July 16, 2009
Tempers flare over proposed Lake Worth dock ordinance
by Art Jones
This weathered dock extends from a rarely used vacant lot on Sunset Point Circle and has been called an "attractive nuisance" by neighbors.
It was standing room only at the City of Lake Worth city council chambers last Wednesday night, July 8. A large number of residents who live on the shore of Lake Worth had come to meet with representatives of the City of Fort Worth to voice their concerns about the latest draft of the new proposed dock ordinance. The reservoir is entirely within the city limits of Fort Worth and is owned by the city.
Discussions between residents and the city began several months ago after the city’s Lake Worth Management Office began evaluating docks around the lake. At that time, 113 were deemed in good repair and usable; 108 docks need some maintenance or repairs; and 82 docks are in such poor condition the management office determined they should be removed.
However, no standard for docks or boat houses on Lake Worth exits. While there are construction standards in the city’s building code, no standards currently exist specific to boat docks.
The city decided to work with residents to come up with a set of standards for existing docks and new construction. A committee of resident homeowners was assembled and presented its recommendations to the Lake Worth Management Office in August 2008, and a draft of the proposed standards was prepared. These standards were presented at a public hearing last October by Paul Bounds, regulatory and environmental coordinator for the City of Fort Worth Water Department.
There were more meetings and more discussion. In November 2008, additional committee recommendations were made and the standards were again revised. A "final" draft was distributed to committee members and neighborhood associations a few weeks ago, on or about June 3. The public meeting July 8 was to review the new standards so the ordinance could be submitted to the Fort Worth City Council for adoption sometime in September.
However, several points submitted by the committee and of significant importance to the property owners had been omitted from the final draft.
"For six months, a lot of good people … worked on this," said Michael Dallas, president of the Scenic Shores Neighborhood Association, "and the result [of our efforts] met the objectives. Everybody on the lake who has a property can have a dock. Everybody that has a dock can keep the dock. Everybody that has a dock … and wants to fix their dock up, can.
"We did have some concerns about procedures [in the proposed ordinance] but were told ‘don’t worry about that, we have a variance procedure that will take care of that,’" Dallas said. "Six months later, we get this document back – I nearly fell out of my chair – pretty much everything, all the protections [we had] put into this document, gutted like a fish."
What was removed from the proposed final draft of the ordinance, Dallas told the Times-Record, was the provision that property owners could build the dock of their choice – size and configuration – so long as it did not infringe on neighboring properties. However, the present version limits the size of docks and reads as follows:
The maximum floor to area coverage allowed for Docks, Piers, Boathouses and/or Walkways shall be twenty-five percent of the area of the Water Use and Access Easement. Every site regardless of the area of the Water Use and Access Easement shall be allowed a minimum coverage area of 1,000 square feet and a maximum coverage area of 2,500 square feet.
Unlike most lakes in the United States, residents owning or leasing property on the shore of Lake Worth have special warranty deeds, an easement, which allows them to use the lake bottom bordered by the shoreline and their property lines as extended into the lake. The easement can be passed along to heirs, sold to a new owner, etc. The size of dock an owner can build is not addressed in the easement.
In a "fee simple" type of ownership, which is what most residential homeowners have, you own the property, but its use is still governed by city or county ordinances or zoning laws and any previous deed restrictions limiting the use of the property. An "easement" is the right to use the land of another person or entity for a particular purpose. The City of Fort Worth owns the bottom of the lake. The easements are assigned to the individual residential property owners along the shoreline.
In addition, Dallas said, the opportunity to take a dispute before a variance committee was no longer in the proposed boat dock standards.
"We thought there would be a Boat Dock Standards Board of Adjustments," Bounds told the Times-Record. "Then, we found out that the city was trying to reduce the number of boards, not add new ones." He said a new variance procedure would be added to the next draft of the ordinance, but did not know what form it would take. He also said the five percent variance in dock size provided by the present version of the ordinance was not realistic. "There are so many variables – a shoreline is not like a normal neighborhood – there are a lot of curves in the lot lines."
Bounds also said that the reasoning behind limiting the size of a boat dock was to ensure "health and welfare standards" and to preserve "orderly development and aesthetics" of the shoreline. To think that the City of Fort Worth had no voice in the use of the easements was, he said, "ludicrous."
Residents, however, interpret the city’s tactic as a way to take their easement back, or to at least dictate what size dock can be built – a view many residents strongly oppose, since it could have the effect of dramatically lowering their property value.
The example given by several property owners was of a potential buyer who wanted a large boat dock. He would look elsewhere if Lake Worth docks are limited in size.
However, dock size is controlled on Eagle Mountain Lake and Possum Kingdom Lake, and private docks are not allowed on Lake Benbrook. oHowever
Other residents voiced concerns about the $2,000 fine that could be imposed for violations of the proposed ordinance. Christa Reynolds from the City of Fort Worth legal department said that the language pertaining to the fine was used in all Fort Worth ordinances:
Any person, firm or corporation who violates, disobeys, omits, neglects or refuses to comply with or who resists the enforcement of any of the provisions of this ordinance shall be fined not more than two thousand dollars ($2,000.00) for each offense. Each day that a violation is permitted to exist shall constitute a separate offense.
She said that she was not aware of a single instance where the $2,000 fine had been imposed.
Still remaining unresolved is the "grandfathering" of existing docks that are not in compliance with the proposed standards, but are in good condition and do not present a hazard. Will they have to be brought into compliance at some time in the future when repairs are necessary?
If an existing dock is expanded or improved, will the entire structure have to be brought into compliance? That’s the way the present draft of the standards reads, but without the option of a variance, it could prove prohibitively expensive for a property owner, according to opponents.
And, the issue of ownership is far from being resolved. The city is adamant that they have the right to make any rules deemed necessary since they own the land. Many residents hold the opposite opinion and say that the Special Warranty Deeds prohibit the city from doing just that.
For now, the city has gone back to the drawing board on its proposed dock ordinance, and at least one more public meeting is being planned, although a time and date have not been set.