Lake Worth landowners bid goodbye as Fort Worth Nature Center steps up property acquisition

dfwnewsa | November 30, 2023 | 0 | Dallas News , Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Lake Worth landowners bid goodbye as Fort Worth Nature Center steps up property acquisition
Rob Denkhaus, executive director of the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, envisions field stations for researchers and high school classes on the 25 acres that are currently home to the Lakeland subdivision. “There’s a lot of big dreams of what that land could be down the road,” he said. (Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report)

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There’s no denying Joella Williams’ deep roots in this tranquil piece of northwest Tarrant County forest, not far from the shores of Lake Worth. After all, her name — a slightly misspelled version of it, anyway — is on a street sign near her home. 

“It says Jo Elle Lane,” Williams said. “I’ve gone for years and never [asked] to correct the name. I’m thinking, at my age, who cares now?”

Every road in the Lakeland subdivision, surrounded on all sides by the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, is named after a member of Williams’ family. Her grandfather built his home there in the early 1950s, and Williams moved to the subdivision with her husband, Freddy, in 1970.

She vowed never to leave the area, even as city staff sought to purchase Lakeland properties and absorb them into the nature center’s holdings.

Now, thanks to an October life estate agreement between the Williamses and the city of Fort Worth, the couple can sell their property but remain in their home — rent-free — for the rest of their lives. After their deaths, the city will dedicate the lots as parkland, demolish existing structures and return the land back to its natural state. 

“If we had just sold it outright and knew that we had to move, I don’t think I could have handled that,” Williams said. “Knowing that I’ll be in this house and in this area until I die, I’m OK with it.” 

The city’s $555,000 purchase of the Williamses’ property marks the latest chapter in a decadeslong effort to eliminate residential use in the 25-acre subdivision, which once featured 36 homes. 

Today, the city has three more properties under contract but not yet approved for purchase by Fort Worth City Council, said city land agent Nita Shinsky. An additional 16 properties are not under contract but may  be negotiated, she said. Four other property owners turned down offers by the city. 

Rob Denkhaus, the nature center’s executive director, said the city has no issue with the homeowners themselves. Over his 26-year career with the nature center, Denkhaus has built positive relationships with many neighbors. 

“But it’s smack dab in the middle of an area being managed for natural resource purposes and environmental education,” Denkhaus said. “It adds layers of inconvenience and complicates management just by the existence of residential right in the middle of the nature center.” 

Because there’s only one point of access for residents to reach their homes, nature center staff must make the visitor gate accessible at all times. This has left the property vulnerable to security issues, Denkhaus said. 

“We would love to be able to shut this place down when we’re not here,” he said. “But it has to be open all the way through, and that explains why it’s been heavily vandalized over the years.”

Most of the homeowners living in the Lakeland subdivision, surrounded by the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, are elderly. But some homes are owned by young families, making the city’s effort to acquire properties through life estates more challenging. (Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report)

‘We were here before the nature center was’

The reasons why Fort Worth ended up with a subdivision within the boundaries of its 3,650-acre nature refuge are intertwined with the story of Lake Worth. When the city began construction of the new lake in the 1910s, it also acquired properties to protect the watershed. 

Lakeland was then owned by the Swift and Armour meatpacking companies that operated two massive plants in the Stockyards between 1903 and 1971. Company leaders used the property as a weekend retreat and hunting club. 

The city elected not to pursue eminent domain, which authorizes governments to acquire property for public use, because Fort Worth already owned properties to protect the watershed, according to a 2022 city staff report. In the 1930s and 1940s, Swift-Armour sold the acreage to J.D. Teague, who subdivided the property for homes. 

In 1964, environmental activists successfully convinced the city to create a wildlife sanctuary near Lake Worth. But homeowners, including Williams’ grandfather, had already established their presence in Lakeland. 

“They found that they couldn’t really get us out of here because we were here before the nature center was,” Williams said. 

As residents learned of the city’s ambition to turn their neighborhood into parkland, some feared Fort Worth would use eminent domain to claim the properties, Williams said. But that option hasn’t been seriously considered, Denkhaus said. 

