Dallas Broke Its Own Rules to Get Dirt for Its Golf Course. Now, It Wants a Free Pass.

Trinity Watershed Management Director Liz Fernandez (blue hardhat) and her executive staff survey damage to the pond a contractor drained last month.
Trinity Watershed Management Director Liz Fernandez (blue hardhat) and her executive staff survey damage to the pond a contractor drained last month.
Eric Nicholson

To understand just how badly City Hall has bungled its stewardship of the section of the Great Trinity Forest sandwiched between the Trinity Forest Golf Course and the Texas Horse Park, you can visit the delicate wetland pond the city illegally let a contractor drain last month for "dust control." From there, you can follow the broad, freshly-blazed dirt road the contractor plowed through a half mile of previously untrammeled forest to where dozens of acres of formerly virgin post-oak savannah have been clear-cut and strip-mined to provide fill for the golf course. You can watch the excavators indifferently scooping sand from an already-gaping pit to feed the lumbering parade of dump trucks shuttling industriously to and from the golf course, and you can turn around and be confronted by the remnants of several hundred mature trees, which have been mulched and piled into towering heaps that bear a resemblance, possibly imagined, to an extended middle finger.

Of you can just talk to Ben Sandifer.

Sandifer, a genial, middle-aged accountant, is perhaps the city's most tireless advocate of the Great Trinity Forest. Disarmingly tall and, when he's not at work, typically clad in Carhart overalls, he has spent years obsessively exploring Dallas' wilderness, chronicling his adventures on the Dallas Trinity Trails blog. His excursions have made him an ardent preservationist, but he is always careful to stay behind the scenes, letting fellow Trinity advocates thrust themselves into the public eye when disputes with the city arise .

See also: Environmentalists Say Dallas Is Trampling Nature to Build its Horse Park and Golf Course

But there Sandifer is, mountain biking through the lede of a Dallas Morning News piece and expressing dismay at the city's environmental blunders. And there he was two Friday's ago being fitted with a microphone by WFAA's Brett Shipp in advance of an apologetic, city-led tour of the drained pond and golf-course excavation, blasting Mayor Mike Rawlings and former City Manager Mary Suhm for breaking their 2012 promise that no trees would be sacrificed for the construction of the Trinity Forest Golf Course. Being pissed isn't something that comes naturally to Sandifer, but City Hall has managed to do make him that way.

The tour two weeks ago was led by the executive staff of the city's Trinity Watershed Management department. Director Liz Fernandez apologized profusely to Sandifer and the dozen other environmental advocates who were there and promised that the city would ensure the damage was repaired. The city, under guidance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was already refilling the pond with water from a fire hydrant, and the activists were pleased to see a platter-sized turtle surface in the middle of the pond, proof that the ecosystem had survived the draining. The wide gash left by the access road would take longer to heal, but the city will block access with felled trees to allow the forest to regrow.

Their promises regarding the excavation were less solid. Project engineer Than Nguyen said the city needed 550,000 cubic yards of fill dirt from the pit and that the excavators would keep digging until they had it. Why it had to come from a previously undisturbed landscape was largely a matter of convenience: It was right next to the golf course and would cut down on costs. Fernandez conceded rather vaguely that they would try to minimize the impact of the excavation by digging deeper instead of wider, though the presence of groundwater at 19 feet might complicate those efforts. The golf course, it was clear, would brook no delays.

City Hall is so determined to get dirt for its golf course that it won't stop even to comply with its own rules. Under the zoning plan for the area approved last year, the city isn't allowed to excavate a giant borrow pit, at least not on the spot where they're digging it. To do so would have required the City Plan Commission to amend the development plan. The city would also need a permit, which it also doesn't have.

Once Sandifer caught the illicit dig, the city promised to keep him and the rest of the public in the loop. Instead, they quietly slipped it onto the Plan Commission's consent agenda for Thursday. When he learned of the city's sleight of hand, Sandifer fired off an irate email to Fernandez and her top staff:

"I was under the very distinct impression that the City of Dallas was going to provide details to the public of the amendments to zoning of the Texas Horse Park and PD 883 when the language and plans became available. Imagine me, standing in line at Central Market with a shopping cart full of beer on a Friday night and being told from a real estate developer for Hillwood 'Ohh, you got snowballed on that one, they slipped it into the September 18, 2014 zoning commission meeting. Joke's on you man.'

"Not only are 100 beers getting warm on my kitchen floor as I type this, I am getting the distinct impression that I am not worth the truth. That bothers me on a personal level. I was promised this would not happen. I tend to believe what people tell me and when someone looks me in the eye and shakes my hand with a promise, their word becomes their bond."

Plus, the map of the borrow pit the city is requesting the Plan Commission to approve is several hundred feet from where the actual borrow pit has already been dug.

To Sandifer and the rest of the Trinity advocates, what's at stake in Thursday's meeting isn't a minor tweak to an arcane zoning case. It's not really the environment, either. It's about whether city bureaucrats can break their own rules and get away with it.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.


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