George and Jennifer Hanson were opposed to a plan to build 18 homes on land behind their house. And when the Preston Hollow couple went to City Hall to make their case, they felt like they were prepared. They showed up several minutes before the City Plan Commission was scheduled to begin its public hearings on the afternoon of Jan. 9, and they brought some neighbors with them as a show of force.
What the Hansons didn’t know is that the commission had been briefed on the proposal that morning, in a meeting that was open to the public but not especially publicized. They also didn’t know that a consultant representing the developer was working with a city employee on modifying the proposal between the briefing and the hearing. And the Hansons certainly didn’t know that speaking to the commission first would preclude them from rebutting any statements made by the consultant.
“The process is greatly stacked in favor of developers,” George Hanson said.
The City Plan Commission ended up unanimously recommending the zoning change requested by developer Charles Hicks, who has an agreement to buy the land in question from Unity Church of Dallas — if the City Council approves the change. The matter is on the agenda for tomorrow’s council meeting.
George Hanson won’t be in attendance this time around, for two reasons. First, he’s grown weary of the fight, which has been going on for months. Last year, he and Hicks were aligned against Unity Church’s plan to sell the same land to a company called Autumn Leaves, which would have built an assisted-living facility for people with dementia. (Hicks made a bid for the land after neighborhood opposition squashed that proposal.) Second, Hanson said he and his neighbors are tentatively supporting Hicks’ proposal; City Councilman Lee Kleinman brokered a meeting, and Hanson said Hicks made some concessions.
The main concern from the Hansons and their neighbors was that the minimum rear setback on the new properties would have been only 10 feet. That’s the same minimum as on the neighbors’ land, but their lots are all at least 16,000 square feet. On lots that are less than half that size — which is what Hicks is proposing — a builder would have much less space to work with, making it much more likely that a house would be only 10 feet from the property line.
Hanson said Hicks agreed to increase the minimum rear setback from 10 feet to 20 feet and to require that all second-floor windows be opaque, thereby preventing the new homes’ occupants from peering into their neighbors’ yards.
“We said, ‘You know, if we do those things, we’ll support you,’” Hanson said.
Still, Hanson is not happy about the way things are done at City Hall. He and his neighbors were notified of the Jan. 9 hearing nine days before it happened; many of the opposition showed up with kids in tow because they were not able to secure childcare on a Thursday afternoon. And the notice made no mention of the earlier briefing on Jan. 9 that was open to the public — although the general public would have trouble finding a seat, as the briefings are held in a small conference room. (The hearings, on the other hand, happen in the City Council chambers, which is comparable to a small movie theater.)
Hanson said he received a notice of tomorrow’s hearing only seven days prior. It asked him to check “approve” or “disapprove” on a form and mail it back to City Hall before the hearing.
“You basically have to turn it around in a day,” he said. “It’ll get to City Hall, but we’re not sure it will get to the right people within City Hall. You have to rely on the postal mail, but you also have to rely on the internal City Hall mail.”
Hanson said he and his neighbors began getting revised documents from Hicks and the city on Friday; some arrived just yesterday. His neighbor Steve Sims will be at City Hall tomorrow to make sure that all promises are kept.
“If they don’t stand by their word,” Hanson said, “this is a huge story.”
CITY PLAN COMMISSION 101
- The City Plan Commission is the junior-varsity version of the City Council. Each commissioner is appointed by a member of the council, and the commission’s recommendations on planning and zoning issues are subject to the council’s approval.
- The commission conducts public hearings on two Thursdays a month, starting at 1:30 p.m. But the commission’s briefings, which are also open to the public, begin at 10:30 or 11 a.m.
- Basic agendas for all public meetings in Dallas can be found here.
- In-depth agendas for City Plan Commission meetings, including all sorts of background documents, can be found here.