Ecology Action: Recycled by Zoning?

Neighboring 'cop shop' garage dissatisfied with EA's upkeep

Ecology Action’s neighbor, the APD car-repair shop, has 
criticized the recycling facility for not controlling litter 
and other city code violations.
Ecology Action’s neighbor, the APD car-repair shop, has criticized the recycling facility for not controlling litter and other city code violations. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

After 10 years of operation, Ecology Action of Texas, the recycling drop-off center on the corner of Ninth and I-35, has suddenly landed in the sights of the city's Solid Waste Services Zoning Enforcement division. The complaints that initiated the city investigation, alleging site plan violations at their facility, apparently originated at the city-owned vehicle-repair shop immediately to the south. As a consequence, EA had to build a costly new fence on the facility's east side and cease routine glass crushing. The center says the strict new interpretation of zoning codes on the books since 1991 is not only expensive for the low-budget nonprofit but may affect its ability to maintain current levels of service. Moreover, if they can't come into compliance quickly, the city can file class C misdemeanor charges and impose fines of up to $2,000 per day. Employees also fear they'll lose the city funding that has helped sustain them as the city's only centrally located recycling drop-off.

On a sweltering late-September afternoon at EA, crowds of people went about their recycling routines accompanied by reggae beats and the incessant drone of the highway. Bundles of paper were piled high into a Dumpster, then whisked off by a forklift; brown beer bottles were separated from green ones as bees buzzed through the air. EA Programs Coordinator John Clement emerged from a staff meeting inside the facility's vintage service station office to explain how coming into compliance with the code has challenged the 34-year-old organization.

"We're already cramped for space – a fence will enclose us more and inhibit flow through the facility," Clement said. Given a choice by the city of wood or masonry, EA was unable to afford a suitable fence with the necessary number of gates, even by building a cheaper wood version. Clement said the fence will make it much harder for the huge trucks that haul away recycled materials to back into the facility from the busy interstate frontage road and will cut down their visibility. An identical zoning situation arose two years ago over fencing, he said, but the code enforcement officer only required fences on the south and west sides. "I know the code hasn't changed since then," Clement said. His only qualm about being forced to quit crushing glass is that more truck trips will be required to haul out less material, although the company in Waxahatchie that processes the center's glass isn't currently charging more to haul the more frequent, less dense loads.

Clement says Tony Firkins, manager of the "cop-shop" or Service Center 5, a city fleet vehicle repair facility located immediately south of EA, has been frank about wanting to get rid of Ecology Action since he took charge of the garage eight years ago. "He told me he'd been making complaints and that he was frustrated with city code enforcement," said Clement.

Firkins wouldn't say whether he'd filed the zoning complaints. "Good people would like to see us save the environment. I would too, but the place is not well-kept over there." Firkins says Ecology Action creates an occupational hazard for employees in the area: trash and debris in the streets, mosquitoes, rats around the facility, and an airborne stench of stale beer-bottle residue. While the two businesses have "good relations" according to Firkins, he said "we clean up every day from their mess, and it gets old." Citing the problem-plagued BFI recycling center on Springdale that was eventually moved to Metric Boulevard, Firkins said Ecology Action is "absolutely better suited to be in a different location." He conceded, however, that "if they came into compliance with codes and zoning" designed to keep people around them safe, "they'd be okay."

Matthew Christianson, inspection supervisor for the city Solid Waste Services Department's Zoning Code Enforcement Division, said, "Ecology Action is currently outside its timeline for coming into compliance with city code," based on a complaint filed June 13, but added that the center has "given us proof of moving forward with voluntary compliance by working with the development assistance program and their inspector." Zoning code requires that recycling drop-off facilities must be enclosed on three sides by a 6-foot-tall fence or wall, and must be kept free of refuse or "putrescible materials." He said Ecology Action would require zoning as a recycling processing center to continue using its glass crusher outdoors, but listed possible options to legally resume use. Christianson couldn't explain why identical site plan violations filed in 2003 were cleared, even though only two sides of fencing were built.

Clement says Ecology Action has stepped up efforts to contain debris and eliminate standing water, and would be willing to find a workable new location. "We'd really like some help from the city with this," he said. "I've heard of nonprofits being put up by the city or county." Clement says he remains optimistic about a resolution, adding, "We need to turn this into a good thing; I don't think the city wants us to go under. … We're not an isolated organization. People depend on us."

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