Going Against the Flow: McCommas Bluff Plan Really About a Different Kind of Green

I wince. I wish. I need to give up reading.

Nature writer Diane Ackerman (The Zookeeper's Wife, 2008 Orion Award for nonfiction) has an op-ed piece in The New York Times today telling a wonderful story about cities that have turned wastewater treatment operations into nature preserves. I read it this morning and thought, "Why not here?"

Her piece ("Emerald Cities") tells the story of the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida, between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, where a boardwalk carries visitors out into a "natural" wonderland of roaring alligators and preening roseate spoonbills. It's all fed and kept alive by effluent from treatment plants.

She gives examples of other similar successes in converting public liabilities into treasures. The entire subject matter typically lumped as pollution or waste or garbage can provide smart communities with opportunities to create valuable assets instead.

Why do I wince? Because I'm thinking of this whole thing with the McCommas Bluff Landfill and the city manager's attempt to turn it into a trash-dumping monopoly in Dallas. The city wants to collect $13 million to $15 million a year in new "tipping" or trash-dumping fees by making it illegal for any trash-hauler to carry garbage to landfills outside the city limits.

In a briefing to the council last May, the city manager's staff made a big deal out of the money the city may be able to earn in the future from capturing and selling methane. It's probably a good case to make, but future incomes are sort of a dodge and a cover story for what the city wants to do now. They just want to get more money from the dump trucks -- the tipping fees. The methane thing is all pie in the sky for now.

So what's wrong with pie in the sky? What's wrong with looking ahead to the future? Nothing, but people live near McCommas Bluff right now. Their neighborhoods have a destiny and future, too.

Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, had a very persuasive op-ed piece in The Dallas Morning News on August 10 arguing that the nearby Highland Hills area is on a path to rebirth and stability, and the last thing it needs is the region's biggest trash factory in the middle of it.

I know City Hall is starved for money. I do get that. But the fact is that strong neighborhoods have been worth way more to City Hall over time than business or industry. I am not putting down business or industry. But as I wrote here last April, residential property has generated twice the asset value to City Hall in the last 10 years as commercial property. I also offered an example from my own block to show that areas where the toughest restrictions on development have been imposed have generated the highest increases in value and the highest tax revenues for the city.

It's not that turning McCommas Bluff into the region's biggest trash factory is a bad business idea, in a vacuum. But City Hall can't operate responsibly in a vacuum. It has bigger obligations than merely keeping itself alive, and it has a bigger array of factors to weigh in meeting those obligations.

Even from a straight revenue approach, collecting more dumping fees at the expense of improving values in the Highland Hills neighborhood is penny wise and pound foolish. Tons foolish.

So what does this have to do with the nature writer? It's really a matter of total concept and what has or has not been thoroughly thought through here. In an age when progressive cities are accomplishing truly wonderful things with waste, does this McCommas Bluff idea come to us with one ounce of that kind of forethought or planning? Why couldn't McCommas Bluff include a bird sanctuary or other man-made natural attraction of some sort?

Did anybody even try to shape this idea in a way that would make it palatable to the neighbors? Did they even think about it?

I don't believe they did. I think this is a slapdash desperate attempt on the part of City Hall to gin up new revenues quickly from dumping fees. It's straight industrial. It does not include a single element of community consciousness.

That should make this decision easy. Just put all the shoes on all the other foots. Pretend this is a private company, not City Hall. Pretend it's a chemical plant, not trash-hauling. Pretend it wants to vastly increase operations near the wealthy Preston Hollow neighborhood in North Dallas, not a struggling but promising mainly minority neighborhood in the south. How would Preston Hollow react? What would our new Citizens Council mayor have to say about this then?

I think we got our answer.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze