The folks who live in Little Forest Hills are on a crusade to preserve the character of their neighborhood, as evidenced by the plentiful “Keep Little Forest Hills Funky” signs pitched on a number of lawns — often alongside a sculpture, fountain or plastic bird. Their efforts are a response to a pattern they see emerging: aging homes coming down, and newer, radically different homes being built in their place.
It’s the same trend taking place in nearby neighborhoods, and many of them have both discovered and implemented city zoning tools that protect the architectural character of older neighborhoods threatened by new development.
But Little Forest Hills — a neighborhood east on Garland Road up from the White Rock Lake Spillway and across the street from the Dallas Arboretum — is no ordinary Dallas neighborhood.
And a recent neighborhood gathering to discuss pending development rules that would impact future home construction makes clear that preserving the characters in this neighborhood is just as important — a woman up front sports a ratty Janis Joplin tee; a clean-cut couple with an evident baby on the way sits attentively, arm-in-arm; an older man donning crisp calf socks and sandals perches near a wall, raising his hand before posing the occasional query.
The community is a veritable melting pot of artists, nurses, entrepreneurs and musicians who are young and old and gathered from assorted economic and cultural conditions.
Little Forest Hills is facing a predicament in Dallas — to date, there has been no ordinance written to preserve funkiness.
Check it out
Though it’s defined mainly by cottage-style homes with colorful facades and whimsical landscapes, Little Forest Hills has no clear-cut commonality in style, which makes preservation tricky.
It doesn’t contain neat rows of Tudor-style cottages like the M-Streets; it doesn’t boast the consistent front porches and two-story Prairie-style architecture of Munger Place.
Instead, Little Forest Hills is a kaleidoscope of sorts — a slowly shifting scene of houses old and new, big and small, chic and shabby.
Such miscellany has made it difficult for the city and the community to come to terms on a method of preservation. Supporters of a conservation district say it’s the only way to stop so-called “McMansionization”, but opponents argue new restrictions could backfire and negatively impact the neighborhood.
And after five years of discussion, these struggles have this otherwise easygoing community on edge.
Small houses, lots of trees
Bob and Sharon Klug wanted to retire to a quiet, cozy community where they could garden and get to know their neighbors — and they found just that in Little Forest Hills.
“Small houses, lots of trees, plenty of opportunities for us to get active in the community — it was the best neighborhood around,” Bob Klug says.
It’s a different story, he says, for a relatively large home that recently went up across his street.
“The owner would come home, pull into his garage attached to the house … and I never saw him, until I finally went to the door and introduced myself. I like to know who my neighbors are.”
Shortly after moving in, Klug joined the Little Forest Hills Conservation Committee, working alongside some of his neighbors to fight construction they feared would jeopardize their way of life. Their aim was to create a so-called conservation district, an ordinance the city’s development department implemented in the late 1980s to help older single-family neighborhoods maintain existing characteristics.
Conservation district supporter Mike Schmitt has sold more than 400 homes during 27 years of living and working in Little Forest Hills. Schmitt says a conservation district will protect “this little gem of a neighborhood from the encroachment of huge houses.”
“They overshadow neighbors, kill the trees, disrupt the drainage, ruin the neighbors view, and hurt the values of the smaller homes by making them only good for teardowns,” Schmitt says about some of the new construction.
Saying “no” to intrusive development
Klug and Schmitt both say they aren’t against all development — only intrusive development.
By the time Klug became involved, the conservation committee had been at work for nearly three years. According to a city development website, the entire process of creating a conservation district “typically takes 12-18 months from the authorization of a study until the adoption of the City Council.”
But the proposed Little Forest Hills conservation district has been under discussion for nearly three years since the city conducted its feasibility study and ruled the neighborhood eligible for a conservation district.
So “why,” committee members demanded to know at a recent meeting, “is this taking so long?”
Resident Kat Benner says she loves “the trees, little houses and the people” in her neighborhood, as she addresses a crowd of a couple hundred residents.
“We’ve been working on this so long,” Benner says, “some of you may have forgotten why.”
The meeting is one of many that have been held to keep residents informed, and it offers a good indication of what Little Forest Hills is trying to save.
Some older homes need to be renovated or even torn down and rebuilt, conservation committee members tell listeners, but massive construction might mean the destruction of the neighborhood’s most valued characteristics — both the aesthetic and intangible.
Ignored by the city?
Attendees were given postcards urging Michael Pumphrey, Dallas’ chief planner for preservation, to “adopt the proposals made by Little Forest Hills in our conservation district draft ordinance.” Those present were asked to mail them to the city because, Benner told them, “the city is ignoring us.”
Pumphrey says that, while he understands neighbors’ plight, the postcards were pointless, and the city is moving as quickly as can be expected considering the circumstances.
Pumphrey came on board with the city about the time the Little Forest Hills conservation district process was getting underway. The first problem, he says, is that the neighborhood is simply too large for a single conservation district.
Each conservation district ordinance must be tailored to the neighborhood requesting it, based on resident input and city staff recommendations. A more populated neighborhood means more work for everyone, and Little Forest Hills has about 945 homes in the mix. By comparison, other conservation districts in Dallas usually include 30 to 300 homes, Pumphrey says, and the city staff is usually working with multiple neighborhoods at once.
“Even if Little Forest Hills was the only neighborhood we were dealing with, it would be difficult,” he says.
In addition, he says, Little Forest Hills committee members weren’t entirely cooperative when it came to city staff’s recommendations, which stalled the writing of a draft ordinance.
“The city employs professionals who are experienced at planning and historical preservation,” he says, adding that residents need the help of city staff if they want what is best for the neighborhood, he says.
Other options available
Today, less complex zoning options are available, but when Little Forest Hills took up this cause, a conservation district was the best tool the city offered. Pumphrey says splitting Little Forest Hills into two districts might have helped, but by the time he got involved, it was too late for that.
It was also too late to go with a less restrictive, more modern alternative to a conservation district — the neighborhood stabilization overlay. An overlay district includes five regulations governing development, while a conservation district includes 28.
There’s a misconception that being opposed to the conservation district means being opposed to conservation, says Little Forest Hills resident Alan Hoffman, who also builds homes in the neighborhood.
“Everyone wants to ‘Keep Little Forest Hills Funky’. I am empathetic to what they are trying to achieve,” Hoffman says. “I just don’t think what they are doing is going to achieve this.”
Hoffman, who has lived in the White Rock area 26 years, says he is committed to sustainable living and “green” building. Current zoning allows Hoffman to build around trees and find creative ways to preserve the woodsy landscape, but he won’t be able to do this so easily if conservation restrictions are imposed, he says.
“I build funky — I live in what I hope is a funky house,” Hoffman says. “[Neighbors] like my product, but their ordinance will prevent me from building it,” he says.
Mark Martinek has designed and built four, going on five, homes in Little Forest Hills, all of them a bit offbeat and creative — funky, as it were — and none that he believes contribute to the so-called “McMansionization” of the neighborhood. Because he doesn’t live there, Martinek says he is loath to weigh in on whether he thinks the conservation district ordinance should pass or fail.
With that said, “restrictions should never hinder architectural style or stand in the way of green modern design,” he says.
And after reading the draft proposal, Martinek says he believes the Little Forest Hills conservation district ordinance contains elements that do just that.
It’s a conundrum — “what they want to preserve is the feeling of open space, community and a unique landscape that is a panorama of personal expression,” Martinek says. “Architecture is art — it should never be stifled.”
Disagreement and disappointment
Architectural restrictions were part of the city staff recommendations, Bob Klug says; the conservation committee originally asked that only the most basic restrictions be put in place.
Martinek says the city staff has understandably failed to grasp what this is all about for Little Forest Hills.
“You can’t blame them. They would really have to be putting all their time into this one issue in order to grasp that. But they do lack empathy.”
The development department has put a draft ordinance on the table — a loose interpretation of a conservation district as it was originally intended, Pumphrey says. It’s a proposal for rudimentary restrictions on size, height, setback and architectural elements, comprising input from residents, builders and city staff. Pumphrey describes it as so basic that it’s a conservation district in name only.
Neighbors discussed this proposal at two town hall meetings in September. It’s scheduled to go before the City Plan Commission at a public hearing in November.
Plan commissioner Bob Weiss oversees District 9, which includes Little Forest Hills, and both supporters and detractors say he has been working to help draft an agreeable ordinance. As is the custom in Dallas politics — fellow plan commissioners and city councilmen take their lead from their peers responsible for an impacted project — the recommendations of Weiss and city councilman Sheffie Kadane on the Little Forest Hills conservation district will be heavily considered when it appears on the City Council’s agenda late this year.
“This is large and complicated. We want to find common ground and get to yes,” Weiss says. “Essentially, you’ve got three parties involved: the conservation district proponents, the homebuilders and the city staff, and you’ve got to get them to come to terms.”
Weiss has stayed heavily involved in the process, spending untold hours talking with everyone involved, Klug says.
“Bob Weiss has stuck this thing through.” Klug says, “He’s been in our neighborhood and visited our homes.”
The quest for predictability
Weiss says those visits, along with years of dealings in similar situations, have given him unique insight into the issue. In fact, he says the maelstrom of surveys, petitions, meetings, arguments and emotions boils down to one thing: “predictable adjacency — what you really want to know is who’s on either side of you and what’s up and down the block,” he says.
“When a neighborhood starts to change, it causes tension,” Weiss says. “But predictability is like beauty — it’s in the eye of the beholder.”
He believes that’s one reason why folks in Little Forest Hills have become so engaged in this effort — because it’s personal. This fight, like most, is about a way of life more so than property values. And even if the discussion becomes contentious, he says, that’s not necessarily a negative.
“These are identity issues which are not about economics — of course you feel passionately. We are engaged in our communities — how is that bad? It doesn’t mean we agree all the time.”
If the plan commission recommends approval, the next step is city council action on the ordinance. If approved, no homes already built will be affected, but proposed construction and exterior renovations will have to meet requirements of the conservation district ordinance.
In addition to voicing their opinion at various neighborhood meetings, Little Forest Hills homeowners will have two opportunities to submit, in writing, their ballot for or against the proposal: prior to the plan commission meeting, and again prior to the city council meeting.
Kadane says he must see a clear indication of support from homeowners before he will support the proposal’s approval.
“I know it [the conservation committee] has worked on this a long time. I’d like to see them come to me [at the city council hearing] with 60 to 65 percent approval” of the responding property owners, enough for Kadane to say he’ll green-light the district.
Kadane says from what he has seen and heard in the neighborhood, the conservation committee seems to making strides toward obtaining enough neighborhood approval.
“I’ve heard mostly positive reports — they don’t seem to foresee problems getting the support they want,” Kadane says.
But Hoffman, who opposes conservation district restrictions, says he has enough backers to kill the proposal when it reaches city hall.
“I have a petition with 20 percent of the [entire neighborhood’s] property owners’ signatures stating that they oppose this,” Hoffman says, adding that he expects to pick up additional signatures during a couple of neighborhood meetings.
“It is a shame this has become so divisive,” Hoffman says.
Kadane says he understands the conservation district proposal is a sensitive issue that neighbors have poured their hearts into. No matter what happens, he says, some will inevitably be left licking their wounds.
“When people really care about something, feelings get hurt. You just have to do what you think is best for the neighborhood.”
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