Bellaire Drive South is a hidden gem, or so say a lot of people who live on or near that two-mile stretch in southwest Fort Worth. Beneath a canopy of old oak trees, the quiet street with the view of sumptuous mini-mansions meanders from Bryant Irvin Road just north of I-20 down toward Benbrook.
Over the past few weeks, something less picturesque has become a frequent sight there — hundreds of red and white yard signs that read, “No bridge NO WAY.” The not-so-subtle messaging is a rebuke of Benbrook City Council’s proposed Clear Fork Emergency Access Bridge. The proposed several-hundred-foot-long single lane would cost $1.6 million, city officials say, and would improve response times for police, fire, and emergency medical services for northeast Benbrook. But many area residents and homeowners association presidents I spoke with believe the bridge could easily be opened to public use. The resulting traffic, they said, could lower property values and disrupt the quality of life in the area, which includes a handful of neighborhoods in southwest Fort Worth.
Gathered outside Trinity Chapel Bible Church in northeast Benbrook recently were about a dozen members of No Bridge No Way, a coalition of 12 nearby neighborhood associations that formed last spring. Inside, Benbrook Mayor Jerry Dittrich, who has held that office since 2005, discussed the Clear Fork Bridge with members of the Mont Del Estates Homeowners Association. After being informed I could not attend the private event, which was guarded by a handful of Benbrook police department officers, I went outside to chat with the bridge protesters.
Bellaire Park North Homeowners Association president Richard Scherer said Benbrook city council members have continually changed their rationale for the bridge while rebuffing alternative proposals. Those alternatives, he said, include the hiring of more police officers, opening a police substation, and partnering with private developments like Ridglea Country Club to provide quicker access to northeast Benbrook, options that are either ineffective or unaffordable, according to Benbrook Police Chief James Mills. Like many residents I spoke with, Scherer believes Benbrook city officials are more interested in supporting private developers, who stand to benefit from increased northward traffic, than respecting the wishes of local homeowners.
There’s a “lot of distrust” among Fort Worth residents toward the mayor of Benbrook and Benbrook City Council, he said.
Longtime Benbrook resident Richard O’Glee remembers the city’s last attempt to build the Clear Fork Bridge. In March 2010, a City Council-appointed advisory committee recommended construction of a publicly accessible bridge to address slower than average response times by emergency responders. After considerable public backlash, O’Glee said, that effort failed. Many in the area thought that was the end of it until O’Glee discovered last February that the city had applied for federal funding for two public works projects, including the Clear Fork Bridge.
“That’s how it got onto our radar,” he said.
O’Glee said locals were kept in the dark about the bridge’s revival. He said Benbrook residents didn’t know about two city expenditures related to the bridge until months after city officials approved them.
According to city records, Benbrook staffers hired the engineering firm Freese and Nichols two months earlier to conduct a preliminary study of the project at a cost of $29,650. By the following January, Benbrook City Council had allocated $530,000 from its general fund for the bridge.
Benbrook City Councilmember Jim Wilson told me that his city regularly sets aside funds in anticipation of projects. The idea, he said, is to fund projects in cash and avoid debt.
“Was money set aside? Yes,” he said. “We put money away for the bridge in case we built it. It’s how we run our budget.”
During a February 2 city council meeting, Benbrook Planning and Zoning Commissioner David Ramsey asked Benbrook Director of Public Services, Bennett Howell, why the Clear Fork Bridge would not be open to the public. Bennett replied that a full public access bridge had been considered for a number of years, but because of public opposition against that type of bridge, a decision was made to limit access to only emergency personnel at this time.
However, Bennett continued, city staff was “hopeful” that neighborhood opposition would subside once the bridge was completed, allowing it to accommodate full public access at some point in the future.
Benbrook City Attorney Allen Taylor recently told me that Bennett’s comment was an “offhand remark” that has been used by a “handful” of No Bridge No Way members to mislead the public.
Howell is an engineer, Taylor said, not “a publicly elected official speaking for the city. We have tried to communicate [with the public] in every way we can. We keep producing the statistics. Some still think it’s all a conspiracy. They are at the stage of, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts. I already have my own opinion.’ ”
To assuage concerns over the bridge, Benbrook City Council and staff are pursuing a three-way agreement between Fort Worth and Benbrook with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). The legally binding partnership requires Benbrook and Fort Worth officials to jointly request an easement for the Clear Fork Bridge. The results would effectively bind Benbrook into using the bridge for emergency access only, Taylor said.
Taylor said the agreement will protect Benbrook or Fort Worth from “deferring” to a different use for the bridge.
O’Glee sees the three-way agreement as convoluted.
“What’s to stop a future city council from changing their minds?” O’Glee asked. “We don’t know who the mayor will be in five years. The next mayor could be pro-development and may want to open up the bridge.”
The public project, even one that is emergency access only, sets a precedent for future developments, he continued, referring to hypothetical requests by developers.
Indeed, several developments have drastically reshaped the landscape in and around northeast Benbrook, mostly on the Fort Worth side. Many of those businesses, including the Shops at Clear Fork and The Trailhead, are owned and managed by Cassco, the development arm of the land-rich Edwards family. Cassco, through the political action committee Conservative Voters Forum, donated $10,000 toward Fort Worth City Councilmember Brian Byrd’s recent campaign.
The treasurer listed on Cassco’s political action committee didn’t return my phone calls. Byrd said that, in his discussions with Cassco staff, Cassco does not typically make campaign contributions. A search of the Texas Ethics Commission website did not reveal any other recent campaign contributions by Cassco or its political action committee.
