Miracle on Marilla Street

Sometimes I bring a lot of bad news to you. Much of what I see makes me angry, and then I tell you about it, and maybe I make you angry too. So I owe you one. I need to tell you about something wonderful I watched at City Hall. I mean wonderful. A miracle on Marilla Street.

Last week the Dallas Plan Commission voted unanimously to save the Ash Creek Mobile Home Community, a ragtag little trailer park on the bottomlands along Highland Road, a mile southeast of the spillway on White Rock Lake. Had the commission voted the other way, 50 families would have been booted out of their homes, all because a fancy new gated community nearby didn't want to look at them.

The vote was an act of mercy and courage. The debate preceding it was heartfelt, difficult and prolonged. I was on the edge of my seat with my fingers dug in the cushion.

The air was thick with legalese, of course, but the most powerful moments were speeches straight from the heart about the moral duty of a city toward its citizens. Carol Ann Brandon, vice chair of the plan commission, told the leaders of the group seeking to have the park shut down, "I say that it is a shame that anyone who has been there since 1952 should be outcast. Outcast!

"I could live in a mobile home park," she said. "I may be vice chair of the plan commission, but I could live in a mobile home park. I could live in an Ash Creek situation, and you would want me to get out like that?"

The people who want the mobile home residents tossed out come from a nearby, recently developed gated community and from the "Ferguson Road Initiative," a regional neighborhood improvement association that did great work in the '90s and now apparently has gone proto-fascist.

But a delegation of leaders from the immediately adjacent neighborhood, Little Forest Hills, also appeared before the plan commission and made emotional speeches in favor of the trailer park. Carol Lyons, who lives in one of the houses on huge wooded lots on Barbaree Boulevard, told the commission she and her neighbors want to help the city fix whatever may be wrong with the trailer park rather than toss poor and working families out of a viable community.

"Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater," she said. She called on the commission to treat the case as "an opportunity to put civics to a test." She urged them to "not turn a blind eye and take the easy way" by simply expunging the trailer park from the map.

Up until last week's proceeding, the opponents of the trailer park were on a roll. They had persuaded a lesser city board to yank the park's zoning entitlement--a move that would have forced it to cease operation had it not been able to persuade the plan commission to give it new zoning.

I wrote about this late last year ("Board of Scrooges," December 22). When the trailer park was established in the early 1940s, it was outside the city limits. Dallas annexed it in 1952, and the city granted it legal permission to continue operating as a grandfathered and legal "nonconforming use."

Things went fine for decades. The little park was sort of lost in the weeds along the creek in a remote corner of East Dallas that stayed remarkably rural until quite recently. That rural ambience began to erode when developers got interested in the area in the last 10 years.

A new gated community nearby, called "The Enclave at White Rock," literally looks down on the trailer park from a high bluff. An alliance of homeowners from the Enclave and other affluent and middle-class neighborhoods in the area appeared before the city's Board of Adjustment last year to talk it into removing the park's grandfathered status.

The only way out of the predicament for the trailer park was to ask the city for full-fledged zoning as a trailer park, instead of the grandfathered "nonconforming use" status it had before. It may seem like a fine distinction, but in fact it was a mountain no one believed the park could climb. Creating an island of permanent mobile home zoning would have been a real slap in the face to all the new development in the area. It just was not going to happen.

Enter two key players: Steve Crossett of Austin, who owns the park, and Jonathan G. Vinson, a zoning and transactions lawyer with Jackson Walker in Dallas. Vinson crafted an elegant solution that provided just the amount of wriggle room and face-saving the plan commission would need in order to show mercy.

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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