of them still coiled in the ball like those of an unplanted tree—are unable to penetrate the hard, white rock and have done little to stanch soil erosion. Bracken says that dirt and rocks still fill the roads and clog the sewers when it rains, and city officials who might monitor compliance with the ruling are a rare sight at the moonscape.
This seems to contradict City Hall's stated desire to recast Dallas as "the greenest city in America"—or so proclaimed Mayor Tom Leppert last January when the Environmental Protection Agency recognized the city of Dallas for its use of renewable power. City officials seem eager to promote eco-friendly activities. The Sustainable Skylines Initiative, a joint federal, state and local effort to improve the city's air quality, attracted science luminaries to its Dallas conference this March, and Earth Day and Arbor Day celebrations abound here in April. But just how serious is the city about changing its support for developers and their antiquated clear-build-sell mentality—one that views trees as obstacles to be gotten rid of, or aesthetically pleasing amenities that can raise the price of their expansive subdivisions or high-rise condos?