The conclusion: Today, neither Tarrant County in general nor Fort Worth in particular has enough park acreage to meet national minimum standards. With the population growth projected for the foreseeable future, we should be preserving existing park lands and acquiring more, not degrading existing parks by doing things like building major roads over the top of them – as has been proposed in Trinity Park.
The League has written to Mayor Moncrief and members of the Fort Worth City Council proposing an amendment to the city charter that would increase public participation and avoid surprises when the city government intends to take park land for major roads. The amendment would require voter approval before any portion of a park could be converted to public right of way. This would parallel the existing charter provision that requires voter approval before the sale of such land. The League wants to nail down safeguards to require that broad public notification be made whenever the city wants to convert park land to public right of way. (It’s important to distinguish between park drives and public right of way: The League’s proposal would have no effect on the internal drives that serve the parks and are controlled by the city’s Parks and Community Services.)
A right of way through a park would have a wider effect than just the roadway. It would contribute to the noise level and air pollution. A separation would be needed between the roadway and the park to ensure the safety of people using the park. That would effectively isolate park areas on opposite sides of the road, in some cases leaving a strip of unusable land. In short, the impact of a thoroughfare would be considerably greater than that caused by the smaller roads that serve the parks themselves.
In response to our concerns, the city attorney has said that the current public hearing process on proposed roadways provides adequate provision for citizen comment. We disagree. The League feels that the wider public participation and the more binding mandate provided by an election is necessary in the case of an irreversible encroachment on park land. Some claim that we already have “so many elections” and that the expected low voter turnout would not be worth the cost. Well, even the lowest turnout for an election is greater than the turnout for public hearings.
Whether or not the city charter is changed, the League is asking the city council to find ways to get the word out more broadly when loss of park land is at stake in road construction. Even without the charter amendment, we believe the council could require that the Parks and Community Services Advisory Board, all neighborhood groups, and any other groups that request it be notified of such proposals by e-mail.
Furthermore, we believe Fort Worth must go beyond protecting the park land it now has. We are also asking that provisions be added to the city’s master plan to safeguard existing parks and to acquire more park areas.
The city council has already proposed an election next year to get voter approval of other charter changes. We think this item should be added to the list and, if it is, that voters should support it. Our greenspace is precious, and we are the only ones who can protect it.
Pat Cheong is president of the League of Women Voters of Tarrant County.