City Hall

Horse Park Zoning Change Spooks Trinity Forest Watchdogs

Two-and-a-half years ago, around the beginning of May 2013, surveyors working for the city of Dallas staked out the contours of the Texas Horse Park's centerpiece arena. Judging by the location of the stakes, the arena was going to be built more or less on top of an ancient and fragile natural seep called Big Spring, which had once slaked the thirst of Republic of Texas President Sam Houston, who camped there en route to a parley with the chiefs of nine Native American tribes, and Dallas founder John Neely Bryan, who built a log cabin there after the Civil War.

Confronted by a loose cadre of amateur naturalists and history buffs concerned that Dallas was preparing to bulldoze a portion of its soul, the city backed off. The boundary, officials swore, had been marked in error. Nevertheless, it agreed to work with the advocates to ensure that the spring and its environs wouldn't be disturbed as it moved forward with construction of the Texas Horse Park and, just to the south, the Trinity Forest Golf Club.

And so far, even as wetland ponds have been sucked dry and acres of trees cleared in the haste to build the golf course, and even as perennial lawsuit defendant Wayne Kirk has continued to run the horse park next door, the pond has remained undamaged. To ensure that it stays that way, the city has taken several steps. It contracted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Lewisville Aquatic Ecosystem Research Facility to draft a series of ecological management plans for the area. It began the process of designating Big Spring as a historic landmark, which would protect it from development. In January, the city amended its contract with River Ranch Education Charities and Equest, the two nonprofits that run the Texas Horse Park, to excise the Big Spring area from the land where they're allowed to operate. Soon, volunteers will be planting the area with milkweed (which monarch butterflies require to survive) the city rescued from the golf course site and and nurtured at a LAERF greenhouse. The city has talked up its efforts in City Council tours and in annual reports, under the heading "Natural Resource Stewardship."

Despite all that, the Trinity Forest's oft-jilted defenders — bushwhacking accountant/candidate-for-Trinity-River-Czar Ben Sandifer and brothers Hal and Ted Barker are the most visible, but there are a couple dozen of them — have learned to be skeptical of sweet words from City Hall when it comes to the Great Trinity Forest. So they were disappointed, though not at all surprised, when the Texas Horse Park's neighbors began receiving notices of a proposed zoning change at the horse park that would allow Equest to build "approximately 100,000 square feet of covered arena and/or paddock area" and "an accessory residential structure." Included in the area to be rezoned (the Oklahoma-shaped stair-step at the top of the map below) is the supposedly sacrosanct Big Spring area.

Pay Attention: Notice of zoning hearing: Nov 5th 2015Z1-346 (DL) PDD 883 346.172 acres of land Big Spring/Horse Park...

Posted by Save Pemberton's Big Spring - Trinity Forest on Monday, October 26, 2015
No one really has a beef with Equest or suspects that the charity is plotting to cover the spring with an arena, but that map certainly looks ominous. If arena zoning is put in place for the entire hatched area, then maybe the city could invite River Ranch or some other entity to come in and have their way with the spring.

Santos Martinez of Masterplan Consulting, which has been hired to steer Equest's zoning case through the City Plan Commission and City Council, says that Sandifer and the rest needn't worry. Equest, he says, wants merely to put a roof over a couple of existing paddocks — about 25,000 square feet — located behind its stables. The residential structure would be built nearby and would house the on-site caretaker, who currently lives in a trailer. The extra 75,000 feet of arena space they are requesting is just so they don't have to go through the rezoning process again if they want to put up another roof. Even then, Martinez says, the arenas can only go in the area specified in the development plan on file with the city (a poorly scanned copy of which is below), which is separated from the spring by both a considerable distance and all of River Ranch's existing buildings:
The inclusion of the Big Spring area in the official notice mailed to neighbors is a legal technicality, Martinez said. Since Big Spring, like Equest, is part of a planned development district, it must be included when alerting surrounding property owners. We played phone tag with interim planning director Neva Dean Tuesday and Wednesday but never spoke with her.

Martinez's explanation certainly seems legit, but there's not a lot of trust between the Trinity Forest watchdogs and City Hall and no doubt still won't be when the plans go to City Plan Commission next Thursday. And there's a better way to notify people about zoning requests. Maybe include in the notice a few more details about the development plan so that at least some neighbors can be saved the trouble of taking off work and trekking down to the City Plan Commission to figure out what the hell is going on next to their property.