“No one wants to see eminent domain used, and it’s never been introduced other than fending off the questions about it,” he said. 

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Between 2002 and 2022, the city used a combination of park dedication fees, the nature center’s endowment revenue and bond funding to purchase 31 lots, leaving 44 yet to be acquired. Meanwhile, 13 homes acquired by the city stood empty for years and were rapidly falling apart, Denkhaus said. 

How else is the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge expanding?

Using $3.1 million in funds from the city’s Open Space Conservation program, the nature center purchased 29.5 acres near Jacksboro Highway in November 2021. The parcel sits near the park’s entrance and serves as a buffer between the natural area and the highway.

Concerned residents requested help from then-councilmember Dennis Shingleton, resulting in a 2019 tour of Lakeland with Denkhaus, Shingleton, City Manager David Cooke and other high-level staff. Cooke recognized the problem and directed staff to complete demolition of the buildings as fast as possible, Denkhaus said. 

The tour also ignited city interest in buying more Lakeland properties. By February 2022, city staff had not only completed demolition of the 13 homes but also identified $5 million that could be used for acquisitions. 

“We’ve missed out on buying because we couldn’t be reactive in time,” Denkhaus said. “We’d start talking to folks about buying their house, but we didn’t know where the money was coming from. Now, when we have an opportunity to buy a house, we know where the money sits.” 

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The Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, pictured in June 2021, was envisioned by a group of environmental activists in the early 1960s. Today, it spans 3,650 acres near Lake Worth. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

City shifts strategy, but no end in sight for property acquisitions

Fort Worth’s latest push to convince landowners to sell came with a shift in strategy. Rather than waiting for residents to put their properties on the open market and hope to close a deal, city land agent Shinsky proposed pursuing life estate agreements with homeowners.

Life estate transactions enable property owners to remain in their homes until death. An independent appraiser determines the fair market value of the property. Once the sale is approved by Fort Worth City Council members and a title company conducts its survey, the property owner receives payment in full while still continuing to pay property taxes. 

When Shinsky held a town hall with property owners in late 2022, many attendees — including Williams and her husband — found the life estate option more attractive than selling and moving immediately. 

“Residents have been there for an extremely long time. It’s passed from generation to generation,” Shinsky said. “These people are at a point where they don’t want to move. The market is not in a position where they can move without sacrificing their comfort.” 

The life estate strategy hasn’t been a magic bullet. Some landowners have a specific price in mind that the city can’t match, Shinsky said, and others are distrustful of local government. 

Overall, most residents are supportive of the nature center receiving the land as long as the city follows through on its promise to make it native habitat for wildlife, including the beloved does and bucks that roam the woods, Shinsky said. 

“I think if that agenda ever changes, there will probably be pickets and a riot,” Shinsky said. “For now, they see it going back to nature and see the deer being able to enjoy the neighborhood. Most of them are like: ‘What do we got to do to make sure this happens?’” 

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Deer roam near the bison pastures at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge on April 27, 2023. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

With no end in sight for the project, Shinsky continues to chat with landowners about the possibilities and plans to host another town hall in the next year. Denkhaus and his colleagues have big dreams for the Lakeland area, including field stations for visiting university researchers and high school classes. 

Once the roads are turned into trails, Denkhaus envisions them keeping the same names: one for Williams, one for her sister Shelby and another for her cousin Mark. Those objectives could be included in the nature center’s new master plan, which Denkhaus hopes to kick off over the next year. 

Meanwhile, the Williamses await completion of the title survey and payment from the city. The sale was bittersweet for Joella, who fought back tears when describing her children’s memories of growing up in Lakeland. 

She and her husband won’t have to see the old homes torn down. But her son and daughter likely will. 

“They roamed these woods. I think they’ll miss it more than anything,” Williams said. “But I told ’em, I said: ‘Listen, no matter what, it will all be gone one day anyway. All this area will be gone.’”

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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