There were several points on Thursday when City Plan Commission members came dangerously close to debating whether City Hall should be allowed to get away with eviscerating several dozen acres of post-oak savanna, in violation of its own zoning rules, so rich people can go golfing.
Luckily for the city's embattled Trinity Watershed Management Department, any substantive discussion of the issue was promptly and summarily strangled by city legal and planning staff.
District 14 Commissioner Paul Ridley was the first to give it a shot.
"Does zoning for Subarea 1 permit strip-mining?" he asked after listening to city planner Neva Dean rattle off the list of the things allowed in the horse-park portion of Planned Development District 883, which includes a hotel and restaurants but not, as you can see from the ordinance, a strip-mine.
Assistant City Attorney Todd Vandiver interjected. "Just to be clear, strip mining is not a use in the city of Dallas. What's allowed is excavation."
"She didn't list excavation as a use," Ridley offered.
That, Dean explained, is because "excavation is not a use." Not in the city code's definition of "use" as something that requires a building permit.
The pit itself isn't the problem, the planners explained. Even though it may not say so in the PD 883 ordinance, the city is allowed to move around as much dirt as it wants without violating the zoning. Rather, it was the clear cutting of several hundred trees that the city messed up on.They were supposed to get a tree-removal permit, which would have required the Plan Commission to first approve a development plan.
District 7 representative Ann Bagley seemed puzzled that she was being asked to approve something that had already happened. "Did they not continue to work out there without a permit?" she asked.
The answer is yes, but before anyone could say so, Vandiver jumped in to declare this question "beyond the purview" of the Plan Commission, a phrase he repeated multiple times over the course of the discussion.
When District 2's Neil Emmons lamented that City Hall's apparent ass-covering "breeds a lot of distrust in the public eye," he was reprimanded by Plan Commission chair Gloria Tarpley for straying off topic.
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The topic, as Tarpley and the planning staff framed it, was the very narrow one of whether the development plan for the strip-mine/excavation complies with the conceptual plan approved by the City Council last year. If so, the Plan Commission had no choice but to rubber stamp it, whether the pit they were approving had already been dug or not.
"It's a ministerial function for y'all," Vandiver explained, just as he did during the Sam's Club case three months ago.
The big difference with that case was that denying Trammell Crow's development plan carried with it a real threat of being sued. Nixing the city's application, or at the very lease debating it vigorously, would carry zero legal liability.
As absurd as the entire spectacle has been (city breaks own rules to clear-cut trees and dig a pit, Plan Commission is told it has no choice but to offer absolution), it could have been worse. City arborist Phil Erwiin testified that the spot the city was originally going to dig (a spot in which "excavation" is explicitly allowed in the zoning plan) was covered with a lot of mature pecan trees. The trees that ended up being mulched as part of the excavation were much scrubbier and less significant from an arborilogical perspective. So there's that.