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In East Dallas, Wrestling With How to Turn a Neighborhood Into a Conservation District

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In the cozy auditorium of the Lakewood library last night, some 30 members of the Abrams-Brookside Neighborhood Association met to put the final touches on their proposal to make the neighborhood a conservation district. Neil Emmons, the Dallas City Plan Commissioner for District 14, which includes much of East Dallas, was in attendance to settle some debates about what going to conservation district status would mean.

Though the first order of business was free trees for parkways (Get them! Water them!), the meeting quickly moved on to the subject of making the Abrams-Brookside neighborhood -- a small, square-ish parcel of land bordered by Abrams Road, the old Santa Fe railroad track, and the southwest side of the Lakewood Country Club -- a conservation district. Like historic districts but generally less restrictive, conservation districts are designed to preserve the look and feel of a neighborhood; in the case of the Abrams-Brookside area, that means small, mostly postwar single-family houses with modest yards.

"As you know, the city's broke," Emmons began. His frankness was met with silence and the odd suppressed giggle. "It's true!" he continued, skipping quickly to the details of the proposed conservation district. With 75 percent of residents in approval, Emmons said, the fee to get the district would be waived, and there will be a public hearing authorized by either the plan commissioner or the council. The 75 percent approval number -- which, by most accounts, the Abrams-Brookside area currently has -- is "pre-insurance to make sure we're not going to have a bloody battle at our public hearing," Emmons explained.

In terms of hard details, the neighborhood -- one of the last in East Dallas to designate itself as a conservation district, Emmons said -- would have to comply with a working list of eight main requirements. They are:

  1. Lot coverage (building footprints) will be limited to 30 percent;
  2. Height of structures will be limited to 30 feet, measured to the peak of the roof;
  3. Height is not to exceed two stories, except if the third story is less than 25 percent of the ground-floor building footprint;
  4. Front yard setbacks will be the average of the existing setback of each block, plus or minus three feet;
  5. Side yard setbacks will be 10 feet on one side and five feet on the other, as is consistent with the prevailing lot configuration on the block;
  6. Impervious surfaces in the front yard shall be limited to a single, 10-foot driveway, a 4-foot-wide sidewalk, and a front-entry walkway;
  7. Window materials must appear to be multi-paned wood windows;
  8. Garages must be located in the rear 50 percent of the lot.

Over the course of the meeting, most of the doubts that surfaced were to the tune of, "What if I have this driveway that widens to 14 feet when it goes into my garage?" and, "Can I rebuild my non-compliant greenhouse if it falls down in a storm?" Only two of the eight requirements were amended: that driveways need only be 10 feet wide in the front 50 percent of the lot and then can flare out in the back, and that garages could be closer to a neighboring lot than the five or ten feet specified.

The only person who protested was a man who works in commercial real estate and lives on the neighborhood's periphery. He refused to give his name, but he argued repeatedly (and to the chagrin of some other residents) that the conservation district's requirements were unnecessarily strict. Still, as long as 75 percent of residents are in favor, no single resident can opt out of the conservation district's requirements.

The next step is the dissemination of the proposed rules to every household that will be affected, followed by a series of meetings with city officials -- a process Emmons says will take at least six months. Thus goes another step in East Dallas's campaign against the McMansion epidemic.

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