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What's the Dallas City Council's Record on Environmental Work?

To Rita Beving, whose work spans decades, this council is the greenest the city has ever seen.EXPAND
To Rita Beving, whose work spans decades, this council is the greenest the city has ever seen.
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Back in the ’90s, if you had asked Rita Beving if Dallas would ever pass a climate plan, she would have laughed and said “good luck.” But the City Council passed Dallas' first Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan last year.

The plan lays out 97 actions the city can take to help reach eight climate-related goals, including making buildings more efficient and ensuring communities breathe clean air. The city's Office of Environmental Quality is largely in charge of the plan's implementation. If everything goes according to that plan, Dallas will be carbon neutral by 2050, meeting a goal set out by the Paris Climate Accord.

Still, the local environmental group Downwinders at Risk released a scathing review of that same City Council, saying that no incumbent deserves an endorsement on the grounds of environmental justice. The general assessment, according to the group, was: "This is the most nonprogressive council in terms of deeds since 2002."

“I would totally disagree,” said Beving, an organizer with the environmental group Public Citizen. Beving is also the vice chair of the city’s Environmental Task Force. She provided information for the city's climate plan as well.

To Beving, whose work spans decades, this council is the greenest the city has ever seen. She said some of that transformation began on the last council.

“I used to look at the city of Austin and long for our City Council to be as green as theirs. I would say the last two sets of City Council have been quite green,” Beving said.

She also applauded Mayor Eric Johnson for taking on climate legislation when he served as a state representative. She said even some of them more conservative members of the council are now more receptive to hearing out environmentalists.

For example, Johnson authored a bill that would have required state agencies to have plans in place to deal with climate change and extreme weather. It was voted down on the House floor, but Johnson maintains that the bill, HB 2571, could have prevented some of the fall out from Winter Storm Uri.

Beving's not the only one who views favorably this council’s work on environmental issues.

Debbie Solis has lived in West Dallas and been involved in the community her whole life. Today, she attends meetings three or four times a week, helping to bring West Dallas’ voice to the table. She leads a crime watch in the area and is a part of West Dallas 1.

She said they used to have state representatives and council members who weren't as receptive to the community’s concerns.

Two big issues facing West Dallas are gentrification and pollution from industrial development. Cement plants kept getting approved for the area without input from the community. “We just want a decent way of life here, a clean way of life,” Solis said.

The last straw for her was when a batch plant was moved near a middle school with the city’s approval. The middle school ended up shutting down. So, she started block walking.

Through organizing the community, they were able to get their message out. However, it continued to be an uphill battle trying to be heard by their elected officials.

Now, Solis said she feels like they have a council person who listens to them.

She said Omar Narvaez helps provide information to them to tackle issues facing the West Dallas community. Narvaez is also the chair of the environment and sustainability committee and led the climate plan to its unanimous approval by the council.

Under this council, Dallas has been called a Bird City by the Texas Park and Wildlife Department and the Audubon Society for continued efforts to preserve and protect bird-friendly habitats, as well as the diversity of birds found in Dallas.

Mayor Johnson recently issued a proclamation to declare the period from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. between April 19 and May 7 as "Lights Out Nights" in Dallas to reduce light pollution that threatens bird migrations throughout the country.

The city's climate efforts are benchmarked with the international Carbon Disclosure Project and the American Council of an Energy Efficient Economy. The implementation of the climate plan, the city's Green Energy Policy and plan-associated actions led the two groups to raise Dallas' overall score to an A- because of regional leadership and actions.

Temeckia Derrough, founder of local advocacy group the Joppa Freedman's Town Association, said this council is more progressive in tackling environmental issues than previous ones. She calls Beving every day and has worked with the city to bring the southern sector’s ideas into the climate plan.

David Griggs, with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star and Dallas chapters, said this year for the first time, most of the incumbents they sent questionnaires to actually responded. “I think everybody is more cognizant of environmental causes, particularly environmental justice causes, than they used to be,” Griggs, the political chair for the two chapters, said.

He said communities are being increasingly vocal about these issues “and the politicians are beginning to wake up and see that they need to pay more attention to the environmental quality of their neighborhoods.”

The Dallas Sierra Club has endorsed all but three incumbents seeking reelection in the upcoming City Council race.

That’s not to say the council is perfect when it comes to environmental issues. Griggs said they’ve still got a long way to go. “We’re not pleased completely with it, but it’s not a bad situation,” he said.

On what the city can do better, Beving and Derrough said Dallas needs to take a hard look at zoning. “We have to look at where we put industrial facilities,” Beving said.

On the state level, there needs to be a lot more regulation on things like concrete batch plants and mining operations, she said. There are some bills being taken up this legislative session toward that end.

Without such attention, communities like Floral Farms will be stuck in an endless battle with industrial developers.

There’s a part of the climate plan that talks about addressing zoning issues like these, but not a lot has happened on this front yet.

Beving said, “It’s noted in the plan, but with the 97 actions that are in there, the work on that has not started. But it needs to start.”

Narvaez said tackling zoning issues is a delicate balancing act. Current zoning gives landowners certain rights and expectations as to what they can do with their property. If it’s zoned as industrial, it’s more or less fair game. He said they are looking at existing land use across Dallas to identify sites with existing environmental concerns.

The goal is to use this information in the updates to Forward Dallas, the city’s comprehensive land use plan. The city is also analyzing the processes in plan-review, building permits and the city plan commission to help identify and address these zoning issues moving forward.

These steps align with actions in the climate plan, he said. The city is working on installing a system of local non-regulatory monitors that can be used to assess local neighborhood air quality in areas where there is greater prevalence of childhood asthma.

Sometimes, funding and preemptive state legislation get in the way of Dallas pushing the envelope on environmental issues, Narvaez said. Environmental action has to compete with other budget items, like law enforcement and funding for streets. And state law, for example, forced the city to repeal its short-lived, 5-cent fee on single-use plastic bags.

"It was and is the right thing to do," Narvaez said. "However, there is a state law that preempts cities like Dallas and Austin from taking this kind of action."

Besides ensuring enforcement against blatant environmental violations, Narvaez said he's not sure taking a "harder stance" on environmental issues always works most effectively.

"Realistically, intrinsic motivation, making people want to do the right thing, is so much more powerful than using fear or extrinsic motivation," Narvaez said. "A lot of that relies on making it easier for people to comply and do the right thing. Part of that lies in education."

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