A minor change in a Fort Worth zoning regulation could have major repercussions.

The Fort Worth City Council a few weeks ago made what looked like a small change to zoning rules, but it’s one that could have major implications for the city for years to come.

The change, approved March 3, allows natural gas line compressors to be placed in areas zoned for light industry. The amendment has many city activists up in arms over the possibility that the apparently minor “text amendment” is actually a foot in the door that will allow the huge compressors to wind up in or next to residential neighborhoods.

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“What happened was that when the new gas well ordinance was written, it conflicted with city zoning regulations,” said Jim Ashford, an outspoken critic of urban gas drilling.

The drilling ordinance permits the gas line compressors – huge machines that compress natural gas from gathering lines so that it can be shipped interstate through much larger transmission lines – to be built only in agricultural or light, medium, or heavy industrial zones. “The intent was to keep them out of commercial and residential areas,” Ashford said.

So what’s the problem? The zoning ordinance allows no motors more powerful than 50 horsepower in the “light industrial” zones. “They’re meant for machine shops, lathing, welding, that sort of thing,” Ashford said. “They’re not meant for heavy industry, and if a 1,500-horsepower compressor, or six of them, is not heavy industry, I don’t know what is.”

Picture the ideal city layout: It’s got a residential area, and just on the outskirts of that is a commercial area. Farther out is a light industrial zone, past that a medium industrial zone, and then on the edge of town is the heavy industrial zone. Now picture jet engines being built and tested in that close-to-town light industrial zone and you’ve got it.

When faced with the conflict, city staffers decided that rather than change the much-fought-over new gas drilling ordinance, they would amend the zoning ordinance. They recommended providing a “special exception” to the 50hp limit for gas companies that would allow them to place compressor stations in light industrial zones. In other words, the city opened a door in the zoning ordinance to accommodate the gas companies, rather than changing the drilling ordinance to keep compressors farther away from homes.

According to Ashford, city planning director Susan Alanis “said the change was needed to get the gas ordinance to meet the zoning ordinance wording. … In her presentation to the city council, Susan explained that the 50hp regulation was probably put in place to regulate noise, and then said the compressors already had a noise limitation.”

Alanis did not return calls seeking comment for this story. Although one drilling company representative responded generally to an e-mail, none of the drillers responded to specific questions about the zoning law change.

What most concerns Ashford and others is how the amendment might affect commercial and residentially zoned districts. Any industry that can meet the light industry zoning standards could now ask for a variance from the city’s Board of Adjustment to be allowed in a commercial or residential zone.

Last year Chesapeake Energy was turned down in its bid to get a variance from the Board of Adjustment to place a six-compressor station in a commercial zone on Cooks Lane on the East Side precisely because of the 50hp limit. If that case were heard now, the new rule could change the outcome. 

Emilio Sanchez, senior planner with Fort Worth Planning and Development agreed that the special exception will allow gas companies to seek permission to put the compressor stations in both commercial and residential zones. “They would have to request that exception from the Commercial Board of Adjustment, but then they would have to give notice of that request to all residents who live within 300 feet of the boundaries of the planned station, because they would be the parties primarily affected. And those people could voice their objections to the board if they had any.”

Whatever the outcome of the proceeding before the board, the losing side could appeal to district court – not the city council, another thing Ashford is livid about.

But Susan De Los Santos, who was a member of the city’s second Gas Drilling Ordinance Task Force and is also a member of the Residential Board of Adjustment, doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. “Both the residential and commercial boards are made up of one person from each council district appointed by the council member, plus one person appointed by the mayor. And you would have to convince those nine people that giving that variance is the right thing to do.” To win a variance from either of the boards requires seven affirmative votes. “Those are not easy votes to get,” she said. “The people on those boards are not elected officials, so there’s often less politics involved. They are there for the neighborhoods, not for re-election.”

De Los Santos said that both boards take public opinion very seriously. “If someone wanted to put a compressor station in a neighborhood, and 50 residents came out saying they didn’t want it, well, that would carry a lot of weight with the board,” she said. “The same would hold true if all the residents said they didn’t mind it at all.”

Greg Hughes of the Coalition for a Reformed Drilling Ordinance (CREDO) said that the special exception is flat-out bad policy. “The 50hp rule in light industrial zones was put there for a reason. Giving the compressors the right to be put in light zoning areas opens the door to heavy industrial activity happening everywhere. I know that if I were coming to open a business here that was restricted to heavy industrial zones, and I thought I could have a better location in a light industrial zone, well, I’d point to the gas compressor exemption and try to get my own exemption based on that.”

“The whole thing is a mistake,” said Don Young, founder of Fort Worth Citizens Against Neighborhood Drilling Ordinance (FWCANDO) and long an outspoken critic of urban drilling. “The gas companies have known all along they would need these compressors. And now they are going to have to get them in place, and they’ll do whatever they need to do that. The gas companies know this is a long-term project for them, and they also know that the more they get in place now – like compressors potentially being allowed in any zoning area – the better it will be for them down the line. They’re just being given way too much leeway in how they do business in Fort Worth.”

“You’ve got to think that the zoning ordinance limiting machinery to 50 horsepower was put in place for a reason,” said Gary Hogan, a member of both the 2006 and 2008 gas drilling task forces and now a candidate for the late Chuck Silcox’s vacant city council seat. “And it’s made sense for 50 years. To make this sort of change at the behest of one industry leads to a slippery slope. If you can get a compressor station into a commercial or residential zone, well, then you’re going to need pipelines, and that means more eminent-domain taking of people’s front yards.

“Jim Ashford isn’t wrong to be upset with this,” he said. “A lot of us are because we see where it can lead.”