Two weeks ago, Ben Sandifer took off from his job as an accountant and headed down to City Hall to plead with the City Plan Commission to vote against rezoning a portion of the Texas Horse Park. He didn't have a problem with the zoning change per se, which was intended to allow the nonprofit Equest to build a roof over its paddock. Nor did he have a problem with Equest, which provides therapeutic horse-riding to disabled children and veterans and has always been the more trustworthy of the city's two nonprofit partners on the horse park. His concern was that the maps that had been presented did not clearly exempt the area around Big Spring, which he and other advocates had fought bitterly to protect.
"I can't rest assured that promises made to me vocally or over the phone or via text message that things are going to be OK, that things are going to [be] built the right way," he said. "If it doesn't make it in writing, then it never happened."
Sandifer is more comfortable with bushwacking through the Great Trinity Forest and having wonkish discussions on the hydrology of the Trinity River floodplain than navigating the political undercurrents at City Hall, and he was overmatched by the polish of Equest's zoning consultant and the Plan Commission's general impenetrability. Plan Commissioner Bobby Abtahi offered Sandifer a verbal pat on the head, promising to visit the horse park with him so he could "hopefully hit the reset button on some of the stuff that happened in the past." Then Abtahi invited semiprofessional horse park apologist Yolanda Williams (now also a Park Board member) back to the microphone so she could take umbrage at "outsiders [i.e., Sandifer] speaking on our behalf."
But those familiar with Sandifer's body of work as an environmental watchdog and with the city's propensity for screwing up everything it touches in the Great Trinity Forest know that paranoia is a rational response, as Sandifer was reminded once again this week.
As part of its strategy to open up the wonders of the Great Trinity Forest to the masses (a strategy that includes an exclusive golf club with six-figure membership costs and a massive toll road), the city has spent the past several years crisscrossing the area with bike paths. Eventually, the plan is to build a continuous trail all the way from White Rock Lake to Interstate 20. These trails are not popular with naturalists, who question the wisdom of ramrodding a concrete path the width of two Humvees through what the city touts as its prized natural asset, but Sandifer has more or less resigned himself to their inevitability. He just wants to make sure they're built correctly.
Thus, Sandifer was troubled when, on November 2, he learned from a local pastor that construction on the Joppa Connector Trail had abruptly halted a couple of months before. Arriving at the head of the trail-to-be — right now just a barren gash where a year ago there were thousands of trees — he found in an inspection binder a cryptic description of the project's status: "stop work per city."
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Why did the City of Dallas tell Joppa Connector Trail contractor to "stop work"? Plot thickens looking at the SWPPP pic.twitter.com/2AWvzYszi5— Ben Sandifer (@Ben_Sandifer) November 3, 2015
Sandifer mentioned the work stoppage to Hal Barker who, as is his custom, began pestering City Hall for information. On November 3, he emailed Trinity Watershed Management Director Sarah Standifer. Six days later, after inquiring with the mayor and city manager's office about why he hadn't received a response, Standifer directed him to the park department:
I have talked with PKR staff that are managing the construction of the Joppa Trail and have copied Louise Elam (the interim assistant director). The PKR department has been working with the Corps during the construction and have coordinated these activities while the permitting process is underway. The PKR staff overseeing this construction stopped work when the contractor had completed all the activities that could be complete prior to the permit being issued.
He emailed Elam the same day, November 9, adding this time that he'd been "hearing that the issue is a Clean Water Act Section 404 filing or lack thereof." On November 17, he received Elam's response.
I understand that you did not receive my email last week. I apologize for that. Please see the response below. Can you please confirm that you received this email?
The contractor for the Joppa Trail and South Central Sprayground project has completed the scope of work that does not require the Section 404 permit. The City stopped work on the portion of the work that required the permit until it is secured. The City has been working with the Corps of Engineers on obtaining the permit and once it is received, the contractor will be able to resume their contract work and complete the trail.
