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Dallas May Rescind Right to Petition a Harmful Business

The city attorney’s office has said that removing the residents’ amortization rights could save millions of dollars, but advocates want to maintain their right to petition in case officials fail to assist with the initiation process.

dia de los muertos decorations on a chain link fence
The neighborhood group, Singleton United/Unidos from West Dallas, held a community event to honor those who have died due to health issues from exposure to toxic environments, Nov. 7, 2023. The group, who gathered for an outdoor dinner, spoke about the long-time toxic exposure in their neighborhood. After dinner and speeches, the group marched a couple blocks to GAF, a residential and commercial roofing plant on Singleton Blvd. They are fighting against the changing of the City of Dallas's amortization process.
Tom Fox/TNS
Dallas residents could lose the ability to petition for the closure of businesses that have been proved harmful to the community if the city follows a recommendation by the city attorney’s office.

Activists and neighborhood leaders are sounding the alarm that the city might take away residents’ rights to the process known as amortization. Currently, residents or a City Council member can petition to allow evidence to be presented to determine whether a business site causes enough negative impacts to justify shutting it down.

In the past, amortization has allowed for the shuttering of, for example, a car wash where attempts to curb drug crimes had repeatedly failed, and a small auto repair operation that had been at its location for years when city planners pushed through new zoning and effectively forced it to go away.

A new state law adds protections for business owners in the event of amortization, including monetary remedies. City staff is working on ordinance changes to bring Dallas into compliance with the new law. But the state law doesn’t limit residents’ rights to petition to start the amortization process. Some say the city attorney’s plan to strip residents’ ability to file amortization petitions goes too far.

No one knows of a case when a resident actually petitioned. More often, residents work with City Council members or directly with city staff to initiate amortization. But activists want to preserve their right to petition in case their leaders fail them.

“People should have the right to challenge what goes on through amortization,” said Raul Reyes, activist and leader from West Dallas 1, “If I feel that a place is no longer suitable and is being harmful to my community, I should have the right to file if my council member doesn’t want to.”

The city attorney’s office says the change could save the city millions of dollars.

“If the board of adjustment orders a nonconforming business to close, that decision could cost taxpayers millions of dollars, which would result in diminished funding for necessities like public safety, street repairs, and other city priorities,” the city’s attorney office said in a statement.

City Attorney Tammy Palomino did not respond to a request for comment.

Amortization begins when the Board of Adjustment receives a petition filed by a resident or a council member. A case must go through several public hearings where evidence is presented to determine whether the site causes enough negative impacts to justify shutting it down. The City Council makes final decisions.

If the recommended change to city ordinances is approved, the city would no longer accept petitions from its residents.

“The proposed code amendment being considered by the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee puts the decision of spending taxpayer money on requiring a nonconforming use to cease operation in its proper place with city council,” wrote Jenna Carpenter, with the city’s communication department.

A Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee meeting will be held Tuesday, where members appointed by the City Plan Commission will hear recommendations from the city attorney’s office and residents’ views on the ordinance.

After reviewing the proposed amendment, the committee may recommend it to the City Plan Commission. The proposed amendment is then placed on the agenda for a public hearing and, if approved, is presented to the City Council.

Since 2019, at least five cases have been filed with the Board of Adjustment to review the nonconforming land use, all petitions initiated by the City Council, according to records from the Board of Adjustment meetings.

“I am not aware of any locality that restricts the power of its residents to petition the government for something,” said Ari Bargil, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit that offers free legal services across the country. “There are First Amendment implications when the government is taking away from citizens the ability to ask for certain relief from the government.”

Bargil was part of a team representing Hinga Mbogo and his small auto repair shop on Ross Avenue, which closed in 2016 through the amortization process after the council in 2005 approved new zoning for the area and his business was found to be nonconforming.

Jim Schermbeck, local activist and director of Downwinders at Risk, an environmental grassroots organization, said that the city attorney’s proposal is undemocratic. He noted that it’s not like a resident shows up every day wanting to file a petition for amortization to close a business.

“The new law does not prohibit individuals from filing their own amortization petitions. That’s the city attorney’s office, which went out of its way to take away a right that the residents of Dallas already had. That was gratuitous. That was unnecessary,” said Schermbeck.

In a statement, state Sen. Tan Parker, who authored SB 929, said that the bill is a common-sense bill that simply requires cities to compensate landowners if the city forces them to shut down their businesses.

Some strongly favor the new law, such as Dale Davenport, who owned Jim’s Car Wash when it was shuttered by the city in 2019. The city targeted the car wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard after multiple reports of robberies, drug sales and prostitution.

Davenport added security cameras and took other measures to reduce crime, but ultimately the city closed the place. Davenport says he was unfairly targeted.

“This new law needs to be put into effect and protect small business people,” he said. “The city of Dallas, they cannot be trusted, and they cannot be given too much power.”

But some feel the change disallowing resident petitions could affect minorities more than others.

“What are we doing, Dallas? Who will most likely have to use this tool?” said Janie Cisneros, leader of Singleton United/Unidos, a neighborhood group in West Dallas. “Most likely the minority communities.”

Why Residents Are Fighting


Cisneros has been working through community activism with the GAF’s Gotta Go, or GAF Vete Ya, a campaign to get asphalt shingle manufacturer GAF out of its West Dallas site on Singleton Avenue to stop what they say are harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter that affects area neighbors.

These neighbors, along with District 6 council member Omar Narvaez, have all been involved in conversations about addressing pollution concerns and working together to minimize harm to residents’ health. Narvaez said during a City Hall event in July 2022 that amortization was a tool on the table to shut down GAF but that it was a last resort.

Weeks later, talks ended when GAF announced it would close in July 2029. Neighbors want them out sooner.

On Oct. 3, Cisneros tried to file a petition for GAF amortization but was told that the Board of Adjustment would not accept her application due to the new state law. She had wanted to do so months earlier but was advised to wait as talks continued.

Although planning to close, GAF said it will not withdraw its zoning application, which requests that the area not be used as an industrial zone in the future. Narvaez said in an interview that, at this point, he can’t do anything about the zoning case or the proposed amendment because both things are stalled in committees or ongoing processes.

Once the cases make it through the process, it is up to the City Council to vote on them.

Cisneros and Downwinders at Risk hired the consulting firm Bva Group to analyze how much it would cost the city to shut down GAF through amortization. According to the study, the cost would be between $36 million and $45 million over two to three and a half years.

The city attorney’s office did not respond to requests for information about how much it has cost the city to pay for previous amortization cases initiated by council members or residents.

Cisneros and the leaders of Downwinders at Risk say that leaving this process solely in the hands of council members is dangerous.

“What if the council member does not stand up for their community? Then we have no way to fight,” Cisneros said.

District 11 council member Jaynie Schultz said the City Council would likely not vote in favor of any amendment restricting residents’ rights.

“A person should have the right to apply for something or oppose something or do what they want to do with their land through our application process,” said Schultz. “I don’t think that City Council members should individually check a box for somebody.”

Since the Board of Adjustment is not accepting applications until the ordinance changes are complete, activists ask why no one is enforcing the current law.

There “has to be some procedure for individuals to be able to follow the law now until it has changed if it ever is, and that’s where I think the city is falling short,” said Schermeck.

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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