Byrd told me in a phone interview that Cassco staff “never discussed” the Clear Fork Bridge with him. As a precaution, he told me that he has been very clear about his stance on the bridge.
“I told them I would never be for the bridge,” he said, referring to last spring, before details of the Clear Fork Bridge were known. “They said, ‘That’s fine.’ ”
“The fact that Neiman Marcus might need access [to Benbrook] has never played into these conversations,” Taylor said, referring to the prominent upscale retailer that inhabits a Cassco development. “They are not talking to Benbrook. If Neiman Marcus was trying to put money to get better access, nobody would be supporting a 17-foot single-lane bridge. That services nothing. I’ve heard the same rumor. That wouldn’t solve anybody’s access needs.”
Around 50 Fort Worth residents who live along Bellaire South Drive gathered at St. Peter Orthodox Church for a meeting recently. Convened by members of No Bridge No Way, several civic leaders, including Councilmember Byrd and Fort Worth Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa, and a handful of homeowners association presidents discussed the Clear Fork Bridge with locals.
“When this issue came up, we convened a meeting,” Chapa said. “The mayor met with [Byrd] and representatives of Benbrook, including their mayor. They told us they’re looking for a single lane gated bridge. The concerns, especially based on [Benbrook’s] past actions and city council votes, was whether that was really what they’re going to build. I worked with our engineering folks and law department to come up with a plan that would limit the ability of Benbrook to do more than that. We came up with a plan that would put the control of the bridge in Fort Worth’s hands” through the three-way agreement.
Councilmember Byrd told the audience that Fort Worth officials, including himself, expressed in “no uncertain terms” that Fort Worth does not want the bridge.
“They had zero interest” in several alternatives we suggested, he continued.
As happened frequently that night, a frustrated attendee voiced distrust of Benbrook’s intentions.
“This is not a pragmatic decision,” the senior citizen interjected. “It’s purely politically. I’d make a wager that in five years, they’ll be pushing for two lanes.”
Several area residents said the bridge would eventually serve Waterside, the mixed-use development that recently opened near northeast Benbrook, and The Shops at Clear Fork.
“I don’t want a bridge,” Byrd said toward the end of the meeting. “There are other ways we can solve the problem. However, since [Benbrook city officials] are persisting, and there’s not anything I can do to stop them, I want to move to protect our neighborhoods through the mechanism we are looking at.”
During the meeting, several people said private property would need to be bought or acquired through eminent domain — something I hadn’t heard from Benbrook officials. Zachary Miller, the son-in-law of the private property’s owner, reached out to me a couple of days later. A bridge rendering by Freese and Nichols displays the bridge overlapping around an acre of his father’s land. Miller said he has spoken with several city officials, all of whom have assured him that his father’s land will not be needed.
Jim Hinderaker, Benbrook assistant city manager, said the city is proposing construction of the Clearfork Bridge “within existing TxDOT right-of-way only” and not on private property.
Miller said he is skeptical about Benbrook’s reassurances. He’s withholding final judgement until he sees the final agreement among Benbrook, Fort Worth, and TxDOT in writing, he said.
“This is about response times,” Benbrook police chief James Mills said in a phone interview.
“There has been a lot of misinformation out there. I understand the concern about increased traffic and crime. This will be single lane only. It would be gated for emergency responders. The city doesn’t plan to open it up.”
The average police response times to northeast Benbrook is longer than any part of Benbrook, he continued.
“This is something we’ve had to deal with for a very long time,” he said. “Our concern is that as this area grows, those response times aren’t going to get any better.”
Councilmember Wilson said he has been putting in extra hours, going door to door in Benbrook to dispel what he said are misconceptions about the bridge.
“Those are long conversations,” he said. “You have to explain that it’s not going to be a two-lane public bridge. ‘No, there aren’t going to be several thousand cars driving through it. No, the gates aren’t going to come down later.’ ”
After discussing the project, Mills said many residents voluntarily take their protest signs down. The ones who don’t, Mills said, cite a need to appear in solidarity with neighbors.
“There’s an unfortunate trust factor,” he continued. “I don’t think we deserve that, but I understand it.”
One cause of the trust divide, Mills said, came from a lack of public official comment on the bridge during the early months of the year. O’Glee and the group of homeowners who would go on to form No Bridge No Way became aware of the Clear Fork Bridge long before Benbrook City Council was fully briefed on the project’s details, Mills said.
“When there’s not information, something fills the void,” the councilmember said.
On December 7, Benbrook City Council voted unanimously to move forward with the bridge. The following week, Benbrook residents began receiving notices from city officials that the protest signs had to be moved 10 feet away from Bellaire South Drive. The officials cited right-of-way laws.
According to Byrd, Fort Worth City Council will vote on the three-way agreement sometime in early 2018. District 3 director Michael Crain said the city of Fort Worth considers the proposed vote a “two-way” agreement between Benbrook and Fort Worth with a separate agreement for the license with TxDOT.
Fort Worth’s Chapa said in an email that there is “no specific” date set for a vote on the agreement.
“Our respective attorneys are working on the overall agreement with the basic terms that have been discussed,” he said. “We won’t take anything to the city council for a vote until that is concluded and vetted publicly with the council and public.”
Bellaire Park North resident Cathy Ekins said the Clear Fork bridge has sown mistrust between her neighbors and Benbrook city officials. She has become an advocate for questioning the motives behind the bridge.
“I don’t understand why they aren’t backing our neighborhoods,” she said. “Just for a couple of developers. We all know this is not about the emergency response time. They are just using the name ‘emergency access bridge.’ Nobody trusts Benbrook at this point. Nobody.” l