A contentious Fort Worth city council meeting ended late Tuesday night with the council voting 7-2 to overturn a 2006 ordinance designed to keep pawnshops, most of which have payday lending operations within the stores, and other less savory businesses out of retail centers in or near residential neighborhoods. The vote also overturned the unanimous vote of the nine-member zoning commission to deny the proposed zoning change.
Council members Kathleen Hicks, who has led the fight to oppose the change, and Joel Burns voted no. Hicks’ district has seven of the 13 pawnshops that are affected by the ordinance; Burns’ district has three.
Hicks’ opposition grows out of the disproportionate number already in her district. Burns, who had voted prior to the zoning commission hearing to initiate the change, said that he had changed his mind after visiting the pawnshops in his district and found they were out of compliance with city codes.
More than 100 neighborhood residents and representatives of neighborhood groups showed up to oppose the change. Only a few spoke in favor, all pawnshop owners. The controversial proposal, which has been covered extensively by this paper, banned such businesses from locating in certain neighborhoods but allowed those already in operation to be grandfathered with the stipulation that if for any reason the businesses closed, they could not rebuild. The change impacted 13 pawnshop/payday lenders out of more than 30 that operate legally in the city.
Opponents such as Libby Willis of the League of Neighborhoods, who said she represented one hundred neighborhood groups opposed to the change, raised the fear that if zoning restrictions on pawnshops are lifted, then other zoning restrictions fought hard for by the neighborhoods will also be subject to change. The issue is not pawnshops, Willis said, “What this case is about is a class of businesses asking for special treatment” and setting a precedent that will have negative impacts across the city. Willis was interrupted by council member Zim Zimmerman who rudely questioned her claim to represent the neighborhood associations asking her for “documented” proof that the leaders had given her the right to speak for them. Mayor Mike Moncrief backed Zimmerman. The unflappable Willis agreed, but no one on the council moved to delay the vote until she could provide her documentation, making the issue moot.
Other opponents said they feared that the tattoo parlors, massage parlors and other businesses now banned would petition for equal treatment. “This will open up a Pandora’s box,” one said.
And even though the proposed change will not allow new pawn shops in the areas, it will allow expansion of those already there, another bone of contention with neighborhood leaders such as Eunice Givens whose Highland Hills neighborhood is home to one of Cash America’s largest pawnshop/payday lending stores at Oak Grove Road and Loop 820 on the city’s far south side.
Dana Burghdoff, planning department deputy director, verified that the changed ordinance would allow expansion of the shops, which many of those in attendance said was the real purpose of the revised ordinance. If they cannot build new ones in the neighborhoods, then “the next best thing is to expand,” said one.
The proposed change was driven by Cash America International, based in Fort Worth and the largest pawn shop/payday lender in the nation with dozens of locations in and near Fort Worth. Seven of the affected pawnshops are owned by the company — four in Hicks’ district. It has been heavily lobbying the council to change the ordinance for two years.
Cash America recently donated a strip of land near its headquarters on West 7th Street to the city for expansion of a Trinity River bridge that Mayor Mike Moncrief earlier told reporter Chris Hawes of WFAA-TV, who broke the story, was valued at around “$2 million.”
When the specter of a quid pro quo was raised by opponents of the change such as East Side neighborhood activist Rita Vinson, who pointed out that for those representing the interests of the public, the perception of a conflict of interest was as damaging as a real conflict, Moncrief went on the defensive, as did most of the other members. Burns wrote in an email, that he didn’t think the connection to the vote and the land donation “is fair.” He was in the room when the offer was made and there was no mention of the pawnshop ordinance, he said. .
Moncrief quickly backtracked on the value of the land explaining that it was a figure he made up to make a point but never said what the point was. He had “no idea” what the real value is, he told the audience. On the Tarrant Appraisal District rolls, the 2.5 acres of property owned by the company at its 7th Street headquarters is valued at $3.4 million an acre. Nonetheless, there was nothing untoward about the donation from Cash America, he said, it was simply doing business “the Fort Worth Way.”
Last night the Fort Worth Way (whatever that means) won.
But the battle may have just begun. In an email, an angry Vinson wrote that the council action was a “travesty.” She was especially angered over the treatment of long-time community activist Willis, who is from a prominent Fort Worth political family. She is the wife of Doyle Willis, Jr., whose father, Doyle Willis, Sr., was the longest-serving state legislator in recent history.
“Libby’s presentation was very good and very professional, yet Zim and the mayor went after her. It was totally uncalled for. I’m ready to work on the next city council election.”