Environmental law can be dull and arcane, but the gist of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act is that the federal government wants to be very careful about what goes into the nation's waterways, so it requires a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and an opportunity for public hearings before anyone can build anything in wetlands. Since portions of the Joppa Connector are in wetlands, the project needs a 404 permit.
Standifer and Elam's emails suggest that everything is going according to plan. The city launched a $3.5 million project, clearing trees and doing survey work, with the full intention of indefinitely pausing midstream to jump through the requisite federal hoops.
But information from the Corps of Engineers suggests that maybe the work stoppage wasn't quite as planned out as the city makes it seem. "Portions of the AT&T Trail were constructed in federally administered wetlands that are waters of the United States without the requisite 404 permit," Corps spokesman Jim Frisinger told the Observer in an email. "The city self-reported and stopped work in waters of the United States. We required them to apply for an after-the-fact permit, which is when Regulatory Division, Fort Worth District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, learned of the Joppa Connector project."
For permitting purposes, Frisinger says the Corps considers the AT&T Trail — a 4.25-mile ribbon of concrete through the Trinity Forest bankrolled by a $2.5 million grant from the eponymous Dallas-based telecom company and completed last spring — and the Joppa Connector to be the same. "The city of Dallas applied for a permit for the combined AT&T-Joppa Connector but it is incomplete," Frisinger wrote in his email. "The Corps is awaiting certain pertinent information regarding the amount of wetlands which were impacted by the construction. The Corps anticipates receiving the missing information so that it can post a public notice on the project before the end of the calendar year." At which point it will gather feedback concerning the potential impact of something that's already been built.
It's theoretically possible that this was an honest, bureaucratic snafu. Maybe the department handling construction of the AT&T Trail, Standifer's Trinity Watershed Management, didn't realize that it needed a federal permit to build things in the Trinity watershed. Maybe the drained wetland pond and the mulched trees — which Sandifer discovered late in the summer of 2014, months after the AT&T Trail was complete — were the come-to-Jesus screw-ups the city made them out to be. But the timeline just doesn't fit.
In a follow-up email, Frisinger says that the city self-reported its failure to obtain a Section 404 permit for the AT&T Trail in May 2014. In other words, the city acknowledged that it wasn't supposed to tinker with federally administered wetlands without Corps approval about three months before it drained a delicate wetland pond without Corps approval and about five months before it approved a contract to build another trail (the Joppa Connector) through a wetland without Corps approval.
This leaves a handful of possible explanations for the city's behavior:
1) The city somehow didn't realize that the Joppa Connector, like the AT&T Trail it had just copped to bungling, went through wetlands and also required a federal permit;
2) Trinity Watershed Management didn't mention to the parks department, which was put in charge of the Joppa Connector project after TWM's repeated screwups, that it needed a federal permit. The park department, not having "watershed management" in its name, failed to discover the requirement on its own.
3) The city dislikes contractors and enjoys forcing them to endure surprise, months-long delays that extend well beyond the term of their contract; or
4) The city realized it needed a permit but simply didn't care.
None of these Sandifer finds acceptable. In past conversations with city staff involved in the trail projects, he asked specifically about whether the city had obtained Section 404 permits. He was told either that the city didn't need them or that it was in the process of getting them. "I cannot believe they didn't apply for a 404 permit!" he said on Wednesday. The city is still adding to the mountain of claims and promises it's made that Sandifer has later discovered to be untrue.
It's hard for Sandifer not to get discouraged. Shortly after he spoke at the Plan Commission earlier this month, Standifer, the Trinity Watershed director, was called to the podium. A commissioner proceeded to address her, with no apparent irony, as the "chief steward of our most precious asset." But Sandifer doesn't have time to dwell on such matters. There's a big heron rookery near the Joppa Connector that survived the tree-clearing but hasn't escaped danger. He'll be watching when the city resumes construction. "I don't want them doing work down there while the babies are in their nest."